Speaking Out

By Sean Carroll | October 23, 2006 6:32 pm

Why do we keep writing about women in science? And even inviting guest posts that touch on the topic? Haven’t we more or less exhausted what needs to be said? Maybe it’s time to concentrate on cosmology and/or the World Series? After all, I’m not even a woman! Maybe I’m just trying to impress the chicks? (Honestly suggested at least once.)

Rob Knop has an excellent post up about a presentation he just gave to his department at Vanderbilt (where I’ll be visiting Thursday). He was emphasizing that the department — much like the vast majority of physics departments — doesn’t always present a hospitable environment to female students and postdocs.

We have an issue in our department right now which has (tangentially) brought up the issue of the climate for women in physics. We have a serious problem with the climate for women students and post-docs (at least). I don’t really know if it’s worse here than physics departments elsewhere; I know the climate is globally bad everywhere, and maybe it’s worse on average, or maybe it’s better on average. But I do know it’s bad here, and unless we think about it, it will stay bad.

In a short presentation to the department today, I included a slide with this statement on it:

The biggest problem among the faculty is that we all allow things to slide. None of us speak out when we see and hear things that we should be questioning. We are all, constantly, guilty of this; I can name a few instances for myself, and doubtless have forgotten many more.

In retrospect, using the absolute term “none of us” was probably a mistake, but certainly it’s rare when people speak out. This statement was close to a direct quote from a female graduate student I’ve talked to; I asked her what she thought the biggest climate problem was, and it was this: the fact that behaviors are accepted, not questioned, evidently by all.

Amazingly, some of his fellow faculty members didn’t agree! Other people/places might have issues, but not them.

In fact, it wasn’t until I started blogging about it that I really understood the depth of the problem. I had long known that women faced obstacles, but I thought that the vast majority of male physicists were benignly clueless rather than actively contributing. But there appear to be substantial numbers of people at all levels of academia who are quite convinced that the present situation is determined more by genetics than by bias. Reading the comment sections on these posts, notwithstanding the presence of a good number of thoughtful and intelligent participants, is an incredibly depressing exercise.

But it’s still worth doing. Progress doesn’t happen automatically; it’s because people make the effort to cause it to happen. And when it comes to women in science, there are good reasons why men should take it upon themselves to raise a ruckus. (I suspect that analogous statements hold true for the status of minority groups in science, although I readily admit to being less knowledgeable about those issues.)

I recently had coffee with my friend Janna Levin, author (most recently) of A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. Janna recently wrote a provocative essay for Newsweek, entitled This Topic Annoys Me. The topic, of course, being the status of women in science.

But while earning my Ph.D. at MIT and then as a postdoc doing cosmological research, the issue started to loom large. My every achievement—jobs, research papers, awards—was viewed through the lens of gender politics. So were my failures. People seemed unable to talk about anything else. Sometimes, to avoid further alienating myself from colleagues, I tried evasive maneuvers, like laughing the loudest when another scientist made a sexist remark. Other times, when goaded into an argument on left brain versus right brain, or nature versus nurture, I was instantly ensnared, fighting fiercely on my behalf and all womankind. I was perpetually inflamed and exhausted. It permeated every aspect of my life. Take this very essay. Here I am, somehow talking about being a woman in science, trying not to even as I do so. Imagine my frustration.

The point is, it’s not easy to be a scientist. There is a great amount of competition (whether we like to think that way or not) for resources, especially jobs. Research is hard, as you are pushing with all your brainpower against some of the knottiest unsolved problems concerning the workings of the universe. Even if you did nothing else, being a successful scientist is a full-time job.

And then women, as a reward for making it through an already-difficult gauntlet made more harsh by lingering Neanderthal attitudes, are asked once they succeed to take on a whole new set of responsibilities — serving on extra committees, making public appearances on behalf of the department, providing a sympathetic ear to younger women. All worthwhile activities, no question, but not the kind of thing that pushes one’s research agenda forward. I admit that I had a certain initial reluctance to ask Chanda to contribute her guest post. She has something interesting to say (from a perspective I can’t possibly offer), and can certainly take care of herself, so in the end I felt quite comfortable making the request. But every minute spent on stuff like that is a minute that isn’t spent doing research. Women should be free to concentrate on thinking about black holes and the early universe, just like guys are.

It’s a balance, of course, and as a blogger I certainly believe that one can do research and other activities at the same time. But it’s completely unfair to expect women and minority scientists to do all the work in trying to eliminate the discrimation that they face. It is perfectly defensible, maybe even highly recommended, for any individual woman scientist to decide that the cause is better served if they concentrate on collecting data and writing papers rather than organizing conferences and raising consciousnesses. So, for the foreseeable future, it’s a good idea for the rest of us to put some effort into making the situation better all around.

In the meantime, how ’bout those Cards?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Women in Science
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  • Jack

    “Haven’t we more or less exhausted what needs to be said? ”

    Do bears shit in the woods?

    “Maybe it’s time to concentrate on cosmology?”

    Is the Pope Catholic?

  • Annie

    Sean and Rob — I do hope you know that things like this help. Perhaps you haven’t thought of this, but for the most part, in my department, I *know* that I can go talk to female professors about these issues. I can talk until my breath runs out with other female graduate students. Other than here, however, there aren’t really very many places where women can talk to men about this big bad problem.

    Are there male faculty in my department, who I know and like, that I could talk to? Of course. Am I absolutely certain of which men those are? Not so much.

    And on top of that, there’s the threat of crippling disappointment. If I do slip something into casual conversation, a kind of litmus test to find out if I’m dealing with someone who thinks that I’m fine but that women in general aren’t as good at physics, I have to deal with the potential of any response. If the jackass that everybody *knows* is a jackass wants to make ridiculous comments — well, that’s still not so great for the climate overall, but it’s not the same as having to find out for sure that someone I respect and admire thinks I’m being “dramatic.”

  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    That’s helpful, Jack.

    Have things changed? ‘Cause if the s*#@ that goes on is still going on, then we need to talk about it some more, until it becomes nice and unacceptable.

  • http://cyperus-papyrus.livejournal.com/ cyperus_papyrus

    I had long known that women faced obstacles, but I thought that the vast majority of male physicists were benignly clueless rather than actively contributing.

    Cluelessness is rarely benign. Failing to be mindful of how our behavior affects others does not stop the damage that behavior inflicts on others. But physicists are not rewarded for good behavior. Until they are, nothing will change.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/ Rob Knop

    Cluelessness is rarely benign. Failing to be mindful of how our behavior affects others does not stop the damage that behavior inflicts on others.

    I think there are three or four levels here.

    On the most egregious level, you have the actual creeps — the people who don’t respect women, who treat them differently in classes and in advising, who make the sexist and bigotted problem. Maybe Sean knows more than I, but I still have enough blinders on to think that this is a minority.

    The second level is the people who make sexist remarks without realizing that they’re making sexist remarks. This is a kind of cluelessness, but these people are still actively contributing to the problem.

    The third level is people who are clueless that there is a real problem, but who aren’t actively contributing. They treat women fairly and respectfully themselves, but also insist that there’s no general problem despite the fact that it’s been held in their face repeatedly. They’re nice, and they don’t see other people being mean, so they deny the problem.

    The fourth level of cluelessness is the people who don’t know there’s a problem because these problems are generally not talked about (except in very general terms). I know stuff goes on in my department that I don’t know about. I know that I know about a lot more of the stuff going on than other completely respectful faculty. When issues come up, there’s always issues of “privacy” and such, they get quietly dealt with (either through cover-up or secret reprimands), and nobody finds out. Lots of people in my department, at least, have their heads in the sand; they don’t look for the problems, so they don’t see the problems.

    The last two levels are passive contributors. The third level should know better. The fourth level… well, they should also know better, but it’s more uniformed cluelessness, whereas the third level is near-willful cluelessness.

    I think most men are living at the third and fourth levels; the fourth level is what I would guess is something like Sean’s “benign cluelessness.” It’s a part of the problem, yes, because they’re tolerating the people on the first and second levels.

    But from what Sean says, the first and second levels may be more populated than we would like to admit. Indeed, a year or so ago (before I was as informed as I am now), I was having a conversation with a female faculty member about these kinds of problems. I said something like, “but who’s doing this? I can’t see all but a few people on this faculty doing these sorts of things.” Her response: maybe you don’t know your colleagues as well as you think you do.

    We probably don’t know our colleagues as well as we think we do.

    But a student in my department has told me that what I describe as the level three and level four stuff above is the biggest problem; it’s just tolerated, and treated as a norm.

    -Rob

  • http://www.pyracantha.com Pyracantha

    When a woman physicist marries a male physicist colleague, does this diminish the burden of sexism on her and make her more “acceptable” in the male-dominated community?

  • a different bitter grad student

    Why do we keep writing about women in science?

    Well, for starters, some of the top astronomy fellowships don’t offer maternity leave, unlike nearly every other job in the U.S. which requires a similar amount of education. That’s probably not a positive contribution to the climate.

    Am I absolutely certain of which men those are? Not so much.

    I know exactly what you mean — my department is relatively woman-friendly, and I’ve still seen (and heard of) negative attitudes from many of the men in the department.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Rob,

    From my experience, I have to say, you don’t know your colleagues as well as you think you do.

    But, hey, life is good, there is research to do, and GO CARDS!!!!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Pyracantha, NO! Definitely not. In my experience as a female physicist having been married to a male physicist, the marriage can actually make things worse. Then folks say “Oh, her husband has done all the work for her.” Can’t count the number of times I have run across that.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    GO CARDS!!!!

    Feh. I dropped out when the Tigers swept the A’s. :)

    -Rob

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    Pyracantha, NO! Definitely not. In my experience as a female physicist having been married to a male physicist, the marriage can actually make things worse. Then folks say “Oh, her husband has done all the work for her.” Can’t count the number of times I have run across that.

    Both of the women in my department are married to men who are (at least sort of) Physicists. (One’s now a — lecturer? — in the geology department, and the other has had a soft money positon, and is now actully the department Linux guru.)

    Both men work in vastly different areas of physics from the two women, so I’d be pretty surprised to see somebody claim with a straight face that the men had done the work for them– but then again, every day I find out I don’t know the half of it, so….

  • http://cyperus-papyrus.livejournal.com/ cyperus-papyrus

    First let me say I really appreciate Sean’s and Rob Knop’s post on this subject and the resulting discussion.

    The third level is people who are clueless that there is a real problem, but who aren’t actively contributing. They treat women fairly and respectfully themselves, but also insist that there’s no general problem despite the fact that it’s been held in their face repeatedly. They’re nice, and they don’t see other people being mean, so they deny the problem.

    I’d like to suggest there is a little more to this level than that. There is a culture to physics. Let’s see if I can give some examples. An instructor is working a problem on the board, skips some steps, then says something like “it’s obvious” that the conclusion is what it is. Its a put-down to those who don’t see it as clearly as the instructor.

    Another, which is a particular gripe of mine, is when instructors become frustrated with students who apparently believe Aristotelian physics rather than Newtonian physics — without clear discussion on the difference between the two, why Newtonian physics is superior, and yes, why they’re going to ignore friction forever (because it’s messy, so we don’t like to play with it). Physics majors get it eventually, but many other students never do.

    It is these examples that show me that physics is unfriendly to students in general, though more so to women, for the other reasons discussed. These behaviors are passed down to new generations of physicists. And I have to admit to having behaved that way some as an undergraduate, going along with the crowd of physics students (I’m a woman), until I woke up to what I was really saying and stopped. That’s what I’m saying, that the third level is actively contributing by passing along these behaviors.

    If that has changed since I have actively participated in the world of physics, I’d love to hear it. But I suspect it hasn’t.

  • http://www.unc.edu/usr-bin/ctysor/blosxom.cgi sarcozona

    Thank you so much for taking this issue seriously.

  • Julianne

    Much of these issues are really not “women’s issues” or “minority issues”. They’re simple climate issues which affect everyone. Consistently framing broader climate issues as solely a problem for women creates the impression that the problems belong to the women themselves, or at the very least, are a marginal special interest that should be taken on out of the goodness of one’s Noble Soul. Men have to realize that they have a dog in this fight as well. Wouldn’t we all be well served by a little more active decency among our colleagues? Don’t we all wish we had more proactive mentoring and advising?
    Why should it be considered soft to take leadership on these issues from above, by the people who have sufficient power and influence to effect real change, rather than relegating this fight to the folks slogging along in the trenches?

    Dealing with assholes and their fallout is distracting for everyone. Women and minorities are just the canary in the coal mine.

  • C.A.Báez

    The other day I was taking my lunch at the Math department of the UAZ in Zacatecas, México, a small university in a small but beautiful city, and I found myself amazed seeing so many women in there, like 8 out of 10 students are females, and I only know one Male Researcher in there. I am a student from the UAZ physics department and I have seen a rise, a very dramatic rise I must say, of female students. Four years ago when I started my studies, there was like 3 or 4 female students, but right now there are over 40 women studying. There are no female researchers yet, but I think in the very near future that’s going to change. Maybe this problem of female discrimination it’s not a question of number of women doing research but I think that a rise in females doing science could change the climate for women in physics, and it’s quite amazing seeing a majority in female students in science, even more on a country where women is very discriminated and face a lot of obstacles. I’m very glad seeing this change in my faculty because I am a strong believer that diversity in thought can be achieved by diversity in people. Also it is nice to have so many different opinions and that also helps you with your mental healt when you have like 12 hours doing homework and you just need someone to talk to, especially if it’s female company ;).

    C.A.B.

  • Anna

    Rob,

    I think there is yet a fifth level: the men who admit that there is a problem in general, appear to treat women respectfully themselves, never make sexist remarks, but when the time comes for them to make decisions, (maybe?) unconsciously but very clearly favor men over women. The “old boys network” still works very well. And because they don’t realize what they are doing, this category is difficult to address.
    (Or am I being naive thinking that they don’t realize what they are doing…?)

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/ Rob Knop

    Anna — yeah, I might lump them into level 4, but of course excessive classificaiton and nomenclature is gratuitous anyway.

    In any event, the effect you mention does exist. We can always find “legitimate reasons” to do business as usual. For example, if you’re talking about some sort of promotion or some such, you could protest that it should be based entirely on research record this time, and, hey, look, it turns out that it’s a man who’s in line there given that criterion.

    Yeah, it could be both conscious and unconscious. Some people some ways, some people the other. I’m sure that it is unconscious sometimes.

    And, we also have to admit, I hope, that in some individual cases it is the right decision to favor the man…! The trick is figuring out where bias is creeping in.

  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    and of course, I would include in this fifth category, those who realize there is a problem, but don’t call out their “bretheren” when they act like playboys from 1953.

    Which needs to be done, but is hard.

    But the thing is, the jerks are the ones that should be uncomfortable, not those who are actually behaving.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    #10 JoAnne: “Then folks say “Oh, her husband has done all the work for her.” Can’t count the number of times I have run across that.”

    I know that one. My old boss at a job in the late 1980s, after a boyfriend and I separated, told one of my coworkers that “Amara won’t be able to do her job, now that her boyfriend is no longer in her life to do her work for her.” Fortunately, I only heard that once (and I quit that job ).

  • Anna

    Rob,

    “For example, if you’re talking about some sort of promotion or some such, you could protest that it should be based entirely on research record this time, and, hey, look, it turns out that it’s a man who’s in line there given that criterion.”

    Well, the research record was in fact the only criterion I had in mind. I was not asking to make special allowances for time-off having babies, the pressures of raising children, or any of these. No, just pure research. Still, even in that case, gender favoritism exists. Maybe unconsciously, OK, but still exists. And if the woman protests for being run-over, it is not uncommon for her to be labelled anywhere from over-sensitive to dramatic to bitch.

  • a former student

    I tend to agree with Julianne and cyperus-papyrus. In many cases, a lot of faculty get away with obnoxious behavior that would be unacceptable in many other work environments. I agree that in addition to often generally unpleasant environments, women get particularly hit hard, especially on crucial matters regarding their personal lives. However, faculty often have their heads in the sand not just about women or minority matters but even in general issues regarding student welfare. The following statement in the post is a classic illustration of this:

    “But every minute spent on stuff like that is a minute that isn’t spent doing research. Women should be free to concentrate on thinking about black holes and the early universe, just like guys are.”

    If the pace of research slows a bit, the heavens are not going to fall in. The reason why many “guys” are free to concentrate on their “research” is that they probably dont generally give a damn about mentorship of any kind-sort of like the passive callousness mentioned previously. It is rather unfortunate to see that mentorship of the kind that female faculty seem to extend to their students is regarded as onerous and a burden, given how important students are to the research endeavor of faculty.

    Unless one actively discriminates against women, which I am sure does happen, the passive sort of discrimination is harder to understand, except as an extension of an already existing callousness. The truth is grad school environments are pretty hard, not simply because research is hard, but also because there are major asymmetries in power between faculty and the students their research careers are built on, and these asymmetries are often abused. And discriminatory behavior, however small, becomes greatly magnified in such environments.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/ Rob Knop

    and of course, I would include in this fifth category, those who realize there is a problem, but don’t call out their “bretheren” when they act like playboys from 1953.

    That is what a woman student in my department has told me is the single biggest problem.

    Indeed, as I said in my blog post, I argued to the faculty that that was the problem, but a few of them objected that I was only speaking for myself when I said we don’t speak out when we should…. There is much head-in-sand.

    -Rob

  • Brett

    In my experience, many scientists, especially those in the physical sciences and mathematics, have a rather nineteenth-century view of how bias works. They adhere to the pre-Freudian belief that they know exactly what they themselves are thinking. If they don’t have any actively sexist thoughts, then they must have no biases against women whatsoever.

    This kind of attitude is a huge impediment, because to create a fair environment, unconscious biases must be actively corrected for. For example, one incredibly pervasive form of unconscious bias follows from the fact that people will tend to make more positive subjective judgements about other people who are more similar to themselves. There are innate differences between men and women in temperment, but I can’t see how those differences could be relevant to scientific ability. (Actually, no real differences are even required to get this effect; only the belief that there are differences is necessary.) But men in positions of authority will tend to look more favorably on the work of other men who are (or are thought to be) more similar to themselves. To overcome this unconscious bias, active steps need to be taken; and this is difficult, because it’s difficult to convince people who may be acting entirely in good faith that they are actually behaving unfairly.

    (The preference for the “in group” over “out group” naturally has effects in all areas. Perhaps even more dangerous than its effects on employment are its effects on politics.)

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    #22: a former student: “If the pace of research slows a bit, the heavens are not going to fall in. The reason why many “guys” are free to concentrate on their “research” is that they probably dont generally give a damn about mentorship of any kind-sort of like the passive callousness mentioned previously. It is rather unfortunate to see that mentorship of the kind that female faculty seem to extend to their students is regarded as onerous and a burden, given how important students are to the research endeavor of faculty.”

    How do you define ‘mentors’? PhD Thesis advisors or MS advisors or those researchers and professors and high school teachers who take an interest in the students?

    I haven’t seen yet a large disparity of mentors favoring one gender or one race over another. I’ve seen abysmally bad PhD thesis advisors (especially where I’m at in Italy) with men, women, minority students suffering equally. MS Thesis advisors? My old boss/MS Physics thesis advisor thought women incapble of doing science but I did not consider him my mentor, and I had the opposite experience (by design) for my PhD.

    The best thing we can do to correct that situation is to reward, well and often, those good (PhD, MS) advisors and mentors.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/ Rob Knop

    If they don’t have any actively sexist thoughts, then they must have no biases against women whatsoever.

    Heh. Indeed, it’s hard to know what you’re thinking yourself. Being aware of your own intrinsic biases can help you consciously fight them.

    http://www.galactanet.com/comic/299.htm

    I feel into the trap. In the first two panels, I read them and thought, ah, I know the answer! And, of course, there I was thinking “flight attendant” and “first lady.” I saw the third strip, and realized that I’d fallen into the trap.

    This is broad-minded, not-biased-against-women Rob here, by the way….

    -Rob

  • not at all bitter postdoc

    I’m a postdoc in theoretical physics. And I must say that so far, I have never met with this very adverse climate that is described here and never felt the “burden of sexism”. Maybe my carrier is too little advanced for people to take the trouble to be mean or I just don’t notice that I am being discriminated. But frankly, up to now I have always felt fairly treated, at least no less than my male colleagues (and I am talking about 4 different universities in 3 different european countries).
    Of course I am aware that once one thinks about children, things become tough and I would love to have issues like childcare improved (as in improved a lot).
    But I would like to express a different view from the ones voiced here. Things are not that bad for everyone. I feel fine being a female physicist and most of the time I do not even think about it because to me it is not really an issue.

  • joseph

    It seems to me that the culture of physics is inherently more conservative than other sciences, and for this reason the gender situation has been in a plateau since physics’ inception. Why must we think this is an activity of some sort? It is conservativeness, plain and simple.

    A more important question, in my opinion, is why physics is so conservative. I can give a few guesses, which draw from the crowd here. There is a cult of the genius, and everyone is nervous that they are “inherently” incapable of succeeding in physics. Students and professors are forced to cultivate behaviors that protect their perceived intelligences. Classes are made mysterious: compare an introdcutory honors physics course to an organic chemistry course (which were both very difficult courses at my undergrad institution), and you will see the students helping each other more in the chemistry course, and more students sticking through it because it is held by the students that all they need to succeed is more work. Physicists somehow believe that the work is secondary to their innate genius, or simply necessary to cultivate their genius.

    Can physics be different? Should physics be different?

    In terms of obvious gender issues in the post-secondary culture, there are equally obvious solutions that are unproductive when made the whole focus. Clearly the big ones should be dealt with: maternity leave, sexual harassment, and colleagues attitudes. But many of these problems persist in other disciplines, while their gender ratio reaches equality. Until the nature of the physics culture is changed, we will always be fighting ourselves over this issue without knowing it, and that is a waste.

  • Extra Super Double-Anonymous

    Thank you for your comments about your institution, Rob. Your department is advertising for an assistant professor position, and I had intended to apply. Based on what you’ve said here, however, I probably won’t. Maybe next time someone doesn’t believe you about the climate in your department, they will listen to the fact that promising young scientists are deciding not to apply for jobs there based on these issues and how they are (not) being addressed.

    Or not… The job market is such that you will have no shortage of bright young scientists applying for that position, and the one who is offered the job and accepts will most likely be one for whom these issues are not issues, or who doesn’t care about the way they are addressed. Thus is the situation perpetuated.

  • Samantha

    not at all bitter postdoc:

    I hope your experience continues, but I would have said a similar thing at your stage. I experienced no overt sexism as an graduate student, very little as a postdoctoral fellow although I began to notice that my ideas and questions were not given the same attention as my my male colleagues and now begin to realize the full force of what I am up against as junior faculty. As a woman faculty member, you will have a harder time getting funding/published and you finally get to see just how much your opinion counts. And you get the sense that if you complain (as I am in this comment) the response of most people will be, well the problem must be that she just isn’t as good as her male colleagues.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    and I am talking about 4 different universities in 3 different european countries)

    I wouldn’t be surprised if it were systematically worse in the USA.

    I also wouldn’t be suprised if you had just been lucky.

    Thank you for your comments about your institution, Rob. Your department is advertising for an assistant professor position, and I had intended to apply. Based on what you’ve said here, however, I probably won’t.

    I guarantee you that if I mention this to anybody in the department, the response will be that it was my stupid fault for blogging about our internal dirty laundry….

    Let me try to convince you still to apply. If you’re willing to identify yourself to me, please e-mail me. I can put you in touch with a female professor here who will talk with you frankly about the situation. There are people here working on it who care about it… and I suspect that similar problems exist at most places.

    Personal anecdote alert : when I first arrived at Vanderbilt 5 years ago, it was right after an external review that trashed the department. The external review said that there were a lot of excellent individual researchers… but that the whole was less than the sum of the parts. Senior professors, it said, were “feathering their own nests” at the expense of the department as a whole. Etc. Pretty nasty stuff. The new Dean later told us that the only reason he didn’t put the department into receivership is that he didn’t have somebody he trusted to take over as Department Head readily available. My first year here, the department tried to respond to this situation… and fell to squablling. I thought I had walked into a trap. It was nasty. There were personalities.

    When I was applying, I heard about the external review, but it was spun highly. “It will be very positive for our department as we move forward,” the Chair told me. If I had known what was really in that external review, I absolutely would not have come to Vanderbilt.

    Now, 5 or 6 years later, things are way better. We have hired a whole bunch of new faculty in the last few years, so the makeup of the department is better. We have a Chair who is quite good and keeps things fairly well in line. And things are working. Had I decided not to come because of the external review, it may have been a rash decision.

    So, yeah, I did make the argument that if we don’t improve our situation regarding the climate for women, it will hurt recruiting faculty and students, never mind hurt the efforts of those here already. But I do think there is hope, and I do hope that you will still consider applying.

    Indeed, apply. If you make the short list and interview here, you can fully investigate what is going on, and talk to women (students and professors) to see what is going on. If it still makes you queasy, don’t take the job, and make sure the search committee knows why. I would also recommend that you do that wherever you interview.

    -Rob

  • Elliot

    Sean,

    You can stop posting on this topic…..when the day comes that it is no longer necessary.

    Elliot

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    There is a cult of the genius, and everyone is nervous that they are “inherently” incapable of succeeding in physics. Students and professors are forced to cultivate behaviors that protect their perceived intelligences.

    Heh. You’ve hit on what I think is one of the biggest sociological problems in Physics.

    All these studies about intrinsic ability, regardless of how bogus their results in what they are studying are, also implicitly assume without justification that easier grasp of abstract concepts is what makes for a better Physicist. I disagree. To parapharse Wil McCarthy’s novel Murder in the Solid State, there’s lots of genius out there, but what really makes the science is ass-in-chair.

    I also disagree that in the notion of the “one best person.” Lots of people bring lots of different things in lots of different ways, and sorting them into a single sequence is challenging if not impossible.

    Also, yes, we have to pretend at all times that we are utterly flawless and understand everything. Never admit weakness. That is one of the things that I wallow about in this self-pitying blog post.

    -Rob

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    compare an introdcutory honors physics course to an organic chemistry course (which were both very difficult courses at my undergrad institution), and you will see the students helping each other more in the chemistry course, and more students sticking through it because it is held by the students that all they need to succeed is more work.

    I will say, though, that in my experience as a student and professor, that I have seen a lot of healthy working together and discussion among students in honors physics classes. I really think that this “cult of the genius” thing is something that we learn (or come more and more to fear not living up to) as we get further along.

    -Rob

  • thm

    Amongst the contributors to this site, there’s a fair amount of interest in politics, particularly progressive, Democratic politics. So has anyone read Lakoff’s Don’t think of an elephant? (or Moral Politics?)

    Lakoff writes about political messages in terms of frames, which, loosely speaking, are the subconscious metaphors by which we interpret information. The key thing is this: if a fact doesn’t fit the frame, we reject the fact. Part of the reason that progressive messages have lost ground over the past 30 years is that progressives have been acting under the assumption that the facts were the most important thing, and if they got the facts out to the general public than everyone would agree with them. Meanwhile, conservatives have a whole army (led by, among others, Frank Luntz and Grover Norquist) working to ensure that their messages are framed to resonate with the American public.

    With all the classification of ‘cluelessness’ and reports of physicists rejecting studies that show evidence of bias, it occurs to me that the same thing is going on here. The physicists frame–what the faculty Rob made his presentation to subconsciously believe in–is one of a completely meritocratic marketplace of ideas. So Rob, Sean, JoAnne, and others: you have the right facts but the wrong message.

    Coming up with the right message is nontrivial, and probably best done with the assistance of people who do it for a living. This means getting past the part of the physicists frame (thanks in part to Feynman) which thinks other disciplines are trivial.

  • Elliot

    thm,

    I believe your comment is very insightful and at the core of this issue. I can think of another area where this type of analysis fits as well. That is the “debate” about global warming or as the GOP has framed it “climate change”.

    Elliot

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    Hi There,

    Let me begin with stating that I usually try to stay out of this discussion all the way, as it seems I have the ability to make politically incorrect statements just by clearing my throat at the wrong moment.

    Nevertheless, I’d like to add that in my experience the topic ‘supporting women in science’ can have quite a backlash, that one should also take into account.

    I don’t know about the US, but in Germany there have been various programs, scholarships, etc. to specifically support women. There have also been rather strict regulations on the percentage of women that have to sit in decision making committees. If there aren’t many women this means, as Sean writes ‘serving in extra committees, making appearances on behalf of the department’ etc.

    In some extreme cases I know, this meant that women were literally recruited (from other departments or the student body), many of which just weren’t qualified to sit in these committees. In most cases they have debugged these regulations, but what stayed was the word ‘Quotenfrau’ (originally from similar issues in politics). I don’t know if there’s an analogue English expression for it, but it means essentially that an unqualified women is selected just to balance the requested men-to-women level.

    So, after all the above mentioned levels, there is the level where a women who’s reached a certain professional status faces the prejudice that she got there much easier, because she’s been supported by all that programs, and scholarships etc. If you want to push it, you could ask: do departments hire representatives of minorities to appear politically more correct, even if these persons are less qualified for the job?

    Hope this doesn’t come out wrong, so I’ll rephrase it: if the current status of culture is such that there are less representatives of a minority in the present day science pool than in the whole society, then its rather short sighted to just demand that the scientific society reflects the whole society. You can try to change the culture and traditions, and make the science pool better match the society pool — that’s in fact what most of the above discussed points are about — but that takes time, and pushing it can actually be counterproductive.

    Best,

    B.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    So, after all the above mentioned levels, there is the level where a women who’s reached a certain professional status faces the prejudice that she got there much easier, because she’s been supported by all that programs, and scholarships etc.

    That prejudice already exists. You hear it a lot. (At least, I’ve been told by women that they hear it a lot, and I have to admit to having thunk it at least once when I was beat out for a job– unworthy of me, so mea culpa and all that, but there you go.)

    I don’t think it’s a real issue in p;hysics right now. Women are so underrepresented, and there are good women out there, that while not every hire is going to be a woman, I think it’s pretty rare that women are getting hired inappropriately just because they’re women. Yeah, sometimes you hire the wrong person, but that will happen on both sides of the gender fence. The prejudice is unfortunate, but I don’t think it’s supported at all by the facts.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    #35thm: “So has anyone read Lakoff’s Don’t think of an elephant? (or Moral Politics?)”

    No, but I read Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. (Heh! Wouldn’t you want to buy the book on that title alone?), which has relevance to this discussion, as well. I wonder if placing people in boxes is more prevalent in some cultures than in others.

  • Extra Super Double-Anonymous

    Thanks, Rob. I’ll think some more about applying, and will contact you privately if I decide to do so.

  • shinyshoes

    Yeah, first and foremost, how about those Cards?!

    Second, and less most, how about those women…ah!

    Since you claim to not be one, I guess it is as difficult a challenge to answer as it is to say anything about the Cards given you ain’t one of ‘em.

    Think about countries like India where unless you get an engineering degree you are considered a flake. Culture has more to do with women than science or males per say. In America women fair way better than in anyt other place on the planet, any way you look at it. Life is a challenge as women balance more than just chemical equations. But at least it is not impossible. With enough strive it works out for the ones who really want it, and the rest also find a nice niche.

    How about the women in Africa who never get an education even?

    The US educational system is corrupt and with tons of flaws but it denies nothing to women. If they want it its there. You’re at Tech, you see it. It’s shitty for women, but none is discouraged from doing what she came to do. She only gets spooked by crazy and horny grad students, profs sometimes too. It’s a little awkward, sometimes. But is not nearly as bad as the millitary because here you can complain and be legitimately hurt.

    While tech is definitely a heaven, its a nice heaven for women. I never felt safer in any part of theworld. Surrounded by enough males at any given time to guarantee enough protection form outside interference.

    That’s life. Not a single guy ever had the guts to tell me that he is smarter, despite the level of arrogance he hosted. That’s the life at tech.

    Women in science are fine and have been getting better since the day when they first walked into it. Slowly, but did anyone thought that a woman will be a president of pakistan or counslor. Society changes. Swings between extremely conservative and extremely liberal and opportunities come and are used.

    Don’t whine about women and dont make it sound like its the end of the worlds. Women are fine without the lobbying. Natural selection applied to that realm of life is just another very natural process.

    Relax, Sean, and get a girl.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    Hi Rob,

    I don’t think it’s a real issue in physics right now. Women are so underrepresented, and there are good women out there, that while not every hire is going to be a woman, I think it’s pretty rare that women are getting hired inappropriately just because they’re women. Yeah, sometimes you hire the wrong person, but that will happen on both sides of the gender fence. The prejudice is unfortunate, but I don’t think it’s supported at all by the facts.

    The thing about prejudices is that they care very little about the actual facts. Even if it’s not a real issue in physics right now, one shouldn’t ignore it, but be aware of the problem, and hopefully avoid it becoming serious altogether. Best,

    B.

  • A former student

    #25 Amara,
    The comment of mine that you responded to is in the context of what Sean said about female faculty having to mentor other women . I am not making any claims about the correlation between gender and mentorship (he seems to think there is). I just found it curious that Sean, who has spent so much time on the issue of women’s treatment in science, has this attitude towards mentorship as a whole. I was thinking of grad school (Phd) when I wrote that up, and my impression was that Sean was speaking in the same context.

  • http://www.sennoma.net Bill Hooker

    In the first two panels, I read them and thought, ah, I know the answer! And, of course, there I was thinking “flight attendant” and “first lady.”

    I got stuck on “first lady” for the 8-years-in-mansion one, because my first thought was “POTUS, but there haven’t been any Presidents named Lisa”. My first thought for the second one was “Queen Elizabeth on some kind of tour”, which is why I was looking for actual historical figures. I’m a dork.

    —-

    A man and his son are taken to the ER after a car accident; the man is DOA but the son is wheeled into theater, where the duty surgeon takes one look and declares that it’s against regulations to operate on your own son — what’s going on here?

    (I’m inordinately proud of the fact that I got that one right, first time, no hesitation.)

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    #28 joseph writes “Physicists somehow believe that the work is secondary to their innate genius, or simply necessary to cultivate their genius.” But every physics textbook and class emphasizes problem solving; which is often a lot of hard work.

  • joseph

    If you can’t agree on the facts, you have no hope on agreeing on opinions….

    There have been a number of comments contesting my assertation that other difficult, lower-level science courses have a more encouraging environment. However, these contests seem to amount to “well, I’ve seen encouragement in physics….” But is there MORE encouragement in physics!? Comparison is the point here, I’m not at all interested in personal anecdotes. And of course, we will never agree to anything here because where are the facts? There are none, at least none available to me: we can only look at general culture differences between the disciplines, and in how students perceive their courses.

    Looking at the perspective of a freshman or sophomore undergrad, why would someone who already feels marginalized in a field choose to pursue that when there are a number of other equally challenging fields that DON’T marginalize them? I can’t stress how damn important that is, especially from a student’s perspective, because most students are not 100% sure they want to stay in the fields that they take their introductory courses in! And encouragement in those introductory courses are pretty damn key. What role do their fellow undergrads play in the game of marginalization? (Because from my experience, a number of students already try to marginalize everyone else based on things as evasive as “perceived intelligence”. How can a culture that propagates THAT attitude possibly NOT be as shamefully conservative as physics has become?!)

    But, alas, these are my perceptions, and the only people who will even consider them are those who have something to gain from them…

    (Clearly, though, “facts” seem to have the same effect)

  • Anonymous because I don’t want it to Come Back to Me

    I can tell you from personal experience that it “hasn’t all been said”. If it had all been said, laid bare, opened and inspected like the beautiful mathematics we deal with daily, this conversation would be over.

    I am a graduate student. Last year I experienced sexual harassment at school from another graduate student to the point where I was unable to work safely in my department. Eventually, he was expelled (after threatening to kill my closest male friend). However, the way that my original harassment complaint was handled confirmed my every fear about lodging one in the first place. I was told that I should’ve been nicer to the man and made him feel more welcome, and he wouldn’t have resorted to inappropriate sexual comments, gestures, and more. When I lodged the complaint, I specified I wanted anonymity: instead, the very night I spoke with the appropriate person I was identified by name as a complaintant to that man!

    This was not the first or only experience I had with sexual harassment at my school, but it was the one of greatest degree, and the only one I complained about. I complained because I was affected to the point I could not come in and work nights or weekends and had to work in a locked office, and yet things were still tolerated and I was made to feel that it was all somehow my fault (at least until over a dozen undergraduate students verified that they’d been harrassed as well). I am determined to make it through my program, but the experiences have left me very frustrated and feeling alienated. I want to be positive, and work towards the thing that we’re all there for in the first place.. science!

    I just don’t know how I’m expected to be a fully contributing member of the scientific community when I’m challenged not for my scientific thinking or contributions, but for the fact that I have a vagina and breasts. Crude, but there it is. I know from talking with other female scientists that my experience is not unique. I’m not saying every woman experiences direct and traumatic harassment, or even necessarily being dismissed (every?!) . However, it is very common, a dirty laundry secret that we, the women involved, don’t like saying anything about because we know that we will be labeled and dismissed by many. And nobody likes a whiner.

    Saying that the statistics look better and women are being recruited heavily won’t address the problems that drive women out of science. It’s like putting your fingers in your ears, crying “lalalalala” and then “I can’t HEAAARRR YOU”. Don’t say anything when a male colleague shoots down everything any woman says, regardless of the idea. Allow your TA’s to make sexual jokes in the classrom (maybe just because you aren’t supervising them at all). Smile when someone has the “guts” to say ‘that bitch” when a woman speaks. And watch the women leave science the farther they get, because its just too much to struggle with the math and physics and chemistry and astronomy AND have to deal with garbage you could’ve faced working at McDonalds. I take that back, McDonalds actually enforces their sexual harassment rules.

    Please don’t get me wrong. I LOVE MY RESEARCH. I want to be a great scientist and a great teacher and a great person. I’ve done well, gotten awards, been noticed, had wonderful mentors and help along the way. I appreciate all of this. But graduate school is hard enough without this kind of garbage. Garbage that has not been swept away because the issue was not fully laid open, examined, and honestly dealt with. Garbage that stinks, and i’m going to keep saying it stinks until its gone.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    joseph, you say “If you can’t agree on the facts, you have no hope on agreeing on opinions….” and in the next paragraph you explain it “And of course, we will never agree to anything here because where are the facts? There are none…” I don’t know what makes physics ‘conservative’.

  • John Branch

    I just watched the first two parts of the first season of Prime Suspect, a British television production from 1991 about what happens when a perfectly qualified woman is called in to replace, at the head of a murder investigation, a man who died suddenly. She’s the only woman in any position of responsibility visible; the only others are assistants of various sorts. The team she takes over (all men) resent her, and some of them actively work to undermine her; her boyfriend begins to complain because she’s caught up in her work and he’s seeing her less often; she does a fine job, though she makes mistakes; etc.

    It’s a nicely done series, well done enough, and groundbreaking enough, that it has has several sequels, the last of which will be broadcast in America next month. No doubt it helps that Helen Mirren plays the central role.

    Where am I going with this? The place of women in science, and of science in society, might be improved if we had a TV show like that about a woman scientist. Although we might have to advance a ways before such a thing would even be considered. Maybe Jana Levin should work on it.

  • Ponderer of Things

    Focusing on issues of women in sciences is good, but I wonder if other groups are discriminated against much more so than women – for example foreign students, in particular asians. They are not under-represented in most departments (so it would appear to some as if there’s no problem here) – at least if you look at the problem in terms of percentages of students within departments, but on the other hand if you look at the problem in terms of how many foreign students score 990 at GRE physics, especially from china, india and russia, and how many of them get accepted to american graduate schools relative to americans with perhaps lesser scores, the numbers will tell a pretty compelling story. In other words, without having concrete data to back it up, anecdotal evidence seems to lead me to suspect that a fully blind admission might not do much to increase number of women in sciences, in fact it might very well decrease those numbers, but it would increase the number of foreign students, even though they already represent a majority at many physics and engineering dpts.

    What is much worse is that despite this domination, foreign, especially asian scientists, are facing much more difficult time of getting leadership positions later in their careers – getting tenures, etc. And their work ethic, drive to succede, analytical skills, number of hours per week spent in the lab, publication records etc. are far more superior to the people who do get the jobs.

    I am not an asian myself, but I think there’s a lot more injustice happening in these areas, especially if you look at the number of people from those categories who DO apply for grad schools and for faculty positions, compared to women or minorities. But we don’t seem to like to talk about it because it appears sciences are already dominated by asians, and because – let’s face it – it is very difficult to distinguish one from another with similarly sounding names, similarly looking faces, excellent scores and working harder than most american-born students.

    The science departments may not be kind to women, but they are much more so unkind to foreigners – especially coming from completely different cultural background like students from China or Korea or Japan, where it’s often impolite to ask a question during seminar or respond to a question with “no”.

    So the real question – do we want physics department to be more equally represented by various ethnic and gender groups, resembling a random collection of people from planet Earth, or do we want to make sure that decisions on hiring/admission are made without unfair or discriminatory bias? Those two are completely separate issues. If we eliminated any discrimination, by for example adopting some sort of utopian blind program in accepting students or making tenure/hiring decisions, what would be the distribution of students/faculty? Without waiting for decades or changing society norms in how children of different genders are raised, I doubt the female fraction will be 50%, even in absence of discrimination. Plenty of departments are actively seeking female grad students or faculty applicants, but can’t find qualified enough people, the same goes for minorities. On the other hand, I strongly believe that a blind merits-only system that eliminates cultural bias and “old white men’s club” mentality in departments would result in many-fold increase of representation of asian (including India) or eastern-european scientists…

    These are the real discrimination issues that nobody wants to talk about.

  • Also anonymous for the obvious reason

    Re the comments about harrassment here (esp #47), the more I read them, the more I realize that harrassment is something we have to grapple with as a field.

    I am male, and have never seen this sort of behaviour first hand so it is not that I have had clear and specific chances to intervene, but I know that many of my close female colleagues have had unpleasant experiences of one sort or another. These can range from being asked out on dates by their senior collaborators, through to situations that are potentially criminal, rather than merely inappropriate.

    I certainly do not want this to be misconstrued by any young women considering a career in physics who might be reading this (what do I know, anyway?) as I know that many women in physics can and do succeed. However, if we don’t tackle this issue as a field, it provides a concrete reason why women will be less likely to stay inside physics.

    Some of this behaviour is perhaps merely clueless (I know it is another stereotype, but lots of scientiests *are* somewhat maladroit socially), and is probably exacerbated by the way that science can be more than just a job — we don’t make the same clear distinction between the personal and professional spheres that might apply in other professions.

    However, a lot of the worst stories I have heard revolve around the same fairly small number of men. One specific horror story concerns a man who has made life miserable for a number of his female colleagues. The irony is that I was recently asked to suggest people who might want to apply for an open position at his institution (a place that is good, but not great). My first thought was that while a number of the people I might suggest were female, it was not at all clear to me I would be doing them any favors by encouraging them to work at a place where this person would be one of their senior colleagues (the upside is that this story is *so* widely known, I doubt this could happen to you by accident.) However, the fact the person concerned still draws a salary probably reflects a shortcoming of academia as a whole, rather than physics in particular.

    But if we want to address issues of gender equity in the field, this is something concrete we could try to fix…

  • http://christinedantas.blogspot.com Christine Dantas

    I have a simple thesis on why there are fewer women in physics than men. (This is a simplistic view. But I think it is mostly true).

    From an early age, girls are given pink barbie dolls to play with. Ovens to play cooking, baby dolls to play as mothers. House toys to take care. And driven to be more interested in their dressing and hair than anything else.

    Boys get the best and most interesting toys: cars, planes, spaceships, toys with great movements and lights, animals, thinking toys.

    I never played with those pink barbie dolls (hated them); my best friends were boys, and I played with them with spaceships, playmobile, and animals. I had good friends (boys) that enjoyed to play with me, although I was a girl.

    At 11 I knew I wanted to be a scientist. While most of my colleagues (girls) were thinking about boyfriends as adolescents, I had other concerns. (No, that’s not what you’re thinking, I am *not* homossexual. Today I have a happy marriage — with a man, and I am mother of a boy).

    When my mother would give me money to buy new clothes, I would immediately go to the next bookstore to by a book instead.

    I do not mean that a woman to be a scientist must not be feminine. But the incentive to be, in my opinion, *overly* feminine since an early age, and not to exercise thinking, is a major problem for girls. If they try to be different, their families or friends might look at them suspiciously.

    I’ve never had a *major* problem in my career because I am a woman (yes, some little incidents happened), but I did (and do) have other difficulties that equally apply to men.

    From the comments here, I tend to believe that being a woman in the sciences is much more complicated in the US than here in Brazil, although my country is quite a sexist one.

  • Belizean

    It would be most helpful if someone would post a list of the top 10 most harmful acts commonly perpetrated by men in physics departments against female colleagues and students.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    Belizean — from talking to students here, “believeing there is not a problem and not responding when demeaning comments or actions happen in our presence” should be somewhere on the top 10.

    -Rob

  • Anonymous

    Comment #50: It is heartening to see someone talk about race issues as well. I completely agree with this comment…as an asian, I have felt this kind of an attitude in every Physics department I have been to. Makes me and other asians very uneasy, but I really do not see a way out…

    As for getting permanent positions, I must say that the best option for the likes of me is to get back to our respective home countries…and keep visiting the US to keep our collaborations going. Work will be slower, and we will face a huge number of problems (e.g. politics in departments), but it will be much better than getting frustrated here…

    Don’t get me wrong – I am glad I came to the US. It is just that I don’t think my work and I are appreciated any more here than in my home country. Some universities are definitely much better than others, but this severely limits my options when it comes to looking for a job…

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    #50 Ponderer of Things: “The science departments may not be kind to women, but they are much more so unkind to foreigners – especially coming from completely different cultural background like students from China or Korea or Japan, where it’s often impolite to ask a question during seminar or respond to a question with “no”. […] So the real question – do we want physics department to be more equally represented by various ethnic and gender groups, resembling a random collection of people from planet Earth[..]”

    What you describe is not a physics culture problem, but instead is a U.S. culture [1] problem. There is a strong pressure from the U.S. society-at-large to be ‘the same’ with little respect for differences. I was born and lived for 37 years in the U.S. before I moved away 8 years ago, and it is this particular facet of the U.S. that drove me away the most. When the society-at-large of this particular group of people, which comprises 6 percent of the world’s population, learns to relish and delight in the diversity and richness of the human race, then I think that the problem that you describe will disappear.

    [1] Yes, I do know well that the U.S. ‘culture’ is not ethnically homogenous, but instead is a hodge-podge of groups.

  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    #55 Anon–

    What can American students do to help Asian students? In my experience, I have found most of the Asian students very insular with each other, and not particularly interested in talking with the non-Asian students.

    Clearly, this is a reaction to the attitudes expressed in #50, but what are others to do? I try to be friendly and listen when I can, and have gone as far as to make hotel reservations over the phone for a Chinese student. But, at the same time, I don’t know exactly what to do, beyond this, to help, really.

  • jepe

    bittergradstudent and ponderer:

    It’s a complex issue. Probably the best approach is to resist the temptation to view them as a homogenous mass. Easy to say, but sometimes hard to do.

    The insular tendency is natural when you feel like you’re on another planet. I spent a brief amount of time doing research in Europe. I tried not to “bunch up” w/other anglophiles. Unfortunately, it happened anyway: the Americans, English, and Irish tended to cluster and just English, and thus mutually reinforce our feeling of alienation from the general population. We were hesitant to speak the local language for two reasons: 1.) their English, when they wanted to speak it, was flawless so the conversation was more efficient for everyone when carried out in English; 2.) we were too chicken and were a bit nervous about being laughed at. So, I imagine w/students from Asia, it’s way way harder. At least we all spoke Indo-European languages.

    As far as possible discrimination; it seems some do quite well in Academia (e.g. prof positions at good research institutions). Yet, I agree it sometimes doesn’t look too good at the grad-student/post-doc level. It seems there’s a bit of a disconnect. I do know that the Asian students I’ve encountered need to understand the “self-promotion thing” better. Aggressive (although not necessarily arrogant) self-promotion is clearly a key to success in our system. Of course, there are always exceptions, but generally the Asian students need to be more aggressive and question others more often, instead of taking the more traditional passive aggressive appoach. A slam one often hears is that ” Oh those Asians score well on tests and work long hours; but they’re not very creative”. The shuffling, non self-promoting attitude unforunately fuels this rather ridiculous statement.

  • Hiranya

    Interesting discussion. Being female, brown-skinned *and* foreign, I can only shake my head. I thought a bit about whether to post a very individual opinion here, since what I think won’t be viewed as very “politically correct”, and in the end I decided I would – I don’t mean to offend anybody. At some deep level I just feel driven to understand the universe, a feeling that I bet all scientists can relate to. Everything that gets in the way of that, sometimes including eating and sleeping :(, and definitely including the stupid prejudices of others, is somehow insignificant and irrelevant compared to the strength of that drive. I believe that the only way to change these prejudices is to do good work, succeed against all expectations, and provide a counterexample to the prejudices. I have encountered wonderful mentors in my career, who were blind to my gender/skin color/accent and open to my ideas and views. And physics departments are havens of friendship compared to the way the US government makes a foreigner feel upon entering the country.

    I am not in favour of affirmative action. I am greatly in favour of changing attitudes at the primary school level and with parents, who knowingly or unknowingly discourage little girls from seeing science as a career; I am greatly in favour of a society with less economic and social disparity for certain minorities who may consequently be discouraged from science; I am in favour of better provision of childcare, and for educating boys from a young age to see themselves as equal partners in raising children. Maybe blind admission/refeering/hiring processes can help correct subconscious prejudices. However I never want to hear anyone say that I got somewhere because I got a helping hand that my academic and research record didn’t deserve, that I wasn’t “good enough”. I can stand on my own two feet. I have heard this comment, which was one of the most hurtful things anyone has ever said to me, from someone who later apologised for thinking it, as he hadn’t realised affirmative action didn’t apply to foreigners.

    Its wrong to think that every female or minority person has a monolithic opinion on such issues.

  • Mike

    I suspect what is seen as “positive discrimination” or “affirmative action” isn’t always that. Someone who has been promoted and encouraged in their choice of subject throughout their school career in all probability will have achieved better results than someone who is equally as capable but has been discouraged, but these past results are not a perfect guide to future potential, so it may be that the person with a less impressive string of success gets the post because the interviewing panel can see more potential.

  • Hiranya

    Mike, that’s a completely fair and correct point, but the moment its only applied certain groups or gender, and that fact is widely known, it gives an excuse for the subconsciously-predjudiced to retain their views about those groups or gender, and becomes counterproductive. I realize its impossible to have “blind interviews”, but if the shortlist can be drawn up in a blind fashion and the potential can be judged there, this may be a better solution. I haven’t thought in detail about how it could be implemented in practice. Again, just my humble and personal viewpoint.

  • Anonymous

    #57 – bittergradstudent:
    You are right, but what I said does *not* have to do with American students. It has to do with departments – the professors, the chair of the department and the graduate student committee etc.

    Just to make things clear – I have never had any problems with any American graduate student – in fact, they seem quite willing to listen to others.

    I do not agree that Asians like being with other Asians only. I have noticed that there is a significant number of Asian graduate students who look for like-minded company, not necessarily Asian.

  • Anonymous

    #59. Hiranya – strongly agree with what you say – that is a very positive attitude.

    “I have heard this comment, which was one of the most hurtful things anyone has ever said to me, from someone who later apologised for thinking it, as he hadn’t realised affirmative action didn’t apply to foreigners.”

    Heh. I have had lots of Americans sneer at me because they thought I didn’t have to pay tax, being a foreign student.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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