Return to the audio for How to Science episode 10, with Pamela Raymond and Deborah Goldberg about the walrus baculum.


Pamela Raymond: My name is Pamela Raymond, and I have been at the University of Michigan basically my whole academic career. I was a undergraduate student here and a graduate student, at the time in what was the Department of Zoology, which is where I got my degrees—Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. I joined the faculty of the University of Michigan actually in the medical school in 1980. But in 2005, I transferred my appointment as professor to the Department of MCDB—Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, in LSA.

I did that for a number of reasons. Although I enjoyed my faculty career in the medical school, something was missing, and that was teaching undergraduates. And I also felt that the department really could use a little more diversity in its faculty. At the time I joined MCDB, there was one other woman full professor, so I became the second woman full professor. The one who was here before me actually left shortly after I joined MCDB. So then, I was the only woman full professor in the department of about 30–35 faculty.

So I became chair of MCDB in 2008, and the outgoing chair of MCDB presented me with a plaque, which had been given from one chair to the next since 1949. Mounted on it is the penis bone of a walrus. The bone is approximately two feet long. The bone has printed on it the names of each chair of the Department of Zoology beginning in 1949 and the date at which the chair turned the bone over to the next chair. So my name is now written on this bone: “Pamela Raymond 2008,” the day I became chair.

I remember not saying very much at all. Of course, I took it. I couldn’t even process it almost. For me, I was so shocked that I don’t even remember being angry in the moment. I remember being stunned—stunned into silence. And only afterwards feeling angry.

It’s a joke. To them, it was a joke.

I took it home. I showed it to my husband and my son, who was back at home after college. And I have to tell you: They laughed, too. I was really hurt by that. Then they quickly stopped, because that realized how hurtful that was. But that was their first reaction.

So from that, it’s the sort of thing that we make excuses for by calling it, “Oh, it’s just a joke.”

This has come to seem as though a trophy of sorts—a trophy that has a very misogynistic, sexual . . . Cleary sexual. I mean, its purpose is sex.

I was stunned that such a thing existed. This symbol of male dominance and misogyny had been passed from one chair to the next since 1949. My surprise reflected the fact that no one in the department, other than the chairs, knew about this bone. It was a secret. So the first thing I did—I went to Deborah Goldberg. Deborah Goldberg at the time was the chair of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. And I’m gonna let Deborah, now, take up the story here.

Deborah Goldberg: Okay. Pamela brought this to me, saying, “Did you know about this?”

I was as stunned and shocked and horrified by it as she was. And I said, “No, of course not.”

I actually was the first woman chair of a science department in LSA. I think there were two others in the university, so very close to the first woman chair.

So we talked about it, and we speculated why, back in 2001, when I became chair, did it not go to me. I have a couple of different ideas about that, but certainly one of them is simply that the chair at the time knew that I would be very upset, and very angry, and would immediately stop the tradition then and there and return the bone to the research museum collections where it clearly belonged, as opposed to a symbol of authority. It obviously was not one I was going to accept. And I think I’m gonna go back now to Pamela, who decided what to do about it in a way that I thought was just brilliant.

PR: Deborah mentioned, but I just want to reiterate, that she was the first woman chair of any science department at the University of Michigan. So in the whole history of the University of Michigan, there had never been a woman chair in Engineering, in the College of Medicine, or in any of the science departments in LSA.

DG: Also, when I became chair, I was the only woman full professor in the department.

PR: And when I became chair, I was the only woman full professor in the department.

Well, Deborah and I did talk about what to do. We had a lot of interesting ideas. We also consulted Carol Fierke, and she was, at the time, chair of chemistry.

Deborah and I speculated with Carol. Should we smash it? What should we do with this?

I became a little bit worried that the assistant professors in the department—particularly the women that we had been hiring and that I continued to hire—would be harmed by knowing about this, would feel, as I felt, in a way unwelcome. I mean, I knew the climate was bad in biology from the time I was a graduate student, and certainly as a professor, it was still a fairly difficult climate. A lot incivility and a lot of gender bias. And this bone was a physical symbol of what we all knew to exist in the climate.

So, we basically didn’t do anything about it until two years later. I gave my collegiate lecture, and I made the decision that I was going to basically "out" the bone—in other words, reveal its existence. And I did it in the context of my collegiate lecture, in which I talked a lot about gender issues in science, in addition to talking about my own science. So I revealed the bone.

I gave it to the Bentley Library, our university archive. They usually only take archival materials—papers, important documents from administration, or people’s letters. At the time, Fran Blouin was the head at the Bentley. But when I showed Fran the bone and told him about it, he decided that this artifact was significant enough that it actually should be part of our archival history, and that in the future, it might be an important piece of research for future social scientists looking at the traditions that existed in academia—the broader picture of gender issues and the climate or environment that discouraged women from going into science.

But when I joined the department in 2005, one thing I noticed most blatantly was that the tenor of conversation in faculty meetings was extremely uncivil. People would interrupt each other. There was a lack of respect for others. It made faculty meetings extremely unpleasant. Seeming not to create a welcoming environment for junior faculty, for example.

One of the things I think that both Deborah and I have done, when we were chairs of the department, is to change that climate, not directly related necessarily to gender issues, but just in a broader, more civil, collegial, cooperative climate goes a long way toward preventing people from feeling as though sexist jokes, gender harassment, all of those kinds of problems that make it difficult for women to thrive in a previously masculine environment (which science is) are moderated to some extent, so that everyone can reach their full potential.

For me, the ADVANCE program was sort of the beginning of my awareness of what could be done to produce change. The ADVANCE program is funded by the National Science Foundation, started in 2000. The goal of this program is to increase the number of women on the faculty in STEM fields. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.) And the University of Michigan was in the first round of these awards in 2001, so it focused on faculty recruitment, on institutional policies, and climate.

Those lessons learned in the ADVANCE program, generally for me, I applied when I became chair of the department. For example, we created new policies around faculty recruitment that made the process much more open and with less bias, much more buy-in, from the department. We changed the way faculty meetings were run, so that people weren’t interrupting each other—basically, I didn’t allow it. And we started hiring women. Both of us.

DG: And promoting women. Working really hard to promote women. And we started mentoring programs in the department. One thing the college did was to require that all faculty on search committees would attend the workshops that ADVANCE did on ways to mitigate and minimize implicit bias during the search process. I started a diversity committee in the department. We started our Frontiers Master’s program—it’s kind of a bridging master’s program designed to train people for top-ranked Ph.D. programs, focused on minority students. We’re now doing a lot more on education on sexual harassment than used to be there. 

PR: And so we’ve been working very hard, both Deborah and I, as women chairs, and have had, I think, a lot of success.

DG: I agree.

Monica Dus: One thing that was really interesting to me is this idea of conscious versus unconscious bias and how it relates to excuses we make for people. In this case—in the baculum case, it was a tradition. But it struck me that, if it was really a tradition, you should maybe hang it in your office, right? So while they made excuses that it was a joke, clearly if it wasn’t hanging and displayed, there must have been some thought that maybe it was not ok.

PR: it would be very interesting to know whether it had hung in the office in 1949.

DG: It would be really interesting to know that. The alternative explanation for why it was a secret was kind of this power secret handshake—like an induction. Like an initiation rite, that I also find antithetical to the notion of academic freedom and openness, but I could never quite decide which of those two it was.

PR: Having something like that a symbol of authority emphasizes the hierarchical nature of a chair and faculty, and frankly, in most departments in LSA, certainly in MCDB, and EEB as well, I think, we’re a team. We’re a democracy. We allow lots of opinions to come forth, and we make decisions in a collective way. Not always everybody agreeing, but at least there’s an openness and a feeling that we’re in this together, rather than one person having all the authority.

What about things that are more implicit biases, like not getting paid for the job you’re doing or maybe comments that still happen every day. How do you fight unconscious or implicit bias?

DG: You just call it when you hear it. A lot of what I would do is just—you can’t let anything go. The first time somebody says something, you get them immediately. Yout just don’t tolerate bad behavior.

One of my big concerns is that’s an ongoing process. You can go backwards really fast.

There was a point at which almost half of the science chairs in LSA were women. And right now, I don’t think any are. It’s gone back to zero again. It’s kind of a constant vigilance, explicitly thinking about it, because it does make a difference when women are chairs. It really does.

We actually did some training on bystander intervention. We had a workshop for the whole department—staff, students, and faculty—on when you see something going on, how do you intervene? Because when it’s happening right in front of you, especially when it’s happening to you, it’s very hard to stop it and to say something, because you’re just shocked. So this was actually training on how to practice some stock answers when things happen; how to respond after the fact; how to tell people later at least that you heard what was going on, and it wasn’t acceptable. How to talk to somebody later about how what they said was really hurtful. So, you can’t let things go.

Yeah, I have a reputation, and Pamela has a reputation, for calling people on it, and that’s fine. It may cause a little eye-rolling, but I don’t care. After my early days as an assistant professor, I got a lot more vocal.

PR: That’s true of all of us, actually. I only became a feminist—I proudly call myself a feminist—but I was not a feminist when I was a junior faculty member. I only became a feminist after I was a full professor and felt more confident and secure in my own position that I could myself in a position that would otherwise have been extremely vulnerable, as a junior faculty member. To have anything to do with feminist values would have been, at the time that I was going through, extremely detrimental to my career. And I knew that.

So I’m thinking of this idea of this antithesis between traditions versus belonging: You had the struggle of whether you had to be part of the tradition, or you didn’t belong. If you took it and actually wore it with pride, because now you’re ”one of the boys”—does that mean you made it, and you belong? Or as a young women in science, I always think about this: What does it mean to be part of it, whereas what does it mean to belong with my identity as a woman?

PR: I never considered for one second taking it and becoming part of the tradition and giving it to the next chair. Never. It didn’t even enter my mind at all. I wanted to break the tradition. Smash it! The only reason we didn’t smash it was we felt there was some historical value to keeping the artifact.

But I hear what you’re saying, Monica, about belonging. We all want to belong, and frankly, I’m sure that when I mentioned I wasn’t a feminist, at least overtly, during my junior years, it was because I was trying to belong. I wanted to progress, become part of the tradition, succeed. So you have to make compromises to do that. I guess that would be considered a compromise. But you have to draw the line somewhere, right? On principle.

So this was a clear—no debate in my mind at all, that this was an end.

And I think actually, in a way, having it end with a woman—one woman’s name on it—does have some clear mark of a change. I mean, traditions are good, but we have to move on. As a culture, as a society, we have to evolve, just like biology evolves.

I like the metaphor there: The last person was a woman, and now it’s time to make new traditions.