The Sexist

Sexist Comments of the Week: “Reverse” “Discrimination” Edition


For this edition of Sexist Comments of the Week, I cede the floor to my honorable colleague from Ontario, Chanda. Chanda really knows what the eff she's talking about when it comes to sexism in the sciences, so she's the perfect person to respond to the male scientist who reported being 'rankled' by a dinner for women scientists. Take it away Chanda:

[I'm] a woman in science, and actually what upset me about this email is that it reminds me of a time when the undergrads were asking for a women-only pizza dinner in the physics department, and some of the women grad students opposed it saying that it was discrimination against the men. Now that I’m finishing grad school, I’ve seen a lot of that. Many of the women who decide to stick around in this bullshit atmosphere are either people who manage to bury their heads in their asses or people who are so afraid of being on the outs with the men that they will sell their sisters down the river.

. . . 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.

. . . 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.

Photo via Bennett 4 Senate, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

  • Melissa

    Would that guy have had the same complaint about an event specially for male nursing students? It's still just something to support people with the courage to be a minority gender in a particular field.

  • Jess

    I take issue with the idea that women who don't believe in single-gender events (though the whole idea of this seems to be affirmative action) are "selling their sisters down the river" or "afraid to speak out." Their point-of-view is still legitimate, even if you don't agree with it.

    Regardless of your opinion on the events legitimacy, it does seem a little rude that department would send out invitations to people who aren't actually invited? That might rub me the wrong way in any circumstances.

  • Chanda

    Amanda, thanks for highlighting these comments. Of course I take a special pride in them because I made them, but much much much more importantly, you're keeping this deeply important conversation at the fore for just a little bit longer. Moreover, it's really important that these discussions not only take place within the scientific community but outside of it too.

    Thanks for all of your wonderful work and for choosing to highlight this discussion!!

  • Jess

    Chanda is clearly awesome. That's all I have to say about that.

    Anyone with doubts that women's progress in STEM fields is seriously impeded by bias and discrimination, there's some Science! on the subject here:

    Also, the time has come to mention that the other Jess is not me.

  • Em

    Chanda, thanks so much for your point of view, so encouraging!

    I was the gender-minority in the film production field (insert quip about the camera being a phallic symbol, blah blah blah) and I always saw myself as "one of the boys", but struggled with frustration. Then I (quite accidently) got involved with the women's organization and it was amazing the amount of support and help I recieved there. It definitely alleviated a lot of the stress that I had about my field of study, and these organizations simply provide a safe space for us to breathe and speak freely, and not pretend like we're posturing all the time. To call it "reverse discrimination" is a cop-out, because if all discrimination had been for me was that I didn't get invited to some dinner from time to time, I don't know that it would be an issue. The fact is, that's just plain insulting to people who've been discriminated against. If the men wanted to go to dinners, there were co-ed organizations for them to do's not like they didn't have the opportunity.

  • Chanda

    Thanks Jess (#4)! You reminded me that I recently posted a few links to help people learn about women of color in science. Most of these links will lead to information about women in general. Here are a few blog posts that specifically address facts relating to women in science. Everyone in DC! Read up! You have the power to affect policy in these areas :-)

    The last two should be read as a pair. Thanks everyone for getting informed and then (hopefully) getting vocal.

  • Elise

    As to the importance of single-gender events in departments such as Physics, let me use one of my own experiences to demonstrate the harm that having even one male at an event for empowering women can do:

    My university has a mostly-male (big surprise) Physics department. In an astounding recognition of the discrimination women face in physics, the department organized a dinner at which (only) women undergraduates, grad students, post-docs, and faculty were invited to share their experiences with discrimination, etc., at the college. No men were allowed; one (who was mistakenly invited by a participant who thought the event was open to all interested) was actually turned away at the door.

    However, the department head (a white man) stayed for the entire event. While his initiative in starting a conversation about the discrimination women face in STEM fields is laudable, his presence (in my opinion, as an attendee of the event who walked out) changed the conversation from one focusing on what women wanted to see changed and what they felt was holding them back about the department into a "buck-it-up, we-can-do-this" session, at times actually mocking (thankfully anonymous) comments made by participants. One group of comments, stating that being expected to cope with the 60 to 80 hour workweek of a grad student and raise children or otherwise have a family, was met with the criticism of, "Well, we all face this, and it sucks, but deal with it."

    Do I really need to elaborate more to explain how my comments on the overtly competitive atmosphere and the less overt hostility female undergrads and grad students face from male peers and teachers were received, despite being able to cite one student being called "stupid" by a professor (I did not name names - the student was present, and I felt humiliating her more than having her own experiences recounted by someone else).

    In my opinion, this clearly shows the damage done by just one male at an otherwise possibly empowering and awesome event.

  • Jess(ica)

    Oh whoops. I guess that's what happens when commenters use their first names.

  • kza

    Men are the ones discriminating so it's important to lock them out of anti-discrimination events and leave them feeling excluded. Surely that will make them less likely to discriminate!

  • queen of carrot flowers

    This wasn't an anti-discrimination event.

  • kza

    There was one mentioned in the comments.

  • Elise

    It wasn't an anti-discrimination event, it was an event formulated to gather women's opinions on what could be done better at the physics department because of a radical shortage of women (from what I understand, we fell well below the "normal" statistics even for a physics department) and then gather possible action items to be taken to the department head or others with authority. The result, however, of having the department head present (one of the most important people in the department, also a male) was that suggestions were ridiculed. Similar events, though held by different departments, without men present, did not result in such ridiculing of contributions, according to friends I have spoken to. None of those events resulted in women walking out because their opinions were ridiculed, as several women, including myself, did at the physics event.

    Frankly, I think this event should have been accompanied by a second one, where both genders present in the physics department (no transgendered or transsexuals are open in the physics department, as far as I know) discussed the problems found by the women, as well as possible solutions, so that everyone was included (but women were given a safe place to speak without being ridiculed).

  • Chanda

    Elise -- I've had experiences like that too, although I won't say where because it's too easy to figure out who in my case. Anyway, just wanted to say that your story sounds all too common. The Chair of the Department shouldn't think he is an exception.

    Now, what's cool is that at Harvard, the chair of the physics department as of July 1 is a woman! She was the first woman to be tenured in the department, and I think that will make for an interesting change of leadership.

  • Elise

    I am so glad to hear that; it gives me hope that there will eventually be fewer women treated the way some of my colleagues and I were.

  • Marty

    Every time there is a women in science post I'm compelled to reference Ben Barres. He's the chair of the Neurobiology department at Stanford School of Medicine, he's transgender, and he transitioned in his early forties, meaning that for a substantial portion of his career he was published under the name Barbara Barres. His anecdotes about the difference he felt after transitioning are astounding (e.g. he has talked about a scientist referring to his work as "much better than his sister's"):

    The above link is to an interview with Dr. Barres that came out after Larry Summers expressed his sympathy for the hypothesis that maybe women are not equally represented in science faculties because they are intrinsically less well suited for math and science. Dr. Barres published a commentary soon after in Nature in which reviewed the empirical data about gender difference and more or less kindly told Dr. Summers to cram it. I would link to that commentary, but it's behind the paywall at Nature's website.

  • kza

    If the head of your department wasn't an asshole would you be complaining about him?

  • Elise

    I would be complaining about him being allowed at an event that was supposed to be female-only, to the extent that they turned away male undergrads who had been unwittingly invited. While he had, I am sure, an interest in hearing what was said, the fact remains that his presence (whether or not he was a jerk) almost certainly changed the discussion, considering the intersection of his being a male AND the department head. If the event was supposed to bring out thoughts, feelings, and ideas that had been suppressed in classrooms and meetings with advisors, how in the world would having the male department head, the one who helps decide who gets their PhD and doesn't, who gets tenure or not, NOT restrict what was being said?

  • kza

    Because he's the person who should be hearing that sort of stuff. I don't know the politics of your department but I'd assume the head of it is the one most likely to bring positive changes no?

  • Elise

    Yes, he should eventually hear the decisions from these events, but to have him there, mocking the opinions and ideas of participants - to have anyone there doing that - completely undermines the very purpose of the event.

    As for the politics of a department, while the department head can try and force positive change, or any sort of change, onto their department, individuals within the department are almost always able to resist the changes. So a mandate to professors to change the way they teach is only as effective as the professors want it to be and is only as enforced as the department can force it to be - tenure is nigh impossible to take back, and for grad students, speaking out against professors who treat them poorly can be academic suicide, especially if the professor you're speaking against is well-known or powerful.

  • kza

    Fair enough. I just don't see what preaching to the choir while possibly alienating some people accomplishes.

  • Chanda

    At my research institute, we now have a gender and family issues committee. Despite the fact that we're doing worse than even a typical physics department at hiring women at all levels (faculty, postdoc, and grad student) such a thing had not existed. What changed? A female member of the research community had a bad experience, emailed all of the other women and invited them over for tea. We exchanged stories, found that we shared common experiences and agreed to do it again. The second time we did it, we really got into a discussion about what was wrong. A Muslim member of the group was able to spend some time with fellow researchers while feeling free to remove her hijab. Indeed, we were all able to "let our hair down" in a sense: we could really say all the words that came to mind in these frustrating moments that we simply had to hold back for professional reasons.

    As those things came out, an interesting thing started to happen. We started planning. Fed by the stories, we began to recognize patterns that needed to be challenged. After all of the venting was done, after we had dealt with the personal side, we were able to focus on the more professional aspect of the situation: making changes. We made a list of the things that we wanted, appointed someone to speak to the head of the institute and then sat him down, just us and him, and explained our demands.

    Within a week we had a gender and family issues committee, and a family-friendly work room was in the latest round of construction plans within months. The gender and family issues committee was instrumental in making that family-friendly work room (which was just finished a few months ago) a reality.

    That's what happens when women are allowed to sit down, vent without interference and then plan. So my question is to the people who have such an enormous problem with the women having a moment to themselves, to vent, rage, and calmly collect themselves into the professional, cool, "I don't care if you're a sexist prick" manner that we have to put on every single day. Yeah, we took a break from having to put on a show. You'll live.

    And you might even live better at the end of it, since most of the changes made to the institute have benefited women as much as men, if not the men more, since there are simply more of them to take advantage of things like a family-friendly work room.

  • kza

    Fair enough.

  • Anya

    The reverse discrimination argument works like this: nobody ever explicitly excludes your less priviliged group. They just assume that my priviliged group is the neutral point so you're excluded on the basis that you are a deviation from my group, but you can't see that in the party invites so I'm offended when the party invites not only fail to accept my privilege and appearance of normalcey, but also specifically bring attention to the existence of something outside my group and try to create a space for that.

    That's why the "but there's no MENZ dinner" argument doesn't work. Everybody already thinks that a dinner party is a men's dinner party unless someone goes and makes a specifically women's dinner party. Then THEY are upset.
    I'd take equal pay and equal visibility over dinner parties, but I won't have that unless I actually MAKE myself effing visible, now will I?

  • Keith B

    Anya, are you really saying you feel that every event that isn't explicitly minority-only is implicitly white-male-judeo/christian-only? Where do you go to school, the 1940s?

    Chanda actually makes a good argument for women-only events, but it sounds like you live in some kind of radical femifist fantasy/nightmare world.

  • Chanda

    Keith, I'm pretty sure Anya is living in the same 2010 that I am. Have you read Peggy McIntosh's essay on privilege? It seems like it might be informative. NASA had her speak at Women in Astronomy last fall because they found her comment so useful within their own organization.

    Here is a link to the article, although I think there is a longer version that you can purchase:

    I think she's so eloquent when she says, "I have met very few men who are truly distressed about systemic, unearned male advantage and conferred dominance. And so one question for me and others like me is whether we will be like them or whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged about unearned race advantage and conferred dominance and if so, what will we do to lessen them."

  • Danny

    "That’s why the “but there’s no MENZ dinner” argument doesn’t work."

    I can get with that. I don't think the problem would start until someone did try to hold a dinner that was excplicitly called a Men's Dinner and then someone tried to stop it from happening.

  • sister of physics brothers

    As a woman, I think it is actually discriminatory against women to have women-only meetings. I know you mean well, but getting women together to commiserate does nothing to fix discrimination. You are speaking to the choir (women) about issues that the "non-choir" (men, most likely, in power) should be addressing. This means you are saddled with fixing things (lacking the power to do so), while the men don't have to do a thing unless you create a ruckus. It would be expected that the women institute the fixes from the meeting. Yuck. Perhaps the meetings should be replaced by a committee with official capacity that includes men so that the workload implementing suggestions is shared.

    These meetings also reinforce stereotypes about women having "cryfests" or whatever you want to call it, so they can be all emotional and buddy-buddy with each other.

    Worse, it maintains the fear that you can't talk to leadership through "normal" organizational channels. I admit I am not sure what the answer is to discrimination, but I know these meetings can label you as troublemakers.

    I would couch the meeting in some other way, perhaps new post-docs, or some other group that allows men (who might have issues at lower levels too) come.