Archive for the 'Diversity in science' category

SPSP 2013 Contributed Papers: Communities & Institutions: Objectivity, Equality, & Trust

SPSP 2013 Contributed Papers: Communities & Institutions: Objectivity, Equality, & Trust

Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 28, 2013, during Concurrent Sessions VI

  1. This was a session, by the way, in which it was necessary to confront my limitations as a conference live-tweeter. The session was in a room where the only available electrical outlets were at the front (where the speakers were), and my battery was rapidly running out of juice.  And my right shoulder was seizing up.  And I ended up in Twitter Jail (for "too many tweets today!" per Twitter's proprietary algorithm), which meant that the last chunk of tweets I composed for the second talk got pasted into a text file and tweeted hours later, while my notes for the third talk in the session went into my quad-ruled notebook.

    With multiple live-tweeters in a given session, this trifecta of fail (in my tweeting -- the session papers were a trifecta of good stuff!) would have been less traumatic for me.  But philosophers are not quite as keen to live-tweet as, say, ScienceOnline attendees ... yet.
    There was, however, a bit of backup!  Christine James was driving SPSP's shiny new Twitter account,   SocPhilSciPract, and she happened choose the same session of contributed papers to attend and to tweet.  She also tweeted some pictures.
  2. Continue Reading »

One response so far

Reasonable reactions to kids messing up in dangerous ways.

Kiera Wilmot, a 16-year-old Florida high school student, was expelled from her high school last week for mixing toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in a plastic bottle on school grounds, creating some smoke and enough pressure to pop the cap off the bottle.

No property was damaged. No one was hurt.

Kiera described what she was doing as "conducting a science experiment" while the police described it as "possession/discharge of a weapon on school property and discharging a destructive device" -- both felonies.

While there has been a general increase in "zero tolerance" enforcement of policies by school systems, it is maybe not unimportant in the reaction in this case that Kiera Wilmot is African American. (For more on that, check out DNLee's post and the discussion at Black Skeptics.)

Schools, obviously, have reasonable concerns about students doing "freelance science" on school grounds, without supervision and without sufficient attention to issues like safety. And, there are sensible arguments that messing around with science (even the explode-y kind) outside the constraints of a lesson plan (and the inevitable standardized test question that follows upon that lesson plan) is precisely the kind of formative experience that gets kids interested enough in science to pursue that interest in their formal schooling. There's a challenge in finding the middle ground -- the circumstances where kids can get excited and take chances and discover things without doing permanent damage to themselves, others, or school property. In olden times, when I was in high school, some of our teachers managed to create conditions like these in the classroom. I don't even know if that would be possible anymore.

Meanwhile, we desperately need to figure out how not to read a 16-year-old's momentary lapse of judgment as a sign that she is a criminal, or a dangerous person to have in the classroom alongside other 16-year-olds whose lapses have not (yet) been so publicly observable. Smart kids -- good kids -- sometimes make decisions with less thought than they should about the potential consequences. Imposing draconian consequences on them isn't necessarily the only way to get them to be more mindful of consequences in the future.

My thoughts on this kind of case are made complex by very slight personal involvement with a similar case almost 20 years ago. In 1994, I lived near Gunn High School in Palo Alto, where a "senior prank" in the canter quad led to an explosion, a 15-foot plume of fire, and eighteen injured people, including two students seriously injured with second and third degree burns. The three seniors who confessed said they were trying to make a smoke bomb, but they had gotten it wrong. They all pled guilty to one felony count, were placed on probation, then had their felonies reduced to misdemeanors after they met particular conditions. They also faced a civil lawsuit brought on behalf of the injured students.

And, if memory serves, at least one of the students had his admission offer at an elite private college revoked.

I know this because I was teaching chemistry courses at a nearby community college that summer and the following fall, and one of the "mad bombers" (as they were being called in town) was my student. He was a good student, smart, engaged in the lessons, and hard working. In the laboratory, he took greater care than most of the other students to understand how to do the assigned experiments safely.

He wasn't, when I knew him, someone who seemed reckless with the welfare of the people around him. He definitely didn't seem like a kid looking to get into more trouble. He seemed affected by how wrong the prank had gone, and he gave the impression of having internalized some serious lessons from it.

None of this is to argue that he or the others shouldn't have been punished. They harmed their fellow students, some of them quite seriously, and the civil suits struck me as completely appropriate.

But approaching kids who mess up -- even quite badly -- as irredeemably bad kids (or, worse, as bad kids treated as adults for the purposes of prosecution) just doesn't fit with the actual kid I knew. And, possibly, going too far with the penalties imposed on kids who mess up is the kind of thing that might turn them into irredeemable cases, rather than giving them a chance to make things right, learn from their screw ups, and then go on to become grown-ups who make better decisions and positive contributions to our world.

4 responses so far

Thoughts on the American Philosophical Association Committee on Sexual Harassment.

Pat Campbell asks what I think of the announcement that the American Philosophical Association is putting together a committee on sexual harassment in the discipline.

First, let me point out Rebecca Kukla's excellent interview of the Chair of the APA Committee on Sexual Harassment, Kate Norlock. The interview does a lot to set out what the committee can and can't do, given their charge from the APA.

Second, let me relay an anecdote, in two moments, from the Pacific Division meeting of the APA, which happened in San Francisco last week:

Moment 1, chatting with female philosophers before a session was about to begin.

Me: Well, my harasser is a prominent participant in [session name redacted], so I won't be going to that one.

Female colleague: Huh, my harasser is on the program in [session name redacted]. I'll be skipping it.

* * * * *

Moment 2, chatting with male philosophers before another session was about to begin.

Me: It's a little awkward keeping track of the time and location of a session I'm not planning to go to so I don't run into my harasser.

Male colleagues: Wait, you've been sexually harassed in philosophy? Does that kind of thing actually happen?

The point of the anecdote is that many of us who are women in philosophy have had markedly different experiences of the environment in the discipline -- whether in our workplaces, the departments that trained us, or even professional meetings like those held under the auspices of the APA -- than our male colleagues. Moreover, the differences in what people notice about the professional climate are bound to be amplified by the fact that harassers are often circumspect enough to make sure their harassing activities happen out of sight of others besides those they are harassing.

By the way, What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy has anecdata from many more women in the discipline. Many of them I find painfully unsurprising (given the things I've seen and experienced), but others shock even me.

So, what exactly in the APA Committee on Sexual Harassment going to do about a philosophical community that seems more noticeably sexual harass-y for its female members? From the interview with committee chair Kate Norlock:

Rebecca: Let’s talk about the committee itself. What exactly is its charge? What is it supposed to deliver in the end? 

Kate: Good questions! Let me start by saying what we're not charged with doing: We are not asked to investigate particular allegations of sexual harassment, or resolve pending harassment cases in the profession, or expose scholars whispered to harass. Having said that, our duties DO include developing a protocol to gather anonymous information about sexual harassment in the profession. No one expects us to gather comprehensive data, because this isn't a committee assembled in order to be doing social science either. Instead, we aim to collect accounts of encounters with sexual harassment so that our recommendations are reflective of what actually occurs. It could otherwise be easy to make recommendations from our armchairs about what we imagine to be the case. We aim to avoid that.

The goal of the committee, ultimately, is to formulate a statement of best practices in the philosophy profession in higher education. I joke to people I know that the best practices could be summarized, "Don't do that." More seriously, though, we are also tasked with researching what other fields do to prevent it, to diminish its occurrence, and to make it clearer what options exist for those who experience harassment.  Our official "deliverables" are as follows: "The Committee will produce a report recommending best practices regarding sexual harassment in the discipline be implemented by the APA, philosophy departments in which APA members are employed, and conferences and other professional events hosted by either."

In other words, the committee is going to get information about some of the sexual harassment people have encountered in the discipline and use that as a starting point develop recommendations for how to address sexual harassment as it happen and (as I read it) how to keep sexual harassment from happening in the first place.

The committee is not conducting a full-scale empirical study of the prevalence of sexual harassment in the discipline of philosophy. It will not be delivering results that let us say whether philosophy is better or worse on the harassment front (or by how much) than other academic disciplines or professional communities. It is not finding redress for people who have been harassed, nor imposing punishment or remedial measures on people who have been harassing.

I think it's a good thing for the APA to start trying to get its arms around the problem, to get some sense of its size and shape. I also think that using actual, rather than hypothetical, cases to develop best practices is a really good idea. For whatever reason, philosophy seems to lag other academic disciplines in formulating such best practices. Again, from the interview:

Rebecca: In your view, why it important that we, as a discipline, address sexual harassment?

Kate: I think the effects of harassment piggyback on the effects of a lot of other marginalizations that are evident in philosophy. The experiences of minorities in a field that is predominantly white, predominantly male, and predominantly middle- and upper-class can be discouraging, and perpetuate imbalances in the demographics of our profession. I think harassment amplifies that discouragement.

Other fields make it clearer in policy and organizational statements that harassment of some sorts is a crime - that it's not just not-acceptable but illegal. We're a bit behind in that respect. Some of the APA's more recent documents discourage interviews in private hotel rooms and so forth, with the implication that past practices are regrettable. But this runs the risk of making it seem as though the culture of bad practices is a norm that we disparage, not an unacceptable arrangement.

Rebecca: I agree that we are behind! My sense is that philosophers are especially bad at acknowledging that we need institutional guidelines for both preventing and coping with harassment. Do you think that's partly because philosophers think of themselves as 'above' cut and dried institutional rules? It seems to me that so many philosophers think, hey, we are so cool and enlightened and informal in this field, we can manage to deal with these issues without all that petty bureaucracy.

Kate: I think we often try to reject the errors of the past by just not talking about them much at all. When I was a student we learned to ignore the sexist things that past great figures said because it was not relevant or didn't matter. By the same token, it's attractive to say we're past sexually harassing, so why do we need a statement of best practices? Let's just look away, look away! Unfortunately, that approach does not seem to help those who continue to encounter harassment in the profession.

Philosophers, like lots of other smart people in thinky professions, need to be careful not to assume that their own individual intuitions, or that their own Bayesian prior probabilities (updated to accord with their own individual experiences), capture the entire objective reality of the climate in the discipline. They need to recognize that the individual intentions they have (or think they have), and those that they assume their colleagues to have, are not always enough to prevent harassment, or to produce an adequate response to harassment when it happens.

They need to recognize that what they hope is the case (about their discipline, and their friends and colleagues within it) sometimes departs dramatically from what is actually the case.

And, there may be discipline-specific habits with which philosophers tend to make the situation worse. In the comments on the interview with Kate Norlock, Anon E. Mous notes:

More often than not, when I have raised concerns with colleagues, I'm met with a response of trying to do philosophy on the behavior or incident itself (i.e., trying to formulate plausible explanations of intentions or misunderstanding, etc.) and this is incredibly frustrating. It is not easy to bring concerns to light, and it is made that much less easier by having my ability to understand my own experience questioned. I understand that we'd all like to think the best of others, but this has happened not just with one-off sexist comments, or a particular ambiguous action, but in the face of persistent patterns of behavior that multiple women are concerned by, and even when its known that the person being complained about has a history.

Taking it as an intellectual exercise to spell out (almost always from first principles) what the necessary and sufficient conditions are for "real harassment" (and then, exploring the extent to which it is really culpable or mitigated by factors like implicit biases or ignorance of legal definitions or what have you) does not help -- at least, not if your goal is to recognize actual behaviors that cause real harm to actual members of the philosophical community and to do something about those behaviors to avoid perpetuating these harms.

All of which is to say, I view the formation of the APA Committee on Sexual Harassment as a good first step. But, if the discipline of philosophy is serious about dealing with sexual harassment and improving the climate for women and other underrepresented group, there will be a lot of work to do after this first step.

2 responses so far

I don't know and I don't care: ignorance, apathy, and reactions to exposure of bad behavior.

I've already shared some thoughts (here and here) on the Adria Richards/PyCon jokers case, and have gotten the sense that a lot of people want to have a detailed conversation about naming-and-shaming (or calling attention to a problematic behavior in the hopes that it will be addressed -- the lack of a rhyme obviously makes this more careful description of what I have in mind less catchy) as a tactic.

In this post, I want to consider how ignorance or apathy might influence how we (as individuals or communities) evaluate an instance of someone calling public attention to a microaggression like a particular instance of sexual joking in a professional environment.

It has become quite clear in discussions of Adria Richards and the PyCon jokers that, for any particular joke X, there are people who will disagree about whether it is a sexual joke. (Note that in the actual circumstances, there was agreement between Adria Richards, the PyCon jokers, and the PyCon staff that the jokes in question were inappropriate -- and also significant, if not total, agreement from "mr-hank," who claims to be the PyCon joker who was fired, that some of the jokes in question were sexual.) Let's posit, for the purposes of this discussion, a case where there is no disagreement that the joking in question is sexual.

So, you're with others in a work environment (like audience seating for a presentation at a professional conference). You are in earshot of a sexual joke -- maybe as part of the intended audience of the joke teller, maybe not, but certainly close enough that the joke teller has a reasonable expectation that you may hear the joke correctly (which you do). Do you call the attention of the community to the sexual joking and the people engaging in it?

One reason to point out the microaggression is to address ignorance.

The people engaged in the sexual joking may not realize that they are doing something inappropriate in a professional environment. This lack of knowledge may require a serious commitment -- for example, not to read conference codes of conduct, not to absorb any workplace anti-harassment training -- but I suppose it's not impossible. So, pointing out to individual jokers, "Dude, that's inappropriate!" might reduce the ignorance of those individuals. It might also reduce the ignorance of the silent bystanders also in earshot of the sexual joking.

Drawing attention of the larger community to the particular instance of sexual joking may help dispel the ignorance of that larger community (and of its individual members, including those not in earshot of the joking), establishing the existence of such microaggressions within the community. If members of the community make a habit of pointing out each such microaggression they observe, it can also help the community and its members get good information about the frequency of behavior like sexual joking within the professional environment of the community.

Pointing out the microaggression, in other words, can help the community to know that microaggressions are happening, how frequently they're happening, and who is committing them. The hope is that having good knowledge here is more likely to lead to an effective response to the problem than ignorance would be.

There are other dimensions of ignorance you might want to address -- for example, whether people within the community experience discomfort or harm because of such microaggressions, or what empirical studies show about whether sexual joking in the workplace is harmful regardless of whether members of the community report that they enjoy such joking. Still, the thought here is that identifying facts is the key to fixing the problem.

However, you might not think that ignorance is the problem.

It might be the case that the people telling the sexual jokes are fully aware that sexual joking is inappropriate in a professional environment -- that what they're doing is wrong.

It might be the case that the larger community is fully aware of the existence of microaggressions like sexual joking in their professional environments -- and even fully aware of the frequency of these microaggressions.

In these circumstances, where ignorance is not the problem, is there any good reason to point out the microaggression?

Here, the relevant problem would seem to be apathy.

If the community and its members have good information about the existence of microaggressions like sexual joking in their professional environments, good information about the frequency of such microaggressions, even good information about which of its members are committing these microaggressions and still cannot manage to address the problem of eliminating or at least reducing the microaggressions, you might be pessimistic about the value of pointing out another instance when it happens. Reluctance to use good information as the basis for action suggests that the community doesn't actually care about the well-being of the members of the community who are most hurt by the microaggressions, or doesn't care enough about the harm caused by the microaggressions to put the effort in to doing something about them.

(Those silent bystanders also in earshot of the microaggressions? If they aren't ignorant about what's happening, its inappropriateness, and the harms it can do, they are letting it happen without making any effort to intervene. That's apathy in action.)

But perhaps it is possible, at least some of the time, to shake a community out of its apathy.

Sometimes bringing a microaggression to the community's attention is a way to remind the community that it is not living up to its professed values, or that it is allowing some of its members to be harmed because it won't ask other members to take a bit more effort not to harm them.

Sometimes reporting the microaggressions forces members of a community to reconcile what they say they are committed to with how they actually behave.

Sometimes exposing microaggressions to the view of those outside the community brings external pressure upon the community to reconcile its walk with its talk.

It's looking to me like calling attention to a microaggression -- sometimes attention of individuals committing it, sometimes attention of the community as a whole, sometimes the attention of those outside the community who might put pressure on the community and its members -- has promise as a tactic to dispel ignorance, or apathy, or both.

In the case that microaggressions are recognized as actually harmful, what's the positive argument against exposing them?

15 responses so far

Naming, shaming, victim-blaming: thoughts on Adria Richards and PyCon.

By now many of you will have heard the news about Adria Richards attending PyCon, notifying the conference staff about attendees behind her telling jokes during a conference presentation (about, among other things, making the coding community more welcoming for women and girls). Richards felt the jokes were sexualized enough to harm the environment of the conference. PyCon had a Code of Conduct for the conference that encompassed this kind of issue. In a room with hundreds of attendees, in a context where she hoped this harm to the conference community would be dealt with rather than let go (which gives it tacit approval) but where she also didn't want to disrupt the presentations underway, Richards took a picture of the men telling the sexualized jokes and tweeted it with the conference hashtag to get the conference staff to deal with the situation.

The conference staff addressed the issue with the men telling the jokes. Subsequently, one of them was fired by his employer, although it's in no way clear that he was fired on account of this incident (or even if this incident had anything to do with the firing); Adria Richards started receiving an avalanche of threats (death threats, rape threats, we-know-where-you-live threats, you-should-kill-yourself threats); Adria Richards' employer fired her; and PyCon started tweaking its Code of Conduct (although as far as I can tell, the tweaking may still be ongoing) to explicitly identify "public shaming" as harmful to the PyCon community and thus not allowed.

So, as you might imagine, I have some thoughts on this situation.

My big-picture thoughts on naming and shaming are posted at my other blog. This post focuses on issues more specific to this particular incident. In no particular order:

1. There is NOTHING a person could do that deserves to be met with death threats, rape threats, or encouragement to kill oneself -- not even issuing death threats, rape threats, or encouragement to kill oneself. Let's not even pretend that there are circumstances that could mitigate such threats. The worst person you know doesn't deserve such threats. Making such threats is a horrible thing to do.

2. People disagree about whether the joking Adria Richards identified as running afoul of the PyCon Code of Conduct was actually sexual/sexist/inappropriate/creating a climate that could be hostile or unwelcoming to women. (A person claiming to be the joker who was subsequently fired seems to be ambivalent himself about the appropriateness of the joking he was doing.) But it's worth remembering that you are a good authority on what kind of conduct makes you feel uncomfortable or unwelcome; you are not automatically a good authority on what makes others feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. If you're a social scientist who has mounted a careful empirical study of the matter, or if you're up on the literature describing the research that has been done on what makes people comfortable or uncomfortable in different environments, maybe you have something useful to add to the conversation. In the absence of a careful empirical study, however, it's probably a good idea to listen to people when they explain what makes them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, rather than trying to argue that they don't actually feel that way, or that they're wrong to feel that way.

In other words, that certain jokes would not have been a big deal to you doesn't mean that they could not have had a significant negative impact on others -- including others you take to be members of your community who, at least officially, matter as much as you do.

3. So, if Adria Richards was bothered by the joking, if she thought it was doing harm and needed to be nipped in the bud, why couldn't she have turned around and politely asked the men doing the joking to knock it off? This question assumes that asking nicely is a reliably effective strategy. If this is your default assumption, please [I just noticed myself typing it as a polite request, which says something about my socialization as a female human, so I'm going to let it stand] cast your eyes upon the #Iaskedpolitely hashtag and this post (including the comments) to get some insight about how experience has informed us that asking politely is a pretty unreliable strategy. Sometimes it works; sometimes, buying a lottery ticket wins you some money. On a good day, politely asking to be treated fairly (or to be recognized as a full human being) may just get you ignored. On a not as good day, it gets you called a bitch, followed for blocks by people who want to make you feel physically threatened, or much, much worse.

Recognize that the response that you expect will automatically follow from politely asking someone to stop engaging in a particular behavior may not be the response other people have gotten when they have tried the approach you take as obviously one that would work.

Recognize that, especially if you're a man, you may not know the lived history women are using to update their Bayesian priors. Maybe also recognize, following up on #2 above, that you may not know that lived history on account of having told women who might otherwise have shared it with you that they were wrong to feel the way they told you they felt about particular situations, or that they couldn't possibly feel that way because you never felt that way in analogous situations. In other words, you may have gappy information because of how your past behavior has influenced how the women you know update their priors about you.

I try to recognize that, as a white woman, I probably don't really grasp the history that Adria Richards (as a woman of color) has used to update her priors, either. I imagine the societal pressure not to be an "uppity woman" falls with much, much more force on an African American woman. Your data points matter as you plot effective strategies with which to try to get things done.

3.5. An aside: About a month ago, my elder offspring was parked in front of her laptop, headset on, engaged in an online multiplayer game of some sort. As the game was underway, one of the other players, someone with whom she had no acquaintance before this particular gaming session, put something pornographic on the screen. Promptly, she said into her headset mic, "Hey, that's not cool. Take the porn down. We're not doing that." And lo, the other player took the pornographic image off the screen.

I was pretty impressed that my 13-year-old daughter was so matter-of-fact in establishing boundaries with online gamers she had just met.

I thought about this in the context of #Iaskedpolitely. Then I realized that I maybe didn't have all the relevant information, so today I asked.

Me: That time you were online gaming and you told the other player to take down the porn? Is it possible the other player didn't know you were a girl?

Her: Not just possible.

My daughter has a gender-neutral username. Her voice is in a low enough register that on the basis of her voice alone you might take her for a 13-year-old boy. This may have something to do with the success of her request to the other player to take the porn off the screen in the game.

Also, she didn't bother with the word "please".

In the three-dimensional world, where it's less likely she'll be assumed to be male, her experiences to date have not departed nearly as much from what you can find in #Iaskedpolitely as a mother would like them to.

4. Some of the responses to the Adria Richards story have been along the lines of "A convention or professional conference or trade show is totally not the same thing as a workplace, and it's a Bad Thing that organizers are trying to impose professional-environment expectations on attendees, who want to hang out with their friends and have fun." I'll allow that even a professional conference is different from work (unless, I guess, your entire job is to coordinate or do stuff at professional conferences), but in many cases such a conference or convention or trade show is also still connected to work. One of the big connections is usually the community of people with which you interact at a conference or convention or trade show.

Here's a good operational test: Can you totally opt out of the conferences or conventions or trade shows with no resulting impact on your professional life (including your opportunities for advancement, networking, etc.)? If not, the conferences or conventions or trade shows are connected to your work, and thus it's appropriate to expect some level of professionalism.

None of which is to say that conventions one goes to off the clock, for fun, should necessarily be anarchic events, red in tooth and claw. Unless that's how the community at that particular con decides it wants to have fun, I suppose.

Also, this is not to say that companies should necessarily fire their employees for any and every infraction of a conference Code of Conduct. Depending on what kind of violation (and what kind of ongoing pattern of problematic behavior and failed attempts at remediation an employee might have displayed) firing might be the right call. I have seen none of the personnel files of the persons directly involved in this case -- and you probably haven't, either -- so the best I could do is speculate about whether particular firings were warranted, and if so, by what. I'm in no mood for such speculation.

5. On the matter of tweeting a photo of the PyCon attendees who were telling the jokes Adria Richards felt were inappropriate in the circumstances: Lots of people have decried this as a Very Bad Way for Richards to have communicated to the conference staff about bad-behavior-in-progress with which she felt they should intervene. Instead, they say, she should have had a sense of humor (but see #2 above). Or, she should have turned around and politely asked them to cut it out (but see #3 above). Or, that she should have done something else. (Email conference staff and hope someone was monitoring the inbox closely enough to get promptly to the location ten rows back from the stage so that Richards could point the jokers out in a room with hundreds of people? Use a Jedi mind trick to get them to stop quietly?)

She alerted the conference staff to the problem via Twitter. She made the call, given the available options, the fact that she didn't want to generate noise that would disrupt what was happening on the stage, and probably her judgments of what was likely to be effective based on her prior experiences (see #2 above).

Maybe that's not the call you'd make. Maybe the strategy you would have tried would totally have worked. I trust you're prepared to deploy it next time you're at a conference or convention or trade show and in earshot of someone behaving in a way likely to make members of the community feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. I hope it's just as effective as you imagine it will be.

Even if Adria Richards was wrong to tweet the picture of the jokers, that doesn't mean that their joking was appropriate in the circumstances in which they were doing it at PyCon. It wouldn't mean that the conference staff would be wrong to investigate the joking and shut it down (and deal with the jokers accordingly) if they judged it in violation of the Code of Conduct.

Also, one of the big complaints I've seen about the tweeted photo of the PyCon jokers is that using Twitter as a tool to report the problem removes the confidentiality that ought to accompany allegations of violations of the Code of Conduct, investigations of those allegations, penalties visited on violators, etc.

There's a couple things I want to say to that. First, dealing with bad behavior "privately" (rather than transparently) doesn't always inspire confidence in the community that the bad behavior is being taken seriously, or that it's being addressed consistently (as opposed to, say, being addressed except when someone we really like does it too), or that it's being addressed at all. Especially when the bad behavior in question is happening in a publicly observable way, taking the response completely private may be nearly as harmful to the community as the bad behavior itself.

Second, shouldn't the people who want us to trust that the PyCon staff would have dealt with the PyCon jokers fairly and appropriately in private themselves trust that the PyCon staff had addressed any violation of the conference Code of Conduct Adria Richards might have committed by tweeting the picture of the PyCon jokers (rather than emailing it or whatever) -- and that they'd dealt with such a violation on Richards' part, if they judged it a violation, in private?

There's just a whiff of a double standard in this.

6. On the post-conference update to the PyCon Code of Conduct to to explicitly identify "public shaming" as harmful to the PyCon community and thus not allowed: I'm hopeful that PyCon organizers take account of the effects on the community they have (and on the community they are trying to build) of opacity in dealing with bad behavior versus transparency in dealing with bad behavior.

It's not like there isn't already reason to believe that sometimes conference organizers minimize the impact of instances of harassment reported to them, or deny that any harassment has been reported at all, or back off from applying their own explicit rules to people they judge as valuable to the community.

These kinds of actions may harm their community just as much as public shaming. They communicate that some harassers are more valuable to the community than the people they harass (so maybe a bit of harassment is OK), or that people are lying about their actual experiences of bad behavior.

7. There has been the predictable dissection of Adria Richards' every blog post, tweet, and professional utterance prior to this event, with the apparent intention of demonstrating that she has engaged in jokes about sex organs herself, or that she has a history of looking for things to get mad about, or she's just mean, and who is she to be calling other people out for bad behavior?

This has to be the least persuasive tu quoque I've seen all year.

If identifying problematic behavior in a community is something that can only be done by perfect people -- people who have never sinned themselves, who have never pissed anyone off, who emerged from the womb incapable of engaging in bad behavior themselves -- then we are screwed.

People mess up. The hope is that by calling attention to the bad behavior, and to the harm it does, we can help each other do better. Focusing on problematic behavior (especially if that behavior is ongoing and needs to be addressed to stop the harm) needn't brand the bad actor as irredeemable, and it shouldn't require that there's a saint on duty to file the complaint.

8. Some people have opined that it was bad for Adria Richards to call out the PyCon jokers (or to call them out in the particular way she did) on account of the bad consequences that might befall them if they were known to have violated the PyCon Code of Conduct. But the maxim, "Don't call out bad behavior because doing so could have negative consequences for the person behaving badly" just serves to protect the bad behavior and the bad actors. Being caught plagiarizing can be harmful to a scientist's career, so for heaven's sake don't report it! Being convicted of rape can end your future as a football player, so your victim ought to refrain from reporting it, and the authorities ought to make sure you're not prosecuted!

Bad behavior has bad consequences, too.

The potential bad consequences of being caught behaving badly should, perhaps, help motivate people not to behave badly, especially in cases where the harms of that bad behavior to individuals or the community are not themselves sufficiently motivating to prevent the behavior.

9. Finally, some people have been expressing that it makes them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome when they are not allowed to act they way they want to, tell the jokes they feel like telling, and so forth.

I don't doubt this for a minute.

However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In the end, it comes down to a question of who you want in your community and who you want out of it. Personally, I don't want my professional communities to be comfortable places for racists or sexists, for rapists, plagiarists, or jerks. Other people, I imagine, would prefer a professional community that's a comfortable place for racists or sexists, for rapists, plagiarists, or jerks to a professional community that's a comfortable place for me.

But here's the thing: if you say you want your community to be welcoming to and inclusive of people who aren't yet represented in great numbers, it might require really listening to what they say about what's holding them back. It might require making changes on account of what they tell you.

It's still possible that you'll decide in the end to prioritize the comfort of the people already in your community over the comfort of the people you thought you wanted to welcome into your community. But in that case, at least have the decency to be honest that this is what you're doing.

* * * * *

Also, pretty much everything Stephanie says here.

* * * * *

UPDATE: So, there are people who seem very eager to share their take on this situation (especially, for some odd reason, their autopsies of every wrong thing Adria Richards did) in the comments, but without engaging with anything I've written in the 3000 words here -- including the things I've written here that directly address the points they're trying to make.

There are many, many places on the internet where these not-really-engaging-with-the-conversation-we're-having-here contributions would be welcome. But it's probably worth updating some prior probabilities about whether those comments will make it out of moderation here.

74 responses so far

Want to play BINGO?

Apropos of some of the talk around the 'tubes, it's possible that you may be in the mood for a game of BINGO.

You came to the right place.


These are "Blogging Science While Female" cards, but in a pinch they work pretty well in a "Being Female in Science" BINGO game.

You are invited to download the PDF here.

Or, if you'd like a set of 6 cards printed on nice card-stock, I will send you some for a donation of $1 (or more) to my DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students giving page. Just email me (dr dot freeride at gmail dot com) with the snail mail address to which you'd like them sent (and the name under which you made your donation, if it's not obvious from your email handle).


2 responses so far

The point of calling out bad behavior.

DrugMonkey posts on a senior neuroscientist (and fellow of the AAAS) using social media to display his sexist stance towards women in his scientific field. (Too many unattractive women at the Society for Neuroscience meeting! Oh, the humanity!)

And, totally predictably, in both the comments on DrugMonkey's post and on the Twitters, there is the chorus of:

  • What's the big deal if one guy reveals himself to be a sexist jerk?
  • You're not arguing that we should limit his free speech, are you?
  • If you call him out like this, in public, there is no way the man will Learn and Grow, let alone issue a sincere apology. Be nicer!

Plus most of the rest of the squares on the BINGO card.

It's almost like people have something invested in denying the existence of gender bias among scientists, the phenomenon of a chilly climate in scientific professions, or even the possibility that Dario Maestripieri's Facebook post was maybe not the first observable piece of sexism a working scientist put out there for the world to see.

The thing is, that denial is also the denial of the actual lived experience of a hell of a lot of women in science (and in other fields -- I've been sexually harassed in both of the disciplines to which I've belonged).

I can't pretend to speak for everyone who calls out sexism like Maestripieri's, so I'll speak for myself. Here's what I want:

  1. I want to shine a bright light on all the sexist behaviors, big or small, so the folks who have managed not to notice them so far start noticing them, and so that they stop assuming their colleagues who point them out and complain about them are making a big deal out of nothing.
  2. I want the exposure of the sexist behaviors to push others in the community to take a stand on whether they're cool with these behaviors or would rather these behaviors stop. If you know about it and you don't think it's worth talking about, I want to know that about you -- it tells me something about you that might be useful for me to know as I choose my interactions.
  3. I want the people whose sexist behaviors are being called out to feel deeply uncomfortable -- at least as uncomfortable as their colleagues (and students) who are women have felt in the presence of these behaviors.
  4. I want people who voice their objections to sexist behaviors to have their exercise of free speech (in calling out the behaviors) be just as vigorously defended as the free speech rights of the people spouting sexist nonsense.
  5. I want the sexist behavior to stop so scientists who happen to be women can concentrate on the business of doing science (rather than responding to sexist behavior, swallowing their rage, etc.)

And, I'll level with you: while, in an ideal world, one would want the perpetrator of sexist behavior to Learn and Grow and Repent and make Sincere Apologies, I don't especially care if someone is still sexist in his heart as long as his behavior changes. It's the interactions with other people that make the climate that other people have to deal with. Once that part is fixed, we can talk strategy for saving souls.

92 responses so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: You've made it clear "it's a girl thing," but is "it" science?

If your Tweeps have been hashtagging about the same things mine have today, there's a good chance you've already seen this video from the European Union:

Ummm ... yeah. As science outreach, this would never have worked on a younger time-slice of me. But maybe I'm not the target audience.

In the interest of generating empirical data from the two possible members of the actual target audience to whom I have access, I showed the video to each of the Free-Ride offspring (both daughters, as related in my newly-published story at Story Collider) separately, then asked for their reactions, which I've transcribed below:

From the elder Free-Ride offspring, almost 13 years old:

I didn't really see those women doing science. Plus, they were trying to act too sexy. Yuck.

Me: Did you find any of the visuals engaging?

Some of the sprays of orbs were cool.

Me: How about the glassware?

Sort of. But we don't actually see how any of it is used to do science.

Based on this teaser, I would not watch the full music video.

Me: Um, I think it's supposed to be a teaser for an outreach campaign rather than a music video, although it's interesting that it read to you as "music video."

Or whatever. I feel like I've seen enough of this.

Me: Did you feel like it conveyed any information about science?


Me: Did you feel like it conveyed any information about what kind of people do science?

The only clear scientist in that video was the man. The women in that video didn't come across as scientists. They were more like giggly models with scientific props.

Me: If it were you, what kind of strategy would you use to get girls interested in science?

Don't show me make-up, lipstick, and high heels. Show me an actual scientist at work.

* * * * *

From the younger Free-Ride offspring, 11 years old and no stranger to feminine accoutrements:

Why the high heels?

It was bad. I didn't like it. And science isn't just a girl thing.

Me: What didn't you like about it?

How the guy was all seduced by the girls. And the girls were acting too girly -- abnormally girly.

I didn't feel like anything in the video had anything to do with science. It was just lipstick and stuff -- that's not science.

Me: Well, there's science that goes into making cosmetics.

We didn't see that in the video. We saw make-up exploding on the ground and women giggling.

I don't think this is a good science outreach strategy except to girls who want to have exactly that image.

* * * * *

It appears the sprogs aren't the target audience either -- or, if they are, that this video is 53 seconds of highly produced FAIL.

UPDATE: While the original video was reset to "private", there is a mirror of it:

Because you want to know what the fuss is about, right?

15 responses so far

Opportunities for you to help level the playing field.

At the San Francisco Bay Area She's Geeky conference this past weekend, I had the opportunity to chat with an awesome woman from the Level Playing Field Institute about some of the initiatives that organization is undertaking to understand bias in various work and educational environments and to do something about it.

One of these is an anonymous survey of IT engineers and managers, and employees in tech start-ups. The description of the survey notes:

This anonymous survey explores the experiences and perceptions of employees within the Information Technology industry. ... This survey is part of a research study entitled Understanding Bias and Fairness in IT Environments.

The survey runs through tomorrow (February 3, 2011), but if you complete it, you will receive a $10 Amazon giftcard and be entered to win a 32GB iPad. So if you have some experiences of IT from the inside, why not click over and take the survey?

Even if you're not in IT, there are other initiatives they're doing that may be of interest to you. For example, they run SMASH (Summer Math and Science Honors) Academy, reaching out to high-achieving, low income high school students of color in the Bay Area:

Our goal is to help SMASH students be admitted to top-tier colleges and universities where they can continue their STEM studies.

SMASH scholars spend five weeks each summer in UC Berkeley or Stanford dorms while they are immersed in rigorous classes. They also receive year-round support to stay on track for academic success.

If you know a student who might benefit from this program, the application deadline is February 21, 2011. Here's the FAQ, and the link for students to apply.

The SMASH program is also looking for instructors for these summer classes, with openings posted for instructors of algebra, pre-calculus, calculus, biology, chemistry, physics, and technical writing. If this sounds like you (or someone else you know who might be looking for a summer job), check out the job descriptions. Applications for SMASH instructor positions are all due February 15, 2011.

One response so far

Social Studies: The Pressure to Procreate.

The following guest post was submitted by a reader who is struggling with balancing social and familial expectations as she tries to pursue a career and delays having children. She submitted this post seeking reader feedback from others who may have experienced this situation. She has requested to remain anonymous to maintain family peace, which is at a fragile state at the moment.

I adore children. I have a very sweet goddaughter who will be a year old next month, and I love her dearly. I also have an older goddaughter about to enter those dreaded teen years, and it's exciting to watch her navigate this portion of her life. My husband's best friend, whom we both consider a sister, just had a bouncing baby boy and I'm looking forward to hearing him call me "Aunty." And there are two beautifully pregnant women in the family currently—both cousins, one with her first child, the other with her second. So I am surrounded by babies. That said, I personally do not have any children of my own. This has largely been the result of careful planning on the part of myself and my husband. We have our own time line, but for many of our relatives the delay represents a huge social breach, and they are starting to bear down somewhat harshly.

I am a 28-year-old West Indian woman who married her childhood sweetheart, voluntarily, at the age of 18. He is Bengali. As a West Indian marrying into a Bengali family, you would think the transition would be easy to manage—we are from similar backgrounds after all. But it's been surprisingly difficult. I'm not sure how much of it is a cultural difference though and how much is a generational difference. It seems to be a fair mix though there are a fair number of young women who seem to be going the traditional route (i.e., getting married, having teh babiez, staying home, etc.) Now, you may also think to yourself, well, if you were childhood sweethearts, don't you know what you were getting into? Well, no. When I say childhood sweethearts, I mean real childhood sweethearts. He had a crush on me in the sixth grade! He brought me apple juice. We went to different high schools and reconnected in college, when we decided we wanted to get married. And we eloped, partly because we didn't want a a huge fuss made, and partly because we knew neither set of parents would agree to letting a pair of 18-year-olds get married.

Flash forward ten years later to a recent baby shower, where the aunts were clucking as per normal when they spotted me. "When are you having babies?" I was asked. "Why don't you want children?" "Don't you like children?" "Your mother-in-law wants a grandbaby!" I managed to deflect all of this with good cheer as I normally do (e.g., "[The MIL] has [the family dog] to spoil!") and for the most part my responses were met with jovial laughter. I'm a pro at this discussion, I thought. And I should be—I'm used to it.

And then one of them dropped a bomb on me: "What? Can't you have children? You're going to need a test tube baby!" she taunted. This declaration/announcement was made at the top of her lungs in front of a room of family and strangers, and I admit it stopped me in my tracks. It stopped most of the room too as a moment of somewhat uneasy silence unfolded. I wasn't sure how to respond. I know I was embarrassed and angry all at once. For the record, I have nothing against IVF. I think that if it can help a couple have a baby when they're having trouble conceiving, then they should go for it. Kate Clancy, who went through this process was actually featured on CNN a few weeks ago. Her story is amazing. However, from this aunt's tone, you could tell that you would be less of a woman if you needed a "test tube" baby. But that's not the point. What I was reacting to was the assumption that there was something wrong with me because I hadn't produced a brood of children yet at the ancient age of 28.

This is just the latest jab in the mounting pressure from all sides that feel I should have borne a child by now. My waistline is closely scrutinized, and the slightest bump is reason to be questioned. And since I'm not pregnant, I have no reason to carry any extra weight, so any extra bulges are evidence that I am just fat, and just don't care. It's become exhausting. This shouldn't bother me, and it hasn't for a long time, but what is starting to bother me is the derision that accompanies their statements. "We know you're focused on your studies," they say as a lead in to the conversation. Studies?? What studies? I've been out of school for two years. I've been working—trying to establish a career. Do any of you actually know me? Actually know what I do?

I'm a successful blogger and published writer. I have an advanced degree. I've won numerous awards for academic accomplishments, been in countless science competitions, and I'm a successful professional. I help build leading websites and web tools. But none of that matters. Children to this group are a sort of cultural currency. I've been measured in public based on the bag I carry and the clothes I wear, and I am measured in private by the family by my apparent (lack of) fertility. And until I produce a child, I know I won't measure up to their expectations—hell, even when I produce the child I won't measure up. Partly because I am an outsider to their cultural background (and what will I know about raising children properly?) and partly because I plan to continue working instead of staying home and raising him or her, which is also somewhat unacceptable. (The hubby was once told that marrying a smart woman is fine, but it means the house will never be clean, that there will never be food on the table, and the children will run wild.) I feel these are personal decisions. Am I crazy?

The constant questioning adds another layer of annoyance. Will it detract from the joy when we do announce we're expecting? Will there be a sense that we got pregnant because we were told to do so? Instead of "That's wonderful!" will we get "It's about time!"? Will they take credit for the fact that we've conceived? Again, I'm trying to see this from their perspective. This is a culture where women traditionally maintain the hearth of the home by remaining in it. I realize that I am somewhat of a puzzle to them and this may be their way of fitting me into their norms and expectations. But in trying to fit me in—if that's what they're doing—they've managed to minimize everything else that I've done. And I just don't think that's cool, man.

The hubby does not buy into the traditional view. He's proud of me and my accomplishments and he deflects the baby question as often as I do. He does not think this should bother me, because at this point we both know that the family will not rest until we "prove" ourselves with a child. But I am exhausted from fielding comments and questions about my fertility. It's not anyone's business, but since it seems to be everyone's business, I'm doing an impromptu cultural/gender study: ladies are you experiencing the same thing? Is this a cultural issue? Or a gender issue? Have you been through the same? How did you survive and when did it stop?

23 responses so far

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