So what can I do?

Over at Uncertain Principles, Chad is a bit frustrated with some of the discourse around the Pipeline Problem (that is, why are so few women retained in higher positions in science?):

One of the things that ends up bothering me about the discussion of how to get more women in science is that it tends to focus on the college and professional level. Everybody seems to have an anecdote about a creepy physics professor, or an unpleasant graduate student, or a sexist post-doc.
This bugs me for a couple of reasons. The obvious one being that I’m a college physics professor, and I’m not that guy. I’m not fool enough to try to deny that unreconstructed sexist pigs exist in the profession, but I’m not one of them, and neither are my immediate colleagues, and sweeping statements that lump us in with the pigs of the world bother me.

Now, Chad’s larger point is about intervention earlier in the pipeline; I largely agree, but I want to focus on something else:

sweeping statements that lump us in with the pigs of the world bother me

I’m a postdoc, and I try not to be That Asshole. When someone says something that effectively lumps me in with Those Assholes, I have an algorithm that allows me to avoid taking it personally:

  1. whatever cogent criticisms of sexist behaviour this person is making, do they in fact apply to me?
  2. if yes, fix problem (that is, fix self)
  3. if no, do said criticisms apply to anyone around me, or the environment I work in?
  4. if yes, how do I fix that? can the person making the criticisms also give me constructive advice?
  5. if no, there would appear to be nothing I can do here but be pointlessly offended, therefore *shrug*

Here’s my point, and I think it’s an important and somewhat underappreciated one: I think that not taking such things personally is one of the most important things I can do about the fact that “unreconstructed sexist pigs exist in the profession”. Allowing the people who bear the brunt of said pigs’ actions to vent without shutting them down just because “hey, I’m not like that” is a way to contribute to an anti-pig environment. I think of it this way:

Angry Female Scientist: my fucking profession is riddled with sexist assholes! Jesus fuck! I hate you bastards!
Male Option 1: I’m not like that/don’t generalize, you’ll alienate your allies/don’t be so emotional/etc
(This translates “shut up and keep your place”, not just immediately in the AFS’s mind but in a larger sense, in which an angry woman is immediately confronted, dismissed, argued with and ultimately ignored. Think about what happens when a man gets angry and makes overly general statements; he generally gets cut some slack, or at least left to vent.)
Male Option 2: Dude1, what happened? Did I do something?
(This translates “I accept that there’s a problem, that you have a right and a reason to be angry; I’m on your side, go ahead and vent, maybe tell me how I can help”.

I prefer MO2. I don’t want to be That Asshole, and I don’t want Those Assholes to feel free to be assholes in my presence. So I speak out, and when someone else speaks out — especially if it’s an AFS — I try to figure out if they’re legitimately mad at me and if they’re not, I let ’em vent and don’t take it personally. It’s healthy: there should be a hint of anger in the air, when women are still being raped on the job.
I’d rather be That Humorless Liberal than That Asshole.
P.S. Further to Chad’s opening point, it does indeed seem that everyone has an anecdote about some sexist creep or other. I take that as an indication that there are way too many sexist creeps in my profession: those stories don’t make themselves up.
—-
1American for “mate”; like “mate”, has become a unisex term.

12 thoughts on “So what can I do?

  1. How about asking the Angry Female Scientist to say “X is an asshole”, instead of “You’re all assholes”? I’m willing to believe that there’s a problem, and I’m even willing to admit that there’s a lot of X’s, but why is Angry Female Scientist suddenly entitled to stereotype and demean everyone in her path, whether they’re an asshole or not? Your description of MO1 seems fairly backward to me: are you saying that it’s ok when men do the same thing? It’s a tacky, low-class thing for a man to do, and it’s equally tacky and low-class for a woman to do.

  2. Angry Female Scientist: my fucking profession is riddled with sexist assholes! Jesus fuck! I hate you bastards!
    Male Option 1: I’m not like that/don’t generalize, you’ll alienate your allies/don’t be so emotional/etc
    Give me a little credit for tact.
    My gut reaction to this sort of statement is to be annoyed at being lumped in with the pigs, but it’s not what I say in response to people ranting.
    (This translates “shut up and keep your place”, not just immediately in the AFS’s mind but in a larger sense, in which an angry woman is immediately confronted, dismissed, argued with and ultimately ignored. Think about what happens when a man gets angry and makes overly general statements; he generally gets cut some slack, or at least left to vent.)
    See, this is more of the sort of thing that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me that this sort of thinking is the result of making exactly the same mistake that you accuse offended male physicists of making– it’s reading some intent into a comment that isn’t necessarily there.
    When I say “I’m not that guy,” I don’t mean “shut up and keep your place,” I mean “Please moderate your phrasing, because I do not appreciate being called a sexist pig.” Which is pretty similar to the way that “I hate you bastards” means “I am annoyed at some particular male physicist, and blowing off steam.” It’s not a perfect parallel, and people who are venting deserve more slack than people who are offended by venting, but it’s close enough that it bothers me.

  3. Winawer: The difference is that, while it’s not OK for a man to do it, he’ll get plenty of slack if he does. It’ll be laughed off and forgotten. Women, despite having (as it were) more reason to be unreasonable, are not given any leeway at all. They’ll be shut down on the spot, and called a bitch behind their backs. So I’m not saying AFS is entitled to hurt your feelings, I’m saying that it would be a good thing for you to do to shrug it off, cut her some slack, allow as how she has reason to be pissed. You want to be one of the good guys, right? Well, be one.
    Chad: it’s not about what you mean, it’s about what you say. And when I say “you”, here, I don’t so much mean you personally, since my impression is that you deserve plenty of credit for tact. I don’t doubt that you let the AFS rant away without yelling back at her or anything so crass as that. But here’s the thing: it’s difficult for women to express anger in social situations — they’re conditioned from early childhood not to do so, and they get a powerful negative reinforcement every time they do it. I think it’s important for me not to add to that negative reinforcement, even if on a given occasion I happen to think a particular AFS is going a bit too far. It’s better to let her vent and get the problem out in the open than to protect my delicate feelings, you know?
    Here’s where I think we differ:

    When I say “I’m not that guy,” I don’t mean “shut up and keep your place,” I mean “Please moderate your phrasing, because I do not appreciate being called a sexist pig.” Which is pretty similar to the way that “I hate you bastards” means “I am annoyed at some particular male physicist, and blowing off steam.” It’s not a perfect parallel, and people who are venting deserve more slack than people who are offended by venting, but it’s close enough that it bothers me.

    I simply think that it’s a very uneven parallel — that it’s not at all close. When the person venting is an AFS venting about sexism, and the person bothered by the venting is a male scientist — dude, suck it up. Take one for the team, and by team I mean the whole human race. The way women are treated in today’s world is an ethical disgrace and, in practical terms, a deeply stupid waste of resources.

  4. P.S. another translation for Australian readers: “suck it up” means “cop it sweet”. Two nations divided by a common language, indeed.

  5. Chad: it’s not about what you mean, it’s about what you say.
    The problem is both. Or, to be a bit less cryptic about it, the problem is that the way a statement is meant and the way it is heard are completely different. And also that a given statement is frequently interpreted as if the perceived meaning was the intended meaning.
    I don’t consider “Please don’t call me a sexist pig” to be an attempt to shut down conversation, or to say “Shut up and know your place.” To my mind, it’s equivalent to “By all means, let’s discuss this, but with a bit less invective.” If it’s going to be taken as “shut up and know your place,” then it’s going to be difficult to have a productive conversation. And if it’s going to be taken as if I meant to say “shut up and know your place,” then we’re going to have serious problems.
    If I have to worry not just about what I want to say, but also the full range of possible interpretations might be put on what I say– and it’s a wide range, because “shut up and know your place” isn’t a natural interpretation for me– the net effect is to make me less inclined to even have the conversation. I’ll just make vague agreeable noises, and change the subject as soon as possible. And God only knows how that comes off.
    (And, again, “Please don’t call me a sexist pig” isn’t the first thing I say when the subject comes up. I’m happy to cut people slack while they’re venting, because God knows, I do enough venting of my own, and would like some reciprocal slack.)

  6. By the way, something is screwy with your blogging software– when I follow the permalink to this entry, I see the comment box, but not the previous comments. I have to go to the front page, and then click the “comments(4)” link to see what’s already been posted.
    I’m using Opera under Windows XP, if that matters.

  7. I don’t think we’re really disagreeing. If someone has effectively called you a sexist pig, I’m not trying to say that you should not — when all concerned have cooled off some — discuss the issue. On the contrary, more people should discuss the issue more often! And at that point, if “let’s discuss this, but with a bit less invective” meets with a hostile reaction there’s not a lot you can do, and being offended is probably not an unreasonable reaction. It’s far more likely that the person will say “Look, I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to include you, it’s just that X” which is the perfect opportunity to discuss how to deal with X.
    I think I have been unclear about my “translations”, though. When someone is angry, anything you say is filtered through that anger and “please don’t call me a sexist pig” can easily become “shut up, etc”. We all know how that works, but the larger point is what I really wanted to get at — that women’s anger typically gets a different response from men’s. A woman’s anger becomes the focus of the situation — women aren’t supposed to get angry — and the substance of her complaints is lost. So when the first reaction to an Angry Female Scientist rant is negative and confrontational — “I’m not that guy” etc — it reinforces the idea that her anger, not the behaviour that prompted it, is the problem. You say

    “Please don’t call me a sexist pig” isn’t the first thing I say when the subject comes up

    and that’s pretty much all I’m arguing for. Don’t push back against the anger, focus on the substance — and if your feelings are more hurt than you can shrug off in the name of solidarity, then talk about it quietly and privately at some later, opportune moment.

  8. And thanks for the heads-up about the weird MT glitch. I can repeat the behaviour on FireFox/WinXP, too.
    I am a tech ignoramus and my technical crew (spousal unit) is busybusybusy at the moment, but I’ll get her to take a look when she has some free time.

  9. Winawer: The difference is that, while it’s not OK for a man to do it, he’ll get plenty of slack if he does. It’ll be laughed off and forgotten. Women, despite having (as it were) more reason to be unreasonable, are not given any leeway at all. They’ll be shut down on the spot, and called a bitch behind their backs. So I’m not saying AFS is entitled to hurt your feelings, I’m saying that it would be a good thing for you to do to shrug it off, cut her some slack, allow as how she has reason to be pissed. You want to be one of the good guys, right? Well, be one.

    So, AFS is wrong for doing it, but we should cut her slack and let her do it anyway. Your argument is backwards: you should be arguing against men doing it, not suggesting that we should give AFS more room to hurl invective. If it’s wrong, both sides should be punished for it equally; if it’s not wrong, then neither should be. As an illustration, let’s repeat your quote with a few key phrases changed:

    Winawer: The difference is that, while it’s not OK for a man to rob a bank, he’ll get plenty of slack if he does. It’ll be laughed off and forgotten. Women, despite having (as it were) more reason to be bank robbers, are not given any leeway at all. They’ll be shut down on the spot, and called a thief behind their backs. So I’m not saying AFS is entitled to steal your money, I’m saying that it would be a good thing for you to do to shrug it off, cut her some slack, allow as how she has reason to be pissed. You want to be one of the good guys, right? Well, be one.

    Do you see what I mean? I have no compassion for anyone, man or woman, who is that rude and inconsiderate. However, if AFS wants to come to me and vent about a particular asshole, and perhaps discuss some options / solutions / etc., I’m all ears. Send her my way.

  10. You can’t seriously mean to equate robbing a bank with venting about assholery in the workplace. I’m talking about extenuating circumstances and calling for a little understanding. You say “I have no compassion…” — maybe that’s the problem. A little empathy goes a long way.

  11. I’m not equating the severity of the offence, I’m pointing out the equivalence in the logic – I’m saying that if you define something as being “not OK”, then you can’t cherry pick who it’s “not OK” for. I have plenty of empathy, and I would love to help achieve equality for women, but I don’t think that being indiscriminately condescending and rude is something that requires “empathy”; I think it’s something that requires censure. You don’t have to allow yourself to be beaten with a stick to be part of the solution.

  12. This may come in far too late to aid discussion, but I found your blog by following a link on scientiae-carnival.
    You probably should interpret AFS’s rant to mean, “I already know you’re one of the good guys, so I’m talking to you as I would to another woman . . . I’m trusting you.”
    I would NEVER speak so to a man whom I didn’t trust entirely to be a human first and a man second. And yes, it IS rude, so I usually have to finish up with, “and you know I don’t mean YOU, sweetie, I’m just fed up and venting.” If you don’t get that piece, I think it’s a very good idea to remind AFS that you are not among the assholes — which will undoubtedly elicit it.
    It’s certainly a poorly-phrased and backhanded compliment to be the recipient of such a rant, but it is a high compliment nonetheless.

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