Thus Spake Zuska

Advice From “Becoming a Writer”

Writer’s block sucks. So I did what I often do when I’m faced with a problem I need to solve: I bought a book. The book in this instance, Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, was originally published in 1934 and was out of print for some time until a recent reissue. It is a charming read. I can’t tell you yet if it’s going to cure all my writing problems, but I did want to share this quote with you:

It is unfortunate, but the unimaginative citizen finds something exquisitely funny about the idea that one aspires to make a name and a living by any such process as “stringing words together”. He finds it presumptuous when an acquaintance announces that he has elected to give the world his opinion in writing, and punishes the presumption by merciless teasing. If you feel called upon to correct this unimaginative attitude you will have opportunities enough to keep you busy for a lifetime, but you will not – unless you have an extraordinary amount of energy – have much strength left for writing.

I couldn’t resist adapting this for women in science and engineering:

It is unfortunate, but the unimaginative citizen finds something exquisitely funny about the idea that a woman aspires to make a name and a living by any such process as science or engineering. He finds it presumptuous when a woman announces that she has elected to give the world her service in a technical field, and punishes the presumption by merciless harassment and discrimination. If you feel called upon to correct this unimaginative attitude you will have opportunities enough to keep you busy for a lifetime, but you will not – unless you have an extraordinary amount of energy – have much strength left for doing science.

Time and energy spent in efforts to educate knuckleheads about women’s abilities and the barriers they face is time and energy that can’t be spent for some other creative endeavor. And yet, the knuckleheads and the barriers must be dealt with. For even the energy required just to manage one’s reactions to the endless series of knuckleheads and institutional barriers, without actually trying to do anything to educate the knuckleheads or remove the barriers, is energy no longer available for science. Possibly one of the most aggravating aspects of this work is that those dishing out the harassment and discrimination, those engaged in behavior that supports and enables institutional barriers, are the very ones who will tell you there is nothing for you to be so upset about. You are: overreacting, taking things out of context, lacking a sense of humor, misunderstanding, complaining about things that are just “normal”, magnifying the significance of a possibly regrettable, but singular, slip-up. You are accused of seeing sexism everywhere, because you dare to point it out somewhere.

This is why women in science and engineering need others who are either (1) not actively engaged in science/engineering practice, and/or (2) not women, to speak up on their behalf. They need someone to shoulder this burden so they can get on with actually being scientists and engineers. They need someone who can reassure them that they are not the ones with a problem; it is the unimaginative citizens who have a problem.

This is why I write this blog, even though I’d rather be gardening or reading. Or just watching paint dry on the walls.

Comments

  1. #1 PhysioProf
    March 27, 2008

    You are accused of seeing sexism everywhere, because you dare to point it out somewhere.

    Some stupid motherfucking dipshit douchemonkey did just this over at Female Science Professor in comments to her post today. Lemme ask you a question: When the misogynist douchemonkery is so patently and pathetically obvious that any halfwit schmoe can see how absurd it is, do you conclude that decent people can just let it speak for itself, and save their patriarchy-smashing efforts for more subtle pernicious manifestations?

    I’m glad to see you got off your fucking ass and posted!

  2. #2 science skeptic
    March 28, 2008

    Zuska,

    Attempting to educate knuckleheads is a pretty thankless task most of the time, but there are some wins as well. For example, as a direct consequence of your bringing to my attention the double blind study by Budden et al in your blog “How To Get Published in Nature: Try Not To Be Female” at least one new journal has already decided to change to double-blind reviews. So please dont stop. But the battle continues. Discussion amongst the editorial board of another journal has been shocking in its complacency: e.g. to summarise “we dont think we have a problem with discrimination so we dont plan to change anything” and this on the basis of zero evidence and coming from a journal with nearly 100 elected editors where women make up less than 20% of them. Since there are now quite a number of studies showing clear evidence for discrimination against women when selection (for publications, grants, positions etc) is not double blind, and since discrimination on the basis of gender is supposed to be illegal, why arent relevant organizations leaving themselves wide open to legal action if they dont go double-blind? Or are they????

  3. #3 PhysioProf
    March 28, 2008

    You are accused of seeing sexism everywhere, because you dare to point it out somewhere.

    Oh, and another thing: If you do point out sexism somewhere, you are accused of being “biased” against whoever or whatever is being pointed out, because you haven’t pointed it out everywhere. So you can’t fucking win, either way.

  4. #4 Zuska
    March 28, 2008

    PP: you are absolutely right (about the “biased” accusation.) Regarding your question: I think it depends. How much energy /time do you have that day for patriarchy-smashing? The more subtle pernicious stuff takes more explaining, so it’s good to save energy for it. I do think people in general are becoming a _little_ more aware of the blatant idiotic stuff, so that it’s less necessary to explain WHY something like that is bad, but it can still be helpful to call people out on stupidity, just to reinforce the general understanding that such stuff is not acceptable. Sigh. There’s no shortage of work.

    Science Skeptic, THANK YOU for sharing that success story! That’s really wonderful. For the other resistant knuckleheads: discouraging, but hey, they’ve got Nature to cite as their precedent, no? So they can pat themselves on the back and feel assured they are in good company when discriminating. Thanks, Nature.

    I do think when institutions take NO effort to counteract known sources of bias and discrimination, that they are leaving themselves open to lawsuits. We are going to see, in the future, Title IX applied to science/engineering educational settings. People don’t bother to take action to prevent gender bias because generally they don’t suffer many bad consequences as a result. Lawsuits are the last resort, and the person who brings one generally has her career/life ruined. The cost is very high for taking legal action, and very low for continuing to discriminate. That’s why we need allies like you who can push for institutional change from within.

  5. #5 usagi
    March 29, 2008

    The cost is very high for taking legal action, and very low for continuing to discriminate.

    Like going all in every hand in Texas Hold ‘em, that stratagy works until it doesn’t, then… kinda sucks to be you. Pity it’s been working so far.

    Good luck with the writer’s block. It does bite, and I can only recommend the technique that works for me. Schedule your writing time like any other immovable object in your schedule, sit your butt in the chair, and start writing. Anything. Eventually, you come round to something you can use (at least I do).

    Note added by Zuska: This comment was held up in moderation, most likely because of the phrase “Texas Hold ‘em”; the spam filter doesn’t like it! Sorry for the delay in posting this comment.

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