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.

Twenty-First Century Science Writers

I was very flattered to find myself on someone’s list of Top Ten 21st Century Science Non-Fiction Writers. (Unless they meant my evil twin. Grrr.)

However, as flattered as I am — and as much as I want to celebrate rather than stomp on someone’s enthusiasm for reading about science — the list is on the wrong track. One way of seeing this is that there are no women on the list at all. That would be one thing if it were a list of Top Ten 19th Century Physicists or something — back in the day, the barriers of sexism were (even) higher than they are now, and women were systematically excluded from endeavors such as science with a ruthless efficiency. And such barriers are still around. But in science writing, here in the 21st century, the ladies are totally taking over, and creating an all-dudes list of this form is pretty blatantly wrong.

I would love to propose a counter-list, but there’s something inherently subjective and unsatisfying about ranking people. So instead, I hereby offer this:

List of Ten or More Twenty-First Century Science Communicators of Various Forms Who Are Really Good, All of Whom Happen to be Women, Pulled Randomly From My Twitter Feed and Presented in No Particular Order.

I’m sure it wouldn’t take someone else very long to come up with a list of female science communicators that was equally long and equally distinguished. Heck, I’m sure I could if I put a bit of thought into it. Heartfelt apologies for the many great people I left out.

Don’t Start None, Won’t Be None

[Final update: DNLee’s blog post has been reinstated at Scientific American. I’m therefore removing it from here; traffic should go to her.]

[Update: The original offender, “Ofek” at Biology Online, has now been fired, and the organization has apologized. Scientific American editor Mariette DiChristina has also offered a fuller explanation.]

Something that happens every day, to me and many other people who write things: you get asked to do something for free. There’s an idea that mere “writing” isn’t actually “work,” and besides which “exposure” should be more than enough recompense. (Can I eat exposure? Can I smoke it?)

You know, that’s okay. I’m constantly asking people to do things for less recompense than their time is worth; it’s worth a shot. For a young writer who is trying to build a career, exposure might actually be valuable. But most of the time the writer will politely say no and everyone will move on.

For example, just recently an editor named “Ofek” at Biology-Online.org asked DNLee to provide some free content for him. She responded with:

Thank you very much for your reply.
But I will have to decline your offer.
Have a great day.

Here’s what happens less often: the person asking for free content, rather than moving on, responds by saying

Because we don’t pay for blog entries?
Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?

Where I grew up, when people politely turn down your request for free stuff, it’s impolite to call them a “whore.” It’s especially bad when you take into account the fact that we live in a world where women are being pushed away from science, one where how often your papers get cited correlates strongly with your gender, and so on.

DNLee was a bit taken aback, with good reason. So she took to her blog to respond. It was a colorful, fun, finely-crafted retort — and also very important, because this is the kind of stuff that shouldn’t happen in this day and age. Especially because the offender isn’t just some kid with a website; Biology Online is a purportedly respectable site, part of the Scientific American “Partners Network.” One would hope that SciAm would demand an apology from Ofek, or consider cutting their ties with the organization.

Sadly that’s not what happened. If you click on the link in the previous paragraph, you’ll get an error. That’s because Scientific American, where DNLee’s blog is hosted, decided it wasn’t appropriate and took it down.

It’s true that this particular post was not primarily concerned with conveying substantive scientific content. Like, you know, countless other posts on the SciAm network, or most other blogs. But it wasn’t about gossip or what someone had for lunch, either; interactions between actual human beings engaged in the communication of scientific results actually is a crucial part of the science/culture/community ecosystem. DNLee’s post was written in a jocular style, but it wasn’t only on-topic, it was extremely important. Taking it down was exactly the wrong decision.

I have enormous respect for Scientific American as an institution, so I’m going to hope that this is a temporary mistake, and after contemplating a bit they decide to do the right thing, restoring DNLee’s post and censuring the guy who called her a whore. But meanwhile, I’m joining others by copying the original post here. Ultimately it’s going to get way more publicity than it would have otherwise. Maybe someday people will learn how the internet works.

Here is DNLee. (Words cannot express how much I love the final picture.)

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(This is where I used to mirror the original blog post, which has now been restored.)

Bias, Bias Everywhere

Admitting that scientists demonstrate gender bias shouldn’t make us forget that other kinds of bias exist, or that people other than scientists exhibit them. In a couple of papers (one, two), Katherine Milkman, Modupe Akinola, and Dolly Chugh have investigated how faculty members responded to email requests from prospective students asking for a meeting. The names of the students were randomly shuffled, and chosen to give some implication that the students were male or female, and also whether they were Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, Indian, or Chinese.

And the inquiries most likely to receive positive responses were the ones that came from … white males! You should pause a minute to collect yourself after hearing this shocking news. Here are the fractions of students who didn’t even get a response to their emails, and the fractions who were turned down for a meeting. (Biases aside, can you believe that over half of the prospective students who asked for a meeting were turned down?)

The results pretty much speak for themselves, and help to highlight the kinds of invisible biases that are impossible to detect directly but can end up exerting a large influence on the course of a person’s career. As previously noted, the first step to eradicating (or at least lessening) these kinds of distortions is to recognize that they exist. (Although a quick perusal of our comment sections should suffice to convince skeptics that the biases are very real, and oftentimes proudly defended.)

Interestingly, the studies didn’t only look at scientists, but at academics from a broad variety of disciplines, with dramatically different results. Continue reading

Scientists, Your Gender Bias Is Showing

Nobody who is familiar with the literature on this will be surprised, but it’s good to accumulate new evidence and also to keep the issue in the public eye: academic scientists are, on average, biased against women. I know it’s fun to change the subject and talk about bell curves and intrinsic ability, but hopefully we can all agree that people with the same ability should be treated equally. And they are not.

That’s the conclusion of a new study in PNAS by Corinne Moss-Racusin and collaborators at Yale. (Hat tip Dan Vergano.) To test scientist’s reactions to men and women with precisely equal qualifications, the researchers did a randomized double-blind study in which academic scientists were given application materials from a student applying for a lab manager position. The substance of the applications were all identical, but sometimes a male name was attached, and sometimes a female name.

Results: female applicants were rated lower than men on the measured scales of competence, hireability, and mentoring (whether the scientist would be willing to mentor this student). Both male and female scientists rated the female applicants lower.

This lurking bias has clear real-world implications. When asked what kind of starting salaries they might be willing to offer the applicants, the ones offered to women were lower.

I have no reason to think that scientists are more sexist than people in other professions in the US, but this is my profession, and I’d like to see it do better. Admitting that the problem exists is a good start.