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Oct 20 2013

Still raw

A scorching comment from “Janis” on Erin Podolak’s post on not looking away from difficult embarrassing issues like sexual harassment.

It gratifies me beyond belief after leaving behind the career I’d wanted since I was 4 (and been more than qualified for) some two decades ago because the atmosphere was simply so poisonous I couldn’t get anything done, to see that this is finally being talked about.

It depresses me more than I can say that, twenty years later, it still needs to be said.

I am sick of the locker room.  I am sick of the “this is our space and you’ll play by our rules” attitude.  I’m sick of pathetic excuses being made for people who have achieved middle age and hence can be damned well expected to know when they are being unpardonably OBNOXIOUS.  A grown man who doesn’t realize that nonstop sexual conversation will make the young women around him cringe?  GMAFB — he’s not a toddler.  He damned well knows what he’s doing.

I am also sick of the unsubtle message that’s communicated to women that there can be only one “girl” in the room at a time, because it sets us against one another if we’re all competing only for one spot.

And I am sick and tired enough to SCREAM over the lip-service being done to attracting women to STEM careers that glosses over the fact that this horseshit is a HUGE part of why women don’t go into or aren’t retained in STEM careers.

I am SICK AND TIRED of the chipper, cute little commentary about “telling girls it’s cool to be in science!” and the stupid interviews with women at NASA that always make sure to ask them, “Did you *gasp!* like math?” with the implication shoveled at girls — who are all completely incompetent at math, right? — not to worry, girls!  You can stink at math and still work at NASA!  I’ve never once read an interview with Mohawk Guy or Adam Steltzner that asks them, “So here’s your chance to say that you suck at math so men who can’t add two and two can still feel heartened that there’s a place at NASA for them.”

I’m tired of having the “problem” of women in STEM being equated to a problem with WOMEN.  They’re not confident enough! Their too scared at being thought uncool!  They’re too stupid at math and think they can’t work there!  They think it’s not girly pink-n-frilly enough!

Never once is the idea even floated that maybe, just maybe, they get treated like shit by the men there and often abandoned by the lone woman who’s afraid of losing her Queen Bee status as the only woman allowed in the room.

Not enough women in STEM?  Gosh, what’s wrong with them?

Here’s a possibility: NOTHING.  Maybe we can ask what’s wrong with STEM instead?

Sorry — that was quite a rant.  But after twenty years, this is still raw and leaves me sputteringly angry.  The older I get the angrier I get — age does not bring serenity when I see young girls and women still going through this fucking shit after I’ve started going grey.  Call me bitter, I don’t fucking care anymore.  I’ve spent the last two decades trying not to tell myself that Mother Nature made a mistake putting a brain like mine into the body of a creature destined to never be taken seriously, so if you call me bitter thinking it’s some conversational secret weapon that will make me collapse in a pile of little girly tears, you’re a fucking amateur.

Sorry for the profanity.

It was supposed to be better by now. Wasn’t it? I thought it was.

 

28 comments

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  1. 1
    Maureen Brian

    Powerful stuff! It needed saying and now it needs repeating until if finally sinks in.

  2. 2
    robertbaden

    Kind of feel the same way about racism. Though for me it’s been about 40 years.

  3. 3
    left0ver1under

    Even those who aren’t the worst, those who are aware of and thinking about it, need the occasional reminder and wake-up call. It’s easy to be inconsiderate and hurtful, respect takes effort.

  4. 4
    Madsci

    My next door neighbor used to work at Microsoft. I’d been hearing whispers from women who worked there for years about how their glass sealing was bulletproof, but my neighbor’s stories were absolutely shocking. The one that stuck in my head was when she showed up to work one day and a picture had been taped to her monitor. Someone had photoshopped her head on the handle of a Hoover vacuum cleaner and written “Tina sucks!” at the top.

    She spoke up about the harassment and the only thing that was done was she was transferred to a new department that made her life miserable because she was a “troublemaker”. She gave up and found a new job.

  5. 5
    Amy Clare

    From another one of Janis’s comments, further down:

    “And if we ‘do damage’ to science, well … I’d submit that damage is already being done.”

    Exactly, damage is already being done – because who knows how many brilliant minds are out there, not contributing to further knowledge in STEM, because they happen to be situated in a female body.

    I sometimes wonder what our world would be like if women had been allowed to contribute to scientific endeavour, on a par with men, throughout history.

  6. 6
    Minnow

    It was supposed to be better by now. Wasn’t it? I thought it was

    It is better now, there are many many more women in traditionally male-dominated spheres and the coming generations of science grads are very close to parity, so the situation will improve further. At the seminar to pharmacology undergrads I gave recently, women dominated 80-20 and that is quite normal. There are still problems, but I doubt that sexism is the main barrier to women in the sciences, if it is, we have an anomaly to explain in the recent domination of women in medicine.

  7. 7
    sambarge

    Minnow @5 – The re-gendering of biology and chemistry as “feminine” or, at least, acceptable pursuits for women is the obvious answer to why there are more women in medicine. These are acceptable sciences for women particularly if they lead to careers in which women can help people, like medicine.

    Like the God of the Gaps, sexism (and racism and homophobia, etc.) often says: “Okay, okay. You can go THAT far but no further. Over here, this is still for men (or white folks or straight folks or God).” The “no further” is technology, physics and their related fields.

  8. 8
    Minnow

    Minnow @5 – The re-gendering of biology and chemistry as “feminine” or, at least, acceptable pursuits for women is the obvious answer to why there are more women in medicine.

    It’s not the obvious answer at all, in fact it looks very ad hoc. Medicine was a fiercely defended male enclave, women were not invited in, they just kept coming and put up with a huge amount of resentment and abuse to do it. And it is hardly a case of ‘thus far but no further’ since medicine is one of the most prestigious activities in our society, certainly more prestigious and financially rewarding than academic physics, for one example. In fact, I think the prestige and financial returns of medicine and some other applied fields are better explanatory candidates for why women have succeeded better in medicine that other areas of science (of course, women’s relative disadvantage at maths may be another contributory factor). I am surprised, though, that you consider chemistry a ‘feminine’ interest. if you do, that marks a huge advance for women. To insist that even women’s obvious successes prove the ‘patriarchy’ theory begins to look a lot like conspiracism to me.

  9. 9
    MadHatter

    Minnow @7

    Despite that progress women even in medical fields are faced with significantly more harassment and sexism resulting in higher attrition rates for women physicians, far lower representation in chief/department head (typical management disparity), and a distinct bias in specialties that women enter (lower representation in high prestige specialities).

    It looks very similar to what happens in biology/biomedical research where more than 50% of all grad students are women and by the time you reach up to the young faculty members (<50 yrs) they are barely represented at 10% in experimental areas. This is even worse in the male-dominated areas of computational research in biology.

    So yes, women's representation in these fields is better, but we still face a lot of sexism and it does drive women away. I stepped away from biology more than 10 years ago due to a male professor, I came back in my mid-30's and nearly left a second time due to another a PI's discrimination. I've watched other young women in many different STEM fields give up due to sexual harassment by the men who were their PI's, or outright discrimination.

    That we have had successes doesn't change the fact that there are significant problems.

  10. 10
    Minnow

    MadHatter, I am sure there are still significant problems but I can’t see the reference you link to because I don’t have a subscription. But I think childbearing would account for the disparity in dept heads without having to look further afield, wouldn’t it? I am interested in the prestige specialism though, where is the data on that? Is it available to the general public?

  11. 11
    karmacat

    There are a lot of assumptions when it comes to women and childbearing and their careers. People often assume women can’t have children and be invested in their careers. My sister-in-law’s sister is a surgeon and has 2 children. The other issue is that children do need their fathers to be available. Fathers and mothers should not have to give up their careers to be good parents and vice versa. There is also an assumption that if someone works long hours that they are better at their jobs.
    I also like to point out the example of MIT. the adminstrators saw that their fewer woman professors. But instead of making excuses, like women have children or women can’t be good in STEM fields, they were able to increase the number of women professors without decreasing quality.

  12. 12
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    Well, I am a woman who would have been in STEM, except when I was going into university, it was already completely clear to me that such a career would be an intense struggle my whole life, and since I was already dealing with a couple of those, I decided to go somewhere else. I applied my fine brain to learning languages (I now speak five reasonably well, and a couple more tolerably poorly) instead of continuing the math and science subjects, in which I’d had a 93 average in high school.

    I know for absolute sure that I’m not the only one, because I’ve had many women friends tell me the same thing. I have a friend who is now a stained-glass artist and living on the money she makes doing it, who used to be a chemistry grad student. I have friends who are technical writers, and science journalists, and all kinds of things that use their technical strengths in ways that would have been better served in STEM fields, but they didn’t fancy having to keep fighting for it their entire lives.

    The friction coefficient is too high. We have to work twice as hard, and we have to put up with ten times as much bullshit, and for many of us, that’s simply too fucking much, to expect on top of working an unpaid second shift at home. Fuck it. Quit making fucking excuses for it, Minnow.

  13. 13
    theoreticalgrrrl

    “women’s relative disadvantage at maths may be another contributory factor” – Minnow

    ^This has been debunked repeatedly, yet men still cling to it like cold death.

  14. 14
    johnthedrunkard

    The levels of inequality and blazing sexism we ‘walk past’ in EVERY phase of life should be obvious.

    We only notice the tip of the iceberg when competent women’s careers have their hulls ripped open by the same idiocy that was there, unaddressed, the whole damn’ time.

  15. 15
    Ophelia Benson

    Minnow – by “better” I meant better than this, obviously – “this” being what Janis was talking about.

  16. 16
    MadHatter

    Minnow I don’t know why you can’t see that link, there’s no sign in. I intentionally did not post the links to the journals that require $$. In any case it talks about the sexism and harassment faced by women physicians and provides statistics. Suffice to say that while men get some, women get shed loads:

    According to a 2000 survey of more than 3000 full-time faculty members at 24 randomly selected US medical schools, about half of the female faculty experienced some form of sexual harassment. Further, the report found that 48% of female academic physicians experienced sexist comments or behavior (compared with 1% of male colleagues), and 30% of female academic physicians experienced severe harassment, including sexual solicitation, threats, or coercive sexual advances (compared with 3% of male colleagues).

    Childbearing has nothing to do with this. Where we should be “better” in this context is that we shouldn’t still face co-workers, advisors, PIs, or dept. heads that use sexual harassment and assault to drive women out or create a hostile environment. And in story after story…we do. I just had a talk two days ago with a young woman who wanted to do her graduate work in my field, which happens to be very male-dominated still. There are three people who are possible advisors, all men. She was warned through the grapevine against my advisor due to his inappropriate behavior with women. Despite the fact that apparently everyone knows about him, he can’t be fired and he won’t be disciplined because…I have no idea. Yet this is pervasive. The last place I worked had a PI who openly harassed women in his lab, frequently coerced very young women to sleep with him, and never helped them to find other positions (which is part of his job as a PI). Management did nothing, he is now one of the heads of the institute and more than one postdoc has had her career dead-end with him.

    It’s not a rare story either. That’s the problem.

  17. 17
    iknklast

    A lot of people make the mistake of thinking equity is just about numbers. Where I work, the numbers aren’t bad; in fact, our biology department is 3/4 women. It’s also about how you’re treated on the job. The women get subtle and not-so-subtle cues that they are not valued as much as the men. They are not asked questions in their field; instead, the person needing information will find the man in the biology department, even though his field is different (and he will usually send them to the woman with the qualifications, but they don’t get the message). The men are “building captains” in spite of the fact that there are 7 women to 2 men in the building. The male, who has only 2 years here, is recognized as the unofficial leader of the department (we don’t currently have department chairs, but are looking at reinstating that; guess who will probably get the nod?) instead of the woman (me) who has seniority. And the students feel like they have total impunity to treat the women with as much disrespect as they wish, knowing they will not be called on it, except maybe by the woman they are treating badly. Oh, yes, we have the women, but I wouldn’t call it equity.

  18. 18
    Gemma Mason

    I grew up being told “Women used to have to deal with sexism stopping them from doing what they loved, and there is still some out there, but it’s fading and by the time you grow up you probably won’t even have to worry about this.” I also grew up being told to “Go out there and prove that women can do it.” So I was bold, and I tried, and I am trying. I did all the things they tell little girls to do when they’re “encouraging us to be more interested in science” and I assumed that encouraging girls to be more interested was the main problem. I subconsciously soaked up the idea that, in Janis’ scorchingly accurate description of the attitude, the biggest problems in getting more women into science were problems with women, not problems with STEM.

    I was betrayed.

    Some of the hardest things I have learned over the course of my PhD have had nothing to do with the mathematics I study. I’ve learned that yes, people will be dismissive of you, and you won’t always know why — but you’ll always know (from the multitude of data to that effect if nothing else) that some of the dismissiveness is sexism. I’ve learned that if you’re sufficiently ambitious in life, sooner or later the option of proving yourself by your brilliance will be taken away from you, because you’re surrounded, as you should be, by people who are at your level. I’ve learned how to work around my advisor, following my own ideas without permission or encouragement, finding what mentorship I can among postdocs or other students, because that’s the only way I have of getting a PhD that teaches me to think for myself. I’ve learned that it’s ok to try even if no-one around you believes in you. I’ve learned that it’s very hard to be a researcher when you have no experience with research and no-one around you believes in you and you haven’t yet fully realised that a lot of research is one failure after another because that’s just what happens when you try to do something that hasn’t been done before. But I’ve also learned that I can do research, and that often, as a PhD student, even if your advisor isn’t responding to your ideas, that doesn’t make them wrong. The PhD student is the person on the ground, doing the work, and seeing what happens in detail. You’ve got to be engaged even when no-one else is engaging with you — it will never work otherwise. I’ve learned that after all the things that don’t work, often I can find the thing that does, and I’ve learned to ignore my advisor whenever necessary in order to figure this out.

    It’s been tough. I identified a lot with Janis’ powerful statement above. I know I’m fighting sexism along with everything else, and it takes extra time and effort and courage, and all those people trying to make science pink have no answers for me at all. They just say “Congratulations! You’re a woman who likes science! We’re done here.” And if and when I finally give up and leave, they’ll probably shake their heads and say “I guess she didn’t like science enough.” As if.

  19. 19
    Ani J. Sharmin

    Amen. Seriously.

    I’m sick of pathetic excuses being made for people who have achieved middle age and hence can be damned well expected to know when they are being unpardonably OBNOXIOUS. A grown man who doesn’t realize that nonstop sexual conversation will make the young women around him cringe? GMAFB — he’s not a toddler. He damned well knows what he’s doing.

    ^This. There seems to be this weird rule that once someone reaches middle-age, they get this weird automatic excuse for any sexism, racism, homophobia, basically any type of discrimination, because they “grew up during a different time” and so on. Well, I don’t buy it. Yes, they were alive during a different time. But they are also alive right now, and should continue learning. And really, it’s not that their actions didn’t bother minority groups in the past; it’s just that they got away with saying whatever they wanted even moreso than now. It shouldn’t be a surprise that their actions and words can hurt other people, and even if it, well … if you’re not going to learn and improve yourself, that’s irresponsible.

  20. 20
    Physics or Stamp Collecting

    CatieCat @12:

    I’m another one of those women. Chemist, going into art. I’m a damn good scientist–I’ve done good work already–and the field would be lucky to have me. I’ve wanted to be a scientist since high school. I think the approach I take to it is valuable and one we don’t see enough of it. And I decided it was not worth putting up with the BS, even though much of it was not directly targeted at me, and left.

    Incidentally, my section of the department, despite encompassing a relatively female-heavy subfield, has zero female professors. The class I took on that subfield, which was primarily reading and discussing articles, had zero out of ~12 articles from female PIs’ labs. Zero.

  21. 21
    embraceyourinnercrone

    Ani J Sharmin @19

    Thank you.

    I get so sick of hearing this time after time. “Oh it’s just that __ is a poor socially awkward person who doesn’t realize what they are doing!” NO, I am a very socially awkward woman in my fifties. I used to swing wildly between being unable to talk to relative strangers, and talking too much when the conversation is about something I am very interested in. And you know what? I can pick up pretty quickly by now, the verbal and nonverbal cues that people are uncomfortable with my rambling detour into history, plants, parenting, etc. It took awhile but I took the time to learn because I had to if I wanted to be able to hold a job and have a social life. Yes my daughter does refer to me as Mommy the human encyclopedia because if she asked me a question when she was a kid I gave her WAY too long of an answer, but I can live with that.

    Being social awkward does not give anyone a pass to be an ass.

  22. 22
    SallyStrange

    But I think childbearing would account for the disparity in dept heads without having to look further afield, wouldn’t it?

    Minnow, with this comment you really cemented your pattern as a sexism-denialist in my mind.

    As in, “Sure, that COULD be indicative of sexism… but let’s posit 10,000 other possible explanations that are less plausible first!”

    There have been studies that debunked the math gender inequality AND there have been studies debunking that childbearing hypothesis as the primary reason for pay/promotion inequalities. As in, such inequalities are present from the beginning of any person’s career, before anyone has a chance to start thinking about babies.

    Second, positing childbearing as an explanation is not positing the opposite of sexism. It’s because of sexism that women, and not men, are expected to put their careers on hold to raise small children. This is unfair to women, and to men, who should not be deprived of contact with their children just because of sexist assumptions regarding men, women, careers, and childrearing, and to children, who deserve to have enriching contact with both parents regardless of career choice.

    Stop being a sexism denialist. Accept that sexism is a common and very plausible explanation for observed gender inequalities, and you will be able to contribute more than BS that needs repeated debunking.

  23. 23
    Ani J. Sharmin

    @embraceyourinnercrone (#21): Very much agree. I tend to be kind of awkward and shy and don’t know what to say in certain social situations. I’ve improved, due to gaining more confidence during college, both in casual and professional settings, but it’s still there in my personality. That’s part of why it bothers me so much when people use the social awkwardness excuse for discrimination; there’s a difference between being awkward and discrimination. Yes, there will be times when someone inadvertently says the wrong thing or whatever, or doesn’t phrase something the right way, and I think they deserve a second chance. But if they just said or did something flat out discriminatory, with no indication it was misphrased or due to shyness/awkwardness/whatever … that’s not being awkward, that’s ignorance and bigotry.

  24. 24
    Minnow

    There have been studies that debunked the math gender inequality AND there have been studies debunking that childbearing hypothesis as the primary reason for pay/promotion inequalities.

    Sally, yes, and there have been studies confirming these things. It is fairly clear, at any rate, that women are more expensive to employ on average than men because of child bearing. This is very clear in, for example, the NHS in the UK which has had to substantially increase its budget for staff as more women have become doctors. Ignoring these things for ideological reasons may be emotionally satisfying in the short term but will not help women in the longs term. We have to be sure we are tackling the right the problem. If you are busy fighting an ephemeral ‘patriarchy’ when the enemy are real economic conditions, you won’t get very far in advancing the interests of women.

    Minnow – by “better” I meant better than this, obviously – “this” being what Janis was talking about

    Ophelia, yes, of course, that is what I meant too, things are now better than what Janis was talking about, much, much better. Much better, I would guess, than anyone two decades ago could have imagined. remember when whole dramas would hinge on the strange novelty of a woman doctor or police officer? ‘I need to speak to Doctor Williams, urgently!’ ‘I am Dr Williams’ ‘But you are a … oh … I see … well I bloody hope you know what you are doing!’ [woman doc ironically and defiantly cocks eyebrow] etc, etc.

  25. 25
    SallyStrange

    See, minnow, as long as you characterize “patriarchy” as “ephemeral,” I can’t see why I should take you seriously. If you can’t accept that basic facet of reality, what else are you wrong about?

  26. 26
    SallyStrange

    More detailed response, because really, so much wrong.

    Sally, yes, and there have been studies confirming these things.

    Okay, so here you’re responding to my assertion of evidence with a shrug. There’s evidence for and against, but you can’t be arsed to find which way the balance swings. Great, that’s super helpful.

    It is fairly clear, at any rate, that women are more expensive to employ on average than men because of child bearing.

    Right so, you have utterly failed to address one of the more important ideas in my post to you, which is that, even supposing this evidence is as clear as you assert, saying “it’s because of childbearing” is NOT the same as saying “sexism has nothing to do with it.” You can’t even grapple with that relatively simple concept, apparently. It may be more expensive, from the perspective of the employer alone, and within the context of a patriarchal capitalist system in which the raising of one’s own children is unpaid labor. All that says is that the system basically is penalizing women for performing the essential labor of making more human beings. Am I wrong to think that this is a problem with the system, not women, and that this economic penalty women are forced to pay, regardless of whether they choose individually to reproduce or not, IS an example of sexism in action?

    Ignoring these things for ideological reasons may be emotionally satisfying in the short term but will not help women in the longs term.

    Why the insults? This is so slimy. And kinda sexist, too, in that it follows the classic misogynist pattern of dismissing women’s viewpoints because “emotion” and “emotion = bad & irrational”. You have no idea about my emotional response to this, so it’s totally inappropriate to try to attribute my opinions to said emotional response. And, if you are going to try to do that, it’s on you to explain the connection. I don’t ignore that employers pay women less; I just don’t accept, as you seem to, that this is a justifiable thing to do. And, frankly, a person who thinks “ephemeral” is an appropriate descriptor for “patriarchy” probably doesn’t have enough information to accurately gauge what is going to help women in either the short term or the long term.

    We have to be sure we are tackling the right the problem. If you are busy fighting an ephemeral ‘patriarchy’ when the enemy are real economic conditions, you won’t get very far in advancing the interests of women.

    Only an idiot or a liar invested in patriarchy denialism (a subset of sociology denialism) would be so foolish as to frame patriarchy as if it’s a separate/separable phenomenon from economic conditions.

    You veneer of respectability has been shattered.

  27. 27
    Minnow

    See, minnow, as long as you characterize “patriarchy” as “ephemeral,” I can’t see why I should take you seriously. If you can’t accept that basic facet of reality, what else are you wrong about?

    This is probably to late to be any use now, but just in case, here are a few responses. Of course you don’t have to take me seriously if you don’t want to, but you must realise that ‘patriarchy’ is not a basic facet of reality (how could it be? Reality’s basic facets existed eons before humanity) but is a theoretical framework for describing social realities. It may or may not be the right framework. The evidence so far for sociological models is that they have tended, in the long term to need quite a lot amendment. Personally, I don’t think that the patriarchy idea is useful, because I don’t think it has any explanatory power. patriarchies do exist, village life in the the Hindu Kush is patriarchal right through, so we have some empirical comparators, but they don’t look anything like our society. What happens in our society that needs the concept of patriarchy to explain it? I can’t put my finger on anything. But I may be wrong, of course.

    Am I wrong to think that this is a problem with the system, not women, and that this economic penalty women are forced to pay, regardless of whether they choose individually to reproduce or not, IS an example of sexism in action?

    Yes, I think you are wrong and this is the core of our disagreement. I do not think it is sexist to prefer the cheaper worker all other things being equal. In fact, our economic system depends on the assumption that employers will do this and this system has enriched and and powered more people, especially women, than any other in human history. That doesn’t mean that it is fair, or that capitalism is the last word. But if we agree that women are selected against because of economic conditions rather that cultural ones in the broader sense, we are getting closer to agreeing what needs to be done to understand what sort of problem it is and how to address it. I think it is unlikely that women are paid less because of patriarchy or anti-woman prejudice, it would make no sense over the medium term. It must be the other thing. I think we need Marx rather than Dworkin to help us here.

  28. 28
    rnilsson

    Minnow is an obvious small fish bottom-feeding bait handle. Just sayin’.

    @4 madsci: Reminded of the tired old joke, “the only time Microsoft has a product that doesn’t suck is when they try to make a vacuum cleaner”. And that wasn’t very funny either. Hope Tina made a better career elsewhere.

  1. 29
    Lesetipp: End harassment – Hier wohnen Drachen

    […] Unter dem Titel “End harassment” geht es um sexuelle Belästigung in der Wissenschaft. In einigen Wissenschaftsbereichen ist die Zahl der Frauen immer noch deutlich kleiner als die der Männer, was zu zusätzlichen Problemen führt. Ein Beispiel findet ihr hier. […]

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