White Coat Underground

WTF is going on here?

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.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    February 11, 2009

    I tried to make sense of the posts to which you link in your footnote, and I got fogged out by the vagueness. My initial impression was that half the argument was going on in the ScienceBlogs back-channel forums, which I no longer read. (I deleted the passwords from the thingy in my web browser which stores passwords, so I’d have to go pleading to the administrators to let me back. Internecine drama is really not my thing, and forum arguments can be terrible time sinks.)

    I agree that reflecting on our own discourse can be a healthy thing to do. Myself, I typically feel really awkward when diversity issues come up: as a white boy from the suburbs, I get a dubiously privileged status with regard to these prejudices. Every time I open my mouth during a diversity-in-science conversation, a little voice in my head goes, “What do you know?”

    (Yes, as a bisexual atheist, I get to check off a couple boxes on the “minority in society at large” scorecard, but in academia, those don’t seem to have mattered so much. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.)

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    February 11, 2009

    PAL: I think this is an excellent and informative post but I also think the discourse to which you link it is even vaguely about the issues you are talking about. But well put anyway.

    I don’t know if this is a matter of how fields are defined, so this may not be an issue, but I’m pretty sure Primatology and Bioanthropology in general may have a leg up on medicine in terms of the relative power and influence, and respect engendered by, women. If you subsumed these fields all into biology, that may go away (not sure) but there have been prominent women and high percentages of female grad students, etc. in these areas for decades. For a very long time, for instance, the most often named living scientist by most Americans (or some such group) was a female primatologist.

    This does not mean that the sex biased attrition that runs from undergraduate majors through senior professors had not happened (and continues to happen) in these fields. But for decades now, prominent role modely type powerful women have been running search committees. Post reproductive powerful women in charge of departments are not automatically exempt from inappropriately considering fertility etc. but it is a start.

    I’m not personally into the “I’m a man therefore I can’t think about X” routine. In my view that is a mild cop out. I understand the limits of my experience and the value of others’ experience, but I also understand other things. This is a difference between me and some others, clearly, that I think has to do with a couple of factors,possilby including generational effects and subfield. I have had almost nothing to do with the medical sciences, and would not pretend to understand the gender politics there. But I have been involved in research and academics for decades and I do not agree that a Y chromosome disqualifies anyone from having an opinion of equal weight to anyone else. (Maybe I’m responding to Blake with that last bit.)

  3. #3 PalMD
    February 11, 2009

    …but I also [don’t] think the discourse to which you link it is even vaguely about the issues you are talking about.

    With respect, i think it is. Someone makes a comment, someone else finds it to be misogynistic, the first person doesn’t think so, then everyone goes into headless chicken mode. I think part of the fundamental problem is that it is easy to forget that just because I don’t think what I said was misogynisitic doesn’t mean someone else might legitimately think otherwise, for many of the reasons stated.

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    February 11, 2009

    I’m not personally into the “I’m a man therefore I can’t think about X” routine. In my view that is a mild cop out.

    I don’t buy that routine either. I certainly think I’m entitled to have opinions about prejudice even when I’m not on the receiving end; it’s just that, not having felt the sharp end of that stick very often, I’m perpetually worried I’ll say something really stupid about it.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    February 11, 2009

    Of course, having been trained as a scientist, I know that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, so I try to turn my lack of personal experience into an advantage. “Every state of being has its compensations”, as a fortune cookie once told me.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    February 11, 2009

    With respect, i think it is. Someone makes a comment, someone else finds it to be misogynistic, the first person doesn’t think so, then everyone goes into headless chicken mode

    Right. Now that you’ve explained it with the headless chicken, I totally get it. Dead on.

    Blake: I know that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”,

    Obviously you are not an anthropologist.

  7. #7 anon
    February 11, 2009

    Scienceblogs has turned into a neverending looped discussion of american gender and race politics.

  8. #8 PalMD
    February 11, 2009

    Scienceblogs has turned into a neverending looped discussion of american gender and race politics.

    1) I reject the characterization as clearly untrue. Most posts are explicitly about something else entirely.

    2) Like it or not, these issues are a part of science, like they are a part of everything. If you don’t think this is true, you need to look a little deeper. I agree that incestuous internecine imbroglios can be tedious to some, but once in a while they may be necessary.

  9. #9 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 11, 2009

    You know what your problem is, Laden? You are a creepy asshole, instead of a jovial asshole. Try improving your aim for the latter, and you’ll probably find yourself embroiled in fewer shitstorms of your own making.

  10. #10 Blake Stacey
    February 11, 2009

    Actually, it seems to me that we discuss religion and gender politics more than race politics, but then again I don’t read every ScienceBlog — anybody done a survey on this?

    I agree that incestuous internecine imbroglios can be tedious to some, but once in a while they may be necessary.

    Tedious was bad enough, but now I’m thinking that vague is even worse. I was always pretty sure where Matt “Marquis de Coiffure” Nisbet stood on things, and in the epic flamewar of Thanksgiving 2006 neither Myers nor Brayton minced words, but I’m still not entirely sure what the various parties in this one are upset about.

    The issues we discuss are sufficiently momentous that it seems inappropriate to discuss them in a manner reminiscent of Avatar fans arguing over whether Katara should have ended up with Aang or Zuko. I suppose that’s part and parcel of being on the Internet: the surge of the backdraft is the same whether you’re discussing the effect of religion on science education or the relative merits of game consoles.

    (And for the record, Zuko was entirely wrong for her.)

  11. #11 PalMD
    February 11, 2009

    You made me laugh out loud…even though i hadn’t a clue.

    Finally started my latest “fun” reading…some new novel by some bisexual atheist academic.

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    February 11, 2009

    You are a creepy asshole, instead of a jovial asshole.

    I did not know that. Is it too late to change? Probably not. I mean, you’ve changed. What do I do? I might need some confirmation on this before I proceed with lessons, though.

  13. #13 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 11, 2009

    Dude, I can tutor you in jovial assholitude. If you are interested, I will e-mail you my hourly rates.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    February 11, 2009

    Dude, I can tutor you in jovial assholitude. If you are interested, I will e-mail you my hourly rates.

    Cool. I have a question. I was driving back from the mall where I was picking up my daughter’s cell phone (she dropped it in a snow bank a month ago and some guy found it) and I was thinking about this. Are there other kinds of asshole available? Jovial is good, but is it the only other option? (Maybe being at the mall made me wan to shop around a bit.) Send the full pricelist.

  15. #15 Drugmonkey
    February 11, 2009

    Instant result, that was jovial!!!!!

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    February 11, 2009

    Maybe I just have to visualize Jovial!!!

    Fuck yeah, it’s working!!!!111!!!

  17. #17 Radioactive afikomen
    February 12, 2009

    Oh, dear. It seems everyone is arguing…

    Meanwhile, I am tickled pink that Pal said “headless chicken mode”. Was that a nod towards RationalWiki, Pal? 😀

  18. #18 PalMD
    February 12, 2009


  19. #19 Greg Laden
    February 12, 2009

    There seems to be a linkage between HCM levels and modalities of assholitude. This could be a complex multidimensional problem.

  20. #20 Ian
    February 12, 2009

    So WTF means “Where’s the Female?”! I always wondered about that!

  21. #21 Dianne
    February 12, 2009

    If one of the docs in a three person fellowship has a baby, or gets sick, or enjoys sky diving, it affects everyone.

    So do you ask about their health status and recreational habits as well? What would you do if the otherwise perfect candidate mentioned that he had active Hodgkin’s disease (receiving ABVD) and enjoyed hang gliding?

  22. #22 MarkH
    February 12, 2009

    Back to the issue in the post, from the interviewee side PAL’s characterization is entirely accurate. Even in my supposedly male dominated career(it still is among the gray hairs but the next generation is much more representative), almost half the candidates are women, and it’s very clear they are getting asked a different set of questions from me. Some of those questions are even illegal and are very difficult for them to respond to. There is enormous pressure to conform and not make a fuss.

    As to who is the bigger ashole I don’t know. I’m just glad I haven’t been nominated for this competition, but I do find it interesting per our previous discussion that a commentor was outed.

  23. #23 Greg Laden
    February 12, 2009

    My wife is in teaching (HS) and I’ve been recently in Anthropology (interviewing people for various positions, etc.) and now I’m in an individualized degree program, and we sometimes share our respective professional opinions on these HR related issues.

    I’ve got to say that this sort of question or consideration … a person’s reproductive strategies or fertility, or a person’s health issues, are very very very very very not OK to ask about, talk about, investigate, or even think about. And there are people watching over each other shoulders, there is training in this regard, there are HR policies, and so on and so forth.

    Continuous vigilance is nonetheless required.

    MarkH: I had not thought of this outing business. Does this mean I get to out someone!?!?!?!?

    As to who the bigger asshole is, that is obvious. But that is not the important thing. The important thing is the KIND of asshole one is. I am now exploring alternatives in that regard. I’m thinking now I want to be a multi-tasking asshole. Or maybe a Ninja asshole.

  24. #24 MarkH
    February 12, 2009

    Hmm. I might be a hardass asshole. My assholery seems to stem from my expectations of others. But I like to think I’m an asshole for a good cause. This is not great comfort however as I’m sure every asshole thinks the same.

  25. #25 Nat
    February 12, 2009

    Did someone say ‘outing’?


  26. #26 Becca
    February 12, 2009

    CPP- you know what you’re problem is? You think being jovial makes up for being an asshole.

    “Does this mean I get to out someone!?!?!?!? “
    You first. I recommend demonstrating. On YouTube. With BlakeStacey.
    Bisexual Atheist Scientists for Sexual Exhbitionism! C’mon, it’ll be the best Facebookgroup EVER!

    /gratutitous meta-commenting re: ingroups + generic naughtiness

  27. #27 Stephanie Z
    February 12, 2009

    Becca, I’m not sure suggestions like that are ever gratuitous. Or maybe they are and I just don’t care.

  28. #28 D. C. Sessions
    February 12, 2009

    CPP- you know what you’re problem is? You think being jovial makes up for being an asshole.

    I’ve always been leery of mind-reading. I really don’t know what CPP thinks on any given subject, and all in all can manage without worrying about it.

    As for “jovial assholiness,” it seems to me to be in the same social behavioral category as someone who goes around making vicious comments to people, spreading gossip, etc. and when called on it turns the subject into “can’t you take a joke?”

    In other words, antisocial behavior without even the backbone to own up to being a jerk. Lots of those in high school, and plenty who never outgrow it. It seems especially common in bullies; I think a lot of them find out early that “we were just horsing around” would get them out of trouble with adults when they were abusing other kids.

  29. #29 Jane
    February 12, 2009

    PalMD, thank you. You really hit the nail on the head.

    As for Greg, he just needs to drop the ‘nice guy’ schtick, since it’s clearly causing him a mental block because it lets him never consider the validity of other people’s opinions. Because, you know, we’re misjudging him, as opposed to his opinions not being as clear and dry as he wants to think. And as several peer-reviewed studies have shown recently, a lot of us can still express prejudice even when we are *sure* that we don’t have those attitudes consciously.

  30. #30 oscar zoalaster
    February 12, 2009

    All of this calling people ‘assholes’ is rather disturbing. Please stop using such terms on each other.

  31. #31 Greg Laden
    February 12, 2009

    Becca …. Now, what do you think would happen to me if I suggested that, say, you and Isis got on You Tube and ….

    Oh never mind.

  32. #32 Stephanie Z
    February 13, 2009

    Greg, I think that would have to be Becca and Zuska for a true parallel. Isis is still anonymously pseudonymous, and Becca was going for a different kind of outing.

  33. #33 Greg Laden
    February 13, 2009

    Isis is a pseudonym? Damn. I am so disappointed….

  34. #34 The Perky Skeptic
    February 15, 2009

    Man… I am late to the outing party!!! Bummer! Can I still call myself a perky asshole? …Er… perhaps not. 😉

  35. #35 Mike
    February 16, 2009

    I know that the OP is right in many situations. There has been major progress in accepting that women need time off of tenure clocks as a result of child birth and child rearing. However, there is little to no acceptance for fathers who would like time off to help with child rearing for a newborn.

    I am a 9 month, tenure track faculty member. That means that I have no vacation time to take time off other than the summer (though I have been repeatedly told that you can not get tenure if you do not show up and work all summer long). My wife is expecting in the middle of summer and I asked my mentor and my department chair about taking 3 months off. They were both aghast that I would do so. They kept talking about how the tenure clock would continue ticking and that I did not have any vacation time to use during the academic year even though I did not have a class for the 2009 fall term.

    Contrast that treatment of a father who wants to help with the child rearing responsibilities to the response a fellow faculty member who is a female. She was given a 1 year extension of her tenure clock when she took time off for giving birth and child rearing.

  36. #36 Samia
    February 17, 2009

    Very cool post. Thanks. 🙂

  37. #37 PalMD
    February 17, 2009

    Thanking me?? I’m honored that Samia dropped by!

  38. #38 jc
    February 17, 2009

    Mike, that sucks. Let’s all practice the mantra: Patriarchy hurts men too!

  39. #39 Dr. Free-Ride
    February 20, 2009

    Mike, there are some universities (Stanford is one) where official policy permits fathers as well as mothers to stop the tenure clock for a year upon the birth/adoption of a new child. (I don’t recall if there are other family/health issues that allow one to stop the clock, too — if not, there’s a good case that they *ought* to be viewed as roughly equivalent.)

    There were, sadly, concerns that some departments viewed faculty who availed themselves of this policy as less committed to their research, teaching, etc., and thus less likely to get tenure in the end anyway.

    Fixing policies would be a good thing, but there are some deeply entrenched attitudes that need fixing, too.

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