Category Archives: feminism

The joy of political incorrectness

Thanks to my Avatar post, I guess I’m officially a part of “a bizarre cast of characters”. Then again, what else would you expect from a math professor.

James Cameron might be laughing all the way to the bank, but his record-setting 3-D film, Avatar, is receiving criticism from a bizarre cast of characters, who accuse it of being everything from a racist throwback to the source of their overwhelming depression.

The accusations range from the comical to the militantly politically correct, with voices on both sides of the right-left political divide weighing in on the blockbuster, which has earned more than $1.1-billion around the world since its release last month.

The problem with Avatar isn’t political incorrectness – it’s the shallow, schematic thinking propped up by every possible cliché. But I’ve spent enough time on that already, so instead I’m going to write about a TV series that I’m enjoying immensely even though it’s not politically correct in any conventional sense.

That would be Mad Men, of course. The male characters are all incredibly sexist, in ways that wouldn’t even be possible today; but Mad Men counters that with two basic things. First, the sexism is not romanticized or excused: it’s just there, and it’s shown for what it is. And second, the series is just so darn well written. (Warning: mild spoilers follow.)
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Right back at ya

If you’re female and you’re reading this, stop whatever else you’re doing for a moment and go read these three posts at Women in Wetlands, now also on my blogroll. (Found in the comments here.) They offer sensible and practical advice on how to respond to situations such as this one:

Imagine you are in a meeting among colleagues, post-docs, support staff, and clients. You are part of a group who has received a $1.2 million grant from BP (British Petroleum) to do environmental impact assessments at some of their drill sites. You have just given an overview of your research project (to assess the effects of oil exploration activities on wetlands in Kookamoonga, BP’s newest drill site). When you finish and look to the group for some positive feedback, a senior male scientist (known for being loud and opinionated) states that:

“The research proposed by Mary involves a large amount of fieldwork in a VERY remote location, and in my opinion is too difficult for a woman to lead or conduct. I think it would be best assigned to Bob (his protege’) to head up; maybe Mary can be responsible for the sample processing and data analysis back here at BIU.”

What do you do?

I’ve been in some variant of every single one of these situations, including the one just described, and I wish I had been better prepared to deal with them.

It’s tempting to think of the Senior Male Scientist as some old guy that you don’t know well and never talk to anyway. In real life, though, it could be your friend or mentor, someone you trust, someone whose opinions you value. He might not say explicitly that a woman can’t lead – he’ll just suggest a male candidate to replace you – and, mind you, it’s not sexist at all, he just wants the best possible person to direct the project, and in any case this is a matter of professional judgement and you should not be so sensitive about it.

The beauty of the responses suggested in the WiW posts is that they’re civil enough to be used on a friend and that they let you make the statement you need to make without getting dragged into unnecessary discussions. There’s no point in analyzing the Senior Male Scientist’s possible intentions. You just need to respond to the words you’ve heard.

There’s another reason to avoid protracted discussions of this sort: verbal sparring can only get you so far. I’ve seen enough situations where Dr. X was universally praised by colleagues for his excellent arguments and professional demeanor in the debate with Dr. Y, it was just so very unfortunate that the department would have to side with Dr. Y anyway. The debate would be a spectator sport, as opposed to something that could actually affect the outcome of the case. The lesson for you is that, instead of spending your time debating Senior Male Scientists with regard to their choice of wording, it could be more worthwhile to figure out why exactly the department sided with Dr. Y and how this might be applicable in your case. (That could be money, prestige, any number of things.) Making good headway in that direction is far more likely to convince Senior Male Scientists that they should take you seriously.

Which is not to say that you should not argue with Senior Male Scientists. You absolutely should, if only because having a good response will make you feel in control of the situation and that’s good for your morale, or because these things do make a difference in the long run. But short responses work better than long ones, and don’t give the Senior Male Scientist an opening to bring up the ever looming topic of your sensitivity if you can help it. That’s of course easier said than done. I haven’t always been good at it. I wish I had read posts such as these many years ago and taken some time to practice the responses in question. Then again – if you can’t come up with a good response, keep in mind that it’s only words…

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Filed under academic politics, feminism

Gender dependent

That’s what I thought when I read the articles linked below, even though gender is never mentioned explicitly. Instead, there seems to be an implicit assumption that everyone involved is male. (Presumably white, too – but that would be a story for someone else to write.)

First, there’s this stunning book review by Scott McLemee, linked also at Crooked Timber:


The most powerful figures in this system [Italian academic promotions], says Gambetta, tend to be the least intellectually distinguished. They do little research, publish rarely, and at best are derivative of “some foreign author on whose fame they hope to ride…. Also, and this is what is the most intriguing, they do not try to hide their weakness. One has the impression that they almost flaunt it in personal contacts.”

[…] Gambetta argues that the cheerful incompetence of the baroni is akin to the mafioso’s way of signaling that he can be “trusted” within his narrowly predatory limits.

“Being incompetent and displaying it,” he writes, “conveys the message I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else. In a corrupt academic market, being good at and interested in one’s own research, by contrast, signal a potential for a career independent of corrupt reciprocity…. In the Italian academic world, the kakistrocrats are those who best assure others by displaying, through lack of competence and lack of interest in research, that they will comply with the pacts.”

Also, this from the comments at CT:


I experienced this in a past position, and reached the same analysis as Gambetta. My attempts to signal that I would leave if I didn’t get better treatment were exactly the wrong ones to send. The people who won the battles were those signalling “I can never go anywhere else, so I will fight to the death to get my way here”.

I’d be interested to know how many of those incompetent-and-proud-of-it academics are female. Because, at least over here on this side of the Atlantic, somehow I don’t see a lot of female professors (or lawyers, or businesswomen) showing off their weaknesses on purpose.

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Just close your eyes and think of me

In research supported by the National Science Foundation and scheduled to be published in the July issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, psychologist Joshua Aronson of New York University and colleagues come to the opposite conclusion. Studying college students from across the country, they find that when black students are prompted to think about Obama before they take a challenging standardized verbal test, their scores did not improve relative to white students’ compared to when they did not receive the prompt. And they did no better than black students not prompted to think about Obama. “Their test scores weren’t affected by prompts to think about Obama,” Aronson tells me. “We didn’t find any relationship between test performance and being prompted to think positive thoughts about Obama, although we absolutely expected to. […]

That may read like The Onion, but actually it’s Newsweek.

That’s all I would have had to say about it, really, except that then the article makes reference to a matter of particular interest to this blog:

[…] years of research on stereotype threat had shown that being reminded that you belong to a group that is stereotyped as being inferior at some task tends to make you do worse on that task […] So you’d think that focusing on Obama might have the opposite effect: “I belong to a group that includes the brainy president of the U.S.!” Indeed, female students do significantly better on math tests when the tests are given by a female rather than male mathematician, apparently because seeing a female mathematician undermines the “girls can’t do math” stereotype.

I’m assuming that the authors of the study are actually trying to be helpful. That they would like to find a way to improve the academic performance of black students, especially if it might be something as easy to do as, say, displaying pictures of Obama in classrooms. That they’re genuinly disappointed that something they thought promising doesn’t actually work. They had really hoped that getting the students to think about Obama would raise their scores – not enough to close the race gap, mind you, but at least a little bit.

But from our point of view – I’m saying this as part of a stereotyped group – any such work should begin with a very fundamental premise. We’re not all the same. Different groups respond differently to different situations and there is no reason to expect otherwise. Having female students write a test in what they likely see as a less threatening environment is not the same as having black students fill out a questionnaire about Obama. Really, it’s not. What women in math and blacks in higher education have in common is that there aren’t a lot of us. Beyond that, there are more differences than similarities. What works for one group doesn’t have to work for another, and that’s without even looking at the variations within each group. If you don’t notice or acknowledge these differences, you’re engaging in a big, fat piece of stereotyping, even as you’re trying to improve our lot.

I’ve seen – can’t remember where – inorganic chemistry compared to “the study of all animals that are not elephants”. All of us who are not white men are saying hello.

Hat tip to Coates.

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A small step for a woman…

President Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Act into law.

It’s about time.

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Smart and smarter…

This was supposed to be a very short and not entirely serious music break…

But I should have known better. Once you start browsing through YouTube music clips, it’s hard to stop. That’s how I found these two absolutely unbelievable live clips. In the first case, the name of the band – Vinegar Joe – might not tell you much. In the second instance, the Japanese TV credits start rolling less than halfway through. Don’t let that stop you from watching and enjoying.

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Having a life

I’ve been traveling for the last two weeks and didn’t check my favourite blogs as often as I usually do. Apparently I’ve missed out on some really good stuff.

For those of you who like to know what’s behind a link before you follow it: a male politician * commented on Janet Napolitano’s suitability to serve at the head of U.S. Homeland Security:

Janet’s perfect for that job. Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19, 20 hours a day to it.

Ah, where to begin? Here’s a video of Campbell Brown’s takedown of that. She makes a couple of good points: If Napolitano were male, her having or not having a family would not even be discussed. Instead, the conversation would be about her actual qualifications for the job. Besides, why is it normal to assume that an unmarried woman is available – and will be happy – to spend 20 hours a day in the office? This is just a short synopsis, do watch the video if you have two minutes to spare.

I would add one point of my own: why is it normal to assume that an unmarried woman has “no life”? More specifically, why is a woman’s “life” defined as having a husband and kids? My first response to that was: there are plenty of good things in life that are available to unmarried people, including friendships, travel, intellectual discussions, arts and literature, sports, fine dining, and so on. As a matter of fact, it’s not uncommon for married people with small children to say that they don’t have a life, in the sense that they miss out on all the things I’ve just listed – not that this is necessarily a complaint.

But, actually, that doesn’t quite get it right. Napolitano is a state governor. Politicians at that level, of either gender, do have to work long hours and don’t have a lot of time for either families or diversions. This is widely known and commented upon. Note the choice of language, though. Male politicians (or male scientists, or male public figures in general) might have no family, or might come back from work long after the kids go to sleep, seeing them only briefly on weekends, or whatever. That’s not being referred to as “having no life”. Because if you’re a man, your work can be your life if you want it to be. You get to make the choice.

If you’re a woman, on the other hand, your “life” is family. No matter how ambitious you are, no matter how much you actually achieve, at the end of the day you’re either a housewife if you’re married (“iron my shirts”) or a spinster if you’re not (“has no life”). We can get a job if we wish, but the only true fulfillment for a woman is – supposedly – through marriage and motherhood. Not for us are the professional experiences described in this article found through random googling:

G.W.F. Hegel once said, “Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.”

Without passion, people can never find true fulfillment within their occupations.

The difference between a passion-filled career and the opposite–a job–is real and easily defined. A career is taken–it is yours. At a job, by contrast, one must work and toil, and not necessarily toward an end that you’d prefer.

Would Yo-Yo Ma’s music provoke the same the profound effects upon the fragile human psyche without the inclusion of his renowned passion? In fact, would John Coltrane’s jazz melodies carry us through the same torrent of emotions without his passion being applied to every phrase?

Well, guess what. Some of us women do have careers as opposed to jobs. We’re passionate about what we do. We find fulfillment in it. We’d be even more fulfilled if we were actually considered as equals in our profession – and if we didn’t have to explain our family lives where they are not relevant.

* You can find out who it was if you follow the links above. I didn’t want to focus on this particular person, given how commonplace this kind of thinking is. I see it all the time. Some time ago I got an email from a high-school classmate with whom I’d had no contact in many years. I responded to it. He wrote back, more or less, that he and other classmates are happy to see me doing well, but could I write more about the really important things? Like, whether I have a husband and children? Guess we’re not on the same page, there.

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Camille Paglia looked into Sarah Palin’s eyes

And got a glimpse of her soul. I mean, of her powerful clarity of consciousness.

Yes, I know. I was supposed to lay off politics for a bit. But this is just too good:

As a career classroom teacher, I can see how smart she is — and quite frankly, I think the people who don’t see it are the stupid ones, wrapped in the fuzzy mummy-gauze of their own worn-out partisan dogma. So she doesn’t speak the King’s English — big whoop! There is a powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes. She uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist. I stand on what I said (as a staunch pro-choice advocate) in my last two columns — that Palin as a pro-life wife, mother and ambitious professional represents the next big shift in feminism.

No, she doesn’t. Here’s what Vivian Gornick wrote in the L.A. Times last week:

Every 50 years since that time, the movement has raised its head, opened its mouth, made yet another effort to have that sentiment heard, absorbed and acted on. Each time around, its partisans have been renamed — new women, odd women, free women, liberated women — but in actuality, they are always the same women. And, while they have had different issues to take up — the right to vote, or divorce, own property, go to medical school — their underlying message has always been the same: The conviction that men by nature take their brains seriously, and women by nature do not, is based not on an inborn reality but on a cultural belief that has served our deepest insecurities.

There. But Paglia prefers to look into a feminist’s eyes and see a be-bop sax player. So, especially for Palin and Paglia, here’s the real thing: Charlie Parker blowing it to hell and back.

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On stereotyping

The following is a quote from Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

If ever Africa shall show an elegant and cultured race… life will awaken there with a gorgeousness and splendor of which our cold western tribes faintly have conceived. In that far-off mystic land of gold, and gems, and spices, and waving palms, and wondrous flowers, and miraculous fertility will awaken new forms of art, new styles of splendor; and the negro race, no longer despised and trodden down, will perhaps show forth some of the latest and most magnificent revelations of human life. Certainly they will, in their gentleness, in their lowly docility of heart, their aptitude to repose on a superior mind and rest on a higher power, their childlike simplicity of affection, and facility of forgiveness.

If you would like to take a break for a moment, open the window and get some fresh air, I understand. I did, too.

Back with me? OK, let’s continue.

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The 99th percentile

You might have heard of the recent study in Science that compared the performance of boys and girls on school math tests and concluded that there were no noticeable differences. The study generated plenty of headlines along the lines of “girls are as good at math as boys”. Inevitably, the ghost of Lawrence Summers’s notorious remarks on the cause of underrepresentation of women in science was summoned and exorcised. Heather Mac Donald at the City Journal takes issue with this, noticing that the study found twice as many boys as girls above the 99th percentile in 11th grade (hat tip to 3 Quarks Daily):

On the contrary, Science’s analysis of math test scores only confirms the hypothesis that cost Summers his Harvard post: that boys are found more often than girls at the outer reaches of the bell curve of abstract reasoning ability. If you’re hoping to land a job in Harvard’s math department, you’d better not show up with average math scores; in fact, you’d better present scores at the absolute top of the range.

Actually, hiring decisions at Harvard and other math departments are not based on “math scores”, but rather on proven research ability (and other factors that we won’t go into right now). Math professors don’t spend their days solving test problems. We engage in research, a complicated, messy creative activity where you can’t check the answer at the back of the textbook and your work is not graded on a scale from 0 to 100.
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