Speaking Out

Why do we keep writing about women in science? And even inviting guest posts that touch on the topic? Haven’t we more or less exhausted what needs to be said? Maybe it’s time to concentrate on cosmology and/or the World Series? After all, I’m not even a woman! Maybe I’m just trying to impress the chicks? (Honestly suggested at least once.)

Rob Knop has an excellent post up about a presentation he just gave to his department at Vanderbilt (where I’ll be visiting Thursday). He was emphasizing that the department — much like the vast majority of physics departments — doesn’t always present a hospitable environment to female students and postdocs.

We have an issue in our department right now which has (tangentially) brought up the issue of the climate for women in physics. We have a serious problem with the climate for women students and post-docs (at least). I don’t really know if it’s worse here than physics departments elsewhere; I know the climate is globally bad everywhere, and maybe it’s worse on average, or maybe it’s better on average. But I do know it’s bad here, and unless we think about it, it will stay bad.

In a short presentation to the department today, I included a slide with this statement on it:

The biggest problem among the faculty is that we all allow things to slide. None of us speak out when we see and hear things that we should be questioning. We are all, constantly, guilty of this; I can name a few instances for myself, and doubtless have forgotten many more.

In retrospect, using the absolute term “none of us” was probably a mistake, but certainly it’s rare when people speak out. This statement was close to a direct quote from a female graduate student I’ve talked to; I asked her what she thought the biggest climate problem was, and it was this: the fact that behaviors are accepted, not questioned, evidently by all.

Amazingly, some of his fellow faculty members didn’t agree! Other people/places might have issues, but not them.

In fact, it wasn’t until I started blogging about it that I really understood the depth of the problem. I had long known that women faced obstacles, but I thought that the vast majority of male physicists were benignly clueless rather than actively contributing. But there appear to be substantial numbers of people at all levels of academia who are quite convinced that the present situation is determined more by genetics than by bias. Reading the comment sections on these posts, notwithstanding the presence of a good number of thoughtful and intelligent participants, is an incredibly depressing exercise.

But it’s still worth doing. Progress doesn’t happen automatically; it’s because people make the effort to cause it to happen. And when it comes to women in science, there are good reasons why men should take it upon themselves to raise a ruckus. (I suspect that analogous statements hold true for the status of minority groups in science, although I readily admit to being less knowledgeable about those issues.)

I recently had coffee with my friend Janna Levin, author (most recently) of A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. Janna recently wrote a provocative essay for Newsweek, entitled This Topic Annoys Me. The topic, of course, being the status of women in science.

But while earning my Ph.D. at MIT and then as a postdoc doing cosmological research, the issue started to loom large. My every achievement—jobs, research papers, awards—was viewed through the lens of gender politics. So were my failures. People seemed unable to talk about anything else. Sometimes, to avoid further alienating myself from colleagues, I tried evasive maneuvers, like laughing the loudest when another scientist made a sexist remark. Other times, when goaded into an argument on left brain versus right brain, or nature versus nurture, I was instantly ensnared, fighting fiercely on my behalf and all womankind. I was perpetually inflamed and exhausted. It permeated every aspect of my life. Take this very essay. Here I am, somehow talking about being a woman in science, trying not to even as I do so. Imagine my frustration.

The point is, it’s not easy to be a scientist. There is a great amount of competition (whether we like to think that way or not) for resources, especially jobs. Research is hard, as you are pushing with all your brainpower against some of the knottiest unsolved problems concerning the workings of the universe. Even if you did nothing else, being a successful scientist is a full-time job.

And then women, as a reward for making it through an already-difficult gauntlet made more harsh by lingering Neanderthal attitudes, are asked once they succeed to take on a whole new set of responsibilities — serving on extra committees, making public appearances on behalf of the department, providing a sympathetic ear to younger women. All worthwhile activities, no question, but not the kind of thing that pushes one’s research agenda forward. I admit that I had a certain initial reluctance to ask Chanda to contribute her guest post. She has something interesting to say (from a perspective I can’t possibly offer), and can certainly take care of herself, so in the end I felt quite comfortable making the request. But every minute spent on stuff like that is a minute that isn’t spent doing research. Women should be free to concentrate on thinking about black holes and the early universe, just like guys are.

It’s a balance, of course, and as a blogger I certainly believe that one can do research and other activities at the same time. But it’s completely unfair to expect women and minority scientists to do all the work in trying to eliminate the discrimation that they face. It is perfectly defensible, maybe even highly recommended, for any individual woman scientist to decide that the cause is better served if they concentrate on collecting data and writing papers rather than organizing conferences and raising consciousnesses. So, for the foreseeable future, it’s a good idea for the rest of us to put some effort into making the situation better all around.

In the meantime, how ’bout those Cards?

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63 Responses to Speaking Out

  1. Pingback: Speaking Out | Cosmic Variance

  2. Jack says:

    “Haven’t we more or less exhausted what needs to be said? ”

    Do bears shit in the woods?

    “Maybe it’s time to concentrate on cosmology?”

    Is the Pope Catholic?

  3. Annie says:

    Sean and Rob — I do hope you know that things like this help. Perhaps you haven’t thought of this, but for the most part, in my department, I *know* that I can go talk to female professors about these issues. I can talk until my breath runs out with other female graduate students. Other than here, however, there aren’t really very many places where women can talk to men about this big bad problem.

    Are there male faculty in my department, who I know and like, that I could talk to? Of course. Am I absolutely certain of which men those are? Not so much.

    And on top of that, there’s the threat of crippling disappointment. If I do slip something into casual conversation, a kind of litmus test to find out if I’m dealing with someone who thinks that I’m fine but that women in general aren’t as good at physics, I have to deal with the potential of any response. If the jackass that everybody *knows* is a jackass wants to make ridiculous comments — well, that’s still not so great for the climate overall, but it’s not the same as having to find out for sure that someone I respect and admire thinks I’m being “dramatic.”

  4. That’s helpful, Jack.

    Have things changed? ‘Cause if the s*#@ that goes on is still going on, then we need to talk about it some more, until it becomes nice and unacceptable.

  5. I had long known that women faced obstacles, but I thought that the vast majority of male physicists were benignly clueless rather than actively contributing.

    Cluelessness is rarely benign. Failing to be mindful of how our behavior affects others does not stop the damage that behavior inflicts on others. But physicists are not rewarded for good behavior. Until they are, nothing will change.

  6. Rob Knop says:

    Cluelessness is rarely benign. Failing to be mindful of how our behavior affects others does not stop the damage that behavior inflicts on others.

    I think there are three or four levels here.

    On the most egregious level, you have the actual creeps — the people who don’t respect women, who treat them differently in classes and in advising, who make the sexist and bigotted problem. Maybe Sean knows more than I, but I still have enough blinders on to think that this is a minority.

    The second level is the people who make sexist remarks without realizing that they’re making sexist remarks. This is a kind of cluelessness, but these people are still actively contributing to the problem.

    The third level is people who are clueless that there is a real problem, but who aren’t actively contributing. They treat women fairly and respectfully themselves, but also insist that there’s no general problem despite the fact that it’s been held in their face repeatedly. They’re nice, and they don’t see other people being mean, so they deny the problem.

    The fourth level of cluelessness is the people who don’t know there’s a problem because these problems are generally not talked about (except in very general terms). I know stuff goes on in my department that I don’t know about. I know that I know about a lot more of the stuff going on than other completely respectful faculty. When issues come up, there’s always issues of “privacy” and such, they get quietly dealt with (either through cover-up or secret reprimands), and nobody finds out. Lots of people in my department, at least, have their heads in the sand; they don’t look for the problems, so they don’t see the problems.

    The last two levels are passive contributors. The third level should know better. The fourth level… well, they should also know better, but it’s more uniformed cluelessness, whereas the third level is near-willful cluelessness.

    I think most men are living at the third and fourth levels; the fourth level is what I would guess is something like Sean’s “benign cluelessness.” It’s a part of the problem, yes, because they’re tolerating the people on the first and second levels.

    But from what Sean says, the first and second levels may be more populated than we would like to admit. Indeed, a year or so ago (before I was as informed as I am now), I was having a conversation with a female faculty member about these kinds of problems. I said something like, “but who’s doing this? I can’t see all but a few people on this faculty doing these sorts of things.” Her response: maybe you don’t know your colleagues as well as you think you do.

    We probably don’t know our colleagues as well as we think we do.

    But a student in my department has told me that what I describe as the level three and level four stuff above is the biggest problem; it’s just tolerated, and treated as a norm.

    -Rob

  7. Pyracantha says:

    When a woman physicist marries a male physicist colleague, does this diminish the burden of sexism on her and make her more “acceptable” in the male-dominated community?

  8. a different bitter grad student says:

    Why do we keep writing about women in science?

    Well, for starters, some of the top astronomy fellowships don’t offer maternity leave, unlike nearly every other job in the U.S. which requires a similar amount of education. That’s probably not a positive contribution to the climate.

    Am I absolutely certain of which men those are? Not so much.

    I know exactly what you mean — my department is relatively woman-friendly, and I’ve still seen (and heard of) negative attitudes from many of the men in the department.

  9. JoAnne says:

    Rob,

    From my experience, I have to say, you don’t know your colleagues as well as you think you do.

    But, hey, life is good, there is research to do, and GO CARDS!!!!

  10. JoAnne says:

    Pyracantha, NO! Definitely not. In my experience as a female physicist having been married to a male physicist, the marriage can actually make things worse. Then folks say “Oh, her husband has done all the work for her.” Can’t count the number of times I have run across that.

  11. Rob Knop says:

    GO CARDS!!!!

    Feh. I dropped out when the Tigers swept the A’s. 🙂

    -Rob

  12. Rob Knop says:

    Pyracantha, NO! Definitely not. In my experience as a female physicist having been married to a male physicist, the marriage can actually make things worse. Then folks say “Oh, her husband has done all the work for her.” Can’t count the number of times I have run across that.

    Both of the women in my department are married to men who are (at least sort of) Physicists. (One’s now a — lecturer? — in the geology department, and the other has had a soft money positon, and is now actully the department Linux guru.)

    Both men work in vastly different areas of physics from the two women, so I’d be pretty surprised to see somebody claim with a straight face that the men had done the work for them– but then again, every day I find out I don’t know the half of it, so….

  13. First let me say I really appreciate Sean’s and Rob Knop’s post on this subject and the resulting discussion.

    The third level is people who are clueless that there is a real problem, but who aren’t actively contributing. They treat women fairly and respectfully themselves, but also insist that there’s no general problem despite the fact that it’s been held in their face repeatedly. They’re nice, and they don’t see other people being mean, so they deny the problem.

    I’d like to suggest there is a little more to this level than that. There is a culture to physics. Let’s see if I can give some examples. An instructor is working a problem on the board, skips some steps, then says something like “it’s obvious” that the conclusion is what it is. Its a put-down to those who don’t see it as clearly as the instructor.

    Another, which is a particular gripe of mine, is when instructors become frustrated with students who apparently believe Aristotelian physics rather than Newtonian physics — without clear discussion on the difference between the two, why Newtonian physics is superior, and yes, why they’re going to ignore friction forever (because it’s messy, so we don’t like to play with it). Physics majors get it eventually, but many other students never do.

    It is these examples that show me that physics is unfriendly to students in general, though more so to women, for the other reasons discussed. These behaviors are passed down to new generations of physicists. And I have to admit to having behaved that way some as an undergraduate, going along with the crowd of physics students (I’m a woman), until I woke up to what I was really saying and stopped. That’s what I’m saying, that the third level is actively contributing by passing along these behaviors.

    If that has changed since I have actively participated in the world of physics, I’d love to hear it. But I suspect it hasn’t.

  14. sarcozona says:

    Thank you so much for taking this issue seriously.

  15. Julianne says:

    Much of these issues are really not “women’s issues” or “minority issues”. They’re simple climate issues which affect everyone. Consistently framing broader climate issues as solely a problem for women creates the impression that the problems belong to the women themselves, or at the very least, are a marginal special interest that should be taken on out of the goodness of one’s Noble Soul. Men have to realize that they have a dog in this fight as well. Wouldn’t we all be well served by a little more active decency among our colleagues? Don’t we all wish we had more proactive mentoring and advising?
    Why should it be considered soft to take leadership on these issues from above, by the people who have sufficient power and influence to effect real change, rather than relegating this fight to the folks slogging along in the trenches?

    Dealing with assholes and their fallout is distracting for everyone. Women and minorities are just the canary in the coal mine.

  16. C.A.Báez says:

    The other day I was taking my lunch at the Math department of the UAZ in Zacatecas, México, a small university in a small but beautiful city, and I found myself amazed seeing so many women in there, like 8 out of 10 students are females, and I only know one Male Researcher in there. I am a student from the UAZ physics department and I have seen a rise, a very dramatic rise I must say, of female students. Four years ago when I started my studies, there was like 3 or 4 female students, but right now there are over 40 women studying. There are no female researchers yet, but I think in the very near future that’s going to change. Maybe this problem of female discrimination it’s not a question of number of women doing research but I think that a rise in females doing science could change the climate for women in physics, and it’s quite amazing seeing a majority in female students in science, even more on a country where women is very discriminated and face a lot of obstacles. I’m very glad seeing this change in my faculty because I am a strong believer that diversity in thought can be achieved by diversity in people. Also it is nice to have so many different opinions and that also helps you with your mental healt when you have like 12 hours doing homework and you just need someone to talk to, especially if it’s female company ;).

    C.A.B.

  17. Anna says:

    Rob,

    I think there is yet a fifth level: the men who admit that there is a problem in general, appear to treat women respectfully themselves, never make sexist remarks, but when the time comes for them to make decisions, (maybe?) unconsciously but very clearly favor men over women. The “old boys network” still works very well. And because they don’t realize what they are doing, this category is difficult to address.
    (Or am I being naive thinking that they don’t realize what they are doing…?)

  18. Rob Knop says:

    Anna — yeah, I might lump them into level 4, but of course excessive classificaiton and nomenclature is gratuitous anyway.

    In any event, the effect you mention does exist. We can always find “legitimate reasons” to do business as usual. For example, if you’re talking about some sort of promotion or some such, you could protest that it should be based entirely on research record this time, and, hey, look, it turns out that it’s a man who’s in line there given that criterion.

    Yeah, it could be both conscious and unconscious. Some people some ways, some people the other. I’m sure that it is unconscious sometimes.

    And, we also have to admit, I hope, that in some individual cases it is the right decision to favor the man…! The trick is figuring out where bias is creeping in.

  19. and of course, I would include in this fifth category, those who realize there is a problem, but don’t call out their “bretheren” when they act like playboys from 1953.

    Which needs to be done, but is hard.

    But the thing is, the jerks are the ones that should be uncomfortable, not those who are actually behaving.

  20. Amara says:

    #10 JoAnne: “Then folks say “Oh, her husband has done all the work for her.” Can’t count the number of times I have run across that.”

    I know that one. My old boss at a job in the late 1980s, after a boyfriend and I separated, told one of my coworkers that “Amara won’t be able to do her job, now that her boyfriend is no longer in her life to do her work for her.” Fortunately, I only heard that once (and I quit that job ).

  21. Anna says:

    Rob,

    “For example, if you’re talking about some sort of promotion or some such, you could protest that it should be based entirely on research record this time, and, hey, look, it turns out that it’s a man who’s in line there given that criterion.”

    Well, the research record was in fact the only criterion I had in mind. I was not asking to make special allowances for time-off having babies, the pressures of raising children, or any of these. No, just pure research. Still, even in that case, gender favoritism exists. Maybe unconsciously, OK, but still exists. And if the woman protests for being run-over, it is not uncommon for her to be labelled anywhere from over-sensitive to dramatic to bitch.

  22. a former student says:

    I tend to agree with Julianne and cyperus-papyrus. In many cases, a lot of faculty get away with obnoxious behavior that would be unacceptable in many other work environments. I agree that in addition to often generally unpleasant environments, women get particularly hit hard, especially on crucial matters regarding their personal lives. However, faculty often have their heads in the sand not just about women or minority matters but even in general issues regarding student welfare. The following statement in the post is a classic illustration of this:

    “But every minute spent on stuff like that is a minute that isn’t spent doing research. Women should be free to concentrate on thinking about black holes and the early universe, just like guys are.”

    If the pace of research slows a bit, the heavens are not going to fall in. The reason why many “guys” are free to concentrate on their “research” is that they probably dont generally give a damn about mentorship of any kind-sort of like the passive callousness mentioned previously. It is rather unfortunate to see that mentorship of the kind that female faculty seem to extend to their students is regarded as onerous and a burden, given how important students are to the research endeavor of faculty.

    Unless one actively discriminates against women, which I am sure does happen, the passive sort of discrimination is harder to understand, except as an extension of an already existing callousness. The truth is grad school environments are pretty hard, not simply because research is hard, but also because there are major asymmetries in power between faculty and the students their research careers are built on, and these asymmetries are often abused. And discriminatory behavior, however small, becomes greatly magnified in such environments.

  23. Rob Knop says:

    and of course, I would include in this fifth category, those who realize there is a problem, but don’t call out their “bretheren” when they act like playboys from 1953.

    That is what a woman student in my department has told me is the single biggest problem.

    Indeed, as I said in my blog post, I argued to the faculty that that was the problem, but a few of them objected that I was only speaking for myself when I said we don’t speak out when we should…. There is much head-in-sand.

    -Rob

  24. Brett says:

    In my experience, many scientists, especially those in the physical sciences and mathematics, have a rather nineteenth-century view of how bias works. They adhere to the pre-Freudian belief that they know exactly what they themselves are thinking. If they don’t have any actively sexist thoughts, then they must have no biases against women whatsoever.

    This kind of attitude is a huge impediment, because to create a fair environment, unconscious biases must be actively corrected for. For example, one incredibly pervasive form of unconscious bias follows from the fact that people will tend to make more positive subjective judgements about other people who are more similar to themselves. There are innate differences between men and women in temperment, but I can’t see how those differences could be relevant to scientific ability. (Actually, no real differences are even required to get this effect; only the belief that there are differences is necessary.) But men in positions of authority will tend to look more favorably on the work of other men who are (or are thought to be) more similar to themselves. To overcome this unconscious bias, active steps need to be taken; and this is difficult, because it’s difficult to convince people who may be acting entirely in good faith that they are actually behaving unfairly.

    (The preference for the “in group” over “out group” naturally has effects in all areas. Perhaps even more dangerous than its effects on employment are its effects on politics.)

  25. Amara says:

    #22: a former student: “If the pace of research slows a bit, the heavens are not going to fall in. The reason why many “guys” are free to concentrate on their “research” is that they probably dont generally give a damn about mentorship of any kind-sort of like the passive callousness mentioned previously. It is rather unfortunate to see that mentorship of the kind that female faculty seem to extend to their students is regarded as onerous and a burden, given how important students are to the research endeavor of faculty.”

    How do you define ‘mentors’? PhD Thesis advisors or MS advisors or those researchers and professors and high school teachers who take an interest in the students?

    I haven’t seen yet a large disparity of mentors favoring one gender or one race over another. I’ve seen abysmally bad PhD thesis advisors (especially where I’m at in Italy) with men, women, minority students suffering equally. MS Thesis advisors? My old boss/MS Physics thesis advisor thought women incapble of doing science but I did not consider him my mentor, and I had the opposite experience (by design) for my PhD.

    The best thing we can do to correct that situation is to reward, well and often, those good (PhD, MS) advisors and mentors.