A lack of ability in the upper echelons

PZ has frequently written about how sexism affects the number of women taking degrees in certain fields, and the smaller percentage of degree takers who go on to the next level of academic activity (a higher degree, a research fellowship, a teaching position, etc.). While you inevitably have a large number of men insisting that meritocracy has everything to do with this, on the face of it such hypotheses are very hard to justify. After all, if women are graduating with the same degrees and the same grades, why shouldn’t the same percentage be welcomed into the next stage of professional development. One popular theory has been, and continues to be, the idea that men have more variability – the bell curve of merit is flatter for men than for women, with larger numbers of truly incompetent and large numbers of genius men compared to incompetent and genius women. PZ has been tackling this myth for a long time.

And yet, the disparity exists. So it’s worth taking the time to attack the problem when another report comes out to verify its persistence. That Pharyngula post I linked showed that the disparity in entering science professions is cultural rather than genetic (in large part by showing that the disparity is stable and reproducibly consistent over time, institution, and location within a country, but varies widely when crossing over a border into a different country). So cultural factors are driving this … but which cultural factors?

It can’t be said enough that you can’t predict the psychology or motivations or life circumstances of a single individual from aggregate data, but quantitative research can still be informative. With all that in mind, I bring up the most recent bit of research to tackle one aspect of the enduring myth that men deserve their science positions and women just … don’t. It comes from ScienceMag.org. Study investigator Lauren Aycock and her peers gave a questionaire about sexualization and sexual harassment in academic spaces to 455 undergraduate women physics students. 74.3% (338/455)
reported behaviors that form core aspects of sexual harassment. THREE IN FOUR.

Now, it must be said that for something to meet the definition and to have the effects we normally describe as sexual harassment the behavior must repeat. The authors do not gloss over this, but instead make a strong case that most if not quite all of these 338 respondents are experiencing sexual harassment as defined in the case law surrounding Title IX. Read the entire journal article yourself and you will understand just how serious and compelling this research is – far more serious and compelling, and far different qualitatively, than asking students if anyone has ever called them pretty. I bring this up because many sexist jerks use the fact that the full effects of sexual harassment cannot be understood without putting the rare assaults in the contest of quotidian sexualizing and sexist behaviors. When a single report addresses both, as they are justified in doing and likely to do, the defenders of the harassing status quo will strip individual sexualizing comments from the context of harassment and insist that they didn’t know it was wrong to compliment women on their appearances. The work from Aycock, et. al. is exactly of the kind and quality we need to keep up the pressure on institutions to create academic, research, and professional pipelines open to all qualified persons.

I am pleased to note that the publishers of the Aycock, et. al. paper (Physical Review: Physics Education Research) publish an editorial comment as well. That comment is written by a woman scientist at Michigan State University, Julie Libarkin. While I mention her name merely because she deserves credit for her writing and her advocacy, I mention her affiliation because MSU is where I majored in physics … for a year and a half. Although the reasons for leaving MSU were complicated and had a lot to do with my personal history that included abuse experienced years before college, it also had quite a lot to do with the atmosphere of sexism and general gender rigidity that made it difficult for me as a closeted trans* woman to find community or a sense of belonging. Aycock’s paper itself addresses sense of belonging and imposter syndrome as important factors in why people discontinue work – either in the middle of a degree, as I did, or when considering whether or not to take the next step after completing a degree or fellowship.

I’m glad to know that Libarkin is at MSU today and using her voice for the betterment of physics education, but the problem has persisted for too long already. Too many people that might once have chosen to be scientists made other choices because of changeable conditions of cultural climate.

And that’s why we have to ask if the people at the top of the science education pyramid, the tenured professors, the department chairs, the university presidents, actually have the ability to lead. When I reported harassment, lack of belonging, and imposter syndrome at MSU, I was sent to student counseling, as if my psychology was the only problem. And yes, while there I talked about other things, things that made me uniquely vulnerable. I was diagnosed with depression (not for the first time) and with PTSD (also not for the first time). But here’s the thing: the presence of those things made it less likely that I would be able to overcome the hostile cultural climate at MSU, but they did not render the cultural climate magically irrelevant. It’s possible that even a wounded child could, with the right support, start and finish university in one go. Sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, and ableism combined to make what I told the MSU physics department meaningless. As affected as I am and was and have been by mental illness, I’m not without insight into the human condition or the ability to express it.

And so I wonder, do the people we place in positions of academic power really have upper-echelon ability to lead an educational department? Let me answer that question with another question: Do we graduate fewer people and do more of the people we graduate avoid certain sciences, certain departments because of ongoing oppression? I think that answer is clearly yes. It was yes when I left MSU and Aycock, et. al. make a convincing case that the same is true today. I know MSU had this information in 1990 – I know because I told them. But it’s certain that they had this information decades before that. And if I didn’t personally inform professors or ombuds in other universities around the world, I don’t doubt that they, too, had the same information available on roughly the same timeframe. In fact, many disciplines have done a better job rooting out gender bias than physics and some other sciences have.

And so the truth is this: while we’ve disproved the idea that women are underrepresented in science faculties because women are simply underrepresented in the upper ranks of ability, I believe that the evidence is also sufficient to prove that women are underrepresented in physics programs and faculties in significant part because physics department chairs are underrepresented in the upper ranks of educational ability.

Someone needs to start kicking out the people who have been tolerating the harassment of 3/8ths of humanity in the hope that somehow we’ll get better science from 4/8ths.

If I only had a brain: What I should have written, but didn’t write, but someone else wrote, so you’re saved.

The Attorney General of the USA has, helpfully, provided us with a summary of the Harry Potter books. Interestingly, it concludes that Voldemort was innocent.

William Barr publishes summary of Harry Potter series claiming Voldemort was “completely exonerated”

 

You really can’t know how badly I want to take credit for that. Purest genius. My favorite quote?

Those unfamiliar with how these things work will no doubt point to evidence of things like killing people as examples of wrong-doing, but the evidence is weak at best.

It’s short. You have no excuse not to read it in its entirety.

 

Sometimes you just have to be understanding of a little rape.

In Madison, Wisconsin two students confronted another in a bathroom after the regular school day had ended on April 10th. The first two raped the third. Not to fear, however, the school district’s head of safety and security is here to put it all in perspective:

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Cthulhu Found In The Depths – UPDATED!

In the Proceedings of the Royal Academy B tomorrow (later today for those a few hours ahead of me) there will be an article announcing the description and naming of a new critter, Sollasina cthulhu. Related to the sea cucumber, Sollasina is definitely ancient at ~430my old, squarely in the middle of the Silurian. As a benthic scavenger and/or grazer, it was also definitely lurking in the deeps, though perhaps no more than a couple hundred meters at most. NewAtlas has a popular article up right now, including this artist’s reconstruction created by Elissa Martin at the Peabody Museum, Yale:

Elissa Martin’s artistic reconstruction of Sollasina cthulhu. Credit: Peabody Museum, Yale

 

Expect public access to the Proceedings B paper to go live within the next few hours. For now, you’ll just have to make do with that link to Proceedings B’s recent articles and hope it shows up. There is currently no word on the sanity of the paleontologists who originally uncovered the specimen or the preparators who spent countless hours staring into its tentacle-dominated face.

 


 

UPDATE: The paper is out!

The title is exactly what you’d expect from someone driven mad by the thing:

A new ophiocistioid with soft-tissue preservation from the Silurian Herefordshire Lagerstätte, and the evolution of the holothurian body plan

Dig in!

 

The Immigrant, The Idiot, and The Judgement

Look, Donald Trump is an idiot. We all know that. It’s not so much that he’s ignorant, he is arrogantly ignorant. He personifies the worst-case Dunning-Kruger effect. Previously the most perfect example of this was uttered a mere 40 days or so into his presidency as he announced (again) his intention to repeal Obamacare:

Now, I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.

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Calvin & Hobbes: Still Relevant

In the ongoing catastrophe in which we live, one week away from no-deal Brexit, TERFs ignoring how humans actually interact with other humans, the majority of the US denying climate change as they blindly follow fossil-fuel based energy companies off the cliff, the work of Bill Watterson is still frightfully relevant:

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Useless Vanity. Or Not.

Over on the PZ post “Let’s Smoke Out Some More TERFs” a discussion developed in which Susan Stryker & Sandy Stone were mentioned. In that thread, I mentioned being one person of, I am sure, many who were forced independently to coin “transfeminism” when the “trans-” prefix trend was emerging. From people like Sandy Stone and Sylvia Rivera who were adult activists while I was too young to control my bladder to youngsters like, well, me, a lot of work had been done incorporating feminism into trans* activism by the 1990s. However, it was always in a haphazard, highly individualized way. There wasn’t a broader and explicit call to make our trans* activism feminist or our feminism trans* inclusive. The movements were largely separate, both nominally and functionally, even if philosophically they were closely related in myriad ways.

In response to this observation that I was doing transfeminism before there was a word (or at least a publicly recognized word) for transfeminism, HJ Hornbeck asked if I was involved in the early transfeminist movement, even if neither I nor anyone else could ever be called a single originator or even indispensable to the movement. In response, I wrote a small personal history that after some thinking I decided I might want to be able to find again. So, I’m preserving it here in its own post even though both of my readers have probably already seen it on Pharyngula. Call it an exercise in personal vanity. Or call it oral history of an interesting time of transition. Call it whatever you like, but if you haven’t read it, here it is.

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