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.

Presented Without Comment: “I Thought I Was Going To Die”

Content Note for, like, almost everything.

And to be clear, it’s not that I don’t want to comment, it’s simply that i don’t know what to say about setting someone’s hair on fire:

A 13-year-old girl is recovering after a classmate set her hair on fire, while other kids looked on laughing.

The incident happened while she was waiting at a bus stop, two blocks from the Gompers School, last Tuesday. Eighth-grader Nevaeh Robinson says a fellow classmate used a lighter to set her hair on fire.

“When it happened, I panicked real fast, because I thought I was going to die because it burned my hair so fast,” she said.

Don’t think that everything is okay except for this one minor “lighting another kid on fire” incident either:

Two years ago, a classmate broke Nevaeh’s thumb at another school.

I’ll let Nevaeh’s mom say a few words:

Robinson wants to see the bully kicked out of school.

“I want expulsion if you’re setting kids on fire,” said Robinson.

Ya think?



The Incivility Spreads

As you probably know, the staff of Maryland-based Capital Gazette were victims of a shooting attack, not to say mass murder or even terrorism (we much prefer “targeted attack”). CNN’s Anderson Cooper had two of the surviving victims on his show 360, both Gazette journalists, one named Selene San Felice the other Phil Davis. Both made important statements, but in response to the myriad thoughts and prayers sent in the direction of her and her surviving colleagues, the man and the woman who had just witnessed someone killed before their eyes had some pretty uncivil things to say:

Selene San Felice: I’ve heard that President Trump sends his prayers. … We need more than prayers. I appreciate the prayers. I was praying the entire time I was under that desk. I want your prayers but I want something else.

Phil Davis: … I was praying when he started reloading that shotgun that there weren’t going to be more bodies. And you know what? If we’re going to have a position in society where all we can offer each other is prayer then where are we?

San Felice: This is going to be a story for how many days? Less than a week? People will forget about us after a week unless, y’known, we keep tweeting. I don’t really care about tweeting right now. … I don’t know what I want right now, right? but I’m gunna need more than a couple days of news coverage and some thoughts and prayers. Because it’s…. Our whole lives have been shattered. And so, thanks for your prayers but I couldn’t give a f*ck about them if there’s nothing else.

While Fox News and conservatives generally are going to give San Felice and Davis a lecture about how their incivility caused their colleagues murders in yet another proof of the dictum pre hoc ergo propter hoc, lets give San Felice and Davis something different than blame, something better than lectures, something more than just thoughts and prayers.

If you’re a US citizen living anywhere or anyone living legally in the US, call your House Rep and your Senators and express yourself on what you think are appropriate government (and especially legislative) responses to mass murder.



Gah, NO! Peter Fonda What Is Wrong With You?


Peter Fonda is outraged at the injustice done by Trump’s policy and of the horrible suffering inflicted upon children being used as a political weapon to influence the policy choices of others. So, naturally, he suggests that Donald and Melania Trump’s child Barron should be caged and raped to encourage Trump to reformulate DOJ & DHS policies:

“We should rip Barron Trump from his mother’s arms and put him in a cage with pedophiles and see if mother will will (sic) stand up against the giant asshole she is married to,” Fonda wrote, in all caps.

This story was broken by right-wing websites who don’t deserve the links, but Holy Freuding Freud, Batman, Peter Fonda must face condemnation for this.

How moronic do you have to be to fail to realize that kidnapping and rape threats are not a path to justice?


These Are The Children: A Child Raped By Law Enforcement

This is intended to be a a first look at how undocumented immigrants with children come to the attention of ICE. This new series is not limited to documenting only children and parents who are separated from each other, and cannot guarantee that separation occurred for all the families mentioned. Instead, this series seeks only to illustrate how many families come to the attention of ICE and what a child-isolation policy might mean in those contexts.

I was struck by a particularly horrifying story today. It’s not unique. They’re never unique. But it’s one human example of how a woman and her child came to the attention of ICE.

A 47-year-old deputy with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office was arrested Sunday on allegations he repeatedly raped the 4-year-old daughter of an undocumented immigrant, threatening to deport her if she dared report him to the authorities.

It is not clear how long the mother was aware of the rapes, ….

Investigators say the deputy may have been raping the girl for months, if not years.

[Read more…]

Fascist Policing: Sacramento Edition II

Today I’d like to talk about the story of a man who wasn’t beaten by the cops, wasn’t arrested by them (at least in this encounter), wasn’t even searched by them. I want to talk about his story because it goes to the heart of the Black encounter with fascist policing today: the everyday, relentless, low-level harassment of Black residents of the US.

[Read more…]

Great American Satan Too Quick On The Draw: Valve Just Killed Good Faith, Again

So our dear colleague Great American Satan just put up a post on the failures of Valve to police its content and its vendors, creating headaches for its customers and sometimes even permitting scammers and/or abusive sellers to make customers feel worse than that. Go read, if you’re so inclined.

But, oh, the post was put up just hours too soon. PCGamer is reporting that the new Valve game to be sold through its Steam portal is getting calls for removal before it has been officially released. What kind of game could do that? Active Shooter, a game that, as far as I can tell, is Castle Wolfenstein where you get to choose to be the allies or the Nazis. There are two options for game play. In one, you’re a cop chasing down active shooters. In the other, the enemies are (on at least one level) fellow students in your imaginary high school and the cops that come to help rescue them. It looks like there may be additional, outside-of-school levels as well where your targets would not necessarily include high school students but would still include cops trying to do their jobs.

Yes, this is imaginary. Yes, there is a constitutional right in the US to design and attempt to sell such games. But no, people who create this type of content don’t get to be free from criticism, and the same right that protects the ability of dumb sociopaths to produce such a game also protects the rights of the rest of us to not only decline to buy the game, but also use our free expression to persuade other not to buy the game and even to persuade Valve/Steam to end their business relationship with the stupid-ass company (Acid) that produced this. Interestingly, even in places where speech is decidedly less free than the US, opposition is strong and vocal: PCGamer’s article leads with the news that a non-profit in the UK is calling for Valve to deep-six the game.

Despite correctly pointing out that other terrible games also exist, Acid deserves to take a major hit to its bottom line over this game, and if Valve continues to facilitate its wide release and to sell other games that encourage players to role-play malicious violence that simulates real-life situations, Valve deserves to lose money as well.

Rewatching To Catch A Predator: Rape Culture Makes Accurate Predictions

One of the less appreciated aspects of rape culture is how rapists are demonized, literally portrayed as animals, violently and obviously deranged, or otherwise clearly outside the human norm.

Part of this is addressed through push back against the “stranger in the bushes” myth. But even where we have been successful in raising awareness that

  1. a large amount of rape is perpetrated against children or vulnerable adults who know and are being supervised by their rapists and
  2. another large chunk of rape is perpetrated against people who first accept a date with someone who eventually rapes them

there is still a lingering myth that these rapists are somehow disguised demons, but demonic nonetheless. There is massive resistance to the idea that there’s a continuum of violation, instead insisting that, for instance, when Rebecca Watson asked repeatedly during a conference – even during her plenary address – not to be propositioned as she wasn’t at the conference for sex, someone ignoring that “no” and propositioning her anyway is completely and utterly different from someone who ignores a “no” to sex.

[Read more…]

Joe Biden is a Thug, and not the good kind

During an anti-violence rally, of all things, Joe Biden saw fit to declare:

“A guy who ended up becoming our national leader said, ‘I can grab a woman anywhere and she likes it,'” Mr. Biden told the crowd. “They asked me if I’d like to debate this gentleman, and I said ‘no.’ I said, ‘If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.’ “

In the midst of a national outcry about violence in schools, prompting but not only prompting intense, renewed attention on US gun laws, and at a rally specifically called to oppose violence, albeit focussed on sexualized violence, Biden chose to use his platform to endorse teens beating on teens.

As they say in the UK, “Good show, Mr. Biden. Good Show.”