We Suck (But We Can Be Better)

One day in grad school, a couple of friends and I were sitting at a table in a hallway in the astronomy building, working on a problem set. The professor who had assigned the problems walked by and noticed what we were doing — which was fine, working together was encouraged. But then he commented, “Hey, I’m confused — you’re all smart guys, so how come the girls have been scoring better than you on the problem sets?” Out loud we mumbled something noncommittal, but I remember thinking, “Maybe they are … also smart?”

This professor was a good-hearted guy, who would have been appalled and defensive at the suggestion that his wry remark perhaps reflected a degree of unconscious bias. Multiply this example by a million, and you get an idea of what it’s like to be a woman trying to succeed in science in a modern university. Not necessarily blatant abuse or discrimination, of the sort faced by Marie Curie or Emmy Noether, but a constant stream of reminders that many of your colleagues think you might not be good enough, that what counts as “confident” for someone else qualifies as “aggressive” or “bitchy” when it comes from you, that your successes are unexpected surprises rather than natural consequences of your talent.

But even today, as we’ve recently been reminded, the obstacles faced by women scientists can still be of the old-fashioned, blatant, every-sensible-person-agrees-it’s-terrible variety. A few months ago we learned that Geoff Marcy, the respected exoplanet researcher at Berkeley, had a long history of sexually harassing students. Yesterday a couple of other cases came to light. U.S. Representative Jackie Speier gave a speech before Congress highlighting the case of Timothy Slater, another astronomer (formerly at the University of Arizona, now at the University of Wyoming) with a track record of harassment. And my own institution, Caltech, has suspended Christian Ott, a professor of theoretical astrophysics, for at least a year, after an investigation concluded that he had harassed students. A full discussion can be found in this article by Azeen Ghorayshi at BuzzFeed, and there are also stories at Science, Nature, and Gizmodo. Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum and provost Edward Stolper published a memo that (without mentioning names) talked about Caltech’s response to the findings. Enormous credit goes to the students involved, Io Kleiser and Sarah Gossan, who showed great courage and determination in coming forward. (I’m sure they would both much rather be doing science, as would we all.)

No doubt the specifics of these situations will be debated to death. There is a wider context, however. These incidents aren’t isolated; they’re just the ones that happened to come to light recently. And there are issues here that aren’t just about men and women; they’re about what kind of culture we have in academia generally, science in particular, and physics/astronomy especially. Not only did these things happen, but they happened over an extended period of time. They were allowed to happen. Part of that is simply because shit happens; but part is that we don’t place enough value, as working academic scientists, professors, and students, in caring about each other as human beings.

Academic science — and physics is arguably the worst, though perhaps parts of engineering and computer science are just as bad — engenders a macho, cutthroat, sink-or-swim culture. We valorize scoring well on tests, talking loudly, being cocky and fast, tearing others down, “technical” proficiency, overwork, speaking in jargon, focusing on research to the exclusion of all else. In that kind of environment, when someone who is supposed to be a mentor is actually terrorizing their students and postdocs, there is nowhere for the victims to turn, and heavy penalties when they do. “You think your advisor is asking inappropriate things of you? I guess you’re not cut out for this after all.”

In 1998, Jason Altom, a graduate student in chemistry at Harvard, took his own life. Renowned among his contemporaries as both an extraordinarily talented scientist and a meticulous personality, he left behind a pointed note:

“This event could have been avoided,” the note began. “Professors here have too much power over the lives of their grad students.” The letter recommended adoption of a three-member faculty committee to monitor each graduate student’s progress and “provide protection for graduate students from abusive research advisers. If I had such a committee now I know things would be different.” It was the first time, a columnist for The Crimson observed later, that a suicide note took the form of a policy memo.

Academia will always necessarily be, in some sense, competitive: there are more people who want to be researchers and professors than there will ever be jobs for everyone. Not every student will find an eventual research or teaching position. But none of that implies that it has to be a terrifying, tortuous slog — and indeed there are exceptions. My own memories of graduate school are that it was very hard, pulling a substantial number of all-nighters and struggling with difficult material, but that at the same time it was fun. Fulfilling childhood dreams, learning about the universe! That should be the primary feeling everyone has about their education as a scientist, but too often it’s not.

A big problem is that, when problems like this arise, the natural reaction of people in positions of power is to get defensive. We deny that there is bias, or that it’s a problem, or that we haven’t been treating our students like human beings. We worry too much about the reputations of our institutions and our fields, and not enough about the lives of the people for whom we are responsible. I do it myself — nobody likes having their mistakes pointed out to them, and I’m certainly not an exception. It’s a constant struggle to balance legitimate justifications for your own views and actions against a knee-jerk tendency to defend everything you do (or don’t).

Maybe these recent events will be a wake-up call that provokes departments to take real steps to prevent harassment and improve the lives of students more generally. It’s unfortunate that we need to be shown a particularly egregious example of abuse before being stirred to action, but that’s often what it takes. In philosophy, the case of Colin McGinn has prompted a new dialogue about this kind of problem. In astronomy, President of the AAS Meg Urry has been very outspoken about the need to do better. Let’s see if physics will step up, recognize the problems we have, and take concrete steps to do better.

  1. Love your comment, “Maybe they are … also smart?”

    Two stories about “the first day of quantum mechanics class”:

    (1) When I was an undergraduate, on my way to first day of quantum mechanics class, I was riding up in the elevator with the professor and several (male) students. The professor kindly informed us that this would be the class that “separated the men from the boys.”

    (2) Another woman I know told me a story about how she, recently arrived for grad school in the US from Argentina, went to the first day of quantum mechanics class. She was the only woman in the large class, an experience she had never had (or even close) in Argentina. Not knowing much about culture in the US, her first thought was “Oh no, I must have misunderstood. The university must have two quantum classes, one for men and one for women. I went to the wrong one!” This was the only explanation that made sense to her, at the time.

  2. Sean, you used to have a thumbs-up/thumbs-down feature on your “comments” long while back… whatever happened to that… seems it might be useful here 😉

    (edited)…n-n-nnevermind, seems you’ve taken care of it

  3. Being a Caltech grad student myself, I can count too many professors of whom I’ve heard horror stories–less about actual harassment or discrimination, but plenty of abuse towards graduate students and postdocs. Unfortunately, I think a bit of a blind eye is turned towards some of this, and there seems to be a sentiment among some that something like http://www.chemistry-blog.com/2010/06/22/something-deeply-wrong-with-chemistry/ is the norm. And we really need to deal with some of the Old-Boys-Club-ethos of the departments as well.

    I’ve been fortunate to have a very welcoming and supportive advisor, and I think the good folks out-number the bad, but there really needs to be more of a conversation about what is simply high-expectations and what are unreasonable demands.

  4. I am a 48 year old woman whose dream is to go back to college (working on paperwork now) and earn a graduate and post graduate degree in physics (Quantum Mechanics). My motivation is in two folds: feeding my passion for understanding how our Universe(s) works and came to and fulfilling a childhood dream that was cut short.
    Not only am I already nervous about the idea of going back at my age and starting from scratch, but after reading your article, it only adds to my anxiety and fear of failure.
    However, because my goal is motivated by passion rather than the search of a job, I truly hope that I will not have to add the stress of defending my choices as a woman to the struggle (yet the joy) of trying to figure out the true essence of Universe(s).

  5. What does “too cutthroat” have to do with harassment and gender bias? Mixing the two in the same article gives the (presumably unintended) impression that the field needs to be less cutthroat so that women can compete. Being too cutthroat is a separate problem, but men and women are both equally capable of dealing with that problem.

  6. I agree with almost everything you’ve said. There is no reason for harassment to continue and quite simply it’s a problem with us males (almost always – the exceptions are too rare to bother considering).

    I do however quibble with this
    “Academia will always necessarily be, in some sense, competitive”

    It’s just not true. It is also unsurprisingly a very masculine approach. Science is best when it is collaborative. Scientists perform better when they collaborate in an environment where making mistakes is an accepted part of progress and the success of others only adds to the achievement we all take part in.

    There just is no data that supports the idea that forcing people to compete makes science advance faster or better and there is a lot of data showing collaborations and teams work better. We compete because we are forced to by funding bodies and administrators not because it improves the science.

    But that is a minor criticism of an excellent piece.

  7. Sad that there is any sexual harassment or discrimination anywhere BUT it is also sad that stories in the media portray gender bias almost exclusively against women when nowadays the studies show no difference or even more bias against men! There are political and economic reasons for this but we now really do live in more a feminist society. In other words, the pendulum has swung to the other side.

  8. What does “too cutthroat” have to do with harassment and gender bias? Mixing the two in the same article gives the (presumably unintended) impression that the field needs to be less cutthroat so that women can compete. Being too cutthroat is a separate problem, but men and women are both equally capable of dealing with that problem.

    Indeed. This reminds me of “feminists” who go on and on about how women are just as good at everything, then when they argue that women should be in more positions of responsibility, they argue that women are better and hence it would be better for all. You can’t have it both ways.

  9. What does “too cutthroat” have to do with harassment and gender bias? Mixing the two in the same article gives the (presumably unintended) impression that the field needs to be less cutthroat so that women can compete. Being too cutthroat is a separate problem, but men and women are both equally capable of dealing with that problem.

    Indeed. This reminds me of “feminists” who go on and on about how women are just as good at everything, then when they argue that women should be in more positions of responsibility, they argue that women are better and hence it would be better for all. You can’t have it both ways.
    .

  10. I’ve always found that saying that something sucks is a strange way to criticize something; I see it more as a form of praise. 🙂 In any case, probably not a good choice of metaphor in this context.

  11. “Academic science — and physics is arguably the worst, though perhaps parts of engineering and computer science are just as bad”

    There are a huge number of fields which are dominated by men, and a huge number which are dominated by women. Why do you think that physics is particularly bad?

    I remember talking to someone whose son was now a yoga teacher in New York. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a description of anything more competitive and cutthroat. The term “mercenary” was used without irony.

  12. Maybe we should start making names public of women scientists who—easy for anyone to check—do not stand out in any aspect of their CV (except perhaps being somewhat lower than average) but nevertheless have permanent jobs at prestigious institutes and are married to (or mistresses of) more famous male colleagues. This is just as injust, and happens more often than you might think, taking away forever a permanent job which should have gone to someone (male or female) more qualified.

    No, two wrongs don’t make a right, but criticizing unfair behaviour only when women are disadvantaged, or males advantaged, and not other cases, is not right. It actually exacerbates the problems. As long as one injustice is beyond reproach, people have less qualms about committing others, especially if they feel that it somehow counteracts another injustice.

    Even if Lise Meitner, Emmy Noether, etc really suffered from discrimination (and they did), this does not justify reverse discrimination forever. It doesn’t justify it at all. Not even if other forms of discrimination against women continue. It actually makes it more difficult to solve the bigger problem of discrimination against women.

  13. I too have memories of grad school as being a huge amount of work, and struggling with difficult concepts, but also fun. I wish I’d savored the fun more, rather than diving right back into the difficult. My first year was a trial by fire; I almost gave up. Second year was vastly easier (but not easy) – that’s how much you learn in just one year!

  14. The example Sean posts strikes me as making the fundamental error of attribution. Suppose the professor had instead said ‘you guys are all smart, why is the group from Avery house always beating you on homework?” No one would bat an eyelash over that of course, but b/c he referred to a particular group with a perceived power disparity then instantly people start reading into things a little more. I mean it works both ways, people looking for something to be offended about can read into almost anything to support their point, how are we to tell which one is which?

    Anyway, a much more systematic study needs to be undertaken to really nail down these unconscious biases (which surely exist, but its unclear if they really matter as much as we are led to believe.) I remember reading recent studies that point out that the biases are much stronger when judging political affiliation than even gender/race/height/physical appearance, so I mean what are we trying to do here. Systematically subtract and correct for every person’s bias across an infinitely large set of possible group partitions? Why are we so focused on girls vs boys and say skin color, what about height differences (amusingly height is very strongly correlated with career earnings)?

  15. “The example Sean posts strikes me as making the fundamental error of attribution. Suppose the professor had instead said ‘you guys are all smart, why is the group from Avery house always beating you on homework?” No one would bat an eyelash over that of course”

    The point is that he didn’t. The remark makes sense only if the comparison group is perceived as being less talented. Suppose he had said “You guys are all smart, why are all those black dudes always beating you on your homework?” Same effect, similar bias.
    The rest of your post does make sense, though. Studies have shown, in double-blind test, biases with regard to height, name, physical health, almost everything. There is much less sensitivity to, or even awareness of, these biases.

  16. Not necessarily, we don’t know that without more information. Perhaps the girls were all working together at a different table, and his remark was simply playfully asking why that group over there was kicking their butts. The use of the word ‘girls’ was then simply a pointer in his mind to a particular location. Our modern sensibilities are of course very attuned to only selecting the possible sense which you describe of course. Nevertheless the point is that language is inherently imprecise and one of the things I don’t like with the modern social justice movement is the instant attribution about the specific meanings and senses of phrases. Things are almost never that simple when you focus on individual stories and people. A good example is the Scott Aaronson fiasco.

  17. The nice thing about writing a post about how people are defensive and leap to concoct excuses when given examples of bias is that you can be certain the comments will provide plenty of examples.

  18. Interesting the 1998 comment about “a three faculty committee” by the student who committed suicide. That’s what we have now, and I assume most universities have something similar.

    There was a horrible case a few years ago where a former PhD student who had dropped out committed suicide by throwing himself down the wide open stairwell in the Waterstones at Piccadilly Circus. Even when I was a PhD student (late 80s) there wasn’t much help around, and if I hadn’t managed to get it together again after a particularly low point then I’d probably be starving in a gutter today.

    We often complain about excessive bureaucracy and spoon-feeding in universities, but IMHO the increasing organisation of and support for PhD students is one case where this has been a good thing overall.

  19. “In 1998, Jason Altom, a graduate student in chemistry at Harvard, took his own life.”

    I read that piece and, when I tried to understand what molecule he was working on as the work was described in some detail, I found a development:

    “Total Synthesis of (+)-Haplophytine †
    K. C. Nicolaou Prof. Dr.1,2,3, Stephen M. Dalby Dr.1, Shuoliang Li Dr.1, Takahiro Suzuki Dr.1 and David Y.-K. Chen Dr.1
    Article first published online: 10 SEP 2009”

    [ http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1002/anie.200904588/abstract ]

    Altom had single handed made a total synthesis but for one last step, but it was a whole team that a decade later finished the total synthesis (in some way or other).

    Also, Altom’s adviser figured again:

    “† We thank Prof. E. J. Corey for kindly providing us with an authentic sample of natural haplophytine. …”

  20. + Bart Jenssen

    I’m late to the game and am entering grad school but one of the things that turns me off my ‘mission in life’ in cosmology, is the aforementioned cutthroat environment. Sure I don’t expect that everyone gets along all the time everywhere in these departments, nor do I expect for their to be continuous communication (In fact I typically prefer working alone) but I believe there has to be some level of harmonious interaction in order for creativity to blossom. In fact, that’s maybe the most important criteria for my choice in institution.
    I’m also black and have heard many horror stories about being black in these kind of environments, so hopefully none of that either…and as I write this I think to myself “I’m thicker skinned than that” but still…don’t wanna deal with it if not necessary.

  21. About 20 years ago, I saw a study on how men’s and women’s brains work differently. According to the brain scans, women tend to be able to think with their left and right brain at the same time. On the other hand, men only used their left brain or right brain at a time. I believe this in turn shows how men are more single minded than women, and women are able to relate things on a different level than men are able to. I have tried to relate left and right brain idea’s like women can easily do, but then I always find myself at a disadvantage. Then I don’t realize the relation until after the fact. It could mean that women are just smarter than we are, and we are too dumb to be able to realize it, especially in areas where different kinds of ideas have to be related to another. On the other hand, men are able to focus in more on one singular type of idea, and women will often misunderstand men when they state something based completely on that singular idea. Naturally, they want to relate it to something else, which may seem completely unrelated…

  22. Even if men’s and women’s brains do work differently (which is certainly true at some level), and even if the scatter within each group is smaller than the difference between groups (which I doubt, certainly in connection with the ability to do physics, whatever that means), this is still no excuse at all for any sort of harassment (which includes jokes) in any way, shape, or form, nor for any sort of discrimination which would violate equal opportunity.

  23. ” Perhaps the girls were all working together at a different table”

    This in itself is indicative of a problem, i.e. if all the girls tend to work together and all the guys tend to work together.

  24. “I’m also black and have heard many horror stories about being black in these kind of environments”

    That would quite frankly surprise me. Personally, I don’t think that would happen in any of the cosmology groups I’m familiar with, though my experience is limited to Europe. Things might be a bit better here. At Jodrell Bank, there were once some visitors from the States, who were surprised that students just left their notebooks on tables in the library during lunch. “Won’t somebody steal your stuff?” 😐 (They meant the ideas, not the physical notebooks.)