Rain in the Desert, Part II

Recently I wrote about my experience with microblogging at a physics conference. I was gratified to find out that people actually read and enjoyed it, and it might even have had an effect on next year’s conference. Roy Meijer was kind enough to send me some tips on how to use social media at scientific conferences. I’ve said what I wanted to say about the experience, but I want to discuss my further thoughts about two inappropriately sexist messages that showed up on the big Twitter screens at the conference.

A conference-goer who made one of the sexist comments wrote a comment on this blog, anonymously, objecting to me calling him a socially retarded asshole in my essay. Let it be absolutely clear that I don’t take kindly to people who create an unwelcoming or unpleasant environment for women in physics. But it made me think anyway: he seemed genuinely convinced that women enjoy this kind of attention, and indeed, one shouldn’t ascribe others’ objectionable behavior to malice when it could be just cluelessness. So maybe I should just have said socially retarded.

But no matter whether it’s malice or cluelessness, I know that physicists can do better. Not just can, but have to. Sexist attitudes just don’t belong in the world today, and most other professions have gotten with the program. But physicists apparently still live in 1972. Here are some examples of what women in physics have to put up with:

  • A few years ago a professor at our Institute gave a really horrifying speech at the Christmas party, in which he thanked the secretaries for being our mothers who took care of us, and the technicians for being our fathers who brought us toys to play with. As if that piece of gender stereotyping weren’t enough of a train wreck by itself, he had actually started out his speech by telling an off-color story that involved mistresses, then said he’d heard that story from a Jewish colleague and that it was typical Jewish humor. (Although this post is about sexism, not racial stereotypes, and I can only be outraged about one thing at a time if I want to keep my message on track.)
  • Another professor at our Institute told grad students that to be a successful physicist, you have to have a supportive family, so his wife stayed home and took care of the children. Yes, there were female grad students in the audience. Perhaps there were gay grad students too.
  • At a conference I was at, a professor put a slide of a bikini model into his talk. He had photoshopped her head to be the professor organizing the conference (who is a woman).
  • If you go to the poster session at a physics conference, you’ll always see a crowd of nerds clustered around a few posters. At the center of each cluster is a female physicist presenting her poster. If I put myself in her place, I figure the attention to one’s research is gratifying — as a male physicist, I always have to work really hard to get anyone to even stop and take a look at my poster — but on the other hand, as a male physicist, I never have to worry about whether the attention comes from sincere interest in one’s research, or ulterior motives.

[Man writes incorrect equation on chalkboard] ONLOOKER: Wow, you suck at math. [Woman writes incorrect equation on chalkboard] ONLOOKER: Wow, girls suck at math.

Dear readers, I respect you, really I do. I know everybody on the whole internet links to this XKCD cartoon and you've seen it fifty thousand times already. But there's just no possible way to illustrate sexism in science more accurately and simply than Randall Munroe does.

So the question is what in particular is wrong with these comments I objected to. The Geek Feminism Wiki’s page on technical conferences has a list of problems with which women are often confronted. My experience is that FOM does a good job at making sure that most of these problems don’t occur at the Veldhoven conference. (Although my personal experience doesn’t really count, does it, since I’m lucky enough not to have to face these challenges.)

However, our conference-goer who made the inappropriate comment on the public screen, in my opinion, has made the mistake of falling into the “You should be flattered” trap: the misguided belief that since he was actually making a compliment, it should be OK. I quote (and slightly paraphrase) from that link on why this belief is wrong:

  • “It attempts to dictate women’s emotional responses to such comments, in particular perpetrating the idea that women are socially obliged to be pleasant and accommodating;
  • “It places the blame on women for responding negatively to attention which is wholly inappropriate in [a professional context];
  • “It reminds women that they are subject to men’s approval […];
  • “It reminds women who aren’t the object of the comment that they are also subject to men’s approval;
  • “It ignores the fact that many women have had negative experiences with sexual attention, such as immediate or eventual criticism or violence, and therefore do not view it with unmixed (or any) pleasure;
  • “It makes non-straight women feel particularly marginalised;
  • “Focusing on women’s appearance contributes to feelings of exceptionalism and conveys the judgment that a woman’s [physics] expertise is less valuable than her attractiveness.”

In my mind, there’s still an unsolved question. Does the conference organizer have a responsibility towards the conference-goers to prevent this stuff from happening or mitigate it when it does? On the one hand, you have to assume that people will comport themselves decently in public, and you can’t prevent every possible turd that people might drop in the punchbowl. On the other hand, allowing someone to create a poisonous environment for a minority lasts much longer than the conference does.

Addendum 1: I debated with myself whether to name-and-shame the professors in the examples above. They certainly deserve it, but I’m not sure it would serve any purpose other than spite. The time for denouncing the first and third incidents was right after they happened, and I will always regret that I said nothing in both cases. I wasn’t present at the second incident myself; I only heard about it from people who were there.

Addendum 2: Please realize that I’m not trying to flog a dead horse by chastising someone for an inappropriate comment at a conference that has been over for two months now. I am writing this because I think that the problem is an important one and I think that we have a responsibility to educate our colleagues so that physics can move out of the social Dark Ages, and women will actually feel welcome in our field, and nobody will argue about affirmative action policies, because we won’t need them.

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