Kiddo spills her milk. We lock eyes, and she dissolves in a puddle of sadness, crying about how it’s all her fault and she feels SO BAD.
“Kiddo, honey, it’s really okay. Let’s get a towel and wipe it up together.”
But she can’t stop crying. I comfort her for a while, being patient with her feelings and wanting her to process what’s going on. But at a certain point, the crying feels like a rehearsal of bigger things. So I say, “I notice you are crying a lot about the milk, but I’m not mad at you. Why are you still so upset do you think?”
“I’m just a sensitive child!” And back she goes to crying.
At this moment, I feel anger at myself for having too many conversations about kiddo in her presence while she listened and internalized grownups’ thinking about her. But there is a little part of me also feeling mad at kiddo. Anger that she accepts the label and, to me, seems to be using it to say something permanent and inflexible about herself.
So, I went to the person I know with the most insight into this issue: my daughter’s kindergarten teacher. I explained to her my predicament.
She thought for a moment. “Ah, see we grownups have all moved on to the next developmental step. We have awareness of kiddo’s sensitivity, and are already thinking of the ways she can grow and learn from it. But kiddo herself has only just hit the awareness stage.”
And suddenly it made sense. The couple of weeks of “But I’m SENSITIVE!” sounded, in retrospect, like a child figuring out something about herself for the first time, not an entrenched position. When someone is at the awareness stage, they don’t yet know what to do about it. They just know they’re there.
* * *
A dear colleague and friend, Dr. Pablo Nepomnaschy, contacted me to see if I would write a blog post informing our colleagues about his upcoming conference, “Evolutionary Aspects of Child Development and Health,” taking place this June at Simon Fraser University. A quick glance at who the email was from and the title of the conference, and of course I said yes.
Days later, when I looked up the materials for the conference to write my post, I saw the list of invited speakers. Only two of the fourteen were female, in a field that is absolutely dominated by senior and junior women. In fact, Pablo and I were in a special working group on evolutionary medicine and reproduction just a few years ago that was run by two women and had at least fifty percent female representation. While the invited speaker list was excellent, I could not comprehend how a list skewed in such a way could have happened. Balanced gender representation should have happened naturally.
When I brought this up with Pablo, he was horrified at his error and of course wanted to make this right (and gave me permission to write this post about it). Pablo, like many of us in the sciences, has just hit the awareness stage. It’s that moment when we get caught in our own biases and have to acknowledge that everyone has them, from the most sensitive ally to the most brazen bigot. Plenty of research bears this out. So for instance, while male-only leadership (as with this conference) has been shown to lead to gender disparities in symposia speakers (Isbell et al., 2012), there is work also demonstrating that both women and men carry stereotypes that lead to gender-biased hiring decisions (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012).
Getting to the awareness stage is revelatory, and hard, and kind of sticky too. Awareness can feel like a label or a permanent problem.
It’s exciting to think about the ways in which it is not. Pablo – and perhaps also the rest of the organizing committee, and the speaker lineup – have a chance to unstick here. There is always an elegant solution for people invested in creating an academic science environment that lifts up all of its excellent scholars, appreciates diverse perspectives and approaches to our common questions, and makes active, intentional progress towards parity.
Isbell LA, Young TP, Harcourt AH. 2012. Stag parties linger: continued gender bias in a female-rich scientific discipline. PloS one 7(11):e49682.
Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, Graham MJ, Handelsman J. 2012. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(41):16474-16479.
Please forgive me for the quickie posts this week. I have bigger ones planned for the next two weeks.
I don’t have time to fully unpack this, but I think the Science Online community could stand to read this article (and the associated links therein that tell the backstory):
The folks at #scio14 are having hushed conversation after hushed conversation about Bora and our community more broadly. I’m also hearing that there are explicit conversations about harassment policies, appropriate conduct, boundaries, and reporting. I just want to remind everyone that reporting harassment isn’t a chicken and egg issue where we can endlessly discuss which comes first: creating the supportive environment that enables reporting, or reporting itself. Yes, there will always be some folks who will decide to report in the face of all sorts of personal, career, and physical risks. But moving towards a workplace culture where reporting is normative behavior cannot happen before the workplace has safer ways of reporting and zero tolerance for bad behavior.
So I would encourage those of you at #scio14 this week to make your conversations less hushed, and to start to talk about how one might create an independent, anonymous reporting mechanism for harassment. Some of the encouragement I am hearing that people need to report feels a little victim-blame-y. If we aren’t setting the reporting mechanism up for success we can’t expect people with the least safety and the most to lose to suck it up and tell someone when they have been harassed.
Just wanted to draw your attention to this year’s student-run class blog for my Evolutionary Medicine class here at the University of Illinois. I am using the same assignment and rubric as last year, which is modified version of Mark Sample’s blog assignment at Profhacker (I wrote about this last year here).
Check it out and let my students know what you think of their work!
You can also check out last year’s blog, as well as the individual blogs that students wrote as part of their semester-long projects (The Daily Filling, A Little R&R, Cuisine for Comfort). This semester two Honors students will also be hosting individual blogs. Once they are up and running, I’ll share those as well.
This year instead of the 80/20 projects I am trying a class-wide problem-based learning assignment (PBL) for the second half of the semester. We are doing small group PBLs every Friday for the first half of the semester to warm up to the process.
It’s been a while since I shared what I’ve been reading. Here are a bunch of things that have made me think, or helped me think, in the last few months.
Normalizing the existence of women and the work they do
Teaching in higher education
“My student’s performance of the sassy me was meant as a compliment and in a mode she wanted to emulate in spirit if not in style. We were having fun, and I liked her too much to ruin her enjoyment of my “sassiness,” my “fierceness,” my “no-you-din’t-ness,” but it stayed with me and had me wondering about that space between what I perform (however badly) in the classroom and what is projected onto me and how those are inevitably racialized by both me and my students. Recently a student wrote, “She is the SHIT! Know DAT!” on the back of one of my evaluations, and, after laughing aloud in my office, I had to wonder what about my teaching of 19th-century British literature invites this interpretation of me.”
Trolls and other jerks
Here are some quotes from a manuscript review shared in the above post.
That means an editor at Global Ecology and Biogeography let these through, which I find shameful. [I misunderstood — the review did not happen at that journal, but it’s where the manuscript was eventually published.]
“the study was done on less than 10% of the appropriate species […] Such academic laziness is inexcusable and scandalous
“there are many instances where the authors appear to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes
“This is another example of embarrassingly obvious laziness.
“That goes beyond even forgivable bending of the truth
“If any of the authors were thinking
“Please consider this a polite spanking.”
Male Sexual Orientation Influenced by Genes, Study Shows. I just had to share an article that wins this month’s award for most vaguely accurate title.
I’m attending the AAAS Meetings in Chicago this year in both my capacities as a scientist: as someone who does reproductive physiology research and as a science communicator. And it all happens tomorrow!
Check out the press briefing today for the Building Babies session. Katie Hinde is the symposium organizer, and fellow session speakers are Julienne Rutherford, Lee Gettler, Erin Kinnally and Robin Nelson.
Wake up early to come see us in the Regency C room at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, the session starts at 8:30am!
Then tomorrow night, I will reprise my role as vaginal pH spokeswoman at the Ig Nobels event, performing a 24/7 talk. Better yet, Scicurious will be giving one too!
Then, because one always needs more smart women at any platform to celebrate science, I will be coordinating a roller derby skin microbiome transfer demo with Twin City Derby Girls leaguemate Polly Nator… and some special guests from the Chicago Outfit league as well!
I’m working against too many deadlines as usual and am unable to write a long blog post. But I was pretty troubled by this piece in The Nation the other day… troubled because the hard work and brilliant insights of black women I respected were being turned into something far more sinister. Suddenly white women and some women of color were claiming that black women were hurting their feelings on Twitter and contributing to a toxic culture. Then we have Amanda Palmer’s recent comments about allies being “allowed” to fight for change (and a comparison between the backlash against Macklemore and… 12 Years a Slave). On this, Tom Hawking writes:
“But let’s follow it through to its logical conclusion: the privileged must be “allowed” to fight for change or… what? They’ll take their bat and ball and go home? They’ll say, “Well, we tried, but shit, no one liked us, so hey, back to oppression!”? We’d better stop being nasty to Macklemore or he’ll stop “fighting” for gay rights, and then what will The Gays do, eh? C’mon now. What she’s really saying is that straight white men must be made to feel as comfortable as possible as potential allies or they’ll get miffed.”
Listen, allies, male or female, we don’t always get a cookie. And we don’t always deserve to be the ones out front. And it’s ok if someone calls us on our mistakes. Just because they don’t always do it gently doesn’t mean you have to pathologize it.
So for now I’ll leave you with a few links to some great pieces you should read in full:
- Interlopers on Social Media: Feminism, Women of Color, and Oppression
- Bigotry, Not Twitter, Makes Feminism Toxic
- On “Toxic” Feminism: The Nation and The People
So why am I writing about this stuff on a science blog?
This may surprise you, but people do science. And power differentials, racism and sexism influences who wants to do science, and who gets to do science, and what science gets the most attention from, say, the top journals of science.
You guys likely know about Henry Gee outing Dr. Isis, a despicable move by a senior editor at Nature who used his power to try (unsuccessfully I might add) tear down an up and coming Latina junior scientist. You must read Dr. Isis’s take on it first.
“So, while I am “ok”, were his actions “ok?” Of course not, and they give me pause. I have undoubtedly been vocal over the last four years of the fact that I believe Nature, the flagship of our profession, does not have a strong track record of treating women fairly. I believe that Henry Gee, a representative of the journal, is responsible for some of that culture. That’s not “vitriolic” and it’s not “bullying”. That is me saying, as a woman, that there is something wrong with how this journal and its editors engage 50% of the population (or 20% of scientists) and I believe in my right to say “this is not ‘ok’.” Henry Gee responded by skywriting my real name because he believed that would hurt me personally – my career, my safety, my family.”
Gee used all the resources available to him to try and hurt Isis, because he felt personal hurt for her calling out the sexism at Nature that many, many others in our community have also railed against. I want to share one last quote, this one from Michael Eisen’s recent post on the topic:
“Apparently Gee felt aggrieved by comments from Dr. Isis, who he claimed was using the veil of anonymity to slander him.
“Having myself come under fairly withering criticism from Dr. Isis, I feel somewhat qualified to speak to this. She has a sharp tongue. She speaks with righteous indignation. I don’t always think she’s being fair. And, to be honest, her words hurt. But you know what? She was also right. I have learned a lot from my interactions with Dr. Isis – albeit sometimes painfully. I reflected on what she had to say – and why she was saying it. I am a better person for it. I have to admit that her confrontational style is effective.”
People of color and other oppressed folks aren’t around for us to get to have our Hallmark moments of realizing our privilege and becoming better people. When they speak truth to power it is not necessarily to educate you or for your benefit, and their goals may be completely different than yours. That means they aren’t always going to be careful and protect your feelings when correcting you. The cool thing is, if you listen and you do the work, you can do better. Mike listened. So have many others. I’d like to think I have too. And I still screw up plenty, I just try not to take it so personally and understand the broader cultural context in which I’ve been raised.
And that process is motivating and inspiring, without the cookie. Where I sit, if this process results in more scientists that are people of color and women, contributing their diverse perspectives, expertise, brilliance and interests, it’s a win.
I was asked to be a guest on a local NPR affiliate show today with Amanda Hess (in a previously recorded interview) and Emily Graslie (with me in the second half). Each of us has had things to say recently about women… women and online harassment, women in science communication, women and tokenism. As the host admitted when I got there, it was a wide-ranging topic. And so it was kind of awkward, and hard to know how much detail to go into, and hard, frankly, to keep switching gears. To a listener uninformed or blind to the ways in which women are treated online and in the workplace, I’m not sure the show accomplished much, aside from exposing them to three very different cases where (white) women were mistreated because of their gender, and also kinda talking about the racist and misogynist trolling and harassment of Chancellor Phyllis Wise.
Trying to cover all of these things at the same time led, to my mind, to a show about very little. I say this with respect for the difficulty of talking about sexism and figuring out how and where to bound it. After all, it’s part of the daily lived experience of every human on the planet. And part of the failure, on my end, is that I have almost no radio experience, so my abilities surely compromised the show.
So here’s some of what I wanted to say, and I also offer some ideas about how mainstream media outlets can try to keep talking about women.
Targets and bystanders
I have been targeted some for various things I have said on the internets. Sometimes it’s because I have been critical of some science, sometimes it’s because I have taken offense to misogynist behaviors. Once it was just because I conceived a baby in an increasingly common way. I’ve had drive-by rape threats, mansplaining, tone policing, at least one of every comment you can find on your average sexist bingo card. These attacks sting when they happen – less when it’s nobody I know, more when it’s somebody in my online or academic communities. And every time they happen, I get a little less excited about having a web presence and sharing my thinking about science, or the life of science.
But to my mind, the bigger issue here is what happens to the bystanders who witness these events. Emily Grasile made this point in the interview quite well when she said she didn’t want young girls watching her videos and being delighted, then seeing the comments and realize what they’d be up against if they wanted to make videos too. I have had a number of experiences with junior women in the sciences who see what I go through and tell me they will never do what I do. And what I get is small potatoes compared to the wider world of gendered harassment and violence online.
Harassment silences targets, but it also silences bystanders and there are many more of them.
The three hundred ways I wanted to take this conversation
Sure, I can tell stories, and Amanda and Emily can too. I can tell you about the colleague who decided to use violent imagery and metaphors to imply he was punching me in the face. Or the anonymous peer review who referred to my research participants as “these ladies.” The commenter who implied I should be raped by my brother in law. And I think sharing all these stories scratches some kind of sensational itch for people – it’s a chance to live for a moment through women who get attacked for being women. The listener gets to decide how he or she would have handled it, gets to judge the seriousness of the matter and whether we should be allowed our anger, gets to police our tone and, even as he asks for more information, gets to judge us for telling our stories at all.
But here are some other conversations worth having, rather than trying to mash them all together. They each need their own hour or ten.
- How does the online harassment of women limit their engagement in the public sphere? In what ways, as Amanda Hess suggests, is this a civil rights issue?
- How do intersecting oppressions influence the experience for women online? When are we going to hear, for instance, more women of color in mainstream media? As Danielle Lee has pointed out only today, when are we going to start addressing the whiteness of journalistic sources, speaker panels, and more?
- What are the ways in which online misogyny and racism obscures legitimate places for us to talk and disagree? When Chancellor Wise chose (or rather, some committee probably chose) not to cancel classes Monday, many parents of school-age kids in my Facebook and Twitter feeds wanted to engage with the campus about how keeping it open made it an unfriendly workplace for them. They couldn’t have this conversation because students were making vicious character and identity attacks on Chancellor Wise.
- When some spaces – say, journalism, politics, science, or tech – are chilly spaces for women, what are the consequences? And are we talking about the privileged blindness that makes a place feel unwelcome, the kinds of harassment and assault that actively pushes women out, or both? Who leaves, but also, who never showed up to begin with?
What other conversations are worth having, and how can we encourage more news outlets to have them with us?