The Sexist

Male Scientist “Rankled” By Dinner for Women Scientists

Submitted (mostly) without comment: An e-mail message sent to the Female Science Professor blog:

On a department-wide email list for all post-docs, I received an invitation to an event that was not addressed to me. The email was addressed only to women; it invited women to attend a women's scientific society dinner held on the university campus. I understood that I was excluded from the event because of my gender.

This email traffic and the event itself are so far into my post-doc one of the only instances where I have felt discriminated against; this certainly isn't the norm. It would be easy enough for me to ignore this single incident, I suppose, but nonetheless it's rankled me. To me it seems like an example of a disconnect between the ideals of a discrimination-free workplace and the practices that supposedly further this ideal.

To me, this seems like an example of the disconnect between a dude who has never noticed discrimination in science before and the, oh, two whole hours that his voice won't be explicitly privileged in the academy. FSP replies: "I wish I could say that my only experience with 'discrimination' was not being invited to an event like this." [Thanks to Geek Feminism Blog for the tip].

  • Chanda

    Sorry, it's obvious that I wasn't clear enough. The undergrad women unanimously wanted a department-sponsored women-only pizza event. This is because when men were invited to come, they often outnumbered the women AND made some of the undergrads feel like there were issues they couldn't talk about openly.

  • Jess

    Jess, you never had any interest in a constructive reply as soon as you read my first comment.

    You're damn right. I've been doing this feminist-on-the-internet thing for long enough that it often only takes one antagonistic bullshit comment for me to guess that someone is in it for antagonism and bullshit. This may shock you, but sometimes women don't give you the benefit of the doubt not because they're too dumb to realize you might have good intentions, but because they're smart enough to realize you don't.

    Chanda, that's a really good point about how the academic environment in STEM fields makes women turn against each other. I've been discussing this a lot with two scientist friends (one of whom is about to jump out of the pipeline, one of whom keeps climbing back in) and you're exactly right -- the need to be twice as good as everyone else to prove that you belong there also means you have to be willing to step on fellow woman scientists to pull yourself up. The problem isn't the women or the men but the skewed system -- but of course the system is buoyed by people who want to believe that it doesn't need to be examined or changed. Those are usually people who think the system works because they benefit from it (i.e. male scientists) but it can also be women who think the system works well enough because they are beating it.

  • Keith B

    Right on, Jess. But realize that anyone who's done the person-on-the-internet thing for a long time easily sees you're plenty full of antagonism and bullshit too, so get off your high horse. Slamming heads in drawers is not the path to the high ground (not that you or I care about that concept).

    I wish we knew more about what society it was sending the invite, and if it was a local or national type event. Chanda, did you attend a HBCU, or other school where Blacks were a large % of the student population? I think even at schools with a smaller %, no BSU would exclude anyone by race from their official events. Why is that different from a women's society? Schools, especially public ones get into this shit all the time, like the one where you had to be a straight Christian to join a certain student group. If the group dynamic isn't working for the core members (women), do it unofficially or off-campus as a private event. People can't complain about that.

  • Laurel

    Shorter "pack of ignoramuses"(thanks EmilyBites):

    Baaaaaw! All I have is everything! Everything but this! I didn't know it existed ten minutes ago, but now I do, and you told me I can't have it, so I want it right now! My precious fee fees trump countless centuries of discrimination against women. They do, they do, they DO!

  • Native JD in DC

    Equally as discriminatory as the dominant superstructure. You can't fight discrimination withe discrimination.

    An eye for eye...

  • Kristina

    I kind of want to see the initial email... What if they didn't explicitly exclude men but just spread the email around to those on a specific listserv or something? What if men were allowed to go if they so chose?

    Just food for thought...

  • Chanda

    This is off topic but related to something other people raised: Do HBCUs have Black student associations? (Honest question that I don't know the answer to.) It seems like it would be redundant in the same way that a white student association would be redundant at almost every school in the first world.

    To answer your question about what the difference is, Keith:
    If Black student associations had the problem of white people showing up and outnumbering them, I think people might rethink the openness. This is a problem that women's events that involve free food tend to have that people of color events don't have. If suddenly you're outnumbered at an event that is meant to challenge your feeling of being outnumbered, then the whole thing falls apart.

    Additionally, an environment like a physics department has marked differences from a campus organization like a BSU. Potentially, the physics grads/postdocs in the room will have decision-making power over my career at some point. They might be on a hiring committee/tenure committee/admissions committee. It is not as safe to speak freely in front of people who might have direct power over your future. In a BSU, it is likely you will be dealing with people that you will know socially and can choose to have a professional relationship with but aren't tied to having a professional relationship with.

  • drsnacks

    Would a more dramatic picture of a power differential completely removed from any of us be more helpful? Would a medieval count be justified in being rankled by a peasant social invite that excluded all noblemen?

  • Chanda

    Not to mention in a physics department that it's possible that you have a specific situation you want to discuss and the aggressor is in the room.

    I could fill a book with stories about women who were afraid to speak up because the repercussions for their career were too enormous. Creating safe, private spaces with people who are allies by experience is very important. You might argue that some men might want to be allies, but it is also the case that men sometimes claim to be allies when they actually aren't. In the case of women, some of them don't want to be allies. That's fine. They generally just don't show up.

    The reason you want to hold an official event, as opposed to a private one like the ones we have at the institute where I work, is because the department's endorsement sends a message about the department's attitude toward these issues. That they recognize women are having these experiences and that they support their every effort to find ways to not only challenge but also simply cope with them. That kind of messaging alone can go a long way toward challenging department culture. If the chair of the department or other people in positions of power are saying, "I endorse women having these events," you're probably going to be a lot more careful about what you say and do, realizing that you can't just get away with overt and maybe even covert sexism.

  • Keith B

    Thanks, Chanda. I don't think it would be weird to have BSUs at a HBCU, from my undergrad experience there's still SHPE / SACNAS chapters at schools with high Hispanic populations. Although these are more for professional & academic purposes than a "BSU", so maybe the comparison isn't good. I'm not familiar with what similar groups exist for Black students but I'm willing to bet they, like the BSUs, do not restrict membership to only Blacks, or African Americans.

    Your second point is good, but I still think (maybe being too PC here?) the only solution is to not have them directly associated with the school. Profs, postdocs of course should attend. I can't reconcile closing off one group, even if the core members face discrimination / are outnumbered, with letting another student group say "no queers at our meeting" and still be able to hold campus events. Do you see a "whites-only pizza party" working out at Howard? Discrimination is discrimination, you can do it in your clubhouse but you can't do it in your school activities.

  • Chanda

    Keith, calling it discrimination is a misnomer that belies the reality of the situation and also the reason that events like this exist. This kind of stuff is there to level an imbalanced playing field. It is simply nonsensical to call methods that are used to counteract the effects of discrimination, discrimination. These kinds of things are very small spaces that are arduously carved out so that women and minorities have a chance.

    And yes, SACNAS and SPHE are not a good comparison with a BSU. This is something I can talk about quite a bit -- I am on the executive board of the National Society of Black Physicists as well as a member of the advisory board of the National Society of Hispanic Physicists, which is a partner organization in the annual SACNAS conference. These organizations serve minority communities in ways that crossover with more broadly defined organizations but are not the same.

    It's important to recognize that SACNAS, NSHP, NSBP, SHPE and NSBE exist partially for the purposes of interacting with and advocating within the larger majority community. That is not the purpose of a women-only dinner. The difference in these purposes is a reflection of the larger situation: members of underrepresented groups (as well as fairly represented groups who face discrimination, such as women of Asian descents in science) not only need advocacy, they also need personal emotional and professional support. Women of color in particular face challenges on this front. Even as chair of NSBP's Cosmology, Gravitation and Relativity group, I'm still pretty isolated: I'm the only girl in the group that I chair! So, joining NSBE, NSHP, NSBP, SACNAS, SPHE is not a guarantee that women will find support.

    That said, minorities who do have access to these organizations are much more likely to be able to carve out an informal support network for themselves. Some of that is dependent on personality though. And I'm less concerned with the women who are fierce and able to handle the BS, the Marie Curies of the world, and much more concerned about all of the women who don't have that kind of strong personality but who could make phenomenal contributions to science if they felt safe in their working/studying environment.

    *acronym key so everyone is in the loop:
    SACNAS = Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in the Sciences
    SPHE = Society of Professional Hispanic Engineers
    NSBE = National Society of Black Engineers
    NSBP = National Society of Black Physicists
    NSHP = National Society of Hispanic Physicists

    It should be noted that attendance at SACNAS is broad: students of various Asian descents as well as African descent are often in attendance.

  • Charlie

    @Em said:
    "You set the tone when you open the conversation. For me, you’re below engaging when you don’t come to the table wanting to discuss civilly."

    Good point. Of course, you probably won't agree with me that Amanda Hess is the troll here.

    If you read the posting by the Female Science Professor it is a long thought provoking take on the subject. The kind of article that is interesting to read and ponder. Amanda Hess reduced the FSPs response to “I wish I could say that my only experience with ‘discrimination‘ was not being invited to an event like this.” This is flame-bait.

    In the same vein, I would point out that the 70 comments on her posting are far more enlightening that the ones here (including some suggestions on how to handle the situation). Of course, she did set a different tone to the conversation to start with.

  • K

    Chanda, your comment about being outnumbered at a meeting due to people showing up just for the food strongly reminds me of that stupid beer commercial. You know the one, where the BF is about to leave his honey with her Happy Ladies Book-Club when he notices a (tastefully arranged) container of I think BudLite on the table.

    Suddenly, golf or whatever is out of the picture and BF & all the golf buddies are infiltrating the Happy Ladies Book-Club for the beer. The women try to converse with them about the book in question, but the men haven't read it or don't understand, and the "boring" book-club becomes a "fun" co-ed beer party! Everyone wins!

    Except, of course, the ladies who wanted to discuss their weekly book. Or the lady scientists who wanted a chance to talk about the troubles they have getting taken seriously if they wear a blouse that clings too tight. Having a male scientist in the room for that discussion would almost certainly lead to protests of, "We're not all like that! I've never done that!" That, good scientist sir, is totally irrelevant and besides the point.

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  • Keith B

    Charlie, that's exactly it, and yeah, I doubt any of the yes-women here will agree.

  • ruiqiu

    @Chanda: #59- Thanks for explaining why having the department sponsor meetings like these means so much more! I hadn't considered the difference between a private and a sponsored meeting.

    @K And of course, when the male scientist at the women in science discussion proclaims, "Hey, I'm not like that!", we women are supposed to reassure him: "No, of course you're not, sweetie. You're always considerate of women and you're just the greatest supporter of women ever! Thank you for deigning to help our cause!" And once again, the conversation has turned away from the challenges that women face in the sciences back to what the one man in the room wants to talk about: his own hurt feelings!

    Real life example: So, I'm a female physics graduate student talking with two of my (white and male) colleagues about how physics as a field is overwhelmingly white and male. One of the guys got defensive and said something like, "Well, I guess I'm contributing to the problem, huh?". He seemed hurt, so as usual, a conversation about women and minorities in physics went immediately back to the feelings of a white male (as if the feelings of one white man are more important than the problems facing whole groups of people!). And if I don't follow the conversation derailment, then I'm being mean to him personally. And no, he probably wasn't being intentionally dismissive; he might have legitimately had hurt feelings, but a possibly useful conversation about discrimination ended anyway, regardless of his intentions.

    The easiest way for women or people of color to discuss legitimate problems they face is to exclude the privileged group sometimes. Otherwise, their voices might be drowned out.

  • BradMillersHero

    Um, you guys. Sexism is sexism, and sex segregation is sex segregation, and refusing something to one gender is still refusing something to them.

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  • Jeff

    "To complain of discrimination when one belongs a privileged group is nonsensical and NOT equal to a complaint of discrimation from a person of minority status on the part of a privileged group."

    That's a horrible sentiment. People can be discriminated all the time, period, no matter who they are. One's not less than the other just because one is characterized as more privileged than the other.

    Besides, there are many spheres of privilege. White, Rich, American. The cure for discrimination is not further discrimination.