Figuring out why something makes me cranky.

For some time I have been aware of my own discomfort in situations where I'm talking about certain challenges for girls and women in their educational trajectory, or the difficulty of the academic job market, or the challenges of the tenure track.

Sometimes I'll note, in passing, my own good fortune in navigating the difficult terrain. Sometimes I won't. Yet, reliably, someone will chime in with something along the lines of:

"Yeah, it's hard, but the best and the brightest, like you, will survive the rigors."

This kind of comment makes me extremely grumpy.

And I know, usually, it's offered as a compliment. Frequently, I think, it's offered to counteract my residual impostor complex, to remind me that I do work very hard, and that the work I do actually has value by any reasonable metric of assessment -- in other words, that my talents, skills, effort, and determination have made some causal contribution to my successes.

But I know plenty of people with talents, skills, effort, and determination comparable to mine -- maybe even surpassing mine -- who haven't been as lucky. I'm not inclined to think that for every single one of them -- or even for most of them -- that there's a plausible causal story about some additional thing they could have done that would have made the difference.

Assuming there is amounts to assuming that our systems "work" to sort out the meritorious from the rest. That is a pretty serious assumption hanging out there with pretty scanty empirical backing.

And this morning I finally figured out how to articulate why I get cranky about the personal accolades and affirmations offered in response to my discussions of challenging systems and environments: they shift the discussion back to the level of individuals and individual actions, and away from the level of systems.

I guess if you think the systems are just fine, there's not much point in examining them or thinking about ways they could be different.

But the evidence suggests to me that many of our systems are not just fine. When that's what I'm trying to talk about, please don't change the subject.

9 responses so far

  • dr24hours says:

    I think it would be fascinating and illuminating to develop a systems dynamics model of the academic pipeline. I'm in if you are.

  • J. Dusheck says:

    It bugs me, too. Thank you for saying this. I'm one of the women who "dropped out of the science pipeline." It's taboo to whine, but honestly, there were a lot of not at all subtle signs that I wasn't expected to stay in science, and, unlike some women, I didn't have other sources of support, such as family or other relationships.

    I wish that more stories about the pipeline interviewed the dropouts and not, relentlessly, the ones who made it, always ending with a chirpy, "Still, many do succeed."

  • Dave Munger says:

    Maybe the correct response would be "So you're saying my message would be more convincing if it came from a man?"

  • gingerest says:

    Yes. That is why exceptionalism is gross and unhelpful.

  • Joel says:

    It sounds like a just-world hypothesis: that those who didn't make it through did so because they weren't good enough. Like other just-world explanations, it fails as soon as one points out that the world isn't just.

  • Theo Bromine says:

    Along that line, I am quite uncomfortable with the oft-quoted statement, "Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult".* Apparently this is supposed to be complimentary, and perhaps it can be viewed as such, but that's not how the world *should* be, and I would like to (continue to) work to make it otherwise.

    I'm an electrical engineer, despite the fact that I was not allowed to take an electronics course in my high school (in 1975). But I'm sure there were several other young women in my class who wouldn't even have thought to try to take electronics - it was not the sort of thing that a "normal" girl would do.

    It's almost 40 years later, and women in STEM still need to be tougher and work harder and be more motivated etc etc. And there are still too few of us. Perhaps this sort of thing is more difficult than Charlotte Whitton was willing to acknowledge.

    *Charlotte Whitton, former mayor of Ottawa, Canada

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  • charlie says:

    Agreed that this is a BS shift from talking about the system to talking about individuals. I would add, though, that this seems like backhanded victim blaming. The corollary to "the good people will always find a job" is "if you didn't find a job, that proves that you weren't good enough", often accompanied by nitpicking them to find minor flaws that "explain" why they don't deserve a job.