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.
- The absence of harassing or discriminatory behavior – behaving like a decent human being.
- The awareness of how unconscious bias operates in situations where evaluation or decision-making takes place – behaving proactively to counteract it.
- 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.