Gender Inequity In Science: Why Legal Remedies Are Grossly Inadequate

When I was poking around at the Protein Wisdom right-wing wackaloon treehouse seeing what they had to say about my fisking of the NY Times piece on Title IX and science, I stumbled upon a species of apologist argument that I would like to address generically. The basic idea is that there must not be inequitable discrimination in some venue, because if there were, those discriminated against would be suing left and right, thus providing a strong incentive for the institutions that control that venue to stamp out discrimination.

Well the fatal flaw with this argument is that the overwhelmingly vast majority of inequitable discrimination that occurs in science is not legally actionable. I will illustrate this with shit I have seen with my own two eyes.

I have seen a very senior male scientist turn to a young female scientist in the context of a small group of men and women and state, “I’m imagining you right now in a bikini”.

I have been at a conference where all the big swinging dick male machers pompously lob each other softballs after each other’s presentations, but then gang up and mercilessly hound a prominent senior female scientist after her presentation, even so far as to carry on the hounding for over a half hour into the supposed “open-topic” discussion period. And not a single one of the organizers or anyone else did a single fucking thing to try to move the discussion on.

I have been at an alcohol-soaked science-related social event where a male faculty member leeringly tried to feel up a junior female post-doc.

I have heard a male plenary speaker at a major conference lead off his talk by telling a joke about a female scientist giving a seminar in which the punchline was “I don’t care if I can hear you, so long as I can see you”.

And I have seen female scientists with tears in their fucking eyes after shit like this happens. I know female scientists who speak too goddamn quietly, because they know that when they raise their voices, their pitch rises too, and then they sound like shrill harpies.

I know many brilliant female scientists who are uncertain of their own brilliance, and many not-so-brilliant male scientists who are certain of their own brilliance.

None of this shit taken individually is legally actionable, but it adds up incrementally to severe inequitable discrimination, just like a dripping pipe, over time, eats a hole into a fucking concrete floor.

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59 Responses

  1. octogalore
    octogalore July 17, 2008 at 8:49 pm |

    Good point — in many employment arenas, and especially in male-dominated fields like tech, science, medicine, law, finance — the discrimination is nuanced enough to be difficult to piece together a case that would fly.

    On the other hand, some of these examples are more extreme than others and would be the kind of thing that could be reported internally and result in senior people being warned and having to go to to sexual harrassment training. The training itself might not take the misogyny out of the misogynist, but could create shame and fear that would prevent further action.

    This happened to someone I placed at a law firm. He brought in $5M a year to the firm. He made a comment to a young female Asian associate about her anatomy. She lodged a complaint and he was called to the firm’s HQ and given a pretty harsh court martial and warning.

    Of course, more suble stuff like the conference is harder to talk about without getting predictably stupid comebacks. There’s a host of subtle sexism that is deliberately crafted to be difficult to report.

    I hope by “they sound like shrill harpies” you meant “others think they do.”

  2. Peter
    Peter July 17, 2008 at 8:52 pm |

    Yeah, I saw a lot of this type crap in the department where I went to graduate school.

    The fact is the most insidious forms of sexism or racism are institutionalized and not legally actionable. A sexual harassment case, or a racial discrimination case is an extremely high legal bar to document and prosecuted. And there’s a lot of subtle bias that is far beyond the bounds of legal recourse.

    I tell you what – some of the worst sexist goons in a professional environment I ever knew where male PhDs in science departments. I don’t know why that is. Maybe the environment these guys grow up in is just different…., from graduate school, to post-doc, to tenure faculty maybe some of them just spend years in an environment that breeds a sense of entitlement, ego and reinforces their biases.

  3. Ginger
    Ginger July 17, 2008 at 9:04 pm |

    Does anybody know why male scientists are like this? I mean, I understand that science IS a boys’ club, but why? Does science attract a certain kind of asshole? Were these guys the nerds who were beaten up by the jocks in high school? Are they still angry that they couldn’t nail the cheerleaders back then? I work in a creative field, which has its own problems, but from what I’ve seen, guys who act like this have very angry inner teenagers. Their currency is their brains, so they don’t like women who are also very smart – it ruins their game. Thoughts?

  4. Anne
    Anne July 17, 2008 at 9:28 pm |

    Peter is right on. I don’t know much about the corporate world, but my impression is that there are often consequences for sexist/racist/homohobic bullying in most professional environments where everyone has at least a college degree. Not so in academic science.

  5. Peggy
    Peggy July 17, 2008 at 9:29 pm |

    And I think women often miss out on the social networking that can be a boost to a scientific career. It’s not just meeting the big players, but forming the kind of friendly relationship that allows you to hear the latest gossip about who is working on what, set up collaborations and share reagents, and get the inside scoop on grant writing and the publication process, And it certainly can’t hurt if the person writing you a recommendation thinks of you as a mentee and/or friend. But those kinds of relationships can’t be legislated.

  6. natmusk
    natmusk July 17, 2008 at 9:29 pm |

    I see this occasionally within the mental health field as well. I run an intensive outpatient group for addictions and many of my clients are angry about being there. I have occasionally had a male therapist pick up some parts of my group due to time constraints and they all feel the need to seek me out and tell me how THEY think I should run the group. I had a women there who was very distrustful and it took me three session to get her to open up. One male had her once and proceeded to tell me how she needed to be removed from group for being disruptive. I kept trying to let him know that it was part of her distrust but he gave me that look that is basically a pat on the head and then brought it up in staffing about how he thought she should be removed. Luckily both of my supervisors are women and listened to my voice over his.

    I also get a lot of disbelieving looks when I tell them I have no problem with people acting up within my groups. Apparently they think the poor woman can’t handle confrontation and aggression. This is not sexual harassment in a legal way but if my supervisors and decided to value their opinion over mine it could have presented me as a less able therapist and could have affected my advancement at my facility.

  7. dananddanica
    dananddanica July 17, 2008 at 9:36 pm |

    When I read that way of thinking, I see it as a fork in the road in some ways. They think if it was -really- going on than the people it hurts would sue as they know thats something people can do. I see this going one of two ways. 1. they will just continue to think nothing is going on and that if something does go on, that injured party will just sue. In that scenario you see more and more posters who dont get it. 2. They will wonder why there arent more lawsuits and perhaps look into it a little and learn about all the types of discrimination, both overt and subtle, and come to realize there is a problem with the system itself and its not something that can be remedied solely through litigation and that lack of litigation on a specific front does not mean nothing bad is going on.

    To me it seems like a natural process in coming in from the cold of the fucked up system we have and more and more people will choose option #2. Perhaps I’m a little too optimistic and personalizing too much.

  8. Anne
    Anne July 17, 2008 at 9:48 pm |

    Ginger, Some scientists are frustrated at the level of pay they are receiving for the amount of schooling they have. PhDs are as educated as MDs and JDs, but they make far less money, especially in the early stages of their careers. (MDs and JDs also have huge debts from tuition, which PhDs often do not, btw.) I know one misogynistic scientist who is bitter about his career prospects and may see women scientists as taking away his job/salary. Also, many post-doctoral researchers are married to/dating non-scientist professionals who make more than them, which some sexist men find emasculating and they re-assert their “manliness” by objectifying women.

    In some fields, there is a general macho culture about work hours and accomplishments that helps propagate sexism. Also, the whole system of academic science is set up as an old boy’s club. In order to obtain prestige/power/funding/publications, other scientists have to say that you deserve it. This happens through peer review of grants and publications as well as committees that make hiring and promotional decisions.

  9. Dana
    Dana July 17, 2008 at 9:55 pm |

    Wow, that’s depressing. I’m going to uni next year to do an undergraduate in chem, after dropping out of a biol/chem degree a couple of years ago. I really enjoyed chemistry for the first time in my life then, and in frustration with how my life’s going at the moment I just want to study something I enjoy and go from there.

    Now, I have no plans of getting into academia per se, but those stories make me slightly tearful in my hungover state. Especially after contemplating recently how much I fucking hate working with women (I’ve worked at the SPCA and now a vet clinic, both of which are predominantly female staff and it’s killing me)… I used to be in the Naval Reserve and I have never fit in anywhere as well as going to see with the regular Navy, on a little Inshore Patrol Craft with 14 men and 1 other woman (sometimes maybe 1 more woman, always outnumberered though as I’m a seaman). I was more me, more relaxed, fit in better – every time I left a ship they’d tell me I’d be back. I felt so at home in that super fucking boys club, exactly as some of the other female reservists didn’t and I don’t working with women.

    On the plus side, when I was at uni last I really really enjoyed how supportive the science departments were. The chemistry wing was quiet and relaxed compared to the rest of the campus, filled with sun and people talking quietly. All the lecturers were incredibly supportive and helpful and loved their jobs, and when I was having real trouble because dramas at home had me dropping behind (this is why I left) the head of 1st year chem was really happy to spend hours with me explaining things and just chatting.

    I hope that’s slightly indicative of the higher levels of science-academia in NZ. Haha, and as for physics, the super-manly science (ha!), I can tell you at least one of the lecturers is a really great guy: I used to do kickboxing with him. Hard little bastard :D

  10. Peter
    Peter July 17, 2008 at 10:02 pm |

    Wow, that’s depressing. I’m going to uni next year to do an undergraduate in chem, after dropping out of a biol/chem degree a couple of years ago. I really enjoyed chemistry for the first time in my life then, and in frustration with how my life’s going at the moment I just want to study something I enjoy and go from there.

    You should totally go for it. Don’t let these horror stories bum you out. There’s challenges for women in academia, just like most professional fields. But, not all the guys are goons. And plenty of women are kicking ass in science.

    You know what’s weird? I’ve worked in academia, corporate america, and government. And, I know this is totally anecdotal and perhaps not empirical…but the least sexist environment I worked in was government. There is zero tolerance of sexual harrassment or racial discrimination. I think our professional staff is at least 50% women. And more and more of our management is increasingly female. I don’t know why its different than academia or corporations. Its just my experience, doesn’t mean its universal.

  11. Chinmusician
    Chinmusician July 17, 2008 at 10:04 pm |

    PP, Perhaps you have earned the benefit of the doubt as, presumeably a statistics-trained scientist, in being able to grasp the distinction between between mere anecdotal incidents and real data. If so, and these incidents are representative of science in academia, I would venture that there is a big difference between it and the fraternity (as in brotherhood and sisterhood) of scientists in my little corner of the corporate world. Perhaps there aren’t nearly the monster egos in the corporate world, or maybe it’s the threat of extra scrutiny the business arena receives, since lawyers can smell where the deep pockets are.

  12. grapeshot
    grapeshot July 17, 2008 at 10:26 pm |

    PhysioProf, I just want to thank you. Really, truly, and seriously. You making these posts– while they’re not point by point analysis of complex politics, or anything of that sort– is immensely meaningful to me, as a woman going into the hard sciences. It’s so liberating to hear someone else call this shit out. I don’t mean to give you extra points for being a dude, but it really is great to know that some guys see this kind of stuff aimed at their female coworkers, and that it makes them angry, too. Keep blogging!

  13. Mandolin
    Mandolin July 17, 2008 at 10:42 pm |

    Excellent analysis, and applicable to many fields.

  14. Portia
    Portia July 17, 2008 at 11:04 pm |

    Dana, I’ve worked in NZ and US (more in the latter), and on the whole, I’ve found NZ men to either more evolved or better mannered than US men, at least wrt sexism in the workplace. I work in computer science, and I’ve heard men in the US say some stunningly foolish things (“Gary, you are such a WOMAN!” Yes, that’s intended as an insult.) But I’ve never experienced anything like that here, nor the same level of…silent condescension for want of a better term.

    There is sexism here in Aotearoa too, but it takes a different form, I think. Anyway, please don’t let that stand in your way – do what makes you happy and let the bastards rot.

  15. Aaron
    Aaron July 17, 2008 at 11:23 pm |

    My experience isn’t a representative sampling, but it is my experience that there is a large generation gap, and things are getting better as the older generation is dying off. Not that the upcoming generation is particularly good, but in comparison…

    (Undergrad 1995-2000, Grad 2003-current, physics)

  16. Following up on Feministe: Gender Inequity In Science: Why Legal Remedies Are Grossly Inadequate « The Eclectic Hedonist

    [...] July 17, 2008 at 10:32 pm (Uncategorized) Gender Inequity In Science: Why Legal Remedies Are Grossly Inadequate [...]

  17. Following up on Feministe: Gender Inequity in Science « The Eclectic Hedonist

    [...] July 17, 2008 at 10:33 pm (Uncategorized) Tags: feminism, science, women in science, sexism, inequity, psychology, social psychology Gender Inequity In Science: Why Legal Remedies Are Grossly Inadequate [...]

  18. exholt
    exholt July 17, 2008 at 11:35 pm |

    Ginger, Some scientists are frustrated at the level of pay they are receiving for the amount of schooling they have. PhDs are as educated as MDs and JDs, but they make far less money, especially in the early stages of their careers. (MDs and JDs also have huge debts from tuition, which PhDs often do not, btw.)

    Funny you made the comparison between Science PhD education and JD education as seemingly equivalent as every science Phd student/graduate I’ve known will take great umbrage with that equivalent comparison for 2 reasons:

    1. Many science grad students/PHD graduates I’ve met tended to regard law school..along with other pre-professional grad programs like MBA programs in the same light as the “non-rigorous” humanities and social science grad students/education and thus, nowhere in the same league as they in terms of academic rigor and thus….proof of “inferior intelligence”.

    2. Their education usually requires more years to complete culminating in a rigorously researched PhD thesis by which their entire worth as a scientist up to that point will be judged as opposed to pre-professional programs like MBA or JD programs where you take a few years worth of classes and with no thesis requirement. MDs, however, are considered on the same level despite being only 4 years long and no thesis requirement due to excessively cutthroat level of competition for admission to medical schools and a lot of rigorously heavy science content.

    Hey….I never said they were consistent. IMNSHO……they are full of it.

  19. exholt
    exholt July 18, 2008 at 12:13 am |

    Does science attract a certain kind of asshole? Were these guys the nerds who were beaten up by the jocks in high school? Are they still angry that they couldn’t nail the cheerleaders back then? I work in a creative field, which has its own problems, but from what I’ve seen, guys who act like this have very angry inner teenagers. Their currency is their brains, so they don’t like women who are also very smart – it ruins their game.

    This may apply to some…but as with all stereotypes….they are not necessarily representative. One thing I have noticed with nearly all of the science grad students/PhDs……including an older cousin is that they tend to be singularly focused on their research/field at the expense of almost everything else. Even socialization is minimized to the obligatory and often not very pleasurable family gatherings or more preferably….meetings/hangouts with fellow scientists in their field to hash out ideas, commiserate about the common miseries/challenges of being grad students/scientists in their field, informal professional networking, and otherwise attempt to revel in the exclusivity of being members of the “intellectual elect” as science grad students/scientists.

    There seems to also be this attitude that socialization for its own sake is a frivolous thing to be disdained and looked down upon as an unproductive waste of time. The closest pop analogy is Mr. Spock’s attitude towards emotion and irrationality taken to absurdly strict extremes. As women are often associated in their minds with “frivolous socialization”….that attitude is one of many which shapes sexist attitudes in academic science, sci-tech companies, and public/private research labs.

  20. shah8
    shah8 July 18, 2008 at 1:45 am |

    I didn’t see very much of this…although people sometimes giggled about one of my undergrad professors because they thought he was afraid of women. Emory doesn’t seem to have as much of a vicious atmosphere in the sciences wrt women. Georgia Tech, though…*very* few women sporting lab-coats (the biotech/engineering people seems to be more integrated) and “Dr”, and many of the guys definitly had tinges of anti-women attitudes–especially the older ones.

    As far as to why? Heh, because the main reason many people put themselves through hell getting those doctoral degree is so they can say they’re better than other people. Hell, while I didn’t have too much of this from class and lab rooms, I most definitly cought a bunch of that flack outside. When a deaf dude outdoes a certain sort of guy in just about anything…they really resent it, even at stuff that got nuttin to do with nuttin, like chess.

    Also, one last data point:
    It doesn’t take *everyone* to make an environment terrible for “transgressors”. It only takes one or two people with an agenda and some intuition about handling other people to herd a group into behaving atrociously. You can see this all the time in a blog post that devolved into a flame war. The most bigoted of people will always try to find a popular reason to trash someone he/she hates. Many others then pile on for their own reasons.

  21. octogalore
    octogalore July 18, 2008 at 1:49 am |

    “Some scientists are frustrated at the level of pay they are receiving for the amount of schooling they have. PhDs are as educated as MDs and JDs, but they make far less money, especially in the early stages of their careers.”

    None of this is a mystery. This is all pretty easily discovered prior to investing the time, if economics are a big concern. Let’s at least acknowledge that PhD candidates are typically smart and good at research, and therefore are able to determine ahead of time (1) average incomes in their fields of research post doc and (2) why, given our capitalistic system, this makes sense per basic laws of supply and demand.

    And why not include MBA? That’s only two years, much less rigorous than JD or MD, and typically with higher net income thereafter.

  22. J.
    J. July 18, 2008 at 3:00 am |

    “Wackaloon treehouse.” LOL.

    Knowing sexist shit like this continues to happen everywhere in science – and lots of other places, like, say, the U.S. government – makes me wonder how and why these assholes continually somehow get into positions of power in the first place. It’s kind of amazing, if you think about it.

  23. Riva
    Riva July 18, 2008 at 4:49 am |

    This is a bit depressing. I am working at a Nanobio facility in Germany currently, and while I’m happy to say most of the Biologists I’ve come into contact with here are pretty reasonable in this respect, many of the engineers I know in the department are shockingly offensive. It seems to be an entirely different culture there; I can’t tell you the number of off-colour jokes I’ve already heard, even if they weren’t always directed at me. Similarly, the biggest insult is usually calling someone, or some object, a woman, or a skanky device, or what have you. Coming from a Bio department where I’ve always heard “Awesome! We need more women in science” the whole thing has been a bit of a shock. Science/work in Germany is pretty stacked against women entering into it, too, but I suppose that’s something different again.

    I guess you can look at the whole thing as either a challenge to just live through and survive in, or as an opportunity to change things. It’s harder to do the latter when you’re not in the system, so that’s where I’ll be.

  24. Dr. Confused
    Dr. Confused July 18, 2008 at 5:50 am |

    In industry, sexism tends to come from sources within your own company, and while it’s hard, if the pattern is egregious enough you can sue for creating a hostile environment. In academia, you interact with others from a number of different institutions, and that’s where much of the sexism comes in. That is, you can’t sue “Science” for creating a hostile work environment, and you’re not going to be able to sue each individual scientist for a specific sexist incident.

    The peer review system, and its deliberate anonymity (necessary for some aspects of it to work as intended), also allows for egregious sexism and racism. Female Science Professor has a post about an explicitly racist comment in a review: http://science-professor.blogspot.com/2008/07/rescind-to-sender.html

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  26. Lab Lemming
    Lab Lemming July 18, 2008 at 7:27 am |

    “I have been at a conference where all the big swinging dick male machers pompously lob each other softballs after each other’s presentations, but then gang up and mercilessly hound a prominent senior female scientist after her presentation”

    Worse still is when an early career woman scientist gives a ground-breaking talk and the living fossils ignore the high level implications and ask elementary methodology questions until time is up.

    Softballs aren’t just for friends.

  27. bsci
    bsci July 18, 2008 at 7:51 am |

    This post also highlighted one of the bigger differences between discrimination in academia and other fields. In many corporate fields, your promotion, advancement, and much of your interactions happen inside a company. Thus, if someone is hostile to you or your superiors allow outsiders to do inappropriate things, they could face legal problems.

    In academia, if an outside professor at another school does something, there is absolutely nothing that is possible within the legal system. That person isn’t formally a coworker and there is no leadership structure that encompasses both people. Still that person is reviewing papers and grants and can hurt interactions with others at conferences. These all directly relate to career advancement. The only real solution is a culture change where these types of behaviors are collectively frowned upon. That change is slowly happening, but it’s clearly far from done.

  28. M
    M July 18, 2008 at 9:08 am |

    Wonderful post.

    And although it’s just more anecdotal evidence, it perfectly correlates with my experience in a “hard science” field of academia.

    The idea that these things can’t be happening else there would be more law suits just shows that the “wackaloon nuts” are completely ignorant. Sexism like this is pervasive, culturally acceptable, and not necessarily illegal.

  29. elise
    elise July 18, 2008 at 9:15 am |

    I found in academia that, like everywhere, there were bad apples and then there were awesome people. But when the bad apple was an advisor or on the thesis committee, I knew women who just sucked it up, knowing that they would graduate eventually, but not willing to jeopardize those recommendations that they needed to get into a good post-doc position. If there is a bad apple, it seems they have a disproportionate amount of power so that if a woman does complain, their job prospects are injured and their research is not supported.

    Now I’m in the legal field, and while there has been some sexism in my direction, I know that if I report it, I’m going to be listened to and that there are procedures in place that address that will address the problem. I never felt that there were such effective official procedures while in academia, though I was lucky in having a great advisor go to bat for me a few times. But having someone listen to you and help you out shouldn’t be based on whether or not you’re just lucky enough to have a great advisor or not.

    @Dana – even after all that, science is great! I left the field not for any sexism issues, but just because I wanted to do something different. If you want to do chemistry (my major too!), go for it!

  30. Samia
    Samia July 18, 2008 at 10:10 am |

    One of the commenters mentioned that she didn’t like working with other women. I know quite a few other females who say stuff like this often. Can someone explain what’s so terrible about the rest of us? I don’t have any problem “being me,” no matter who I’m around…

    Right now I work in a primarily female environment as far as my supervision goes. All three of my bosses are women. I love it. It’s different. I like sitting in a conference room with a bunch of other ladies and getting to work on a problem. There’s less dick-swinging, as PP put it. It’s not about who’s right, it’s about the friggin’ chemistry. I like that.

  31. Calderon
    Calderon July 18, 2008 at 10:30 am |

    I’m sure this will sound like a quibble, but I’m not sure it’s legally correct that “the overwhelmingly vast majority of inequitable discrimination that occurs in science is not legally actionable.” Suing for a hostile work environment is a legally cognizable claim, and most hostile work environment complaints that I’ve seen (using complaint here in the legal sense of the document a plaintiff files to start a lawsuit) collect a number of incidents similar to the ones you’re describing. Whether a claim could be stated depends on the particular circumstances, but it’s not something to be dismissed out of hand.

    What could be going on instead of it not being legally actionable is that women (or more generally any scientist who has a legal claim against a university) do not want to bring lawsuits because then they get a reputation as “troublemaker” and which makes it more difficult to find jobs. While retaliation for bringing discrimination lawsuits also is a legally recognized claim, it can be more difficult to prove if there are several applicants for a position all with strong qualifications and the hiring institution is careful enough not to put into writing that it’s not hiring X because she previously brought suit against a university.

    As I said before, while this could look like quibbling, I think the distinction may be important since if the correct answer is that the events you’re describing are not legally actionable, the answer could be change the laws so that these events are legally actionable. If these are already legally actionable but people aren’t bringing suits, then the answer probably will need to be something else.

  32. Kate Lee
    Kate Lee July 18, 2008 at 11:02 am |

    Great post. These examples are human and do a great job illustrating the complexity of harassment. You can really imagine how the women in these situations might have felt – and also why they might not say anything about it.

    Samia – I spend a lot of time wondering about that question – why the girls don’t want to be with the girls. I’ve met and continue to meet a lot of women who say things like “I don’t usually like other girls…but you’re OK” or “I don’t have very many female friends…I just get along better with dudes.” Sometimes I sense initial coldness from other women when I first meet them, then observe them warm up and become the friendliest person you’ve ever seen when they meet one of my dude housemates.

    I also feel like I’m guilty of this. Sometimes when I meet other girls I catch myself feeling guarded and acting less nice, maybe out of jealousy? maybe I feel like they’re a threat? Since I first started noticing myself doing that I’ve made an extra effort to be kind, friendly, and warm to other women, ask them questions and show respect. I’ve noticed that when I remember to do that, it brings out much more warmth in them. so I guess I think now that what you get back reflects what you put out there, and if you find yourself being a girl who “doesn’t like” other girls…try liking other girls as an experiment and see what happens. you may be surprised.

    oooof! lots of words. this topic brings up a lot of feelings and thoughts from me. thanks!

  33. Mnemosyne
    Mnemosyne July 18, 2008 at 11:23 am |

    Suing for a hostile work environment is a legally cognizable claim, and most hostile work environment complaints that I’ve seen (using complaint here in the legal sense of the document a plaintiff files to start a lawsuit) collect a number of incidents similar to the ones you’re describing.

    But as bsci pointed out, if someone who works at a different university harasses you at a conference sponsored by a professional organization, who do you sue? That person’s university? The conference organizers? That person as an individual?

  34. Ginger
    Ginger July 18, 2008 at 12:58 pm |

    This is a very thoughtful thread. Thanks to everyone who addressed my questions.

  35. MissPrism
    MissPrism July 18, 2008 at 1:10 pm |

    I’ve got one! A senior male scientist announcing over coffee to a group of male and female students: “I must go to X’s talk, because last time she talked, she wasn’t wearing a bra, and besides I’m on her committee.”

  36. Posted At Feministe: Gender Inequity In Science: Why Legal Remedies Are Grossly Inadequate « PhysioProf

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  37. DSKS
    DSKS July 18, 2008 at 2:04 pm |

    There is a tendency when speaking of bigotry to focus too much on the extreme cases and less on the often more sinister and subtle trends that I think are more representative of the problem. i.e. the more socially pervasive perceptions of gender roles that can slip under the radar of even those who profess themselves to be “progressive”.

    For example, I remember a male grad student offering to assist a female colleague carrying some equipment from one lab to another. A fairly trivial thing, or so I thought at the time. I later learned that the woman’s female supervisor had reprimanded her for accepting the fellows help, telling her that his behaviour was demeaning regardless of the intent. My initial reaction was that this was absurd. But on reflection I realised that it was quite true that the guy hadn’t offered to help carry the equipment because his co-worker was having any particular difficulty doing so herself, but because she was a woman and he was trying to be The Gentleman. Indeed, he insisted on carrying all the equipment, leaving her arms free as they walked down the corridor; so there was really no question of male chauvinism at work.

    As far as some old duffer copping a feel from a female colleague, I would argue that such expressions of sexism are far easier to identify and respond to. The response being fairly obvious so long as one holds principles above the threat of having one’s progress hindered in what is a relatively low paying career; tell the dirty bugger to fuck off, because it aint worth taking that kind of shit for academic prestige or wages. Besides, I’ve witnessed such a response, and it was quite effective in raising the stature of the victim high above that of the ignorant perpetrator, despite the imbalance in seniority.

  38. Hot Tramp
    Hot Tramp July 18, 2008 at 2:48 pm |

    I must be missing something. What happened to sexual harassment law?

  39. charlotte
    charlotte July 18, 2008 at 3:26 pm |

    I totally agree with Hot Tramp.

    I have seen a very senior male scientist turn to a young female scientist in the context of a small group of men and women and state, “I’m imagining you right now in a bikini”.

    I have been at an alcohol-soaked science-related social event where a male faculty member leeringly tried to feel up a junior female post-doc.

    If both work for the same campus, these cases are clearly sexual harrassment and will hold up in court, especially with witnesses around.

    I have heard a male plenary speaker at a major conference lead off his talk by telling a joke about a female scientist giving a seminar in which the punchline was “I don’t care if I can hear you, so long as I can see you”.

    This one’s tougher since both don’t seem to be in the same geographical work environment, but something here tells me that this is as actionable as a racial slur would be. Perhaps a case for Title IX?

  40. truffula
    truffula July 18, 2008 at 4:13 pm |

    I’m a bit surprised by the “PhDs think they are better than everybody else and not interested in social interaction” sorts of comments here. This is insulting and in my personal experience, not true. Sure, there are scientists who fit this description just as there are people in all professions who fit it.

    I’m tenured in the physical sciences at a public university and in my 40’s. I think it is true that my younger male colleagues exhibit fewer overtly sexist behaviors than do older colleagues but some of this may be socialization. When I comment on sexist treatment or comments I’ve received, most of these young guys are just as apologist or denialist about it as their older peers.

    Anecdote from last week: The female presenter of the named keynote lecture at an international conference (the only woman in a full day of plenary lectures) was compared to a cabaret dancer by the man who introduced her.

  41. BikeMonkey
    BikeMonkey July 18, 2008 at 4:28 pm |

    Does anybody know why male scientists are like this? I mean, I understand that science IS a boys’ club, but why? Does science attract a certain kind of asshole?

    No matter what scientists might say, we really love the “innate ability” side of the ability/accomplishment coin. It goes like this:

    1) Really fucking smart people seem to do well and be overrepresented in the upper ranks of scientific accomplishment
    2) Skienz is really, really, intellectually hard
    3) Amazing success at teh skienz means you are unbelievably brilliant- innately!
    4) Lack of amazing success means you are teh stupidz :-(
    5) Since skienz is often competitive in terms of merely acquiring the resources to do the science and the platform to describe the science….if others have less success then my success looks more “elite”
    6) …but…but, some of that competition (such as the current winners) holds the keys to my ability to acquire resources and gain a platform so I better not crap on them
    7) So I better crap on the competition that doesn’t hold those keys instead
    8) SuperzBonuz! in some kinda fucked up transitive/antitransitive properties of innate ability, if I look like the key-holders and shit on those that don’t look like the keyholders…

  42. Dana
    Dana July 18, 2008 at 7:12 pm |

    You should totally go for it. Don’t let these horror stories bum you out. There’s challenges for women in academia, just like most professional fields. But, not all the guys are goons. And plenty of women are kicking ass in science.

    I’m not too fazed as I’ve been lucky in my experiences thus far (life in general), but thanks so much! :)

    Dana, I’ve worked in NZ and US (more in the latter), and on the whole, I’ve found NZ men to either more evolved or better mannered than US men, at least wrt sexism in the workplace. I work in computer science, and I’ve heard men in the US say some stunningly foolish things (”Gary, you are such a WOMAN!” Yes, that’s intended as an insult.) But I’ve never experienced anything like that here, nor the same level of…silent condescension for want of a better term.

    There is sexism here in Aotearoa too, but it takes a different form, I think. Anyway, please don’t let that stand in your way – do what makes you happy and let the bastards rot.

    Oo, that’s really interesting to hear. I read some of the stories in the US (on regular media as well as here) and think my god at least we’re better than that! But it’s hard to know how accurate it is

  43. yolio
    yolio July 18, 2008 at 8:42 pm |

    I have an egregious anecdote to add: I attended one of these wine soaked professional meetings in which a very prestigious and important male professor spent 30 minutes pressuring myself and another female graduate student to kiss a scientist friend of his who was visiting from Australia. He offered the rationale that “he had traveled such a long way and we needed to make him feel welcome.” When I replied that “I didn’t consider that to be my responsibility” he suddenly got sort of uncomfortable and muttered something about him being a harmless because he was an old man with no chance of “getting any.” Fortunately, I had the good sense charge an $85 dollar bottle of wine to his room.

  44. How to Gauge the Earnestness of an Argument [Dan Collins]

    [...] fourth word in “Howl” were an f-bomb, and you’ve pretty much got the idea behind this post at Feministe. Posted by Dan Collins @ 8:53 pm | Trackback SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: “How to Gauge the [...]

  45. exholt
    exholt July 18, 2008 at 11:00 pm |

    I’m a bit surprised by the “PhDs think they are better than everybody else and not interested in social interaction” sorts of comments here. This is insulting and in my personal experience, not true. Sure, there are scientists who fit this description just as there are people in all professions who fit it.

    truffula,

    I’m sorry you felt insulted, but nearly every male science grad student/PhD graduate I’ve met among my acquaintances and as co-workers after graduation tended to have that elitist and aversion to social interaction….especially with those they felt were “intellectually inferior” to themselves. Kind of hard to miss when they constantly make disparaging comments about female colleagues and anyone who is studying/working in a non-science/math related field. Did I also mention that they all felt Larry Summers was “railroaded” in the name of Harvard’s FAS’s “Political Correctness”?

    Only exception was at my undergrad…but that may be due more to the fact it was a private liberal arts college and the campus was progressive radical-left politically…both factors which meant there was zero tolerance for any male science-majors disparaging female science majors or non-science majors.

    No matter what scientists might say, we really love the “innate ability” side of the ability/accomplishment coin. It goes like this:

    1) Really fucking smart people seem to do well and be overrepresented in the upper ranks of scientific accomplishment
    2) Skienz is really, really, intellectually hard
    3) Amazing success at teh skienz means you are unbelievably brilliant- innately!
    4) Lack of amazing success means you are teh stupidz :-(
    5) Since skienz is often competitive in terms of merely acquiring the resources to do the science and the platform to describe the science….if others have less success then my success looks more “elite”
    6) …but…but, some of that competition (such as the current winners) holds the keys to my ability to acquire resources and gain a platform so I better not crap on them
    7) So I better crap on the competition that doesn’t hold those keys instead
    8) SuperzBonuz! in some kinda fucked up transitive/antitransitive properties of innate ability, if I look like the key-holders and shit on those that don’t look like the keyholders…

    Wow!! All 8 points describe nearly every science grad student/PhD graduate I’ve met and worked with. What’s more scary is they are even more aptly descriptive of my math/science-oriented classmates in high school!!! Eeep!!!

  46. Lalaroo
    Lalaroo July 19, 2008 at 3:58 am |

    All right, this is not on the topic of the post, but on the question of why so many women love to talk about how they “just don’t get along with other women.” Here’s my theory (and I’m not sure if I’m 100% behind it):

    We live in a patriarchy. The patriarchy is tilted in men’s favor – they automatically receive more power than women do. Women are therefore at a disadvantage. Instead of trying to attack the cause of that (patriarchy) a lot of women try to do the best they can with the dumb way the world is right now. This, along with the impression that there is a fixed amount of power to go around, results in women competing with each other to get the most power that they can. A lot of times, a good way to do this is to become an “honorary male.” So, when women say “I don’t get along with girls, they’re too catty. I mostly have guy friends cause they’re so much more logical and easy to get along with,” they’re actually saying something more like “I’m not like those other girls. I’m really more like a man. I can be one of the guys! Wont’ you give me the same respect you would another male?”

    I guess what I’m saying is, it’s internalized sexism. Being a girl is bad, because girls are dumb. I don’t get along with girls, cause I’m not dumb. I’m more like the people who have the power, so I should get some power too!

    Anyway, feedback is more than welcome! Let me know if you think this is wrong. It’s just something I came up with a few years ago after having yet another of those conversations where my best girl friend tells me how dumb girls are. I’m like, “hello? Can’t you see that I am a girl? And we get along fine?” Boo.

  47. corwin
    corwin July 19, 2008 at 8:53 am |

    This is a very interesting thread for a variety of reasons.First,I find some of the anecdotes interesting and even depressing.still,no one seems to address the central question;is there a genetic basis that leads to a different proportional representation between M/F in sciences?Is anyone here familiar with Benbow and Stanleys work on innate math ability among early adolescent?(At Hopkins?)Of pre/early adolescents not exposed to hs math a small no.would score over 700 in the SAT Math Over 90 % of these were male.It’s been repeated.
    Now ascribing exceptional talents to a small subset coes not mean the group as a whole is superior,but neither does it mean the data can be ignored because it’s threatening.
    And while I don’t think ‘science’ is harder than other knowledge intnsive fields (mandarin Chinese is probably toug) too many degrees in pseudo education fields lead to a diminshment of respect.

  48. Daniel Martin
    Daniel Martin July 19, 2008 at 9:22 am |

    Lalaroo:

    While that may be part of it, I think you’re missing another aspect. I also think you’re being incredibly insulting to Dana.

    Living in the patriarchy pressures women to adopt certain certain habits and styles that mark them as clearly submissive. Perhaps the easiest? of these habits? to identify? is the question marks? that it seems? some women? adopt? in their regular speech? Even when stating? things that aren’t? really questions?

    Some people find that really annoying to listen to, and find other submissive socialized behaviors to be a problem in the workplace. An excess of submissive behaviors can be at least as much of a problem when you’re just trying to get something done as an excess of virtual dick-waving.

    If you’ve learned strategies to cope with an excess of dominance games and know how to get those out of the way and actually get work done, then dealing with a workplace hindered by an excess of submissive behavior can be extremely frustrating – work isn’t getting done, but the strategies you’ve developed don’t work at all in that environment. (Not only that, but they’re actually counter-productive)

    However, rather than both of us spouting off, I propose that we should wait and listen to what those women who’ve said “I just don’t get along with other women” actually have to say, rather than sticking too many words in their mouths. So, Dana, you still watching this thread? Care to respond?

  49. bug_girl
    bug_girl July 19, 2008 at 10:09 am |

    I found in academia that, like everywhere, there were bad apples and then there were awesome people. But when the bad apple was an advisor or on the thesis committee, I knew women who just sucked it up, knowing that they would graduate eventually, but not willing to jeopardize those recommendations that they needed to get into a good post-doc position. If there is a bad apple, it seems they have a disproportionate amount of power so that if a woman does complain, their job prospects are injured and their research is not supported.

    This is exactly the root of the problem. And it extends into being a postdoc, and trying to get tenure.

    The people that benefit most from this system are the ones who share the values…and so it continues.

    Having said that–I can say that in the 25 years I’ve been in academia, I’ve seen a lot of progress. No one uses the N word openly anymore, for example–but that doesn’t mean racism has gone away. :(

  50. jc
    jc July 19, 2008 at 1:30 pm |

    Kate Lee – thank you. I feel the same way. I’m so used to battling the boys club that sometimes I forget to flip the “warm” switch (and some women do too or they don’t have a warm switch like some guys don’t have a warm switch). The problem is that the niceness in a group of dickswingers will get you pasted to a wall real quick. Every situation is unique, but I do make extra effort with women because I know exactly what they go through. If they whip out attitude, then I do too.

    To everyone else out there wondering why more sex harrassment cases aren’t brought up, here’s a clue from my personal experience. Male prof acts VERY inappropriately with me (when I was a grad student). I filed complaint with AA/EO office. He got slapped on wrist for the “big misunderstanding.” Guess what, turns out he was just as bad with 3 other women. I convinced these women to file complaints. They did. Guess what, another wrist slap because THOSE episodes happened before mine (one was the SAME DAY as mine). You are never gonna believe this, but it’s true… HE DID IT AGAIN while he was being investigated. Then guess what, after being told by chair (a woman) that I was wrong, several other “distinguished” (used very loosely) male profs that I was blowing this out of proportion and should mind my own business (ie., get my degree done and go the hell away), stop “making trouble”, etc etc….. the faculty apologized to me and the other women for ignoring and dismissing us. We were all treated like crap by the majority of the faculty (mostly male of course) while the investigations were happening. But the similarities in our stories (even down to exact creepy phrases which would make every woman sick) really drove home that 1) we weren’t making this up and 2) he is clearly a predator. End result: the creepy dude resigned (before he was gonna get fired). It only took 5 women filing complaints. Worth it, yes. Would I do it again… don’t know. He still works in an academic environment, just not as tt prof.

  51. Farhat
    Farhat July 19, 2008 at 5:01 pm |

    From my experiences at science (physics) conferences, this happens largely because of competition for sex. Conferences are ideal for casual sex and a lot of women there are into it as well. The problem occurs because there are a lot fewer women then men. Thus, the aggressive men will try to outmaneuver the not so aggressive ones. Moreover, aggressiveness works on women too. Now, you may say it doesn’t work on all of them, but that’s besides the point. At the end of the day, you are looking for one success, any number of failures before that is acceptable and a failure/success ratio of 10:1 is enviable, and 20:1 is not bad at all from a guy’s point of view.

    To everyone else out there wondering why more sex harrassment cases aren’t brought up, here’s a clue from my personal experience. Male prof acts VERY inappropriately with me (when I was a grad student). I filed complaint with AA/EO office. He got slapped on wrist for the “big misunderstanding.” Guess what, turns out he was just as bad with 3 other women. I convinced these women to file complaints. They did. Guess what, another wrist slap because THOSE episodes happened before mine (one was the SAME DAY as mine). You are never gonna believe this, but it’s true… HE DID IT AGAIN while he was being investigated.

    This is terrible but believable. Back when I was a TA, a student of mine complained about being sexually harassed by the prof whose course I was TAing. This guy had a previous history of being creepy including anecdotes of sleeping with undergrads to up their grades. Anyway, the department said she would have to bring up charges formally and face him. She refused to even be in the same room as him (she actually took private lessons all through the course) so they said little could be done. She was a Buddhist and believed if she caused any harm to come to him it will affect her karma. While 2 of the other girls I came to know of through her were willing the HR people said those incidents were too far back in the past(> 1 yr) and could not be considered. Finally, another grad student recounted a incident where he behaved creepily with her at a party. Though, she never complained because she was just brazen enough to put him in his place (he was just a lecturer, not tenured). But she had some influence with profs as she was a stellar student and tried to get them to take the complaint without my student and him having to be face-to-face. Finally, all that happened was that the department said this incident would be p in his file and if another complaint came it could be considered together as a ‘pattern’. He’s still employed there.

  52. Thomas
    Thomas July 19, 2008 at 6:58 pm |

    “Living in the patriarchy pressures women to adopt certain certain habits and styles that mark them as clearly submissive. Perhaps the easiest? of these habits? to identify? is the question marks? that it seems? some women? adopt? in their regular speech? Even when stating? things that aren’t? really questions?”

    It’s called upspeak (or uptalk). And it’s odd that you deem it to be a “clearly submissive” trait. I don’t find it submissive at all. The “question” tone in upspeak isn’t one of uncertainty. It’s one of assuredness, and not plain-old garden-variety assuredness, either, because it also forces a kind of acquiescence on the part of the LISTENER: You’re being “asked” a question but simultaneously being told what the answer is. The message is clear: Your take on the matter isn’t relevant.

    It subverts the role of questioning by keeping the power in the questioner’s hands. (There’s even perhaps a bit of a taunting aspect to it.) In that sense, it’s sassy, brassy and thoroughly confident. Indeed, ask most males to think about it for a minute, and they’re likely to say that it’s something of an intimidating conversational style to come up against.

    Of course, no — none of this means upspeak isn’t annoying, simply on an aesthetic level!

  53. Arnold Layne
    Arnold Layne July 19, 2008 at 7:52 pm |

    Ending a statement as a question can have many possible meanings, from submissiveness to assuredness, anywhere in between, or outside that spectrum altogether. It is one of those things that drive experts in automated speech recognition and natural language understanding positively batty.

  54. absinthe
    absinthe July 20, 2008 at 2:50 pm |

    I agree with you that some discrimination scenarios are simply not actionable; for instance, I cannot sue the Department of Energy to obtain injunctive relief at Fermilab to make them institute a more equitable process in the way they dole out career advancement perks to scientists at the lab (because I am no longer based at the lab…I can only sue for injunctive relief for something that affects me now, not in the past (I have no interest in bringing a suit for monetary damages for any effect their policies have had on the demise of my career because when you suffer too many cuts of discrimination, it is difficult to blame any single cut on the fact you bled to death…you can only lay legal blame on the entity who ultimately cut your head off)).

    However, a woman currently at the lab could bring a lawsuit against the DoE under Title IX based on my complaint to the DoE, but only if she didn’t value her career (unlike the private sector, academia is a small, small world). She would also have to have a whack of money lying around. The lack of lawsuits may not just be due to discrimination not being actionable; people who like to whine about “frivolous” academic discrimination lawsuits ignore (or are unaware of) the fact that not only does a plaintiff risk her career, but it is also costs between $10k to $25k for the plaintiff to retain a lawyer just to file a lawsuit. Realistically, to bring a lawsuit to trial, you are looking at anywhere from $75k to $150k. Employment lawyers rarely work on contingency because the success rates for such lawsuits are only around 25% (a lot of the low success rate has to do with the incredibly short statute of limitations on Title VII claims…many, if not most, discrimination lawsuits have claims that are not timely because rare is the person who is able to get their shit together enough to find and retain a good lawyer within 180 days after some egregious discrimination/harassment incident). The plaintiff usually has to foot the entire bill during the lawsuit themselves.

    Thus, egregious and open discrimination may drive highly qualified women and minorities from their chosen profession, but the likelihood that they have the money to bring suit is low. And for women in academia the likelihood that they will find an attorney even if they have money is low, because most lawfirms simply will not take on lawsuits against state entities like state funded universities (because they have infinitely deep tax-payer-funded litigation pockets that can suck even the most well-heeled plaintiff dry).

    Also, many people working in fields like the sciences are hyper-focussed on their work, and are usually completely unaware of the various anti-discrimination laws that apply to their workplace (I know I certainly was before the events that came after the birth of my second child). And there aren’t too many information resources out there to educate scientists in academia about their legal workplace rights. If you google “discrimination law academia sciences” for instance, my blog is ranked in the top 3. Until the NYT article came out, if you googled “Title IX sciences” my blog was in the top 10. When I first started my lawsuit, it took me months of working several hours each evening to dredge up information on the internet about the various laws that pertained to my situation, and it took me weeks to discover that Title IX even existed; five years ago, you really didn’t hear a peep about Title IX (other than Title IX and varsity sports). And most lawyers know bugger all about Title IX as it applies to anything other than varsity sports.

    Even though the NYT article was so negative, it likely will have positive impact in making academic scientists much more aware that there is a law out there that protects them.

    Maybe that new knowledge will spark a few Title IX lawsuits in the sciences that will raise awareness even more. All it takes is a couple lawsuits to really start fomenting change.

  55. Lalaroo
    Lalaroo July 21, 2008 at 6:17 pm |

    Daniel Martin:
    My first response when I read your comment was “Who’s Dana?” I wasn’t trying to explain her particular situation, why she doesn’t like to work in majority-female groups. Perhaps it’s something you’re unaware of, presumably being a male (from your handle), but this is something that lots of girls say, all the time, starting in their early teens. It’s seen as a badge of honor to have a bunch of guy friends. This is something that was brought up elsewhere in the comments, and it’s something that really resonated with my experience. But, I don’t think that my theory is inapplicable to Dana’s situation entirely.

    I have to disagree that I was being incredibly insulting to Dana. I don’t think it’s insulting to suggest that she, and other women who say things like that, might have some internalized sexism. Women are completely submerged in the patriarchy. NO ONE can escape without being tainted by it. Even the most super-feminist women have to address their internalized sexism at times. And maybe you’re right – maybe Dana doesn’t like to work with lots of women because then she’s confronted by how so many of them have fallen victim to patriarchy’s dictates (“love shopping!” “be dieting!” “obsess about your attractiveness!”), but I think there’s a way to phrase that that doesn’t involve bashing all women in general.

    I’d have to say that you are being incredibly insulting to women. What you’re basically saying is women are incapable of getting things done when left on their own with no men to guide them. That’s a tired trope. You’ve changed the root of this incompetence to something feminist-sounding (the patriarchy socializes women to be submissive), but the end result is still the same. Women are too weak and meek to be productive, and both men and strong women find that very distasteful. Personally, I find that women are capable of listening to others’ opinions, coming to a decision, and acting upon it just as easily as men. Some women are better at it than others, just as some men are – because women are human beings – we’re not all the same.

  56. Out of the loop… « Blue Lab Coats
    Out of the loop… « Blue Lab Coats July 22, 2008 at 11:43 am |

    [...] first is a post by Physioprof over at Feministe…about gender inequity in science…and why legal remedies are inadequate to address this problem- so go on over there and read [...]

  57. Lab Lemming
    Lab Lemming July 22, 2008 at 11:30 pm |

    Absinthe says:
    “a lot of the low success rate has to do with the incredibly short statute of limitations on Title VII claims…many, if not most, discrimination lawsuits have claims that are not timely because rare is the person who is able to get their shit together enough to find and retain a good lawyer within 180 days after some egregious discrimination/harassment incident”

    and

    “Also, many people working in fields like the sciences are hyper-focussed on their work, and are usually completely unaware of the various anti-discrimination laws that apply to their workplace”

    I reckon that a motivated and web savvy activist could address both of these issues through clever use of the internet. I would certainly link anyone who put together a “how to put a sexual harassment case together against a university” website, if it was done well and I knew where to find it.

    One important point not mentioned yet is that in a collaborative research setting, it is possible for the predator to have technical or scientific expertise which is valuable to victim. This can create an activation barrier, where the problems caused by confrontation convince the victim to just tough it out. Figuring out how to compensate for that sort of unique knowledge loss issue would be nice as well.

  58. Dr. MCR
    Dr. MCR August 3, 2008 at 11:35 am |

    Wow- you said it. I’m convinced that the cutural aspects of what is acceptable, still, in the scientific community (a dirty little, but well-known secret) create environments in which it is still harder for women to excel as scientists, scholars, and leaders. I’ve been blogging about this at my own site (http://PowerfulMindCoaching.com/blog) and recently did a piece on the same topic at Suite101: (http://americanuniversities.suite101.com/article.cfm/equality_for_female_professors). The conclusion I’ve reached is that the idea of “equal opportunity= equity”, which I continue to hear as the offical line at many professional meetings and institutions, is fantasy at this point. It’s not over yet, and we have to stay active and vigilant to create real equity for women in science.

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