Talent, Hard Work, and the Economist; audiences, commenters, and the importance of ‘feelings’

A few months ago, I was chatting to a colleague about the course I was in the middle of teaching – playing the usual game of trying to judge from student assignments how well I was getting the material across. I mentioned the assignment feedback I had given out the previous week: ‘I tell them that I can see the effort that they are putting in, and that those who are putting the work in are doing well’. The colleague responded: ‘oh, but of course: that’s what all the educational theory tells you you need to do, to debunk the myth of it being about talent’.

We then nodded sagely at each other, or something like that.

A paper just published in Science has now demonstrated this principle within scientific disciplines, by asking researchers in those disciplines whether success is more about talent, or about hard work. Responses that value talent over hard work come from those disciplines where women and African Americans – those demographics disproportionately excluded from science as a whole – are least well represented.

My immediate reaction when reading it, was: ‘well, this isn’t new, but I’m really glad they’ve done the work to get some data together and demonstrate the effect’. I ignored the first couple of headlines where the novelty of the findings were emphasised, because frankly, it seems you have to put the word ‘new’ in the headline if you’re discussing a scientific study. And the study itself was certainly new – so so far, so good.

But there was something about the reporting of the study that continued to bother me. What it was was only made clear when a colleague passed me the version of the study, as told by the Economist. Now maybe I’m biased, but I should say that my blood was already boiling before I remembered my earlier post on the Economist and a story about gender in science.

I had a quick look at the versions of the story that had appeared in my timeline on twitter at that point. Nature, Science, the Washington Post, and the Economist: does it matter who you are – and who you are writing for – when you report such a study?


Does it matter, whether you talk about women being ‘kept out’, or report that ‘women shy away’ from science? Does it matter whether the background that you give includes the extensive literature on unconscious bias and women in science? Does it matter if you refer to the Larry Summers hypothesis?

I think all of these things matter. At the very least, they define who it is you are writing for. And I’m not saying that I dislike the Economist’s version because I disagree with it: not at all. The Larry Summers hypothesis can be raised – and if you raise it, and decline to discuss unconscious bias, then you are certainly putting your cards on the table. I just think you should be honest about it. Honest about the fact that you are speaking to an audience of ‘us’ (white, male) about ‘them’ (women and POC).

Maybe this is an accident of language, in an article about particular identities: the author presumably had no choice but to refer to women as ‘them’. Or to POC as ‘them’. But by framing the article as being about the subjects of exclusion – them – rather than the real actors in the drama, the (overwhelmingly) white male respondents to the survey, who think that their discipline requires

a special aptitute that just can’t be taught

(which, by the way, seems to indicate that Education is the wrong business for them to be in!), the Economist’s version of the story is something that feels different to read, as a member of one of those groups of ‘them’, than it does for a white male reader.

And yes, you are welcome to scoff at the ‘feelings’ of us poor weak and overly sentimental women.* What I’d like to think about now, are the feelings of the men who read these pieces.

An analysis of the comments made on websites discussing the findings of the Moss-Racusin study, looked at the gender differences between the types of comments made: whether or not the commenter refuted the findings, and on what basis. It turns out, that men don’t like evidence of sexism in science, and are much more likely to reject such findings in favour of their own interpretation. The paper, published in Psychology of Women Quarterly (despite arguably demonstrating more of the psychology of men), was led by Moss-Racusin herself.

Are men likely to be more irrational about evidence of sexism? Does it hurt more? Probably – and frankly, I have some sympathy for that. But the ways in which women are regularly portrayed in descriptions of the problem – as objects, or worse, as foolish and uncommitted, making the wrong decisions – is a constant. And yeah – we’re kind of used to it.

So – I thought I’d go and have a look at the comments section on the Economist. I know, I know, you should never read the comments… but sometimes, I think it might be worth studying them.





And then, somewhat ironically, giving my own reaction to the piece:


Maybe I was wrong?

Anyway – the point of all this is, as I see it, that we all have feelings. I am writing this not from any desire to censor the Economist piece, but because I think there are better kinds of discussion to be had, and I’d like to point people in that direction.

The Washington Post piece, by @rachelfeltman, is great.

*actually, no you’re not.

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Shirty stuff

It has been very weird watching the #shirtstorm break on twitter in the last few days. It started before 6 am on Thursday morning, while I was still in bed, watching conversations about the ESA comet landing.


By Friday, the mainstream media had picked up on the story, and by Saturday? That’s when it got really nasty: not just people not getting it


…but actual, #gamergate style death threats and abuse.


Some of the nastiest I saw were in response to this:


This was not a case of a mob going after a scientist who wore a stupid shirt.


But coordinated abuse, directed from some of the nastier parts of the internet:


There have been many good things said by braver women than me in response to the trolls. If you want to know why it matters, try this storify which includes a number of good links to the experiences of women in science. Or this piece in the guardian, or this older
storify of what discourages girls from science. Or just follow @rocza and @docfreeride on twitter.

What I wanted to say here (and I’ll keep this brief) is what I think this whole episode means for scientists, and the responsibilities we have to science and to each other.

I am sure Dr Matt Taylor – aka the guy in the shirt – regrets having chosen to wear it. For one thing, it detracted from what was otherwise a moment of serious professional triumph. But his apology clearly acknowledges that he is sorry for giving offense.

What I very much doubt is that he understands why he gave such offense. I don’t doubt this because of any great insight into his character, but because I know – from my own efforts in talking about sexism in science with colleagues – that this is not an easy thing to do. I don’t want to draw a line between the male colleagues with whom I can discuss these things openly, and those with whom it is a no-go zone: but the line draws itself.

I have a lot of liking and respect for many of the men who choose to stand on the opposite side of the line. They do so not in opposition to someone – perhaps me – taking a stand on sexism in science. They are not hostile, and they can even be vaguely supportive. But it is very clear that they do not see the issue of women in science to be their problem.

This cannot continue to be the case. You can no longer afford to not be paying attention.

I say this not as some sort of threat – this is not a ‘we are coming for you’ moment. But a central tenet of scientific enquiry is that you can only claim to know anything about those issues upon which you are willing to be challenged. So staying quiet? Yep, it’s an option – so long as you bend over backwards to get out of the way when someone who knows something about the issues has something to say.

You want to have a say? Fine – then engage.

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Nobel men: time for a no bull policy?

It has been interesting, watching the Nobel Prizes – specifically in Chemistry and Physics, but also in Medicine – being announced over the last few days. The most thought-provoking thing has been seeing people discuss possibilities on twitter, and their willingness to baldly weigh up the pros and cons of different candidates. Will the committee decide to value some practical advance which has actually lived up to Alfred Nobel’s intent, by making life better in some tangible way for humanity? Will they instead choose to value some more esoteric aspect of knowledge, a fundamental discovery which confirms or challenges the way that we see the world? Nice examples of these two extremes are provided by the contrast between the Physics Nobels from this year and last: the blue LED, which has led to energy-efficient lights, amongst other applications, and the Higgs Boson.

There is a very frank acceptance that the whole business involves a significant amount of conceptual horsetrading, the comparison of apples with oranges, and a willingness to accept that the tastes of the committee members will balance out over time. If not this year, then next, say the pundits.

And yet.

2 of 199 winners of the Physics Nobel have been women.
4 of 169 winners of the Chemistry Nobel have been women.
11 of 207 winners of the Medicine Nobel have been women.

Science, we have a problem.

Perhaps this is purely historical. Perhaps we can look to Max Planck’s optimistic quote about old ideas dying out with the previous generation. Surely it is getting better?

Is is 50 years since a woman was last awarded the Physics Nobel. The last woman to win the Chemistry Prize was Ada E. Yonath, in 2009; before her, the last woman was Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, in 1964.

It is not getting any better. Not one bit.

I am not going to engage with any nonsense about merit. What I want to reflect on here is how happy we are as scientists to be pragmatic about diversity when it comes to the need to balance experiment and theory, or applied and fundamental work. Apples and oranges: we get that these kinds of choices require some hard decisions.

What certainly can be conceded is that the gender ratios evident amongst practising scientists would not themselves mandate that 50% of prize winners be women. However, given that those gender ratios are also not reflected in the gender balance of winners, I think that might be a red herring.

What we should be thinking about, is what prizes are given for, after all. The discussion about apples and oranges often comes down to demanding equal exposure for different kinds of science. This may explain why the only people to decline the Nobel have been awarded it in the categories of Peace or Literature, most notably Jean-Paul Sartre for the latter.

A few extremists (ok, so far as I know, just me, though I would guess there are others) have suggested that accepting the Nobel Prize is no longer an ethically acceptable thing for men to do, given the persistent exclusion of women. The fact that it is seen as good for science is the clear counterargument, based on the fact that the prize leads to media exposure and some of the scarce serious journalism on matters of scientific discovery and exploration. However, it might be worth pointing to Sartre’s comment on the matter:

It is not the same thing if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre or if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize winner. A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honorable form.

Is science really so different? Can we think about this, just for a minute?

What prizes actually do is provide evidence of what is important to a community: with the science Nobels, the science community is holding up its stars for all the world to see. Do we really want them all to be men?

I think the answer to that question is a pretty easy no. What is hard, is what to do about it, other than side-eying current winners (which feels ungenerous, so I’m trying not to).

The difficulty lies in the small numbers of people getting the award, more than anything else. Could the number of awardees be increased, and a requirement for gender balance be implemented?

This seems unwieldy, in any specific field of science.

Are there just no women deserving of the Nobel Prize? The answer to that is also no. Slate wrote a rather nice write up of a few of the women who should have a shot, bluntly titled: These Women Should Win a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Is it just that it is really the scientific achievement which is being discussed, which leaves the committee at a loss if there happen to be no significant comtributions made by women? Again, no. (H/T @matthias_lein)

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 6.31.15 AM

The choices in any given year seem able to be constrained by those of previous years, to the extent that the balance between types of science – e.g. experimental vs theoretical – remains part of the discussion. And yet, gender is not on the table. Could changing the discussion alone make a difference?

Or could you think about combining these two ideas: aggregating the awards over a 3 year cycle, so that multiple decisions are made in a concerted fashion and gender can be made an explicit part of the discussion?

Don’t worry – I am aware that these matters are not subject to the court of public opinion, and not even the opinions of scientists. The prizes are awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences, who follow the instructions set out in Alfred Nobel’s will.

So what did Alfred Nobel have to say about gender?

It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be Scandinavian or not.

I think we have to hope that the Academy are not taking that wish too literally.

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I know I am, but what are you?*

Something interesting happened to me yesterday. Interesting enough to occupy my thoughts for the 40 minutes it took me to walk back to my hotel, despite a gorgeous view of the Andes in the the setting sun, which should have provided reason enough for my thoughts to wander.

I’m in Santiago, which is a wonderful place to visit, if you like a nice view of a mountain or several. I’m also at a theoretical chemistry conference, which is an even nicer place to be if you like electrons and their quirks. So I am writing this in a good mood (which I find is the best way to write a blog post).

I bumped into a colleague yesterday, at the conference welcome function. We had a quick, social more than scientific, catch up touching upon the fact that I’ve moved institution since we last met, and various other matters, as much personal as not.

Then he called me a ‘raging feminist’.

Luckily he talks at a fair clip, so my blank face lasted through his subsequent comment “of course, I can understand how that might happen, if your local work environment is particularly misogynistic”, and by the time I had recovered enough to respond in any way, the topic of conversation had moved on to something quite different.

We were talking for long enough afterwards that I could certainly have brought the conversation back to the topic of my feminism, but I didn’t. I would have felt impolite.

So I’ve been thinking about this since. I have several questions, most immediate of which is what, exactly, he was talking about? Has he come across this blog? If so, how? Did a mutual acquaintaince, who knows of the blog, point him to it? Or was he looking up something about me (he had been thinking of visiting New Zealand) and find something via google? I don’t know.

I could still ask him, but I’m not sure that it matters too much. I was deliberate about not making this blog anonymous, and I’m still happy about that. But it was a very strange encounter nonetheless.

More straightforwardly, I was speaking to someone at the poster session this evening, and she said, right off the bat: “I’ve been reading your blog.” Not weird at all.

So I guess I’m going to have to learn how to be a ‘raging feminist’ in public. And I’m kind of looking forward to it.

*I have since realised that not everyone who reads this will be familiar with the school playground response, which was good for any insult when I was a child: I know you are but what am I?
I turn this around here to recognise the compliment.

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Affirmative action: good enough for the gander

I’ve been thinking a lot about mentoring lately.  In part, this is because of a recent interview with Sunday Magazine, in which I was explicitly asked for examples to counter the perception that women are less likely to mentor other women: the so-called Queen Bee syndrome.  I was pretty clear in my own opinion that women mentors are harder to find in science for the simple reason that there are fewer senior women than men; unequal expectations do no one any favours, and my own experience would suggest that men are equally capable of being good mentors for women.

But is this entirely true?  There’s the common story, which I had mentally consigned to the past until I heard a version a couple of months ago from a young engineer: upon meeting her boss’s wife, she was given a head to toe scan and then greeted with the words: “Well, he’s not taking you on any work trips”.  But what is this really?  Is it a case of women being harsher on each other, or simply that women are willing to be more upfront about it?   Could it be better to know that your boss is taking your junior colleague with him to a conference because he is worried about what people will think if he travelled with a young woman?   Better to know that this is the case, rather than take it as a reflection on your work? Ripples of doubt indeed.

In science, at least with the parts of it with which I am familiar, these stories seem to have disappeared.  I have had a number of excellent mentors at one stage or another in my career and for different periods of time: as I try to make a tally, the gender ratio is about 4:1 men to women.  This is a fair – perhaps even slightly generous – representation of the gender balance in my field.

So what a mentor supposed to do for you?  This may seem obvious, but thinking about the way that the relationship functions is probably important if we want to tease out the origin of any – even if only perceived – differences due to gender.  And why is there a perception that women need to be mentored exclusively by other women?  Is it just that men are awkward about it, or is there something else going on?

My suspicion is that a large part of the problem is that we conflate the two major roles that senior women can play in science.  The first is simply that of the role model – the women who, by virtue of their own success, become visible symbols of the ability of women to succeed in their fields.  This doesn’t need to be a personal relationship – Marie Curie still functions pretty well in this role, though she is sorely overworked.  In addition to anecdotal evidence, there is research that looks at the influence of role models on the progression of girls into science, though some of the evidence points to the dismantling of stereotype being more important than gender itself.

This leads into the conflict between those who claim we need ‘smart and sexy’ STEM rolemodels, and those who think good looks might do us a disservice, but I’ll leave that depressing discussion for another time.

In contrast, the role of mentor is, necessarily, a personal one.  In science, we are often mentored by the people that we work with directly, as students and postdocs; at a later stage processes may differ, but in many universities there is an official mentor assigned to junior academics, as part of standard procedure in the hiring of staff.  Mentors are go-to people: they answer questions about how science works: from difficulites encountered during peer review, to advice on how to deal with a difficult supervisor, or, as a beginning supervisor, on how to best go about directing the work of a PhD student.  Ideally, mentors are also aware enough to tell you the answers to questions that you don’t know to ask: this is when a mentor is most valuable. Unlike role models, mentoring is not what gets women into science – but it makes a crucial difference in terms of keeping women in science.

The second reason I started thinking so much about mentoring, was reading about a book by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, called Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, on the difference between mentoring and sponsorship. Think what you will about the term – for me the words mentor and sponsor produce inescapable images of the Hunger Games – but the point being made is a good one.  What I have outlined above as the role of a mentor is the necessary stuff: you will find someone to answer these questions, though the answers may differ in quality.  Sponsorship, as Hewlett describes it, is a far more active process: direct advocacy based on your potential, not on your performance; referrals for positions or promotion that go well beyond writing a letter of recommendation.  In fact, I’m not sure that I can describe it as anything other than special treatment. e.g.

“A sponsor is someone influential who will pound the table for you”

So the question becomes: when is special treatment normal?  Unfortunately, the answer, if you are a woman, seems to be: never.  Special treatment, for a man, may be earned – deserved – because of merit.  Women learn early that special treatment is strictly to be avoided.  Perhaps you deserve it – but will that stop your colleagues from thinking – or even saying – that it is because of your gender?  A man who is promoted quickly – even surprisingly quickly – does not have that Achilles heel. It’s just normal:

“There is so much that is impossible to know ahead of time about anyone’s leadership potential, it’s probably just human nature for people to sponsor people who remind them of their younger selves. So men tend to sponsor other men.”

At a dinner recently, I was sitting with a visiting Professor from overseas, who was lamenting the gender balance of the recently awarded senior fellowships in his country.  I initially thought I had misunderstood him, but no: he was complaining that the gender balance – at a ratio of 9:11 – was too equal.  He isn’t an obvious misogynist, so I listened to his rationale: he was annoyed because a colleague in his department had been elected, and unspecified ‘people’ were now saying behind her back – and perhaps even to her face, I don’t know – that it was only because she was a woman.  He claimed that the only reason that the ratio was now 9:11 was that new policies had been put in place to artificially advantage women: he gave as evidence that the year before no women had been elected.

I’m generally a little impatient with the notion that we need to get men to start leading the conversations around women in science: participating, yes; but there is often the implication that men need to be included because they are the ones with the power, rather than simply because they are also part of the puzzle.  However this provides a really simple example of just how men can contribute usefully by following a simple rule: if anyone ever comments to you that a women has gotten where she is because she is a woman: just say No.

I’m reluctant to add anything further to the list of things that senior women in science must do.  As role models, they must achieve the rather complicated trick of both being pretty and yet not intimidatingly so; they must go out of their way to mentor all young women in their path; they must sponsor women into positions of power.  Yes, but also no: the second two of these items are just as easily done by men. So here’s another suggestion for the men: volunteer to be a mentor, think about sponsoring a woman.  The job might ‘naturally’ fall to your female colleagues: that doesn’t mean that it should.

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‘that stupid sciam blog’ and why it matters

It seems that months can now go by without me finding the time to update this blog; perhaps this is not so surprising, as the facts aren’t changing at any great rate.  I was pretty clear when I started writing here that I wanted to concentrate on the facts – if I posted my thoughts here every time I saw an article about women in science that caused me outrage, this would be a much bigger job – and frankly, I’d rather be spending my time writing papers.  And twitter works well for the small stuff.

But: sometimes twitter is not enough.  There’s an interesting post on the topic here, by the Curious Wavefunction: the twitter conversation he is talking about is something I contributed to, in response to an excellent blog post which was written in response to a post on his own Scientific American blog – though the post itself was not written by him but by a friend.

The thing that bothers me is this. I used to follow @curiouswavefn on twitter: we seem to have a reasonable number of scientific interests in common, and I have been known to appreciate his posts.  However, when he first tweeted about the guest post “Neil DeGrasse Tyson makes a good point, but Larry Summers was right”, I replied. He did not.

My thoughts on the ‘Larry Summers argument’ are, conveniently, already described here.  If you read the comments on the Scientific American blog post itself, you’ll find that many people have already debunked many of the links that the author chose to base his argument on.

The short version:

“This slovenly article above is so full of outdated information it is painful.”

The author’s response includes the rather odd comment, in this context, that:

“As I explained, there’s no deficit of women in the sciences.”

Mmmhmmm. But I’m not really interested in going into all of this here – I consider that the comments on the piece have, for the most part, done their job.  What I’d like to reflect on is why it matters – and why people might be concerned, and even angry – that a piece like this remains on the blogroll of Scientific American.

I can’t go past another reference to the comments, where the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates is quoted:

“It’s comforting to think that the academics who show no interest in the “dark arts” do so out of fear of the leftist cabal. More likely, they do so to avoid being associated with a specious field of study whose primary contributions to the world include justifying slavery and inspiring genocide.”

It is followed by (thankfully, I guess) the final comment on the blog post, which ends by stating that women leave physics because they are more caring:

“How is caring about people akin to slavery or genocide?”

Well, I guess this question can be answered.  Or rather, we can try to explain why it is harmful to

1. attribute nice, nurturing characteristics exclusively or asymmetrically to women

2. use the positive framing of gender differences in favour of women to argue that they are natural and even beneficial to society*

3. dismiss the very real recent history of eugenics and it’s far reaching and persistent consequences.

Do I even have to?  That a scientist is willing to write about evolutionary psychology and gender differences without giving a bit more thought to the problematic past of the subject is actually quite deeply troubling. Maybe I’m taking this too seriously: I’m currently in Berlin, a hundred metres from the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas, and I can’t really understand how anyone can not worry about the implications of their statements on this subject.  Especially someone who professes to have an interest in the history of science.

‘Science’ gets messy when it deals with people.  And all scientists have to be aware, and even comfortable with the fact, that science gets it wrong sometimes.  But a blog post hosted by a reputable publication such as Scientific American has credibility: its popularity means it has impact.  I’ll happily defend the right of anyone to be wrong on the internet.  But the right to be wrong about something like this, in a forum which confers the seal of approval of Science**: that I am deeply unhappy about.

Is it unfair to think that @sciamblogs has some responsibility? Maybe. But then there is this:

Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 9.40.09 PM


Really @sciamblogs? 13 favoured tweets since 2010, & this is one of them? http://t.co/vNUWijObOv
27/06/14 3:06 AM

It would have been nice to have been replied to before being accused of whining. A simple ‘please post your thoughts on the blog’ would have been quite sufficient, easily manageable in 140 characters. But then again, the ability to choose your forum – and put the onus on your critics to respond via the same – is precisely why the privilege of having a platform matters. No?


*Oh wait: I may have had a go at this already.

**I know there is a disclaimer at the top of the page.  But that is not the reality of the public perception of credibility.

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Sausagefests: the Academy vs the Community

I’ve been holding off on writing this post for a while.  It seemed impossible to do without including an element of personal experience, and when I started this blog I was very clear that it wasn’t about me.  On the other hand, I was also sure that I didn’t want it to be anonymous: I want to be able to point to real experiences, where appropriate.

I will start by celebrating two things: that the way I discovered the current ICQC sausagefest was via a male colleague who is both opinionated and able to call these things out on twitter. Secondly, that the next thing I saw was a petition on change.org, laying out the issues clearly, and set up and signed by three women who are prominent quantum chemists.  One of them is even one of the four women who are current members of the academy,* who run these conferences.  There are a few other causes for celebration, including write ups in Nature, Salon, the discovery of the women in theoretical chemistry web directory, and sensible things written by other scientists, such as here, and here. There is also the bingo card, which I’ll copy here from feministe.


So that’s the positive response, summarised: is there much I have to add to this?

Well – yes.  As someone who has been to three of the last four conferences in this series, in 2003, 2009, and 2012, as well as to one or two sausagefests, I think I have one or two things to say.  These are good conferences.  The standard of talks is very high: this is, however, guaranteed at the cost of making the talks invitation only.  This makes them a little tricky to get to, at a particular point in your career: it tends to be easy to justify travelling to a conference to present a poster as a student or postdoc, a lot harder later in your career once you get used to speaking at conferences.  I’ve always considered it worth it, because I learn a lot: an additional benefit is that because all the talks are invited, the talks are all held in one room – this results in a sense of community that you don’t get at other conferences of a similar size, which typically fit more speakers in by running parallel sessions.

This format, however, has the drawback that the nature of the conference is very heavily determined by the list of speakers chosen by the organising committee.  For ICQC2015, before the petition got them to take it down, the list comprised 24 men, with perhaps a dozen more names still to come.  The organisers protested that they had invited one woman, when they sent out their 27 invitations: unfortunately, she had not responded.  The real issue is that they seemed to think that this was ok.

I won’t write any more about the generic problem, because it has been covered pretty well already.  I’ll also mention the coverage on Inside Higher Ed, and on ChemistryWorld.  But what I want to do here, is think about what it really going on in Quantum Chemistry.  Is it ok, because the number of invited speakers represents the membership of the academy?  Or should the list of speakers (and, dare I say, the membership of the academy) be reflective of the proportion of women working in the field?

I am writing this from one of the most carnivorous sausagefests that I have ever had the pleasure of being invited to.  In fact, I am aware that I am here because the conference was called out on twitter for being a sausagefest, and I was subsequently invited publicly, again via twitter.  I can indeed confirm, that being invited to speak at a conference to make up the numbers feels … different. There is however, an important difference here.  I am not just the only woman to have spoken so far (thankfully, there is another one! coming up later this morning), but for extended periods of the conference, I have been the only woman in the room.  However, there is very little point in feeling self conscious about being the only woman in the room, when you are well out of your depth already in speaking at a computer science conference – here, I have much bigger things to worry about.  And it turns out that that’s ok: I’m pretty comfortable speaking to computer scientists about my science, and how parallel computing can be used to do really cool things – as it turns out, they are really quite happy to listen.

On reflection, I realise – with some startlement – how very, very comfortable I am, being the odd one out.  I have thick skin. I have well developed coping strategies.  I am very comfortable, in an environment such as this.  But when I think about what that means … it makes me very, very, sad.

To state the bloody obvious: it should not be necessary to revise all of your expectations of social interaction in order to fit into your (YOUR!) professional environment.  And I’m not saying, by the way, that I’m particularly socially awkward.  But I spent a year as an exchange student in Japan when I was 15 – this was before both email and affordable international phone calls – and it was a pivotal experience in my adolescence.  I am really, really comfortable, not fitting in.  This should not be a prerequisite for a career in science.

At the 2012 ICQC, I had an interesting experience at the conference dinner.  An epiphany or sorts, which I am actually quite grateful for.  I’ve avoided writing about it until now, because I think the conversation about sexism in science can be had without reference to personal experience.  But this post has already had far too much to say about me, so: here goes.

I’m at dinner, seated with a group of five, four of whom I know quite well.  At some point, a member of the Academy comes over to speak to the person sitting opposite me.  It’s a question about one of the talks that morning: an old idea, once dismissed, that is being revised for a new application.  The conversation covers a little of the history of the idea, a couple of specific papers; the two of them talk for a couple of minutes, with no one else at the table having anything to add.

The visitor turns to me.  “I’m sorry, we must be boring you”.  I smile, assure him that this is not the case.  “Oh, but you aren’t one of us, are you?” (I actually hadn’t clicked at this point – I had absolutely no idea where this was going.)  So he continued.  “What I mean is, you aren’t a scientist, are you?”  At this point, conversation at the table has stopped: everyone is listening.  I manage to come out with:

“Actually, yes I am”.

His forehead wrinkles, he smiles.

“Oh – what kind of science?”

“What I mean is, you aren’t our kind of scientist, are you?”

The silence grew.  I fumbled for my conference name tag, which was hanging around my neck, and said something – I don’t know what, but I remember wishing for an equally brief english equivalent of the french si, and then I headed for the bar.

It was a weird conversation, and odder yet in that it happened right in front of a number of people who I have known for a long time. All men, of course.  And this is where the epiphany comes in.

There were a large number of tables at this dinner; it is not a small conference.  There is also a hierarchy in the way that people sit: at the tables behind me, there was a 50:50 gender split: those were the tables where the students and postdocs were sitting.  In the central band of tables, where I was, many of the tables were full of men, though a few had a single woman (exhibit A: me).  At the tables in front of us, seats had been reserved for VIPs: members of the academy, medal winners.  At those tables, there was again a 50:50 gender ratio; this was because those men had brought their wives.

I’ve told this story to a few people, and the reactions differ quite significantly.  But the age of the man who visited our table is a factor (he’s in his eighties**).  The response goes, especially from those who know him, that

“He’s old.  You can’t expect him to understand that the world has changed.  It will get better”

Well, I like the optimism.  But unfortunately, I do not think it is justified.

This is an educated, intelligent man.  He has lived, and experienced, much more of the world than I have.  He lived through the 60s, and the 70s, for goodness sake!  How can he not be aware that the world has changed – by all rights, he should know a lot more of the history of feminism than what I do.  I get trolled, often enough, by male students in their twenties who think that being a white male is to be discriminated against: well, I’m ok with the fact that they have something to learn.  But the idea that, by virtue of their advanced age, we should excuse people from having to think about these matters?  That I do not accept.

If we wish to give people a free pass on their responsibility to understand the modern world, then fine.  But then do not tell me that these people are the authorities, no the arbiters, of scientific excellence. This is the feedback loop that is perpetuating outdated social mores in OUR community; this is why science is sexist.

*there have been 5 women over the history of the academy, 153 members in total: 3%

**I say this in the knowledge that it will not help to identify the member of the Academy in any way: men in their eighties are a significant demographic

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It’s all about self-citation, says the Economist

I received a link to a piece in the Economist from a colleague this week. The lamentable lack of female professors discusses a recent piece of research by Barbara F. Walters which demonstrates that in the International Relations literature, there are a couple of clear gender differences: men cite themselves more than women, and men also cite other men more than women.

These facts can and should be interpreted in light of a few facts: men and women are differently represented at different types of institutions, and child-related career breaks have a disproportionate effect on the publication record of women.  But the authors have controlled for a wide range of variables – including career stage, type and quality of publication, etc.  They also point to the curious fact that women are four times more likely to collaborate with men, than men are with women.

If you are aware of the literature on bias, including the effect of your own stereotypes on your own behaviour, then this research is a useful demonstration of one of the mechanisms by which bias impacts negatively on the careers of women. However, the Economist’s simplistic take on these results reads quite differently: ‘women fail to win'; ‘women more often step off the career ladder to raise children'; ‘they thereby put themselves at a disadvantage'; ‘female academics are not pushy enough'; ‘unwillingness by women to self-cite': all these phrases perpetuate the myth that somehow, it’s us.  Women are just doing it wrong.

The thing that really gets me about the Economist article, though, is not the incomplete discussion of the research or the lack of thought beyond proximate causes: it’s the dog whistle tactic of the mention of Larry Summers, and the not so subtle admiration of his daring in making the comments that he did.  The juxtaposition of this research on gender bias with the recollection of that particular episode is not accidental.

I know I don’t need to say it – but don’t read the comments.  On the other hand, the article by Professor Walter et al is very readable, and contains a lot more thoughtful discussion: for example, is the citation gap decreasing over time?*  Recommended reading for anyone interested in this stuff.

*Answer: it could be, but it could also be that there is a time-lag for the citation gap to show up.  More research needed!

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Fallibility is not a failing

I’ve been thinking about why I started this blog, and my initial reservations: firstly, that I would run out of material once I had finished translating my original talk into blog posts.  The more significant concern was that I would end up overwhelmed and discouraged by the whole business – as rereading my first post has just reminded me.

So I thought I should write an update on progress, since it’s been about six months: writing this blog has made me feel much, much better about the stupid business of sexism in science.  Yes it is there, and it is real, and it does bad things.  So I do get grumpy about it sometimes.  But I also think that there is something hugely positive in spending time thinking about why science is sexist, and trying to understand what is really going on – it may be no coincidence that my favourite thing in all of science, is a well constructed thought experiment.  What would science look like, if the sexism were entirely eradicated?  It’s actually quite a nice thing to ponder.

More pragmatically, I have found that it gets easier to call people out on casual sexism, and to do this without labelling them as sexist.  It turns out this is a really helpful thing to be able to do! It also appears that people are getting used to me bringing these issues up, and even anticipating my comments before I make them.  This is no bad thing.

So what is my conclusion?  Own your biases, people!  It makes everything much easier, from deciding what coffee to order when out of town, to understanding that men who have worked in a male-dominated environment all their lives may not be choosing their language with the intent to exclude you. And it is kind of nice, explaining, and seeing them get it.

If there is such a thing as a tenet of faith in science, it has to be that fallibility is not a failing. Just something to learn from.

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Grumpy about Gillard

I’ve been thinking about recent events over the Tasman a little bit in the last week.  I know very little about the difference between Julia Gillard’s and Kevin Rudd’s politics, and from what I can tell they are about equally well-behaved as politicians.  But the recent sexist attacks on Gillard do add an additional level to the story.

I have read well reasoned comment from people who are delighted to see the back of Gillard, and the nature of politics is such that there’s no need for any sexism to account for that.  But my problem now is the extent to which I can see that sexist outcomes occur despite a lack of directed sexism by individuals, simply due to the culture of the society that we live in.

Those who know the politics better than me will be able to form an opinion on whether the spill was sexist, or not.  But I suspect there are few women who would rule it out completely: it’s one of the fun games you get to play as a woman, this second guessing of the way in which you are judged by others.

I don’t mean to suggest that self-doubt is limited to women, not at all.  In fact, there is a lot being written now about imposter syndrome in science, and the need for openness about the emotional challenges we face, that is really reassuring.  But there is a woman-specific aspect to this, even if the only cause of it is our own subconscious biases.

A recent example from politics in New Zealand was the reaction to Nanaia Mahuta’s complaint that long hours at Parliament were difficult with a baby needing breastfeeding.  She got rather seriously slammed in the media for saying it, with the accusation being made that she was playing politics. How unwomanly. Using her family for political gain!  I was reminded of this by a recent comparison of Australian magazine covers highlighting that Rudd had brought his daughter into the campaign to combat the effect of his opponent’s three daughters…

Ugh. What’s good for the gander is clearly not good for the goose.

I wondered about writing about this on this blog, which I am trying to reserve for thoughts directly relevant to the situation of women in science. While sexism in science has some similarities with the sexism experienced by women in politics, or business, or who work as professional cleaners for that matter, it is also quite distinct.   But here’s the big thing that women in politics and science have in common: the regular and continual assessment of performance that scientists undergo in research funding applications, and politicians face in the polls, but more directly in the court of public opinion (whatever that is exactly).   Both of these seem to me to be related forms of peer review: politicians  have relatively massive peer bases, but the anonymity of the reviewers in both cases has the same effect.

If every single time you undergo one of these public evaluations you are playing the guessing game as to whether those evaluating you are sufficiently aware of the biases of the society that you live in, then…  the playing field is not level, even in the absence of overt discrimination.  So can we please get past saying that skewed gender ratios are okay because the women are choosing to leave?

To finish on a more positive note: a lovely analysis of Kevin Rudd’s suits, ties, and a couple of (tame) body parts.

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