Adventures in Ethics and Science

There’s been a marked difference of opinion between two of my fellow ScienceBloggers about what ought to be done about the “pipeline problem” in physics.

Chad suggests that there may be a substantial problem with high school level physics instruction, given that “[e]ven if high school classes are 50/50 [female to male], the first college physics class is already 25/75″.

I take it that the worry about what’s happening in the high school physics classroom isn’t going to spark much controversy in these parts. (However, I do recall hearing, when I was still in high school, that at some colleges the probability of becoming a physics major was much higher among those who didn’t take high school physics — whether because the ripple-tank experiment was really that traumatic or because physics taught without calculus makes no bloody sense, I do not know.) Rather, here’s the part of Chad’s post that sparked the heated exchange:

Everybody seems to have an anecdote about a creepy physics professor, or an unpleasant graduate student, or a sexist post-doc.

This bugs me for a couple of reasons. The obvious one being that I’m a college physics professor, and I’m not that guy. I’m not fool enough to try to deny that unreconstructed sexist pigs exist in the profession, but I’m not one of them, and neither are my immediate colleagues, and sweeping statements that lump us in with the pigs of the world bother me.

To this, Zuska responded:

There are a million things that should be going on at the college level that have nothing to do with young girls themselves, but have everything to do with the behavior of college professors. And here I am talking about three kinds of behavior.

  1. The absence of harassing or discriminatory behavior – behaving like a decent human being.
  2. The awareness of how unconscious bias operates in situations where evaluation or decision-making takes place – behaving proactively to counteract it.
  3. The promotion of a positive climate for young girls and women in science – participation in outreach programs, lobbying for institutional transformation initiatives, being an advocate for women’s issues in the profession at large.

If you are not doing ANY of these things, if you are just sitting back in your office, doing your research, teaching your one little intro class and congratulating yourself because you didn’t drive all the women students away, then get out of my face and stop wasting your breath and internet electrons telling people they shouldn’t complain about professors.

Some commenters opined that, even if Zuska had a reasonable point here, the way she expressed it may have done more to alienate Chad than to bring him around. Zuska responded to this with a post about how “keeping things civil” has turned out to be a pretty good strategy to keep things just the way they are.

So, what the hell am I doing here? Zuska and Chad are both grown-ups, perfectly capable of working through their own disagreements — and although I have met neither in real life, I should state for the record that I am quite fond of them both (and, for that matter, of some of the commenters involved in the fracas).

But, I think their diverging viewpoints here illustrate some features of the world of academic science that the scientific community would do well to attend to sooner, rather than later. And, the war of words brought back an incident from my own experience that I had nearly forgotten, and I’m trying to work out why precisely that memory tumbled forth.

First the anecdote, and then a first pass at some analysis.

While I was a graduate student in chemistry, for a couple of the terms of my teaching I was the “head TA” for a large lecture course that employed many TAs in grading and holding office hours. Mostly, this meant that I was the liason between the instructor and the other TAs, making sure exams got written and solution sets got posted, and that TAs actually held office hours and that grading was fair, and so on. But every now and then, there was some issue where I was really pressed to act like a “manager” of another TA.

One of these came about when students started complaining about one of the (male) TAs on the team. “Over-friendly” was the very nicest description any of them offered of his conduct. Others were more candid: “I wanted help with the problem-set, not his hand on my shoulder!” “Get this guy OUT OF MY PERSONAL SPACE! How can I do well in this class if I have to keep dodging the TA’s passes?”

I passed these complaints on to the instructor. The instructor passed them on to the head of undergraduate labs, who supervised all the graduate student teaching assignments. The head of undergraduate labs … passed it back to me. “You talk to him, and explain to him why this conduct is inappropriate.”

Yes, so inappropriate that the responsibility for dealing with the problem was entrusted to another graduate student with only nominal authority.

So, what could I do? I asked him to come in for a meeting and told him that students had been complaining that they felt uncomfortable going to his office hours and review sessions and that they felt his attentions crossed a line. “That’s bad,” he said. “If they’re feeling that way, that’s a problem. Perception is reality in cases like this.”

By the time he was saying this, though, his face was about three inches from mine, and he had put his hand on my shoulder.

We’ll return to my squicky trip down memory lane in just a minute, but first let’s deal with the Chad-Zuska disagreement.

As I read him, Chad is saying: I am doing everything I can think of to be respectful of and welcoming to people taking my classes/in my field/trying to get into my field. While I am aware that there is a pipeline problem, I don’t think that I’m contributing to it, because I work hard to make my classes good and accessible. And I don’t act sexist or hostile — nor, to my knowledge, do my colleagues — so I don’t think it’s something I’m doing that’s driving the female undergraduates away from physics.

And, I’m inclined to believe that Chad is right — that he is doing everything he can think of to make sure his teaching and advising works for female students as well as for male students, that he would give a colleague who was an unreconstructed sexist pig a hard time.

But Zuska is noting that how things look to Chad are not necessarily how things look to a woman considering whether to major in physics — that the relative number of women in the happy-shiny-student-photos on the physics department’s website, which might look like progress to a male professor, can still scream “boys’ club” to a woman. In other words, as Zuska sees it, Chad is missing the reality of the experience of women around physics.

Women who are students — who are considering whether to try physics as a major, or to take physics courses — are seeing things from the outside. They are looking at the current composition of a department (faculty and students), they are listening to what people in the dorms say about which majors are good and who’s a reasonable professor and who’s a jerk, and they are trying, on the basis of the information they can gather, to form a reasonable judgment about whether this is a community they want to join.

The fact that there are not weekly beer bashes with strippers is in the department is not decisive evidence that women will be welcomed or even treated at real members of the community. By the time they are college-age, many women already have experience of communities that look pretty nice from the outside, but where it sucks to be a woman. This is why the additional measures Zuska advocates — doing active outreach and being aware that we aren’t usually conscious of our unconscious biases — are so important. Outreach is taking visible steps to say, “We want you in this community, and we will make every effort to help you become a real member of it.” Recognizing that males in the community of physics have had a boys club — and that they can’t know what it’s like not to be on the inside in this particular way — is the only thing that’s got a chance of really opening up the community.

Here, for any individual to feel the full weight of the responsibility to change a screwed up situation feels unfair. Chad’s been working to put together his tenure file, which is an emotional rollercoaster in itself, and since he’s smart, undoubtedly he’s tried to be careful in how he allocates his time to make sure he’s done all he should to demonstrate his awesomeness in teaching, research, and service. Single-handedly going out to fix the whole system could, at this stage, be career suicide.

But Zuska is saying, look bub: the system is still broken. You’re not actively working to make it worse, but you don’t seem bothered to go looking for active ways to make it better. And, if the whole community takes that attitude, it stays just where it is.

And, seeing the system stay just where it is, and pointing out the problem reasonably, and suggesting measures that could be taken, and asking nicely, and being told, “Look, I’m doing all I can, and I’m not one of those people who wants it to be hard for women, but I’m tapped out” by all the nice guys in your discipline can make you want to scream until HEADS ARE ACTUALLY EXPLODING. At which point, using strong language is a better way to vent your frustration than actually smacking people around.

The fact that the situation can drive perfectly nice people to tell other perfectly nice people that they have their heads up their asses should be a clue that they are having different experiences of the situation. And, if these perfectly nice people really, truly see each other as members of the same community, I hope they also feel something like an obligation to try to find out the other person’s perspective — to find out and acknowledge the source of it, rather than writing each other off as irredeemably clueless or given to outbursts without provocation or “not really one of us”.

I have some issues myself about the language I try to use, a level of “reasonableness” I try to maintain — and I think harsh language could scare people away from a community that they might otherwise join. But between people who are already supposed to be part of the same community, sometimes strong language is the only way to identify a real problem that isn’t being taken seriously. The point is to direct attention on solving the problem.

Because sometimes, being reasonable just doesn’t do the job. On reflection, it was probably a mistake for me to react so “reasonably” to being saddled with the responsibility of dealing with TA McHandsypants. I should have probably told the director of undergraduate labs, “If you don’t deal with this jerk, you send the clear message to him and to everyone else here that this department doesn’t give a shit if undergraduates are sexually harassed by their TAs.” When TA McHandsypants invaded my personal space and put his hands on me as his words seemingly acknowledged the problem with this very behavior, I probably should have said, “Get your hands off me and take three giant steps back because this shit isn’t right.”

I had a lot invested, I thought, in being reasonable in that situation. But being reasonable meant that the problem didn’t go away. TA McHandsypants kept treating female students like a perq of the job. The department kept ignoring the problem (because he had been talked to! by the head TA!). And for my attempts to be reasonable, I learned that certain concerns just weren’t viewed — by the people with the power to do anything about them — as worthy of any disruptions of the community’s equilibrium. They were noise that it would be best to tune out, dear.

They dropped the ball on this one, but I did, too. I should have called people on their shit rather than letting them persuade me, in this instance, that I didn’t have enough standing in the community for my concerns — or my anger — to matter.

Comments

  1. #1 Evil White Male
    September 16, 2006

    When I read Chad’s recent post (and when I’ve read previous posts by yourself and others on Scienceblogs) I try to think of possible problems in my department and if there’s anything that I, a lowly undergraduate student could do to help in a small way. Zuska’s posts and the commentary remind me of a rabid mob. If you make everything in to an Us vs. Them, don’t be surprised if all of Them don’t jump to flock to support you.

  2. #2 SMC
    September 16, 2006

    I will cynically predict that discussion online will get nowhere – the whole topic is flamebait.

    So, one last post and then I leave the whole subject for in-person discussion (where the tendency to “flame” is usually far lower) only.

    Can you imagine Rush Limbaugh ever convincing a “liberal” that he’s right? With his “you’re just upset because I’m right” and “quit whining, you stupid crybabies” and “get your head out of your ass” and “it’s people like YOU who are the problem” comments and belligerent attitude? Obviously not – any “liberal” who hears him can tell he obviously enjoys denigrating them, and can safely assume that whatever he’s saying is geared to bait and insult them (and get cheers from his existing fanbase while he does so) rather than to actually persuade the “liberal” that he has a valid and reasoned perspective.

    If one were to replace the implicit and explicit references to “men” with references to “liberals” in Zuska’s original post, it would sound awfully similar. This is a very bad thing, since buried under all of the hateful invective are completely legitimate concerns and valid points, and the people who most need to see them (testicle-owning members of humanity who are willing to listen) are likely to be driven off before they do. And worse, what are they likely to think of next time some pig makes an ignorant comment about women being “irrational and emotional” or the next time Limbaugh spews one of his odious “feminazi” jibes?

    Never mind “Getting along” vs “fixing the problem”. This looks like more of a case of “Being Right” vs “fixing the problem”. The people who are the problem – “privileged white men” – are by definition only going to listen to other “priviliged white men”. This means that for change to happen “at the top” in anything resembling a timely fashion, “priviliged white men” are going to have to be allowed to help, rather than attacked and insulted every time they speak up to ask a question about some aspect of the discussion. This isn’t “getting along” or “appeasement”, and doesn’t mean “being civil to the Master” (another insulting implication – criticism of excessive hostility equates to a superiority complex?) Just that one ought to at least TRY to respond with no less courtesy than one is addressed with, regardless of the contents of their undergarments.

    Yes, I know it’s a galling and blatantly disgusting situation that “privileged white men” are only prone to listen to other “privileged white men”, but the alternative to being civil to “privileged white men” who agree that there’s a problem is to wait a few generations (at least) and hope that the more militant approach of repeatedly calling for harsh punishments and the occasional lynching for Bad Men will eventually succeed by sheer attrition (it might, actually, and even *I* feel a certain amount of perverse joy at the thought of certain types of people who are an embarrasment to the Y-chromosome being administered well-deserved beatings, but it’d be more gratifying to just see progress on the problem NOW.)

    The only other alternative that might solve the problem within a generation or so that immediately comes to mind, besides social change (recruiting as many sympathetic and reasonable males to act as appropriate role-models and policy-influencers for other less intelligent males) would be to go to completely sex-segregated education (institutional change). All-female schools taught by all-female faculty. Then the physics programs would be definition be all-female and there’d be no males (sexist or otherwise) to dissuade women from the field (and young girls wouldn’t be discouraged from science long before college). I’m not sure that wouldn’t make the problem worse (with the all-male physics departments perhaps thinking “oh, that’s just a GIRL physics department”) at first but might make a difference eventually.

    But please wait at least a year or two before doing this – I’d like an opportunity to finish taking some of the classes that some especially kick-butt (and, incidentally, female) instructors I’ve encountered this semester are teaching, and I’d rather not have to get a sex-change operation to continue getting instruction from them. (Seriously, the new Biochemistry instructor at our college has one of the most amazingly intelligent approaches to teaching that I’ve run into…)

    Now, as to “Evil White Male”‘s comment – the thing is, it actually is a case of “Us vs. Them” – the problem lies in where the tribal “us and them” lines are being drawn. The lines SHOULD be defined by who thinks sexist buttheadedness is a problem and who doesn’t, but the zero-tolerance “you’re with me or against me” approach seems to put the lines somewhere else.

  3. #3 AndyS
    September 16, 2006

    There is another related problem that neither you nor Zuska have mentioned: even males have trouble breaking into the “boys” club. I went from a small liberal arts college to a graduate program in science at a large research university. It was like stepping into a whole new world, especially since I was married and about 9 years older than other new grad students. Even as a male I had to work hard to find my around, figure out which professors carried what sort of weight, who had space on their team, what sort of qualifications and attributes were meaningful to them, what social groups and gatherings were important, and how these sort of things things were at least important as my knowledge and skills. So, even if gender issues are worked out fairly, it still difficult.

    And of course, there is the social chit-chat among the guys about who’s hot and who’s not with respect to the women. At that age, early twenties, they are after all young and horny men, some more enlightened, some less so. I found the environment on the whole rather unsavory.

  4. #4 Periphrasis
    September 16, 2006

    I have been lurking here, and in Zuska’s blog, and in other corners of the feminist/scienceblog land for a couple weeks now. I’ve been tempted to comment dozens of times, and printed out a whole bunch of posts, going “that’s exactly what I was trying to say!” … I just haven’t quite gotten up the courage to actually say anything until now.

    I really loved the way you outlined the discussion. It’s a problem I run into a lot, attempting to explain, well, just about anything I study (I’m a recently graduated sociology major. While my area of focus is the internet/MMORPGs/game-based subcultures, race, gender, class, sexual orientation and religion do come up rather frequently.) to the smart, kind, well-educated, well-meaning liberal upper/middle-class white males who happen to be my friends/(ex-)boyfriends in recent past.

    “_______-ism is a problem.”


    “But I’m not like that and when you say that, I feel attacked, because I share identity traits with the perpetrators.”


    “I’m not trying to attack you. I’m saying that some members of a category to which you also belong act in ways that are inappropriate/unpleasant/downright harmful to members of other categories(which may or may not be categories to which I belong). Also, these behaviors which you may have engaged in or endorsed may be part of the problem, no matter how well-intentioned they may have been.”


    “But I’m not one of those guys.”/“I’m doing everything I can”/“You’re overreacting”/“Why are you telling
    me this?”

    “I’m not trying to attack you. I’m saying that some members of a category to which you also belong act in ways that are inappropriate/unpleasant/downright harmful to members of other categories(which may or may not be categories to which I belong). Also, these behaviors which you may have engaged in or endorsed may be part of the problem, no matter how well-intentioned they may have been.


    I’m telling you this because [you as a member of the group may be able to change things]/[I want to know what you think about this]/[you may have some insights I don't (as a member of a relevant category or as a person who doesn't live inside my head)]/[I was talking about it in class/reading it on the internet/just thinking about it]“


    “Now you’re repeating yourself and I’m feeling attacked.”/ “Other people from relevant categories insult me when we talk about this, so all discussion must be insulting”/ “But why are you telling
    me this?”

    “Yaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrgggggh!!!!!!!!!!!” *fits of rage*


    “See? That’s why I hate talking about this. You [insert relevant concerned category] are so mean.”

    … I’ve had that conversation far too many times. Granted, my version comes out reading less sympathetically than it probably should. I’ve just heard This version far more often than I’ve seen the (relatively) less-whiny version that Chad puts forth (at least as you’re reading him; my original reading of his commentary was more akin to Zuska’s annoyance).

    When the conversation is laid out this way, though, it puts me in mind of a thought exercise from economics. It’s something of an extension of the prisoner’s dilemma.

    People wonder why everyone stampedes when there is a fire. If all of the patrons walked calmly (as fire-safety materials advise…and advise … and advise… ad nauseum), no one would be trampled, and it’s likely that everyone would be able to get out. So why stampede?

    Because the economics of the situation don’t read the same from the individual level. If there is a threat, it makes sense to move away from that threat with all due haste. If there is a stampede, it makes more sense to stampede with everyone else than to be trampled underfoot by attempting to walk calmly. Particularly because stampeding tends to clog doorways, giving those with least concern for others’ safety (those who moved most quickly and were most ruthless in their travel) definite advantages over those who attempted to follow the rules.

    While it would, of course, be most advantageous for everyone to make the kinder, mutually beneficial choice, it may be all but impossible for that to happen when the stampede is well underway.

    From here, my mind coughed forth some truly awful metaphors (and a number of objections to the scenario as put forth; I generally find such economic models to be problematic on a number of levels) – women in science being a prone patron during the stampede, and all of the nice male scientists politely stepping over her, saying “Gee, I’d really like to help you, but it’s all I can do to stay afloat, and I didn’t start the stampede, and besides, I couldn’t stop it even if I wanted to. And I’m not stepping on you, and nobody around me is stepping on you, so if you just sit there long enough, the stampede will be over and everything will be just fine. If the fire doesn’t get you. And everyone else is as careful as I am. And you don’t suffocate. Or panic. Or pass out and be unable to save yourself when the opportunity arrives.”

    For a man like Chad (or my chemistry major ex-boyfriend, or my biology-major-turned-social-science-major current boyfriend, or the physical-chemistry-major friend, gaggles of sociologists, and so on and so forth) it is perfectly reasonable to say “I am doing a lot, and to do more might hurt.” That’s true, and when it is actually the case (granted, my standard for that being the case includes both Chad’s impressive list of personal qualities and competencies and Zuska’s set of proactive and reactive things one might do to make things better), it’s perfectly reasonable to point that out.

    What becomes difficult to grasp is that when it is the case that you’re really, truly doing all that you can to help… we’re not talking about you. You are not the problem, and we’re thankful for that, so stop being so defensive and go back to doing all that helpful stuff instead of feeling like a martyr because we’re complaining about people who aren’t nearly as spiffy. And if, by chance, you aren’t doing absolutely everything you can to help (but you’d like to, and/or think you already are), then by golly participating in these conversations might give you insight on how you can do more. (Heck, just participating probably helps – my boyfriend found it revelatory when I mentioned that it could be helpful to talk because you could share what was working.)

    That this is so hard to convey often leads to a lot of growling and grumpiness, which is generally justified (thank you Zuska, for saying that which I’ve found So. Very. Hard. to articulate for ages), and just as generally alienating to the people who have to listen to it (just as Chad and numerous others have pointed out. Very few people like to be yelled at, even (especially) if they deserve it).

    Goodness. Sorry this is so long.

    /me goes back to lurking.

  5. #5 per
    September 16, 2006

    “When TA McHandsypants invaded my personal space and put his hands on me …, I probably should have said, “Get your hands off me…”
    errr, indeed. Probably should have told your boss of the serious problem that arose, too, rather than keeping quiet and letting the boss imagine it was all solved.

    “I should have called people on their shit rather than letting them persuade me,…”
    I am having difficulty with this narrative. Who persuaded you that you had to suffer inappropriate behaviour when you were meant to be disciplining someone ?

    I find the greater picture difficult too. Chad is somehow personally responsible for sexism in physics, even if his personal behaviour is impeccable. Yet when it comes to your personal behaviour around an alleged instance of sexism, “someone else” was responsible.

    confused

    per

  6. #6 Stuart Coleman
    September 16, 2006

    Maybe it’s because I’m male, or maybe it’s because I only have a year in the physics system, or maybe it’s because I don’t really care all that much about “community” or anything like that, but I agree with Chad.

    Yes, the physics classes I was taking had about 5% female students, but how can that possibly be the physics department’s fault when these are introductory classes for people who already know they want to do physics? To me that just screams that something else is going on here.

    I’m not saying that Physics departments can’t do things better, but if female college freshman don’t want to take the physics classes, then what can they really do?

    Personally, I think that if the departments are doing what they can to eliminate bias and sexism (which should already be done), then there’s not a whole lot more they can, or should, do.

    Has anyone actually talked to women who were considering physics but ended up choosing a different discipline instead? It seems to me that these discussions always involve Professors and students already in Physics, and not the people who we’re actually concerned about. If this hasn’t already been done, it should be. I think that could answer a lot of our questions.

  7. #7 Rob Knop
    September 16, 2006

    But Zuska is noting that how things look to Chad are not necessarily how things look to a woman considering whether to major in physics….

    While this is an accurate description of the content and valid points in the description, it’s a misleading description of how the discussion proceeded, and why it made (at least) me so angry. If the discussion had been as you characterize it at least here, there would have been no bruhaha.

    Zuska didn’t “note”. She absolutely jumped down Chad’s throat. She gave no indication whatsoever that perhaps part of what Chad said might have any valid point init. Chad doesn’t seme to have weighed in again on it, so we don’t know if he sees any of Zuska’s points. Frankly, I don’t blame Chad for not weighing in again; were I smarter, I would myself have labelled the plight of women in science as a topic to avoid at scienceblogs. And, yes, I understand how repeatedly being ignored leads to screaming frusturation… but, similarly, I ask that people understand how not having said what one was supposed to say resulting in a personal attack can also lead to screaming frusturation.

    -Rob

  8. #8 Rob Knop
    September 16, 2006

    Personally, I think that if the departments are doing what they can to eliminate bias and sexism (which should already be done), then there’s not a whole lot more they can, or should, do.

    This is one thing I’ve seen missing in the polemics of Zuska and others.

    The concrete things that can be done that I’ve heard mentioned are:

    (a) Hire more women. This one’s pretty obvious. Sometimes it’s not so easy as that, though. The one search committee I have so far been a member of had exactly one female applicant, and she wasn’t competetive with the top candidates (some of whom we couldn’t even invite for a visit). I was surprised by this — but, except for two “targeted” candidates (a senior person and a very promising minority male we eventually hired), I don’t think we did any directed recruiting, we just listed the job — including with the minority and women’s physics outlets. Hiring more women requires a job to be open, and it requires the right person being there. Unless you’re explicitly going to refuse to hire a man, it can be hard. And if you refuse to hire a man, then it might lead credence to that old false saw trotted out where men say a woman got the job just because they’re a woman.

    (b) Scream and yell at every man who says that he thinks he’s doing what he can do, and that a large part of the problem lies in a place where he has no control.

    What are we supposed to do? Other than the obvious things that by and large we are already doing? Without falsifying or fabricating evidence (e.g. taking pictures of student groups that include more women than are really in the physics program for our webpages)?

    The only one I can think of is to stop brushing all the cases of sexual harrasment that happen under the rug. Of course, Zuska made fun of me for saying that this is something I’d like to see happen without a broad-based attack on all the men who don’t know about them right now. I mean, what the hell, Zuska, if the men in the department by and large don’t know that this is happening because chairs and so forth prevent knowledge of their happening getting out, how are they supposed to know it’s happening here? And if you are going to make fun of me for suggesting that maybe letting everybody know this is happening, but without also saying at the same time that each and every person being told about the problem si also a fucking ignorant blind bastard who is evil and just as much, if not moire (because you know where the creeps stand) a part of the problem as the creeps they don’t realize are there, why the HELL is it that you are surprised when men are afraid to deal with the problem when too many people react like you?

    I know about a small number of the creeps in my department. I know that other people in the department, including people who have a fair amount of power in decision making about teacking courses and such, don’t know about at least one of the creeps. (The individual person in the dark I’m thinking about right here has at least heard about one creep, since I mentioned it to him.) I suspect that there is other creepy behavior that I don’t know about. What I would like to see happen is for our department to know what’s happened, even if names aren’t attached. I think that might open some eyes. But, Zuska makes fun of me for this. She says it’s warm and fluffy and useless without the kind of screaming attack on me and the other people who don’t know what’s going on that she demonstrates.

    And I’m also told I’m a problem for taking it so personally.

    There’s a problem. I want to deal with it. I don’t want to feel the need to defend myself and Chad and others in long blog comments against a constant stream of personal attacks. And it’s a Catch-22, because the fact that I feel the need to defend myself when attacked is used as even more evidence that I’m a part of the problem trying to maintain the status quo.

    Shit, sometimes I feel like I’m debating an intelligent design advocate.

    -Rob

  9. #9 etbnc
    September 16, 2006

    Periphrasis, thank you. Your insight is an important contribution.

    I find it very helpful to keep your comments in mind as a frame of reference.

    Thank you for this!

    -

  10. #10 Periphrasis
    September 16, 2006

    etbnc:

    I’m glad you found them helpful! This type of discussion tends to devolve into exactly the type of screaming match we’re seeing here, and that always makes me sad/frustrated.

    Everyone else who may or may not have tried to click on the link I included:

    Sorry about that. I’m not entirely sure what happened. Let’s try that again.
    (And for those not inclined to pursue the link right now, it’s a complaint about having to write an essay about “What it means to be Canadian” that ends with the poigniant/startling/frustrating/understandable exchange:

    “So… how do you feel about being a white, straight, young man?”
    “I fucking hate it. Nobody takes me seriously.”)

  11. #11 Helen
    September 16, 2006

    What I can’t figure out is why men among whom the normal standard of discourse is bluntly and often rudely insulting the flaws in one another’s work and/or thinking suddenly turn all pale and faint over having Zuska’s/Janet’s points made in anything but the most politely “reasonable” speech forms.

    It’s hard not to pop out with, “You have got to be shitting me.”

    I’ve seen this a lot in engineering, but it gets most comical in the linux hacker community; “Yo, moron, your head is so far up your ass you’re not even grasping what we’re telling you about why your code makes the bloody problem worse,” is find and dandy, but “Yo, moron, your head is so far up your ass you’re not even grasping what we’re telling you about why your behavior makes the bloody problem worse,” means it’s OMG WHATABITCH time.

    People who pride themselves on being able to take the toughest criticism of their ideas and work often turn into arrant cowards when asked to shine the same critical light on their participation in the endemic bigotries in our culture. Funny how many such proudly bold intellectuals have such feet of clay.

  12. #12 Colst
    September 16, 2006

    I realize that one of Rob’s big concerns was tone, but that wasn’t my problem with Zuska’s posts. I’m generally in favor if civility, but I understand that there are times when harsher words are needed.

    My problem was Zuska’s willingness to distort and ignore. I think this goes beyond manners/tone/politeness/whatever. Zuska miscast Chad’s argument and continued in that pattern in the comments.

    When someone is wrong about something (and, as I said at Zuska’s, there were flaws in Chad’s argument), I personally think the right thing to do is to respond to their argument (whacking it, if you must), not to whack the straw-man version of it that you’d rather fight. Commenters are informed that they have their heads up their asses when they take the latter route with Zuska, but the reverse is not just acceptable, criticism of it is actually patriarchy.

  13. #13 PhysioProf
    September 16, 2006

    “What becomes difficult to grasp is that when it is the case that you’re really, truly doing all that you can to help… we’re not talking about you. You are not the problem, and we’re thankful for that, so stop being so defensive and go back to doing all that helpful stuff instead of feeling like a martyr because we’re complaining about people who aren’t nearly as spiffy. And if, by chance, you aren’t doing absolutely everything you can to help (but you’d like to, and/or think you already are), then by golly participating in these conversations might give you insight on how you can do more.”

    Zuska is adopting a rhetorical stance designed to both exemplify and draw attention to what she considers an egregious situation. Some male respondents are acting like they have never been involved in an intense discussion before. Toughen up a little bit; after all, women are frequently told to “toughen up”, either explicitly or implicitly.

  14. Regarding Helen’s observations, “…when asked to shine the same critical light on their participation … in our culture.”

    Cultural norms usually seem invisible to the people who participate in the culture. Making culture visible for observation is one of the challenges to effecting cultural change.

    .

  15. #15 David Harmon
    September 16, 2006

    [blockquote author="Chad"]The fact that the situation can drive perfectly nice people to tell other perfectly nice people that they have their heads up their asses should be a clue that they are having different experiences of the situation. And, if these perfectly nice people really, truly see each other as members of the same community, I hope they also feel something like an obligation to try to find out the other person’s perspective — to find out and acknowledge the source of it, rather than writing each other off as irredeemably clueless or given to outbursts without provocation or “not really one of us”.[/blockquote]

    An excellent epigram, with the “money quote” up front.

    About a particular issue, treating helpless “tolerance” of sexual harassment as “treasonous to womanhood”, critics should consider that there is usually a major “belling the cat” issue. For example, if Janet had made more of a fuss, she could easily have found herself sidelined or fired. It wouldn’t officially be because of that, but “everyone would know”.

    When someone refuses to accept incremental gains because the world still isn’t perfect, they’re making the “perfect the enemy of the good”. This is counterproductive, and it handicaps the overall cause.

  16. #16 Rob Knop
    September 16, 2006

    People who pride themselves on being able to take the toughest criticism of their ideas and work often turn into arrant cowards when asked to shine the same critical light on their participation in the endemic bigotries in our culture. Funny how many such proudly bold intellectuals have such feet of clay.

    There are a lot of buried assumptions in here.

    First, you’re assuming that anybody who is objecting to Zuska’s harsh treatment of Chad routinely accepts similarly insulting and aggressive attacks on straw-man chariciatures of their work. I do not think this is necessarily a good assumption.

    Second, it is very different to defend your work, and perhaps see where your work can be improved in science, than it is to defend yourself against a personal attack for being “the problem” because you aren’t on exactly the same wavelength as Zuska.

    Zuska did point out that, yes, maybe there are some other things Chad should look at– but it was amidst a scathing personal attack of Chad the person. Part of the reason Zwicky’s arguments about dark matter were ignored for so long is that everybody wanted to avoid Zwicky as somebody who was irrascable and prone to personal attacks of his colleagues. The meaning can get lost when it is buried in straw-man distortions of those you disagree with and personal attacks on those who aren’t toeing the line.

    -Rob

  17. #17 Amanda
    September 16, 2006

    Has anyone actually talked to women who were considering physics but ended up choosing a different discipline instead? It seems to me that these discussions always involve Professors and students already in Physics, and not the people who we’re actually concerned about. If this hasn’t already been done, it should be. I think that could answer a lot of our questions.

    As a woman who made through an undergraduate physics program (I’m now in a graduate program in astronomy), I’d just like to weigh in with my experiences. This may not be everyone’s experience, but I don’t think its uncommon. In general, the atmosphere in my undergraduate physics classes was downright toxic. The professors and TAs treated me with respect, but my worst experiences were with fellow students. I was one of two women in most of my classes (~14 students). Once another student asked everyone in the hallway except me who had the high score on the exam, when I was standing there holding the high score. I had other students tell me to my face that I wasn’t as “brilliant” as another student despite our identical test scores. I was told I wasn’t a “girl” because I was in physics.

    It’s the little things that count. If you’re a physics major, please make extra sure to treat others with respect. If you’re in physics already, don’t put up with it. It’s going to take everyone to make things better.

  18. #18 Helen
    September 16, 2006

    Rob, I don’t know what you’re smoking, but I didn’t say anything about Chad or Zuska.

    You’re doing a beautiful job of illustrating Zuska’s notion that some men can’t figure out how not to take statements on this topic personally, even when not remotely tied to them.

  19. #19 Evil White Male
    September 17, 2006

    Helen is doing a wonderful job illustrating Rob’s point about ad hominem attacks.

  20. #20 Helen
    September 17, 2006

    ROFL. Someone forgot to read the definition of ad hominem.

    “You’re off track because you’re a moron” is ad hominem.

    “You’re off track because you’re reading into statements something that plainly wasn’t there, and oh, by the way, you’re a moron” is not ad hominem, just rude in some standards of discourse, although warm and friendly in others.

  21. #21 Rob Knop
    September 17, 2006

    Rob, I don’t know what you’re smoking, but I didn’t say anything about Chad or Zuska.

    Funny. I thought the whole damn discussion was started by a blog post about the posts of Chad and Zuska.

    Where the hell do you get off saying you weren’t talking about Chad and Zuska when you make a general statement that applies to (among other things) the Chad/Zuska situation that started the whole thread in the first place?

    This kind of internet rhetorical tactic (make the other person look like a ranter becuase they respond to something relevant, and then you point out superciliously that you never explicitly used the names that were implicit throughout the whole discussion) is distressingly common, and also distressingly underhanded.

    -Rob

  22. #22 Rob Knop
    September 17, 2006

    Amanda –

    Do you know if the faculty and/or TAs were aware of the toxic atmosphere created by the other students? If so, did the explicitly deny it, did they brush it under the rug and ignore it, or something else? I think this is a case where it’s worth thinking about how to deal with this sort of thing, because I suspect it happens more than many of us know about.

    I know of an anecdote from grad school where it was the other way around — the woman was one who helped a lot of the other guys understand things, but ended up with a lower grade. Reason: the professor thought that the woman must have been receiving a lot of help from the guys. (For this and related reasons, the woman in question dropped out of grad school for several years.)

    Re “not being a girl,” I do remember other guys in science making similar comments way back when : about how women in science were not as attractive, “real” women were doing something else, etc. I think this was a minority opinion, but I always wondered what the hell they were thinking, because that opinion makes no sense to me. One might as well say that they aren’t real boys since they’re doing physics instead of playing in the offensive line of the football team, or some other extreme stereotype.

  23. #23 Rob Knop
    September 17, 2006

    You’re doing a beautiful job of illustrating Zuska’s notion that some men can’t figure out how not to take statements on this topic personally, even when not remotely tied to them.

    OK, I went back and reread my comment.

    Enlighten me : where in there did I indicate that I was trying to defend myself? (I do feel defensive in this discussion — read Zuska’s post if you want to see me individually being attacked, because it did happen, even before you did it.)

    What I was doing was responding to your idea, and trying to make the argument that your ideas aren’t completely right. Isn’t this excatly what you were saying we should do? And isn’t your response excatly what you were decrying?

    Reading your comment, my response, and your response to your response, your response is the one that attacks the person and retreats from the discussion rather than continuing the discussions of ideas!

  24. #24 Helen
    September 17, 2006

    Rob, I can’t fix whatever fantasy universe you want to inhabit; the facts remain what they are and my original comment says exactly what it says, not what you choose to read into it.

    If you would care to discuss the ideas in my post, let me know. Choosing not to discuss ideas you make up and attribute to me isn’t “retreating from a discussion of ideas”, it’s choosing not to pander to someone who’s so busy chasing their own tail that they can’t distinguish between what someone else said and what they want to hear.

  25. #25 PhysioProf
    September 17, 2006

    Amanda’s comments indicate that the situation for women in the physical sciences is quite different than it is in biology/biomedical science, at least at the undergraduate level, where there are usually *more* women than men.

    This further suggests that the “pipeline” issue may indeed be a major cause for the lack of women at the highest academic levels in the physical sciences. In the biological sciences, the issue is not filling the pipeline, it is that women gradually get weeded out until there are few left at the highest academic levels.

    On the other hand, I wonder if what we are seeing is a historical progression, with the biological sciences in a more “advanced” state than the physical? If so, then fixing the “pipeline” issue in the physical sciences is not predicted to lead to greater numbers of women at the highest levels, just as it hasn’t in the biological sciences.

  26. #26 Rob Knop
    September 17, 2006

    On the other hand, I wonder if what we are seeing is a historical progression, with the biological sciences in a more “advanced” state than the physical?

    Obviously, things are better in the biological sciences — but it’s not just a matter of bio having a head start over physics. Physics has known about the problem for some time, and is really lagging behind. Things have not fixed themselves in phyics at the rate they should have if it was just a matter of the biological sciences being more advanced that the physical sciences. There are clearly bigger problems.

    I think among the biggest problems are the fact that the physical sciences — physics, in particular — depend more on math like calculs, and mathphobia is instilled in everybody, but especially girls, at a relatively young age. Yes, that’s not the only problem, but it’s hampering the natural “fix over time” that seems to be happening in biology.

    -Rob

  27. #27 Rob Knop
    September 17, 2006

    If you would care to discuss the ideas in my post, let me know.

    I would, but not with you, given how you’ve responded so far to my having done that. Sorry.

    -Rob

  28. #28 Amanda
    September 17, 2006

    Hi Rob,

    I don’t think the faculty or TAs were aware of this. It all happened in hallways and lounges. (Although the fact that a large majority of the women taking physics classes in recent history were astronomy majors was something the physics faculty had failed to ponder.) Since I was an astro major and didn’t know the physics faculty well, I didn’t think to bring it up to them. However, I did bring it up to my advisor on the astronomy faculty, who was starting a women in science learning community. I was able to participate in the first year of this program and it was really great in helping with some of the isolation I was feeling. We had a lot of really cool women from undergraduate to professor-level across the university participate. It was one of the highlights of my undergraduate education.

    Amanda

  29. #29 Lab Lemming
    September 18, 2006

    So do y’all think that sexual harrassment is worse, or more common, in science than in other areas of university life? I ask because the only time I was asked to intervene in a harrassment issue in college was in a chamber music group.

  30. #30 K8
    September 18, 2006

    Helen, Zuska, Periphrasis, Amanda…

    I heart you. I have nothing to add, I just wanted to back you up.

  31. #31 Alon Levy
    September 18, 2006

    Amanda, when did you go to college? I’m asking because there are more women now than there used to be; my department (mathematics) has a 7-6 entering graduate class. It’s probably not going to translate into 7-6 in 10 years – yay, discrimination – but that and copious studies about differential treatment of women and men in the academia make me think the real bottleneck’s just before or after graduation.

    Rob, in most cases, your points about civility would be right. This is one of the rare cases it’s not. Basically, if you look at what MLK did, he did just that: he hammered on the issues, telling people to stop dragging their feet (though he was still superficially civil). His strategy worked for him, and has failed to work for everyone ever since, because deep down enough people agreed with him on segregation but tried not to think about it; hence his direct action forced the issue into the open without making people think of him as annoying. In the same manner, I’m going to make a guess that nobody in this thread thinks that gender inequality in the academia is biologically ordained or that there’s no discrimination at all. As such, I hate to say it, but banging on tables will work.

  32. #32 Amanda
    September 18, 2006

    Hi Alon,

    Congratulations on having a 7-6 entering graduate class in mathematics! That’s awesome. Hopefully your department keeps up the good work.

    I graduated from college five or six years ago. I don’t know if things have changed then. I was in the big physics lectures for my intro classes and the ratio was pretty much even in them. It dropped off dramatically as I moved into the upper level classes. However, every institution is different so bottlenecks in one place may be different than bottlenecks in another. I think department/universities should take a clear look at themselves and see where their own bottlenecks are. There’s no substitute for data.

    When you refer to the real bottleneck being just before or after graduation, do you mean college or high school graduation?

    Amanda

  33. #33 Alon Levy
    September 18, 2006

    Actually, I mean grad school graduation. A while ago I read a study Stanford did about gender equality on its campus, primarily but not only in science; the study showed how the number of women dramatically dropped off from close to half among graduate students to, if I remember correctly, 30% among untenured professors, and much less among tenured ones.

    My school/department appears to be similar (entering grad class is 7-6; I’m not sure about the entire grad student body, but I’m guessing it’s overall 2-1; faculty is about 10-1). I’ve heard it’s making an effort to improve the faculty gender ratio, though, but at this rate, I’ll be a professor emeritus by the time there’s full equality.

  34. #34 Alon Levy
    September 18, 2006

    I have a somewhat longer treatment of the whole “But she’s mean to me! *sob*” shebang.

    In a nutshell, usually incivility turns people off, but on a specific subset of issues, including women in science, it only serves to promote action. I even see Zuska quoted the Letter from Birmingham Jail, too, though not the part I was thinking of…

  35. #35 Rob Knop
    September 18, 2006

    So do y’all think that sexual harrassment is worse, or more common, in science than in other areas of university life? I ask because the only time I was asked to intervene in a harrassment issue in college was in a chamber music group.

    I have no clue really, because sexual harassment in university life is something that is even covered up at a statistical level. After all, college administrations aren’t going to want data about sexual harassment at their univerisities getting out there; if other universities manage to keep it quiet, it will only make the forthcoming univerisities look like places with problems.

    But, I would suspect that the issues tend to be a bit more severe in at least the physical sciences — because of the male-dominated nature of the population. Women suffering sexual harassment have a smaller community of other women to fall back upon for support (even if only moral support). There’s also the fact that the greater the percentage of males, the greater chance that you’re going to get one or two of the real creeps in there. Finally, there’s the longstanding message in the culture of physical science that it’s mainly a guys’ thing, which can’t help convince men not to be piggish.

    But that’s just a guess. In reality, I don’t know.

    -Rob

  36. #36 Helen
    September 18, 2006

    Hmmm.

    “Where the hell do you get off saying you weren’t talking about Chad and Zuska when you make a general statement that applies to (among other things) the Chad/Zuska situation that started the whole thread in the first place?”

    “There’s also the fact that the greater the percentage of males, the greater chance that you’re going to get one or two of the real creeps in there. Finally, there’s the longstanding message in the culture of physical science that it’s mainly a guys’ thing, which can’t help convince men not to be piggish.””

    So Rob is plainly calling Chad “piggish” and “a creep”, according to Rob’s own stated rules of discourse. I wonder what Chad thinks about that. I also wonder why Rob is complaining about Zuska.

  37. #37 Bardiac
    September 18, 2006

    It’s not great in universities at the graduate level anywhere, still, I don’t think. But it’s worse in the sciences, from the stories my friends in the sciences have to tell. I think that goes double for the undergrads.

    I wonder if part of the defensiveness might parallel some of the defensiveness and guilt many whites feel when they realize that they’ve probably benefited from racism. It’s hard to own that without making a commitment to change things, but the commitment isn’t easy or painless. (Nor do I live up to mine to the full, alas.)

  38. #38 John
    September 20, 2006

    My perspective, as a white male prof in the social sciences, with a background doing both academic and activist-related work around gender and ethnic inequity, prejudice, and systems of oppression:

    1. Patriarchy is a pernicious and significant social problem that continues to play out in academia.
    2. There are indications that awareness of the social injustice has risen significantly.
    3. The nasty symptoms of inequity are, in most academic quarters, getting better, but still have a long way to go.
    4. Patriarchy isn’t a male-only driven problem.
    5. As several have pointed out, not actively working to fight patriarchy–particularly when in a privileged group–is an affirmative (and morally wrong) act to perpetuating it.
    6. Fighting social injustice is a noble and needed act. But there’s a line (sometimes fuzzy) between efforts that are centered around the goal at fighting injustice, and efforts that might better be described as having the goal of self-righteousnesness. Frankly, some of the rhetoric here has seem less driven by a motive of trying to drive social change, than it has being nasty and ego-serving. Having a just and important social cause doesn’t excuse bad behavior. In fact, to the degree that the behavior is counter-productive toward persuasion and social change, it’s actually downright destructive. (i.e. Don’t sacrifice the important need to persuasively change minds and behavior around patriarchy on the alter of one’s own urge to come across as better and angrier than everyone else.) Some of the discussion and rhetoric I’ve seen here has been, by my reading, an example of what not to do.

  39. #39 etbnc
    September 21, 2006

    Prof. John-in-the-social-sciences, I appreciate your contribution. I think there’s value in your analysis.

    It might be helpful to expand item 4 a bit to provide some background. It makes sense to me because I’m used to thinking of culture in terms of feedback loops and inadvertent participation in undesirable outcomes. It’s been my experience, however, that without wider context a statement such as item 4 might trigger some backlash from folks who aren’t accustomed to your perspective.

    Just a thought… Cheers

    -

  40. #40 Jess
    September 22, 2006

    Professor John, you officially win. I didn’t read Chad’s and Zuska’s original posts, because I’m at work and getting very angry is probably not going to help my mood any, but from the comments here, I’d say that you and Janet are the Rationality Power Couple of this debate.

    Other guys in the thread: The difference between John’s comment and some of the ones that are getting you jumped on (fairly or unfairly) is the acknowledgment that patriarchy is the problem — not the individual actions of individual males. In other words, “I don’t harass female students” doesn’t mean any more, in the grand scheme of things, than “some of my best friends are black.” The system that is causing the gender disparity in the sciences is the same system that makes you feel both virtuous and overburdened for simply not contributing to female attrition.

    Rob asked what men are really supposed to do. The answer is twofold: one, you should expect that you will have to be more careful with your words when discussing this issue with women, and you should accept that. Yes, people should also not immediately jump down your throat if you say something in all naivete that reads as dismissive or aggressive. But meanwhile, sensitivity means considering and accommodating how people might feel, even if you don’t find it sensible. Please consider how many of your interlocutors have been treated dismissively or aggressively; have been written off because they were women; have been told that their concerns were irrelevant; have been made to believe that they could not excel. Please exercise understanding accordingly.

    Second, and this is true in any similar discussion: you need to acknowledge patriarchy and male privilege. I really hate it when members of a minority use Majority Privilege as an excuse to ignore or flame anything that a member of that majority says — anyone who does this is behaving terribly (though understandably). Male privilege does NOT mean that you have nothing to say on the issue, or no way to understand it. But it does mean that you have a necessarily different, and in a sense limited, perspective (and this is basically what Janet was saying). And that’s something that persists no matter how benign your personal actions.

    Ways to avoid being blindered by privilege: Don’t respond to large-scale male domination of a discipline with a story about one guy you knew who experienced bias too. Consider your phrasing — would you complain about the “screaming” if it were coming from men or people whose sex you did not know? Understand that no matter how frustrated you feel about trying to avoid bias in your personal life, the objects of that bias are far more frustrated. Be aware that “better” is not the same as “okay.” Be patient. And most importantly, know that privilege really exists — not only in the minds of those who lack it, but in the patterns of society and the values people learn from infancy. It gains you many things, such as the ability to actually make a change (which those of us in more “subaltern” states can’t do as easily). But it also puts a very real limit on your perspective. (All of this, with some of the words changed around, applies to white privilege and so forth, too.)

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