Archive for the 'Women and science' category

Some modest proposals in the wake of Colin McGinn's exit from University of Miami.

More than you could possibly want to read about this case has been posted by the folks you should already be reading to stay up on happenings in the world of academic philosophy: Leiter (here and here), New APPS (here, here, here, and here), Feminist Philosophers (here), The Philosophy Smoker (here).

At issue is whether it is (always) wrong for a professor to send email to his graduate student research associate mentioning that he was thinking about her while masturbating.

I take it as a mark of how deeply messed up the moral compass of professional philosophy is that there are commenters at some of the blogs linked above who seem willing to go to the mat to argue that there may be conditions in which it is acceptable to email your RA you that were thinking about her during your hand-job. Because personal interactions are hard, y'all! And power-gradients in graduate programs that are at once educational environments and workplaces are really very insignificant compared to what the flesh wants! Or something.

Since, apparently, treating graduate students as colleagues in training rather than wank-fodder is very complicated and confusing for people who are purportedly very smart indeed, I'd like to propose ways to make life easier:

1. Let's make it an official rule that professors should NEVER email students, staff, colleagues, supervisors, program officers, et al. ANYTHING mentioning their masturbatory activities or the thoughts that pass through their heads during such activities. I would have thought this is just common sense, but apparently it isn't, so make it a bright line. If you're not able to follow the explicit rule, you probably don't have the chops to handle the more subtly challenging duties of the professoriate.

Anyone who wants to hear about what you're thinking while you're masturbating is either treating you within a therapeutic relationship or someone with whom you're in a position to share a pillow. Just take as given that no one else wants to know.

2. Don't try to date your (department's) students. I don't care if your institution doesn't explicitly forbid it (and honestly, I expect philosophy professors to recognize the difference between "it's not against the rules" and "it's ethical and prudent"). JUST DON'T. It's a risky call, especially for the student. (I have read letters of recommendation for applicants to academic jobs written by the thesis-supervisor-who-dated-the-applicant-until-they-broke-up. In a crowded job market, it's not a good look.)

What about love? If it's real, it will keep until the student is no longer a student. What, you say it's the student pestering you for a relationship? Say no! You can say no to other unreasonable requests from students, can't you? If not, again, maybe the professoriate is not for you.

Really, this should be enough.

And, for the record, having been on the receiving end of unwelcome behavior in philosophy (among other professional communities), I do not for a minute believe that such incidents are a matter of social ineptness or inability to read cues. Rather, a more plausible hypothesis (and one that usually has a great deal of contextual evidence supporting it in particular cases) is that the people dishing out such behavior simply don't care how it makes the targets of the behavior feel -- or worse, that they're intentionally trying to make their targets feel uncomfortable and powerless.

Spending too much time trying to find the possible world in which jerk behavior is OK simply gives the jerks in this world cover to keep operating. We should cut that out.

21 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

Equal Pay Day 2011: there is power in a union.

You may have noticed from recent posts on the Scientopia frontpage that today is Equal Pay Day, the day that marks the number of excess days (past December 31, 2010) that an average woman needs to work to catch up to the average man's yearly earnings.

The evidence suggests that women in the U.S. are paid less than men for the same work. For example, this recent story from Inside Higher Education:

The gender gap in faculty pay cannot be explained completely by the long careers of male faculty members, the relative productivity of faculty members, or where male and female faculty members tend to work -- even if those and other factors are part of the picture, according to research being released this week at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association.

When all such factors are accounted for, women earn on average 6.9 percent less than do men in similar situations in higher education, says the paper, by Laura Meyers, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington. The finding could be significant because many colleges have explained gender gaps by pointing out that the senior ranks of the professoriate are still dominated by people who were rising through the ranks in periods of overt sexism and so are lopsidedly male, or that men are more likely than women to teach in certain fields that pay especially well.

(Bold emphasis added.)

I submit to you that paying someone less (or more) for the same job when the only difference is the gender of the person doing the job is unfair. (Those who take issue with this claim are invited to offer a positive argument for paying women less than men for the same work.)

Of course, it strikes me that the public enthusiasm in the U.S. for paying someone a fair wage in the first place is on the decline. It's true that we have the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, but we also have a case before the Supreme Court in which Walmart seems to be arguing that, owing to its size, its women employees ought not to be certified as a class in a class action gender discrimination lawsuit against the retailer. (Maybe the slogan here is "too big for you to make us be fair"?) Indeed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was prompted by a Supreme Court decision that held that:

employers cannot be sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act over race or gender pay discrimination if the claims are based on decisions made by the employer 180 days ago or more.

In her dissent, read from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg set out the precarious position in which this left women who were subject to pay discrimination.

Joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer, she argued against applying the 180-day limit to pay discrimination, because discrimination often occurs in small increments over large periods of time. Furthermore, the pay information of fellow workers is typically confidential and unavailable for comparison. Ginsburg argued that pay discrimination is inherently different from adverse actions, such as termination. Adverse actions are obvious, but small pay discrepancy is often difficult to recognize until more than 180 days of the pay change.

Meanwhile, across the U.S. governors and state legislatures seem to be doing what they can to dismantle labor unions, especially public employee labor unions. I would argue that if you care about fair pair for women, you ought to be concerned about efforts to weaken or eliminate unions.

Let's look at some numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2010 11.9% of the total workforce consisted of union members, with 13.1% of the workforce represented by unions (i.e., they were either union members or working in jobs covered by a union or an employee association contract). Looking at a gender breakdown for 2010 (when the numbers show men making up 51.2% of the workforce and women 48.8%), 12.6% of employed men were union members (with 13.8% of employed men represented by unions) and 11.1% of employed women were union members (with 12.4% of employed women represented by unions).

How much of a difference does this make to salaries? The median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers for 2010 stack up like this: The mean for the whole workforce was $747 overall, but it was $917 for union members, $911 for workers represented by unions, and $717 for non-union workers. The average man in the workforce was earning $824 a week -- $967 if he was a union member, $964 if he was represented by a union, and $789 if he was a non-union worker. Meanwhile, the average woman in the workforce was earning $669 a week -- $856 if she was a union member, $847 if she was represented by a union, and $639 if she was a non-union worker.

First, you'll notice that, in the aggregate, salaries are higher for union members (by 23%) and employees represented by a union (22%), and lower for non-union workers (by 4.0%). But let's take a look at what kind of difference unions make to pay by gender.

In the aggregate, the men's mean weekly earnings were 10% above the mean, the women's 10% below the mean. For non-union workers, the men's mean weekly earnings were 10% above the mean, the women's 11% below the mean. However, among employees represented by unions, men's mean weekly salaries were 5.8% above the mean, women's 7.0% below it, and for union members, men's mean weekly salaries were 5.5% above the mean, women's 6.7% below it.

That's still not pay equality. But workers who are union members or represented by unions have less of a pay gap between men and women.

From the point of view of working our way towards equal pay, unions seem to be doing something to close that gap. This is something to keep in mind when considering the future of unions in the U.S. workforce.

Other Equal Pay Day posts around Scientopia:

WTF?! "Equal" Pay Day
Equal Pay Day
$16,819 for a Penis
Penis Parity Day
Good Hair Day, Fair Pay Day
Equal Pay Day Epic FAIL

6 responses so far

The #scimom project: We are here!

This post is a contribution to the #scimom blog project, which its originator David Wescott describes as follows:

Online moms have extraordinary power – far more than most people realize. Companies listen to them. Policy makers listen to them. Moms make the overwhelming majority of decisions in life – what to buy, who to vote for, when to get health care, and so on. They do most of the work. They do most of the child-rearing. They're the boss. The problem is a lot of online moms feel labeled, disrespected, and misunderstood.

Science bloggers push the boundaries of ideas. They give us facts, and theories, and great stories about discovery. They celebrate the pursuit of knowledge and help us understand all kinds of important things. The problem is a lot of science bloggers also feel labeled, disrespected, and misunderstood.

I think if moms are making decisions based on the right information and with the right context – the kind of context you can get from science bloggers – the world will be a much better place. And I think if science bloggers understand the perspectives of the REAL influential people in our society, they can help make sure their work has an even bigger impact than it already does.

Of course I know there are plenty of people who are scientists AND moms. But even those mom/science bloggers tend to stick to one community or the other. In my observations over a few years now, these two online communities remain fairly isolated from each other. So I've been working on an idea to get the two communities talking. Here it is, plain and simple.

1) if you're a mom blogger, write a post this month that has something to do about science or science blogging. It could be anything -your love (or hatred) of science or a particular scientist, a hope you have for your child, an appropriate role model, whatever you like. Just make it personal and relevant to your life.

2) if you're a science blogger, write a post this month that has something to do with parenting or parent blogging. Maybe it's something your parent did to get you interested in science. Maybe it's on the science of parenting. Maybe it's your love (or skepticism) of something in the mom-o-sphere. Just make it personal and relevant to your life.

3) if you're a mom AND a scientist, then just write a post this month about how awesome it is to be a mom and a scientist or something like that. Maybe suggest a role model, or a story about why both roles are important to you. Just make it personal and relevant to your life. As far as I'm concerned you make an awesome role model and people should know about you.

4) ask another blogger in your online community to participate. You can call them out in your post like it's a blog meme or you can ask them any way you like.

5) tag your post #scimom and I will keep track of the posts and link to them at Science for Citizens and here as well. If you want to tweet a link to your post, just add the hashtag #sci-mom and we'll keep a tally so people can find relevant posts to read.

6) read a post from a blogger in the OTHER community (i.e. if you're a mom blogger read a participating science blogger's post and vice versa) and leave a comment.

I can remember the moment that I realized there was a presumptive rift between science bloggers and mommy bloggers. It was at ScienceOnline 2010, during an Ignite talk in which some dude was carrying on about how powerful (yet how sadly ill-informed about science) mommy bloggers were as a group.

I believe it was Dr. Isis, who was also in attendance for this jaw-dropping proclamation, who let fly the first profanity (sotto voce, of course -- do not doubt that Dr. Isis has manners). But I had a profanity of my own at the ready, for verily, eye contact with the domestic and laboratory goddess confirmed that I had heard what I thought I had heard -- the dude at the podium had essentially just asserted that we didn't exist.

Because, see, we had thought that we were science bloggers, what with blogging about cool scientific findings and strategies for teaching science, learning science, navigating a scientific career, and living as a scientist in a society populated by lots of non-scientists, and that we were mommy bloggers, what with blogging about the joys and challenges of juggling the young humans we were raising with our careers. But apparently, we either didn't count as mommy bloggers (because of all that science content) or as science bloggers (because of the encroachment of all that kid stuff). No true science blogger or mommy blogger would do it like we were doing it.

Actually, the problem as I see it was that the guy on the podium, trying to make the world a better place by encouraging the science bloggers to reach out and educate the mommy bloggers, was operating from an overly narrow picture of each of these groups. Sadly, experience suggests that he is not the only one.

I have had my status as a "real" science blogger questioned because I don't just blog about scientific research (particularly as reported in the peer reviewed scientific literature). In particular, my "Friday Sprog Blogging" posts have been singled out as "fluff" that doesn't belong on a proper science blog. It is true that these anecdotes and transcripts of conversations of my offspring do not undergo rigorous peer review before I post them, but I suspect that the real worry is that having conversations with kids about science is viewed as less important than making new scientific knowledge, or than reporting on such new knowledge in a blog post. Talking to children, after all, is still mostly seen as women's work. How important could it be?

This is a good question to ask oneself when bemoaning the public's lack of interest in or engagement with science. Those members of the public used to be somebody's kids.

At the same time, I will confess that there have been moments when I have not felt entirely welcome in the mommy precincts of blogtopia. Perhaps part of this comes from having a blog with a mostly professional focus on days that are not Friday. But part of it may be connected to the "mommy wars" that the mainstream media gin up on a regular basis. There is a presumption that factions of mommies are engaged in heated battle over The Right Way To Do It. This imagines that each choice a mommy makes is simultaneously a criticism of those who chose otherwise -- whether those choices have to do with taking on primary responsibility for child rearing and housework in the home or going out to a job, choosing public school or private school or homeschooling or unschooling, feeling torn about daycare or deliriously happy when we drop off our little darlings.

I would like to inform the mainstream media and my fellow mothers that my choices are my choices, not judgments of anyone else's choices. Heck, I'm as likely to judge my own choices harshly as anyone else's. But what can you do when you're operating with less than perfect information (as we all are, all the time)? The best that you can.

This is not to say that there aren't moments when I share a strong point of view. In particular, a post I wrote about the ethics of not vaccinating one's kids provoked a vigorous response -- from science bloggers and mommy bloggers alike. (The science bloggers seemed to agree that I was being too nice, while at least some mommy bloggers seemed to think I was either in the bag for big pharma or thoroughly brainwashed by the medical establishment.)

But here's the thing: I've found that my own parenting has required thinking hard, finding reliable sources of information, being willing to step away from sources of information that haven't stood up to scrutiny, figuring out how to balance long-term and short-term considerations, ... really, what we're talking about here is critical thinking. I reckon that women are no worse at critical thinking than your average member of the general public, and I reckon that women with kids have serious incentive to be better than average at critical thinking, since someone else's welfare may depend on it. (I'm not the only one who thinks critical thinking ought to be part of parenting.)

Mommy bloggers have to wade through the gender smog of our culture that tells them that women in general and mommies in particular are presumed to be silly, frivolous creatures, lacking in intelligence and objectivity (not to mention a sense of humor), a special interest that normal human beings can marginalize as necessary to get stuff done.

Women blogging about science often face similar presumptions.

None of this is to say that there are no mommy bloggers, or woman science bloggers, who aren't always on top of their critical thinking game, or who are mistaken about the facts, or who are mean, or what have you. But I submit to you that these failings are not gender based -- that there are plenty of male bloggers who fail at critical thinking, fact-checking, and human kindness.

Having kids and caring about science are not mutually incompatiblestates of being. And either (or both) of these states can be combined with being a woman, and with blogging.

We are far too diverse for any stereotype of science bloggers or of mommy bloggers to describe us all with any fidelity.

And, despite suggestions that mommy bloggers and science bloggers are two distinct groups, many of us are both. We are here. If science bloggers want to reach mommy bloggers, the first step may be to see us as we really are, rather than trying to communicate with who you imagine mommy bloggers to be.

* * * * *
As with all meme-like things, if you want to be tagged, you are. In the meantime, let me point out a few other mommy/science bloggers whose blogs I enjoy reading:


PhD Mom

Kate Clancy


13 responses 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

Is having it all impossible?

One of the things I'm liking a lot about this new community at Scientopia is the fact that it has helped me find some cool new blogs that I might not have found in the vastness of the blogosphere. (It's not the blogosphere's fault -- it's just that there's so much out there, and there are all these other things people keep wanting me to do besides just reading blogs.)

For example, check out Sanitized for Your Protection, a blog about "academic life and all the adventures that accompany it" by Rebecca Montague. In a post today, On being Superwoman, she writes about the challenges of the work-life balance thing, and notes that some of the advice one gets from eminent scientists is just not that encouraging. Specifically, an essay by Lynn Margulis struck her as more of a kick in the pants than a helping hand. Rebecca writes:

In the essay, Margulis discusses her roles as a mother and wife, and how they’ve conflicted with her scientific career. She relates this to the movie “The Red Shoes”, where a prima ballerina feels forced to choose between her life as a dancer and the man she loves. Margulis opined:

At age 15 I was certain that the ballerina died because of a silly antiquated convention that insisted that it is impossible for any woman to maintain both family and career. I am equally sure now that the people of her generation who insisted on either marriage or career were correct, just as those of our generation who perpetuate the myth of the superwoman who simultaneously can do it all–husband, children, and professional career–are wrong.


I disagree with her blanket statement that no one can “do it all”—plenty of scientists can and do combine success in their career with very happy home lives, raising well-adjusted children within supportive partnerships. Are they the exceptions that prove the rule? ... But there are definitely days when I feel like I can’t handle it, and that despite knowing intellectually that it’s impossible to be a SuperEverything all the time and something’s gotta give…and I wonder sometimes, amongst the stress couched in chocolate wrappers and stacks of papers, if she wasn’t on to something.

While I don't want to pretend that balance is brutally hard, I can't help but wonder if part of our problem is setting the definition of "success" too high. The thing that's done the most to reduce my parenting-partnering-work stress is to become comfortable with the idea that "good enough" (rather than perfect) really is good enough for most contexts. Sure, this means Casa Free-Ride has more dust bunnies than it might otherwise, but I'm comfortable letting that go if I can spend more time with my kids and my better half, and if I can get papers graded without staying up until 3 AM.

At the same time, I don't think the burden of lowering standards ought to rest solely on the people trying to combine career, partner, family, and whatever else. It's really hard to assert, "This is sufficiently good parenting/housekeeping/devotion to my relationships," in the face of a whole society that sets the bar several notches higher (or in the face of a differing view of what would be sufficient, for example, from the people with whom you are in those relationships). It's even harder to confidently assert, "This is sufficiently good teaching/research productivity/service," when your retention-tenure-promotions committees have the final say on what's sufficient (and where they may care not a whit that you are concerned to have a life outside of work).

Sometimes having multiple facets to our lives becomes impossible because we insist on trying to live up to unrealistic standards for each of those facets. Sometimes it becomes impossible because other people, or organizations, or societal structures, impose those unrealistic standards upon us. Working on the problem from both ends seems to me like the only hope if we want to make progress here.

Although judicious use of chocolate might help, too.

Anyway, go say hi to Rebecca and jump into the conversation on her blog.

6 responses so far

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