There’s been some pretty cryptic talk on ScienceBlogs over the last day or so, which brings up some topics that may seem obscure to some readers.* Worse, it gives an appearance that bloggers are engaged in some sort of self-indulgent flame war over minutiae. Let me help draw a guide for those of you who care (and I will try to make clear why all of you should care).
First, I hate debates about “discourse”. When we argue about how we argue, we often lose track of the meat of the issue. But discourse is not irrelevant. More on this in a bit.
Medicine was traditionally a male-dominated field, but this has changed substantially over the last two decades. Medicine is probably the most gender-integrated of the “sciences”. That doesn’t mean that women and men are equally represented at all levels of clinical and academic medicine (nor does it mean that they should be). When my residents go on fellowship interviews, it often coincides with a time in their lives when they choose to have kids. While interviewers aren’t legally allowed to ask questions about this, they still do, and most of my residents keep their plans closely guarded. My male residents pretty much never mention this, and I don’t think any of them would even notice if they were asked about their reproductive history at an interview.
I say this by way of example. For folks who are not a member of a minority or are not in a field where women are under-represented, it’s not easy to empathize with the “other” status that this implies. I never feel more Jewish than during Easter (and if you don’t immediately grasp that, think about it for a bit).
When a female resident of mine is deciding on her professional goals, she will often try to decide how to figure fertility into the mix, and while many male residents do the same, the societal (if not individual) assumption is that the woman will be primarily responsible for the kids.
And that’s just part of life. Anyone who chooses to have kids has to find a way to integrate family and career. For many people, it means finding a way to be at peace with being away from your small children more than you wish. For others, it means being away from work more than you wish. There is no one way of doing these things, but given that there are only 24 hours in a day, something will give. Those who complain that it isn’t fair that they have to make choices do not have my sympathy. That’s just life. Those that are forced into choices make me sit up and listen a little more closely.
Going back to the example closest to me, if a doctor chooses a goal of being a clinical departmental chair, they are going to have to sacrifice a good deal of family time. For men, this often means that their wives are going to back off on their careers. For women, this often means hiring help. Whether this is “right” or not is less important than knowing whether or not there is a reasonable choice involved–sometimes there is, and sometimes societal expectations limit that choice.
But it gets a bit stranger: when my female residents go on interviews, their fertility will be an issue whether or not they ever plan on having kids. Even if the interviewer is the most enlightened doc on the planet, they know that if they take on a female resident, and she has kids, the greater part of the childcare responsibility will fall on her. And this has implications for the fellowship program. If one of the docs in a three person fellowship has a baby, or gets sick, or enjoys sky diving, it affects everyone.
So, more so than men, women planning their careers face certain assumptions about their behavior which can negatively impact their career path.
Now back to discourse. This inequality (and that’s what it is) is difficult to talk about. Women are often accused of making a big deal out of nothing, or reading too much into a situation. As a man who has frequently been “in the room”, I can assure you that they are not reading too much into anything. Next time you think a woman is being “too sensitive” you might want to consider cutting your sister a little slack. It can be very uncomfortable being the only [fill in minority] in the room, and when you are, and you think someone is talking about you, they probably are, and that’s not usually a good thing.
This may sound rather polarizing and hyperbolic to those of you who don’t think about gender and minority issues much (and I am sometimes that person), but when, say, a woman calls me out on a sexist assumption, it would be better were I to give it some thought. If I were to make the mistake of minimizing their discomfort (for example by saying, “oh, don’t make such a big deal out of nothing”), I might exacerbate the problem, or perhaps even create a problem where one was only nascent.
This isn’t meant as an apologia for impolite discourse about gender and minority issues. What I am trying to do is explain the seemingly harsh and half-veiled discussions going on here at ScienceBlogs lately. If you feel lashed out at (and I sometimes do, as I don’t always toe the line on these issues), consider how it feels to be the only “whetever” in the room, with your livelihood and family life hanging on every one of your words or gestures. You might find that discourse matter, that words have to be taken seriously.
*One of the problems is the vague nature of the conflict here, and here, but in brief, a few bloggers and commenters are pretty steamed at each other about perceived and real misogyny and incivility.