Unpacking a bit more

Yesterday’s post was frustrating. However, if anything good came out of it, it was some sharing of stories and mutual affirmations on the Twitters that yes, this happens to women all too frequently; yes, it’s obnoxious; and that hopefully some people viewing it thought about their own internalized biases, and how those may reflect in behavior toward women. I’m reminded at times like these how important social media networks have been to me, both in introducing me to new people (I’ve already found many new scientists to follow because of this) and in having an outlet to discuss and commiserate. So, some thoughts.

1) I hadn’t considered this in the beginning (because it’s my life and all), but from the write-up alone, I probably sound like “just a mom,” especially with my baby’s picture within the post. I mention at one point my colleague and link to a fellow scientist, but let’s be honest–people don’t always read these posts carefully or all the way through. So I was an easy target. Many studies have shown that people still describe scientists as old, white men–the Einstein stereotype. Just google “scientist” and check out the images: a bunch of nerdy, older white guys for the most part, and a handful of women (some scantily dressed, cause that’s exactly how we science, amirite ladies?). I got this type of attitude just the other day, as the driver who picked me up at the Philadelphia airport (a driver who routinely transports scientists!) was still surprised that I was a young woman and doing the work that I do. I’ve gotten that response previously at conferences as well. Women just aren’t accepted as scientists, even at times by other people working in the field.

2) I think many people (especially men) may underestimate or not understand just how frustrating this type of behavior/attitude is to women. Or worse, minimize it or not accept that this happens. I’ve been gaslighted previously by male (and female!) colleagues, telling me that surely my perception of a situation or event was incorrect. I accepted that they were right at the time (this was long before #ripplesofdoubt or other such support and story-sharing). No way would I stand for that now.

3) Blowback. The current situation involved a pseudonymous man on the internet, but all too often in these types of situations where women are dismissed and their expertise minimized people are involved who are more difficult to ignore. They may be senior colleagues in one’s own department or college. People in the field who could be reviewers of your papers or grant applications. Even collaborators who, in theory, should respect your training and value your expertise can try to appropriate your work because they see themselves as more important. (Thankfully this has not happened to me, but it has to several of my female colleagues, with mixed results in the end as far as credit, authorship, etc.)

In the end, much of this type of sexism is not conscious on the part of the one initiating it. I’m sure that people who told me I don’t look like a scientist meant it as a compliment and truly believed it was–because after all, scientists aren’t supposed to be young, or female, or particularly attractive. I’m sure that those that may have assumed I’m “just a mom” and didn’t bother to pay any attention to my professional accomplishments before explaining my field to me don’t think they’re particularly biased against women. Outright, blatant bias against women is much tougher to get away with today (in theory, anyhow), but the more subtle, “everyday” sexist behaviors are still very much amongst us. If it hurts people’s feelings that they get called out on these, well, tough. The only way things change is by shedding light on them. I have a bright spotlight and I’m not afraid to use it.

Promoting women in STEM–what do we discuss?

While I loved Jeanne Garbarino’s recent post, “Want to promote women in STEM? Leave home life out of the discussion“, and agree with probably 90% of it, I think it unfortunately goes from one extreme to another with some of her recommendations.

Garbarino notes several reasons why she thinks it’s counter-productive to discuss home life issues when trying to promote women in STEM careers: 1) it is rare that home life situations for men in STEM are discussed; 2) not everyone shares the same home life experiences or goals; 3) it doesn’t move the conversation forward. Very true for 1 and 2 (though I’d argue that rather than shutting down this conversation for women, perhaps we open it up more to men, who are increasingly worried about work/life balance as well), but 3 is where my disagreement centers. She writes:

As someone who frequently moderates panel discussions on careers in STEM, I have come to realize and value the types of information that truly move the conversation forward. Let’s face it – finding a job in STEM is not easy, and having a PhD no longer equates to job security (at least, job security in one’s area of research). I’d be happy to discuss my tactics for finding quality time with my children as part of a parenting forum. But ask me to talk about this when the focus is on securing a job, and I will no longer do it – it just doesn’t seem relevant.

Instead of discussing home life, I think it is better to talk about individual strategies for networking, recognizing opportunity, being your own advocate, and negotiating skills. These are the types of anecdotes that are the most valuable.

And while I support that, the reality for many of us is that finding a job necessarily includes a discussion of family life within that search (again, noting #2 above that clearly, for any panel such as this there will be people for whom that doesn’t fit). Personally, I had a secure job, was tenured, loved where I was, but *because* of family issues, it just wasn’t working out, so back on the market I went. For women in particular, we’re much more likely to have a partner who’s also in academia or a similar career. From NSF, note that women in STEM are much more likely to have a spouse working full-time, and to be married to another scientist or engineer. Thus, even when looking for jobs, women are more likely than men to have to deal with dual hire situations, or to need to look for some kind of accommodation for a partner.

Admittedly, I don’t have data for those Garbarino points out may feel alienated by husband/wife language, such as lesbian couples, but that brings up other issues of knowing whether a campus/town/area is LGBT-friendly, or can also find a position for their spouse/partner. And for those with children or planning to have them, knowing how to find out about childcare arrangements, for example, isn’t just theoretical, and can again be a factor in securing a job and may come up during  job negotiations. These *are* family issues, but also critical ones when “the focus is on securing a job,” or at least one where you and/or your partner won’t be miserable–and they shouldn’t be relegated to just a “parenting” or “family” panel in my opinion.

I think that instead of steering women-in-STEM panels away from topics such as partners and children (which she notes that certainly aren’t goals for everyone), it’s important to note that some kind of support system is important for *anyone* in academia. That may be husbands and wives, it may be a circle of friends you can vent to and troubleshoot problems (personal or professional), it may be other family or relatives in the area. Truth is, it’s very hard to go it alone in STEM, but it’s true that a spouse/partner isn’t the ideal solution for everyone. Similarly with the child issue: we all want balance. Just because one chooses to be child-free doesn’t mean s/he still wants to work 80 hours every week and have no kind of life outside of science. So perhaps rather than referring to balance in only a child-centric manner, it would be better to open that up to a bigger variety of ways that one has a life outside of work.

Finally, while I love the “Finkbeiner test” cited, I’m not sure this is appropriate for many *discussions* of women in STEM, rather than write-ups of such as intended. Coverage of women STEM figures in the media is quite different from an advice panel on job-seeking or tenure strategies, in which cases participants or audience members may be seeking just the information that Garbarino suggests leaving out.

Overall, this is a tough and touchy topic. No one wants “women in STEM” to equate to “must always discuss family issues and cheesecake recipes,” but at the same time we have to be realistic that women, even in academia, still generally are doing the lion’s share of family work, and that these are legitimate questions and concerns for many of us, especially for those heading toward the job market. We also know that many women still are turned off STEM careers because they’re seen as incompatible with having some kind of a life outside work, spouse/children or not. I’m not convinced that limiting discussion of these is any better than having the focus solely be on these types of topics–either strategy is bound to be alienating to one group or another. Personally, I can only emphasize what has worked for me. Your mileage may vary.

You’re also too pretty for math

I wasn’t going to raise this comment en blogge, but with Dr. Isis’ new post, it becomes more relevant. From Rick Fletcher on the “you’re too pretty” post:

It’s a major issue if your department won’t hire your or promote you because you are a woman. It’s no surprise that a retail clerk at a small shop in a downtown area is not the smoothest operator.

25 years ago it was a common response when I was introduced as a PhD chemist: “You don’t seem like a scientist.” Now it’s a common response when introduced, “Why are you single?” People say some dumb things. Not exactly the news.

But again, it’s an issue if the people who matter to your career hold you back because of your gender or appearance. Is that the case? No?

You can’t tweet the science but you can blog your indignation over getting hit on. Check your issues bag, it might be time for spring cleaning.

I already responded in the thread so I won’t rehash here, but via Isis comes this lovely reminder of why it’s more than just the people who hold my career back who matter–it’s an all-too-pervasive attitude, and it’s not just about me. Isis caught this screenshot from the store Forever21 (a store that I think we have in our mall here; I’ll have to see if they carry this particular product):

Yes, for less than $4, you too can tell the girls in your life that they’re too attractive for math. As Dr. Isis notes:

This is the kind of nonsense that frightens me. Washed up old fucks like Harvey Mansfield don’t worry me. I worry more about the small messages that pervade popular culture. The messages that we have to defend our girls against when we take them to the mall or the market.

Things like this make me realize just how far we have to go.

Bingo. *This* is why comments like that matter and aren’t just some kind of harmless flirty pick-up line, or just my “issues” that I need to “spring clean.” It affects all of us, and we all need to be aware of it and respond, rather than sweep it under the rug and dismiss it.

The science boys’ club strikes again

Recently, a bit of a kerfuffle has sprung up around the choice of entries included in The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, edited by Richard Dawkins. The book contains 83 examples of the “finest writing by scientists.” However, DrHGG noted:

Of 83 texts Professor D has selected 3 written by women. That’s about 3.6%. How hard could it be to find a handful more? Like 10%? It would still be a wiener fest.

She also notes that of those 3, one is even left out of the “Featured Writers” section, as it was co-written with her husband (who received all the credit).

Sheril brought this up on her blog, and Dawkins replied, noting that “it is a regrettable fact that the great majority of distinguished scientists of the past 100 years, as measured by Nobel Prizes, Fellowships of the Royal Society, numbers of science publications, etc, have been male. That imbalance, and not an imbalance in my preference or my choice, is what is reflected in the anthology.”

I call shenanigans. First, Dawkins also claims that he is “…not one of those who thinks men are genetically better equipped than women to become distinguished scientists.” Therefore, he must know that it’s other factors that have led to larger numbers of men than women in the top ranks of the scientific enterprise–one of these factors being a nasty feedback loop. Women lack role models in the upper echelons of science, leading more of us to think that perhaps this isn’t the place for us, which is reinforced by examples such as this anthology. While Dawkins may not support such an attitude, his incredibly male-dominated collection, and his “too bad, so sad, that’s just the way it is” response to this criticism reinforces this conclusion.

Other comments in the thread are also depressing. Dave24 notes:

The author of the material doesn’t matter. The substance does. Dawkins created a collection of works that he personally found relevant and important. Taking into account the sex of each author is completely pointless. Find something else to complain about.

This is exactly the wrong attitude for anyone who’s concerned about the future of U.S. science to have. Yes Dave, I’m sure we’re all well aware these are Dawkins’ personal preferences. The question is *why* are those choices so “weiner-centric,” as DrHGG notes? Really, only 2 solely female authored essays? Even granting that science has been exceedingly male-dominated in the past 100 years, surely something could have been included by some of the female “big names,” such as scientist, Nobelist, and writer Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard to give one recent example?

This isn’t just “pointless.” It’s yet one more example of women being overlooked and dismissed. This was a subjective collection–surely, if Dawkins had put some thought into it and realized how unbalanced it was, he could have included some additional essays by scientists who also happen to be women. You can argue that maybe he just didn’t know of any (which I find quite unlikely), but even if this is the case, why not throw out a net, asking friends and colleagues for some suggestions of great essays by female scientists in order to be more inclusive and take one small step toward breaking that nasty feedback loop?

PZ recently put up a post asking about the invisibility of female atheists, and noted:

The problem isn’t dismissal. It’s casual disregard. It’s being just enough pro-feminist that we lose sight of the real problems that women and people of color face.

Bingo. And even when called on it, Dawkins remained dismissive. *This* is why women still feel like outsiders in the atheist community, and in many parts of the scientific community, and Dawkins’ collection reinforces that it’s a boys’ club that we’re unlikely to crack, despite the call for change. Find something else to complain about, indeed.

[Edited to add: Mike Dunford also weighs in]