Anybody who’s been reading my blog for a while knows that I’m aware of, very concerned about, and even active in the plight of women and minorities in science. See, for example:
- “Be nice to Shelly! She’s cute and she likes birds!”
- The Myth of the Meritocracy
- A tale of egregious scientific male misbehavior
- Intrinsic ability and women in science
- Unconscious bias… even when we’re conscious of it
- Women in Physics : why do people do nothing? (This post was taken down at the request of my chair. You can find excerpts of the original post here and here. If you’re clever, you might even be able to find an archived version of the whole post somewhere, but given that I agreed to take the original down, if you hear it from me please don’t tell anybody that you did.)
I’ve stuck my neck out on this issue. I’ve even gotten whacked for sticking my neck out on this issue.
I have blind spots, but I’m not the typical clueless male who sticks his head in the sand and ignores the issue.
However, I am seriously considering becoming one. Why?
Because you can’t win. You piss off “the establishment” by making waves. However, if you don’t want to adopt the full extreme tactics and rhetoric of those who are most firm in arguing for women’s equality in science, you also get insulted and attacked by them. It’s disheartening, from both sides. And, while the cause is right, I’m not sure it’s personally worth it.
Two anecdotes. The first is from personal history. At Vanderbilt, I had a friend, a woman, Research Professor A. Professor B, with whom Research Professor A did not work, at one point asked Research Professor A out. Research Professor A declined, and that was the end of the interaction. It was all polite.
I find out about this, and all I know about it (other than the identity of Research Professor A) is what’s above. Later, I’m able to guess the identity of Professor B. However, I don’t see a problem with any of this. To me, this sounds like a normal human interaction. If it’s the end of the story, and there’s no harassment involved, I just don’t see this as a big deal.
The result? Research Professor A goes nonlinear on me. I receive a barrage of extremely angry e-mails about how insensitive I am, about how clueless I am for not being completely outraged that this happened.
The result of that? I being to seriously question Research Professor A’s judgment in gender issues. There are real problems out there, but when you demand maximal outrage for something that’s not a real problem, you cheapen the real problems.
Anecdote #2. Go take a look at this thread, including the comments, including the comment where I completely lose it. The most important comments are the comments from the two individuals who are discussed, originally anonymously, in the original post. Before the person shows up and is an individual, there’s this huge bandwagon of dismissal of the awful white male who unjustly earned his PhD by having a penis. It softens after he’s been individualized, but only so much.
Sociologists and those fighting for minority rights insist on talking about “white privilege” and “male privilege.” While I don’t want to deny that what they are talking about exists, when they talk about it they do it in such a way that it makes people like me want to throw up my hands and go fight instead for a cause that (a) has a hope, and (b) will not leave me feeling like a piece of shit for fighting for the cause while meanwhile being attacked by others fighting for the cause.
“Privilege.” What they mean by that privilege is not being discriminated against. Is that a privilege? Practically, yes, but it should be a right. The problem isn’t that white males need to be dragged down and dumped upon as much as women and minorities in science; the problem is that women and minorities in science need to be treated justly and equitably! However, by insisting that “all you white male guys have this great privilege,” it’s very easy for white males to conclude that they’re being told that they don’t deserve to be where they are, at which point they are not going to be inclined to listen any further.
And it stands the chance of driving away allies.
Let me tell you: I’m here on the edge of being kicked out of the field that I’ve worked the last 17 years for because of funding problems… and I’m constantly reminded that I’m privileged. I sure as hell don’t feel privileged. This doesn’t mean that women and minorities have it worse, but if where I am is “privilege,” then I need a new dictionary. Indeed, in addressing this issue, Zuska had this to say;
You may or may not get tenure; but you made it through graduate school, postdoc years, and got a position as an assistant professor. At each step along that path, there is more attrition of women than men, minorities are vastly more underrepresented than white people.
Implication: given the evidence that I’m not good enough, the only reason I made it as far as I did is because of white male privilege. Did I deserve my PhD? Did I deserve the post-doc? Did I deserve the tenure-track job? Did I deserve the Vanderbilt Chancellor’s Award for Research? Who knows; maybe it was just that light colored penis that got all of that, and the work I did had nothing to do with it!
Way to keep allies, folks!
I don’t deny any of the facts in the quote from Zuska, but in the context, the implication is as clear as daylight. At which point I start to think, shit, this isn’t a cause I should be paying attention to, because there is no way I will avoid stepping on a mine. I will make waves with the senior professors in my department and become (I’m quoting here) a “loose cannon,” and meanwhile I’ll be torn down as the unworthy recipient of privilege by the extremists on the other side.
If you aren’t a part of the witch hunt, you’re a part of the problem.
The problem is real. People need to be grabbed and shooken, hard. Slapping needs to happen. But attacks on those who would be your allies is not the way to do it. I am not going to be part of the witch hunt, especially since I am, by definition, a witch. I just hope I can find the peace of mind and the ability to continue fighting for the good cause in a way that doesn’t require one to become part of the witch hunt.