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?
This year, I was invited to contribute to the Edge Foundation’s Annual Question. Other contributor include Helen Fisher, Irene Pepperberg, Alan Alda, Nina Jablonski, Jay Rosen, and, well 150 others:
The question was, “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”
The Way We Produce And Advance Science
Last year, I spearheaded a survey and interview research project on the experiences of scientists at field sites. Over sixty percent of the respondents had been sexually harassed, and twenty percent had been sexually assaulted. Sexual predation was only the beginning of what I and my colleagues uncovered: study respondents reported psychological and physical abuses, like being forced to work late into the day without being told when they could head back to camp, not being allowed to urinate, verbal threats and bullying, and being denied food. The majority of perpetrators are fellow scientists senior to the target of abuse, the target themselves usually a female graduate student. Since we started analyzing these data, I haven’t been able to read a single empirical science paper without wondering on whose backs, via whose exploitation, that research was conducted.
When the payoff is millions of dollars of research money, New York Times coverage, Nobel Prizes or even just tenure, we often seem willing to pay any price for scientific discovery and innovation. This is exactly the idea that needs to be retired—that science should be privileged over scientists.
Putting ideas above people is a particularly idealistic way of viewing the scientific enterprise. This view assumes that the field of science is not only meritocratic but that who a scientist is, or where they come from, plays no role in their level of success. Yet it is well known that class, occupational, and educational attainment vary by race, gender, and many other aspects of human diversity, and that these factors do influence who chooses and who stays in science. As unadulterated as we may want to envision science, the scientific enterprise is run by people, and people often run on implicit bias. I know scientists know these things—scientists wrote the papers to which I refer—but I’m not sure we have all internalized the implications. The implications for implicit bias and workplace diversity are that social structure and identity motivate interactions between workers, increasing the chances for exploitation in terms of both overwork and harassment particularly for those who are junior or underrepresented.
Scientists are not blind to the problems of the ways we culturally conceive of scientific work. There are increasing discussions among scientists of the ever-elusive work/life balance. By and large these conversations center around personal ways we can create a better life for ourselves through management of our time and priorities. To my mind, these conversations are a luxury for those who have already survived the gauntlet of being a trainee scientist. But there are few ways to consider or improve work/life balance when you are one of the grunts on the lab floor or fossil dig.
Overwork and exploitation do not lead to scientific advancement nearly as effectively as humane, equitable and respectful workplaces. For instance, recent social relations modeling research reveals that when women are integrated rather than peripheral members of their laboratory group, those labs publish more papers. Further, years of research on counterproductive work behaviors demonstrates that when you create strongly enforced policies and independent lines of reporting, work environments improve and workers are more productive. The hassled, overworked, give-it-all-for-the-job mentality in science is not empirically supported to produce the best work.
The lives of scientists need to be prioritized over scientific discovery in the interest of actually doing better science. I know many of us operate on fear—fear of being scooped, fear of not getting tenure, fear of not having enough funding to do our work, fear even of being exploited ourselves. But we cannot let fear motivate a scheme that crushes potential bright future scientists. The criteria for scholarly excellence should not be based on who survives or evades poor treatment but who has the intellectual chops to make the most meaningful contributions. Thus, trainees need unions and institutional policies to protect them, and senior scientists to enact cultural change. An inclusive, humane workplace is actually the one that will lead to the most rigorous, world-changing scientific discoveries.
A few months ago, I received the following email from one of the leaders of a Cool Science Thing. We’ll call him Dude from Cool Science Thing (DCST). What follows is the email from him, modified only to preserve anonymity.
I am writing to you at the urging of [Prominent Female Scientist]…. In return for [agreeing to participate], PFS has given us marching orders: “More women!” Very good point. And she has sent us a list of “50 smart women scholars who are doing cool work”, and your name is on it. PFS writes:
[Then a direct quote from an email from PFS exhorting her list and encouraging DCST to do a better job recruiting and supporting women, and offering to help with the recruiting.]
So, in the spirit of PFS’s “nudge”, I am pleased to invite you to participate in Cool Science Thing. I very much hope to hear from you in this regard.
[Mention of a side project.]
Dude from Cool Science Thing
Cool Science Thing, Inc
I was pretty stunned by this email. DCST shares that he is only inviting me because another woman told him her participation was contingent on more women being invited. The lack of women invited to past CSTs is acknowledged only as a “good point.”
It was the most backhanded invitation I have ever received.
I considered turning down the offer, but then thought I would try to turn it into an opportunity. Perhaps if I tried to explain why I found the email upsetting, even while accepting, it would create some dialogue about how to engage with women and make them feel welcome.
So my response:
Thanks for thinking of me (or rather, my thanks to PFS). First and most importantly, I am pleased to accept this.
Second, I am struggling to figure out how to say this, but I am going to be honest. If you want more women, telling the women you are inviting that you’ve been told you have to have more women, particularly said in a way that implies you are being forced to do it rather than are aware of and eager to eliminate gender disparities, does not promote a welcome environment for women. I hope you realize the impact of your statement towards those you invite, regardless of what was likely a benign intent.
I expected either a condescending reply, or a hasty “so sorry, I should have written something more thoughtful.” PFS, who I CCed, responded with a “heck yeah!” email and thanked me for writing that email. But from DCST?
By this point, I felt invested. I knew immediately what I wanted to contribute to CST. I wanted to take this opportunity to do something provocative and meaningful, something that would contradict the dudeliness of CST, something less about me and more about how I wanted to see the world change.
I talked about my contribution to friends and loved ones over winter break, refining my ideas. I did several freewrites. I found the work a bit terrifying, but I also felt good about it. Sometimes I need to spend a lot of time thinking and freewriting before I can put something coherent together, and by then the draft comes together easily. Thankfully, that’s what happened with this piece. I submitted my contribution on the day of the deadline, had a great workout at the gym and roller derby practice that night, and slept very well.
The next morning, in a meeting with a friend, I told her the story of DCST and PFS. I said I submitted my work the day before and was very curious how they would respond to my contribution. I had intentionally gone meta with the kind of contribution I wanted to make, and what I wrote was explicitly feminist, so I worried they would find a way to cut me out of CST. We laughed over the improbability of this and how I was over-worrying.
A few hours later, I got this email:
Thanks for your piece which is extremely interesting but doesn’t work for this year’s CST.
It seems more suited for the op ed page of the NY Times. If you are so inclined, try [name of NYT contact] ([her email]).
Dudette With Whom I Had Never Before Corresponded
Cool Science Thing
To Raise a Fuss or Smile Through Gritted Teeth?
As my Twitter followers know, at this point I took to social media to express my frustration.
Has anyone ever been invited to write something, then condescendingly disinvited? Asking for a friend.
— Kate Clancy (@KateClancy) January 10, 2014
I was met with a variety of answers – some taking my question at face value, others perhaps sensing the anger underneath. I elaborated:
Let me add to that first question. Were you invited because there were too few women, but then they didn't like what you had to say?
— Kate Clancy (@KateClancy) January 10, 2014
At the same time that I was venting, I was also trying to think through my anger. Was there a way to salvage this? How could I support the efforts of Prominent Female Scientist? My long term goal is to increase representation of people of color and white women in science. It’s really hard to tell sometimes whether one’s effort is better spent making a big stink about something, or playing nice and staying quiet.
PFS and I corresponded during this time. She was upset and wanted me included in CST. So she told me to sit tight, and while she wasn’t hopeful it would do anything, she was going to talk to Top Dude at Cool Science Thing to see if the decision could be reversed. I also emailed the Dudette to ask for clarity around why I was uninvited.
Another few hours later, and I received this message, again altered only to preserve anonymity, misspellings not mine:
Dear Kate Clancy,
[PFS] wrote and asked me to reconsider your [contribution], which I’ve now re-read. But first, one thing to note is that you did write a serious, well-written essay which is intelligently argued. It’s fine. The issue for [CST] is that it doesn’t address [x]. Rather, it’s a commmentary about [x] (and a good one, I would say).
That said, PFS correctly pointed out that we have other responses that are also “meta-responses”…. So it becomes a completely subjective editorial decision on what gets in and what doesn’t (and fyi, we turn down quite a few pieces), and that’s my job. Usually, if I have questions, there are three or four people I turn to as advisors, and although we have no hard or fast rule, in practice, if any of them weigh in strongly pro or con, I defer to their judgement and they get to over-rule me. Now that PFS has stepped up and spoken strongly on behalf of your essay, she gets to have her say, which is that you wrote a excellent piece that has merit… and we have to publish. An so we shall.
[A few details about the contribution.]
Top Dude at Cool Science Thing
cc: Prominent Female Scientist
PFS and I corresponded some more, and I decided to keep my contribution in CST. My middle-ground decision between shit-storm and smiling with gritted teeth was sharing how my contribution came about via this blog post.
It Happens Every Day
I think it’s worth more people seeing what is behind so many of the contributions women and people in other underrepresented groups make when they try to improve their representation in science (or business, or probably a number of other places). We have to deal with the folks who think we are only being invited because of our identity – and sometimes those people are the ones inviting us. We have to deal with rudeness, tone-deafness, and condescension. And the way we deal with it can have repercussions for how these people and organizations change (or not) when it comes to their own mission and priorities in regard to representation. I constantly worry whether the way I handle sexism in the workplace is going to help those who come after me, or hinder them. And I know too many people who would rather not deal with the condescending invites and #ripplesofdoubt, so they just opt out altogether.
This is only one of many stories of sexism in the workplace. Women get put off, by this and a million other indignities, and many of them leave. The women that stay endure being told – sometimes explicitly – that they don’t belong or are only there by the grace of their identity. Knowing the person who invited me didn’t particularly want me to be a part of Cool Science Thing occupied my brain for almost two months, and frazzled me as I finally put words to page last week. And I even had someone working the inside, PFS, who was trying to fix the situation for underrepresented groups! Most people don’t have that.
Be that person on the inside of your organization. Be that person on the outside. Don’t let people get away with the many indignities that make people of color, white women, LGBT folk, differently abled folk feel like less. And don’t let them stop you from taking opportunities that will open more doors for you, expose more people to your thinking, and make things easier for the brilliant folks who will come after you.