Research News

Q&A: Vanderbilt Institute for Surgery and Engineering hosts discussion on intersectionality, gender dynamics and identity

The group Women of VISE hosted a discussion on intersectional experiences, gender dynamics in academia and other facets of identity in a “fishbowl” conversation on April 18.  

“A fishbowl style of conversation is a purposefully arranged room where there’s an inner ring of speakers and an outer ring of listeners,” said Nhung Hoang, a graduate student in the lab of Mikail Rubinov, a member of the WoV steering committee and the moderator of the conversation. “Any of our WoV members could jump in and out of the inner circle at any point to respond to a topic or each other. The key part here was that we were asking our male colleagues to stay in the outer circle and really listen.” 

Hoang shared her reflections on the event in this Q&A: 

What was the goal of the event?  

The goal of this meeting and our unique setup was to have a conversation with our male colleagues regarding gender disparities in STEM fields and in our research community. We wanted to have a meeting where people were explicitly taking space and giving space, because it’s not always balanced in our working environments. We were careful to establish an environment where attendees, especially our colleagues, felt invited to listen and were less concerned with needing to reply.  

This event was representative of the topics that women are already naturally discussing with each other. We wanted to have the same conversations in front of others in our community, because these topics shouldn’t be kept behind closed doors if we want anything to change. 

What were the topics that you found most interesting or most common?  

First, we focused on challenges faced specifically by women and nonbinary people in STEM. We touched on the role of a female member in a lab setting that’s dominated by male colleagues. There was a lot of conversation around the mentor/mentee relationships with your adviser. The discussion turned to intersectional identities in STEM. So, not just “What does it mean to be a woman in STEM,” but what does it mean to be a woman who is also international or first generation or queer or a person of color—all of that.  

When we opened that conversation, we got a lot of response about the differences between being international and a U.S. citizen and the different challenges that come with that—from the logistics of paperwork and onboarding at the university to entering a whole new culture while pursuing academic research. We talked about how being a scientist with a partner or a spouse shapes a person’s responsibilities. We also touched on imposter syndrome, which resonated with many.  

The first two sections were in a fishbowl style. To bring it all together, we asked participants to break out into small groups that consisted of everyone, the women of VISE inside the fishbowl and our male colleagues who were listening. The smaller groups gave everyone a chance to reflect on what was said and to have more personal follow-up conversations. This was when we asked our male colleagues to speak about what they had just heard.  

How was that experience?  

It was amazing. Because we spent the first part of the conversation establishing a degree of comfort and expectations, by the time we broke into smaller groups, everyone was very open and willing to listen and learn.  

Our male colleagues shared a lot of surprise and commentary about not knowing that what we had just discussed was happening. What united everyone in the room was when we talked about intersectionality, because that was most relatable for everyone. While our male colleagues don’t know how it feels to be a woman in STEM, some of them do know how it feels to be an international student and far from family. That conversation allowed us to explicitly touch on the nuances of identity and not being only one category or the other. There are so many influences that make us have common experiences, even if there appear to be stark differences on the surface. 

Some of the feedback I got from our female and POC colleagues was that it was a great space for them. We heard that it was cathartic to be able to relate to other women and see that other people had similar experiences. One thing that surprised me was the experiences of grad students with a spouse, and what that is like. For scientists with partners with more structured work schedules, there are sacrifices that come with being a grad student and being the woman in the partnership.  

Women of VISE hosted a fishbowl conversation on intersectional experiences, gender dynamics in academia and other facets of identity. The goal of this meeting was to have a conversation with male colleagues regarding gender disparities in STEM fields.
(Photos by
Neda Sardaripour)

What were some of the best parts of the conversations?  

I got to see another side of a lot of my colleagues. I was happy to see that there were things that came up that surprised me, because I also had my own biases and expectations! There were also a lot of new faces in the room. We have a lot of VISE members, and a lot of people who don’t typically come to events came to this one. It was cool to see people who had never interacted before talking and have such layered conversations.  

Everyone was very friendly, so it was a good place for people to make new friends and connections too. I felt more bonded with everyone, and it was cool to have the space where people could meet and really connect with each other.  

What does allyship look like within VISE? How does that manifest as behavior or action?  

Allyship starts off with just being aware and accepting that there are differences and silent biases that we’re all going to have, regardless of who we are. I think learning about what could happen in a workplace is important. Of course, there are situations where being an ally means you must speak up, especially if the other person does not feel comfortable speaking up but still wants to be heard or seen. This is the reason why we had the fishbowl. We wanted our community to step back and hear about the unique and common experiences our fellow trainees have had and build camaraderie in this way.  

What does future programming in this vein look like?  

We plan to continue these small group discussions over the summer! 

About Women of VISE 

WoV provides an opportunity for all women to support one another and collectively access the unique challenges we face in our fields as women. WoV offers monthly gatherings and speakers with an emphasis on building community while connecting with others in science, medicine and engineering. WoV also cultivates professional collaborations, networking and informal mentorship with successful women in the field. Through social gatherings, workshops on mental health and events on navigating work environments, we promote wellness among members.