Adventures in Ethics and Science

So, at the end of the PSA I was so sick that I took to my overpriced hotel bed, forgoing interesting papers and the prospect of catching up with geographically dispersed friends in my field who I can only count on seeing every two years at the PSA. I managed to get myself back home and then needed another eight days to return to a “functional” baseline.

Checking in with the internets again, I feel like maybe I was in a coma for six months.

In particular, I was totally sidelined when Isis the Scientist issued her manifesto and when Zuska weighed in on the various reactions to Isis and her manifesto. Both posts are must-reads, and if my head were not still swimming in mucus I might be able to add something substantive to advance the discussion.

However, since my head is still swimming in mucus, I’m afraid you’ll be getting something rather more stream-of-consciousness.


First, the T-shirt slogan from Isis’s post:

The first time it is deemed acceptable to suggest that someone is hurting science because of who they are, and not because of the quality of the science they produce, is the time I hang up my labcoat, turn out the lights in the lab, and hand the keys back to the status quo.

Next, the T-shirt slogan from Zuska’s post:

That’s the problem with policing our own ranks. We might think that if we can just get everyone to behave in some particular acceptable manner, then we’ll put on a good united front for Women In Science and we’ll make some headway. But in that attempt, we forget that we aren’t the ones setting the standard of acceptable; that acceptable is a constantly moving target; and that acceptable just doesn’t look acceptable when it’s worn on the body of an Unacceptable Person (even when properly accessorized with stunning footwear).

And now, we wade into the stream …

I’ve written before about how frustrating it was to see my male classmates in my graduate chemistry program judge my female classmates:

Women who did very good research, who got publishable results (and publications), and who got their Ph.D.s in four or five years (rather than six or seven) were frequently looked upon with suspicion. They must be getting extra breaks from the system. Or maybe it was that their research focus was not very … significant. (There were never any reasoned arguments to back up the claims that a particular research focus was trivial; it just must be, because … well, she’s doing it.)

What I left out of this earlier reminiscence is that the women exposed to the most scrutiny — most suspected of not being scientifically serious — were those who were most “feminine” in their appearance and manner of dress. It was almost as if wearing obvious signs of being a women while succeeding as scientists was an affront to the sensibilities of their male compatriots.

They were attracting attention, and not the kind they had hoped to attract (at least in their capacity as scientists). However, as I noted in another post of yore, there is also a price for failing to conform to ideals of femininity:

As much as you may want to let your geek flag fly, if you’re a girl it’s impressed on you that you must at least be able to pass among the normals.

As inconvenient as nerdiness may be for a boy from the point of view of attracting a date, boy nerds are generally acknowledged to have value. They are smart. They will contribute to society in all kinds of smart ways, possibly getting all Bill Gates and providing sales jobs for the jocks who got the dates in high school.

But it’s much harder, for some reason, for high school students (and a good many grown-ups) to see the value in a smart but socially inept girl. Such a creature is viewed as an abomination. What prospects for happiness could she have without the beauty and charm to attract a man? How could a female possibly be fulfilled by purely intellectual pursuits?

In other words, my sense is that it is not nerd culture per se that young women find repulsive. Rather, it is the firestorm of social harassment into which they’ll be thrust if they are caught embracing that culture that repels them. Take it from a former teenage girl: attracting the attention of The Crowd never ends well. Nerdly inclinations are best kept to oneself.

This is the double-bind Zuska describes — whether you conform to feminine ideals or try to opt out of them, there is simply NO acceptable way to be a woman in science. Or, as Zuska so eloquently puts it,

The problem, you see, is that women aren’t really allowed to be ANYTHING in science. If you are a hot goddess then you are Not Serious and Not A Real Scientist and you are Ruining Science For Other Women Who Are More Serious and so on. If you are just a regular goddess (like Zuska) then you are an ugly hairy-legged man-hating feminazi who needs to get laid and Not A Real Scientist and Ruining Science For Other Women Who Are More Reasonable. The mythical More Serious, More Reasonable, non-hairy-legged, non-high heels-wearing Real Scientist woman has, alas, rarely, if ever, been seen. Because women can’t be Real Scientists, no matter how Reasonable and Serious they are.

This is the state of affairs we’re trying to change — for the good of science as much as for the good of the women who want to practice it. The question is how to do that.

And here, we end up in that long-standing societal pass-time of policing each other and policing ourselves.

How can we not? Our choices don’t exist in a vacuum. They are constrained by various features of our environment, and they can in turn influence the choices others see as open to them.

I have never felt terribly comfortable (or successful) embracing feminine ideals of appearance or comportment. That there have been other women in my educational and professional milieu who were obviously successful and happy but who did not wear high heels or make-up or girly clothes made it easier for me.

Role models matter. And we clearly need more than a single role-model-for-girl-scientists.

At the same time, it sucks that role models matter. As I wrote in that post of yore:

I leaked out of the pipeline. I could have improved the gender balance in science by one, and I didn’t. Instead of helping the sisters, I selfishly pursued my own happiness.

This, my friends, is the thing I hate most about pervasive sexism. It makes your personal choices important to others in a way that they wouldn’t be if you were just an ordinary human being. I have let down people I have never even met by leaving the sparse ranks of women scientists. I have also handed myself over to the pundits: one more example of a woman who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hack it in science.

We owe our daughters (and sons) a world where they can decide what to be, or what to do, based on what they’re good at, and what makes them happy, without their having to worry about breaking down barriers for someone else.

Being a scientist is compatible with being an ordinary human being. In any world I want to leave to my kids, being a woman is compatible with being an ordinary human being, too.

Ordinary human beings care about lots of different things — whether their clothes are attractive, whether their feet are comfortable, whether they will get something tasty to eat, whether they will be able to prepare that tasty morsel themselves, whether they are attractive to the type of person with whom they’d like to canoodle, whether the person with whom they’re canoodling will appreciate their other qualities. Caring (or not caring) about any of these things should not disqualify someone as a scientist, and someone’s scientific prowess should not be judged on the basis of any of these things.

Once we get society — and scientists themselves — to figure this out, it ought to be smooth sailing.

Comments

  1. #1 Ken
    November 18, 2008

    I was looking for some interesting science blogs. I chose this one at random off a list. Now, I have 3 interesting science blogs, yours, Dr Isis and Zuskas.

  2. #2 Christopher Taylor
    November 19, 2008

    Once we get society — and scientists themselves — to figure this out, it ought to be smooth sailing.

    Ah, so that’s what “wry” means. ;-)

  3. #3 schoetmee
    November 19, 2008

    ken you might as well stop right there lest other blogs suffer by comparison..

  4. #4 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    November 19, 2008

    This was very well put, and amazing for someone with a head cold. Thanks!

    I don’t know that the difficulties are any less in any other field of endeavor. I think that women face similar dilemmas no matter what field they choose for their career. I think that one way that scientists could help each other is to emphasize solid work product from women, and try to avoid commenting either way regarding appearance.

  5. #5 Alan Kellogg
    November 19, 2008

    I have the feeling it’s a matter of acclimation. Women will just have to be firm and patient as they guide men into the world of coed science.

  6. #6 becca
    November 19, 2008

    Methinks the people inclined to become scientists may be disinclined to accept ordinary human being status.

  7. #7 RichB
    November 19, 2008

    Wow … very well said, espcially this:

    As inconvenient as nerdiness may be for a boy from the point of view of attracting a date, boy nerds are generally acknowledged to have value. They are smart. They will contribute to society in all kinds of smart ways, possibly getting all Bill Gates and providing sales jobs for the jocks who got the dates in high school.

    But it’s much harder, for some reason, for high school students (and a good many grown-ups) to see the value in a smart but socially inept girl. Such a creature is viewed as an abomination. What prospects for happiness could she have without the beauty and charm to attract a man? How could a female possibly be fulfilled by purely intellectual pursuits?

    Slashdot recently had their annual “Why aren’t there more women interested in Computer Science” wankfest. I use that term because most of the nerds just don’t get it, and cart out every Zuska-puke-inducing canard that has ever been created. I’d love to post that one quote, or point them back here, but I fear the comment section would be overrun, and Zuska wouldn’t be able to produce enough puke to cover it :-)

  8. #8 Roi des Foux
    November 19, 2008

    Methinks the people inclined to become scientists may be disinclined to accept ordinary human being status.

    Spoken like a true lizard, and as a Creature I second this notion.

  9. #9 Carolyn
    November 19, 2008

    Oh RichB, I love the annual “Why aren’t there more women in CS” wankfest at SlashDot. It always makes me feel so good about myself as a computer science researcher…

    You get the “Women engineers/programmers suck – I’m just sayin’” comments. I think this XKCD comic says it well.

    You get the “Well, the variance in intelligence is higher for me, and of course we programmers and script kiddies must all be a kajillion standard deviations above average” claims. It goes well with the “Well, I’ve noticed little girls are not like little boys” people, who never respond well the fact that people respond differently, on average, to the same baby, and describe the same baby differently, when they think that baby is a girl versus a boy.

    Then there’s the “Women in CS are ugly” non-sequiturs, and the pleas for more women to come and date the commenter.

  10. #10 Cath the Canberra Cook
    November 19, 2008

    I leaked out of the pipeline. I could have improved the gender balance in science by one, and I didn’t. Instead of helping the sisters, I selfishly pursued my own happiness.

    This, my friends, is the thing I hate most about pervasive sexism. It makes your personal choices important to others in a way that they wouldn’t be if you were just an ordinary human being. I have let down people I have never even met by leaving the sparse ranks of women scientists. I have also handed myself over to the pundits: one more example of a woman who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hack it in science.

    Wow, well put! I am so one of these!

    As the ONLY woman in 90% of my maths and science classes at uni, the pressure was high. I console myself that my first class honours in nuclear physics is at least something for the record. It took me a very long time, and a lot of heartache, to figure out that I had to leave. And most painfully, my reasons were all about the culture, not the science. (I’ve side-stepped into computing as an IT job, in research support, BTW. The food writing is a sideline.)

    I trust you’ve seen these? xkcd is wise.

  11. #11 Nico
    November 19, 2008

    I never considered changing myself to fit the “appearance norms” for women, especially in science. I’ve never felt the pressure to change, either. If it’s there, I’m probably oblivious to it. I get more weird treatment for being a returning student at 34. That seems to throw people off more than being a woman.

    When my male profs stop wearing socks with birkenstocks, I’ll dye my hair a normal color.( ahem, not blue or pink or purple!)

    Till then, I will let my freak self do the best work I can, and learn as much as I can.

  12. #12 Alex
    November 20, 2008

    FWIW, Janet, I don’t think of you as a “leak.” But I’m in an undergraduate physics department, so unlike the people in the Ph.D.-granting departments where I trained I’m not in the business of training people to go for science faculty jobs. I’m in the business of teaching people some science so they can go out and use their training to pursue whatever opportunities interest them. You study ethical and philosophical issues in science and technology, so I’m assuming you make use of your science training in some significant way, even if you no longer do synthesis or whatever. You teach people. This is important work, it draws on your background, and I would count you as a successful person using your scientific training.

    The problem is not that the pipeline leaks, just that when it leaks there’s a gender disparity. But the pipeline does have to leak–there simply aren’t enough faculty jobs for every person who starts off studying science in college. To act like those who go on to do something other than a science faculty job are “leaks” from our pipeline is a horrible way to view students who decide to do something other than what their professors do. Even leaving aside the numerical issues, what good would my profession be if the only thing I did was train people to be like me, and I never trained anybody to go out and use that knowledge for something else? What would I be contributing to society if none of my students went outside the university?

    I think this also has some implications for gender and STEM: So much of what I read about efforts to diversify STEM focuses on the challenges facing faculty, especially female assistant professors. I don’t want to sound like I don’t care about those issues, but I’m not training anybody to be an assistant professor. I’m just trying to persuade 18 year-olds to think about spending 4 years studying my subject so they can acquire some skills and knowledge that will hopefully serve them well as they go do whatever they do. If the sales pitch to the 18 year-old women is “Don’t worry, we’re working hard to reform the academy so you’ll be able to pursue a professorship” then we are totally missing the audience.

    BTW, some of the people that I knew as a postdoc think of me as a leak, because I went to an undergraduate department rather than a research university, so maybe that makes me especially sensitive on this topic. Male though I am, there’s still a small group of people out there who looked at my decision and let me know that they were disappointed in me for leaving the path that they wanted to see me on. I know that it isn’t quite the same, but it still isn’t much fun to get that pressure.

  13. #13 Renee
    November 20, 2008

    I was looking for some interesting science blogs. I chose this one at random off a list. Now, I have 3 interesting science blogs, yours, Dr Isis and Zuskas.

    So… you only like science blogs when they’re not about science.

  14. #14 RichB
    November 20, 2008

    @Carolyn,

    Yeah … I’m proud to be a geek except for the time that the “women in CS” article comes around again in Slashdot. I think one of the answers to why there aren’t more women in CS is because of the men that are in CS :-).

    I do know of a few geeky 10-14 year old females (children of family, children of friends, etc.). Hoepfully Janet, Isis, Zuska, et al are around for a few more years so these girls can read these posts, and get some insight.

  15. #15 Vitis01
    November 20, 2008

    I just thought I should let everybody concerned with this subject know… My daughter is only 8 now but if things keep going as they are with her, she should have all the boys straightened out before she’s 30. I know that seems like awhile but we are dealing with boys. So ya, don’t worry, my kid’s on the job.

  16. #16 Comrade PhysioProf
    November 20, 2008

    So… you only like science blogs when they’re not about science.

    Gimme a fucking break. Science blogs are not just about scientific content. They are also about the conduct of science, the lives of scientists, and the impact of science on daily life.

  17. #17 wheatdogg
    November 21, 2008

    The bias against female science/math/CS types seems to be a distinctly American thing. My students here in China (who are mostly female) say there is no such stigma for girls in middle and high school who have talent or interest in those areas. My evidence is purely anecdotal, but the science/math/CS departments in my university here seem pretty balanced in gender (or at least, not as hopelessly skewed toward the men).

    I have had quite a few of my former physics students in the USA pursue science/math/CS careers. I’ve never actually taken the time to count them up, but I think that the gender balance is maybe 60-40 M/F. If we add medical doctors to the mix, it may be 50-50. Granted, my former employer and its students are probably exceptional in that regard, but I will say that I saw plenty of bias against “geekiness” among men and women among the students. Some girls crossed my classroom door already damaged by painful encounters with male math and science teachers predisposed to marginalize or downright denigrate their female students. Other girls were reluctant to look or act “smart,” because they were worried about (or listened to) their boyfriends.

    I wish the situation were different. Perhaps given enough time, it will be.

  18. #18 Arikia
    November 21, 2008

    Great post, Janet!

  19. #19 MikeP
    November 22, 2008

    The bias against female science/math/CS types seems to be a distinctly American thing. My students here in China (who are mostly female) say there is no such stigma for girls in middle and high school who have talent or interest in those areas. My evidence is purely anecdotal, but the science/math/CS departments in my university here seem pretty balanced in gender (or at least, not as hopelessly skewed toward the men).

    If by “American” you mean “North American,” sure. I currently work in a school of computer science at a major Canadian university; enrollment at the graduate level is about 4-5% female. Undergrad numbers aren’t much better; roughly 15%, and the attrition rate is significantly higher for female students than for male.

    Certainly in the other sciences (chemistry, biology etc) there’s a greater representation of women, and even engineering isn’t nearly that low, but still.

    If I had the answer to why this is, I could probably make a lot of money selling the secret to our school, since they’re actually pretty ashamed of the numbers, but they are what they are.

  20. #20 yogi-one
    November 22, 2008

    Keep fighting the good fight. Hopefully, under the new administration, more precedents will be set to help break down old prejudicial barriers.

    Don’t hang up your lab coats yet. As you say, too many people you don’t even know yet will be affected by your decisions (such as your daughters and their daughters).

    And remember, not all men are Archie Bunker types. Find the ones that aren’t and form alliances. Stay strong. Return slung mud with the firehose of good works. You are making changes, even though some days don’t seem like it.

  21. #21 Melinda Barton
    December 9, 2008

    It’s not just science. In journalism and communications, women far outnumber men in Masters and Ph.D. programs but are far outnumbered in the higher echelons of the field. A male journalism profession of mine in grad school pointed out that more women went for the advanced degrees because they needed them to be taken seriously whereas men with a B.A. in the field or even without the degree could break in much easier.

    I’ve worked in both fields and am constantly amazed by how amazed people are that I’m a.) very good at what I do and b.) know the tech as well as the artsy side of things. On the other hand, I wonder sometimes if I’m taken more seriously than most women because I’m gay and “butch” and thus able to be “one of the guys.” From the stories I’ve heard, I actually get off rather easily even though some jobs are probably closed to me because of my refusal to be traditionally feminine.

    Then again, at my current government job, I’m constantly running up against the bosses taking the opinion of a guy in my department who doesn’t have the proper background, has no idea what he’s doing and constantly screws up. I end up doing clean up so often it’s ridiculous. Yet, they continue to go to him for an opinion in my areas of expertise, despite my advanced degree and years of experience.

    Anywho, self-policing doesn’t seem to do much when the police are also the offenders.

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