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“He shouldn’t just be able to get away with that.”


At what point do you take action against someone who has offended or harassed you?

Most of us probably give a more liberal answer than we would actually act upon in real life – a classic “easier said than done,” in my opinion.  Some people perhaps have no problem pointing out “that was offensive” to anyone at anytime.  If you’re that person, kudos to you!  But many of us, in real life, find it a little more difficult.  I can think of plenty of moments where I “should have said something” in retrospect, but at the time, I did not, for a variety of reasons.  It wasn’t the appropriate place to have that conversation, I didn’t think that the person’s behavior would be affected, I didn’t say something right at that time so I felt wrong reporting them later.  Or more typically, when something surprisingly offensive comes out of someone’s mouth, my jaw drops to the floor and my brain goes blank and it’s not until ten minutes later that I’m like “what just happened?”

I had an incident with a collaborator while on an observing run months ago.  He took it upon himself to give me all his advice on why women shouldn’t do science (because we must be taking care of children, of course, and by the way I should probably get on that soon because the younger, the better) and other extremely inappropriate and ridiculous things.  In addition to his words, just the way he treated me made me feel completely devalued, like less than a real human being worthy of respect (as though woman /= person).  When I wasn’t around him, I was a sobbing mess because of how terrible the things that he said made me feel.  I say that risking the fact that people might interpret that as me being a “wimp,” but if you have ever truly been attacked in this way you would understand.

After luckily only a few days of this (I spent most of the observing run with a different collaborator), it was over and I was back home.  I’m very happy that I have a great advisor with whom I felt comfortable to talk to about this, so I let him know.  He was floored, and upset, and what I really appreciated was that he asked me what I wanted him to do about it.  At the time, I said that I just want to make sure that I don’t ever observe with him again, but I did not want my advisor to confront this person about it or talk to the research group about it (with the exception of telling those responsible for scheduling about it).  And that was pretty much that (although due to a scheduling snafu I did have one night of overlap with this person again, but luckily without incident).

However, this all came back today, and because it’s been swirling through my brain I felt compelled to write this post.  A female faculty member heard about this and wanted to talk to me about it, specifically to point out that any incident of harassment should be reported to the university (or not just should be, but HAS to be).

At the time when I first told it to my advisor, this was my thinking: this is over.  I never have to see this person again.  He’s not an employee of my university.  He’s interacted with other female grad students before and apparently this was never an issue, so I don’t know what’s wrong with me.  He’s from another culture and I don’t want to seem as though I am insensitive to cultural issues.  I didn’t properly stand up for myself and say “this is offensive” early enough.  I’m just too “radically” feminist and this guy is saying things that aren’t that extreme and I should just calm down.

All excuses.

But what this faculty member made me realize is that all that stuff doesn’t matter.  First of all, I had never thought to call this “harassment,” but she’s right to use that term.  But more importantly, I let him just get away with this. And if I let him get away with it now, who will he do it do later?  How long have people been “getting away” with harassing and discrimination against other people just because no one wants to speak up?  Some of the stories you hear are ludicrous, things that people should lose their job over (not necessarily this incident), and people let it fly by.

I’m in a mood that I just can’t shake not only because the anger and indignation of this incident were all brought back up to the surface, but because I feel guilty.  I should have put up a fight.  Maybe not on that observing run… I’m normally quite good at speaking my mind, but when someone treats another human being like that, even I was shut down.  But afterwords, when I had the opportunity, and when I had people with stronger voices backing me up.

Now this professor is, with my permission, going to talk to my advisor about the fact that this needs to be reported through official channels.  I just asked her to make sure that it’s clear that I am not mad about how he handled the situation.

I’m just upset about how I handled it.


What do scientists look like?


Sociological Images made a post about a project where seventh graders were asked to draw pictures of scientists (and describe them too) both before and after a visit with some diverse scientists at Fermilab.  You can see the drawings and descriptions at the project’s website!

An analysis of the gender of the scientists depicted in the drawings (and other characteristics) was posted over at Restructure!, and here’s what they found:

  • Among girls (14 in total), 36% portrayed a female scientist in the “before” drawing, and 57% portrayed a female scientist in the “after” drawing.
  • Among boys (17 in total), 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “before” drawing, and 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “after” drawing.
  • 94% of the children portrayed a scientist wearing a lab coat in the “before” drawings, but only 3% (1 person) portrayed a scientist wearing a lab coat in the “after” drawing.
  • Among the “after” drawings and descriptions of scientists, 29% of children explicitly noted that scientists were “normal people” or that a scientist is a “normal person” or “regular person”. Among the “after” drawings, 65% suggested or explicitly noted that scientists were normal people (e.g., they noted that everyone/anyone can be a scientist; that a scientist can have hobbies, friends, and a family; or that a scientist “is a person with a life”.)

The gender depiction is certainly interesting; I don’t think this particular experiment, with its small numbers, can make a stand-alone case for the importance of female role models for young women, but there are certainly other studies that make that case.  However, it’s interesting that all the boys always drew scientists as men, both before and after.  I think the response is “Hey, it’s natural for kids to draw what they most relate to, or put themselves in the picture.”  Sure, that might be the case if boys drew boys and girls grew girls, but that’s not what we have here.  Girls are expected to be able to relate to both boys and girls – in fact, it would be impossible not to, given that only 1 in 3 speaking characters in children’s media are girls!  The research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media showed that recently.  Think about the shows you used to watch as a kid.  How many characters were girls?  Sure, Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers had Gadget, who was awesome, but I couldn’t exactly ignore the 4 other Rescue Rangers who were all dudes.  Boys, however, have plenty of media where they can watch and relate to other boys; in fact, sometimes they are encouraged to do so.  A good example I can think of is the creation of Go, Diego, Go!, or at least the version of it I heard from a professor, because they wanted to create the male version of Dora the Explorer (he was actually a character on her show before getting his own show) for boys to watch.  Wait, why can’t boys watch a show about a girl, when I watch shows about boys all the time?  And even now, Disney changed their newest movie title from “Rapunzel” to “Twisted,” in order to attract a larger audience (of boys) by not creating a movie about a girl character, since The Princess and the Frog didn’t do so hot at the box office.  Despite the fact that the story of Rapunzel is in fact about Rapunzel.

On a related note about depictions of women in the media, I’ve recently become wary of any film that cannot pass the Bechdel Test.  The requirements for a movie are:

1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
That shouldn’t be THAT hard to do, right?  You’d be surprised how many mainstream movies (even kids movies) fail at that.  And plenty of the ones that pass are marginalized to the realm of “chick flicks,” that are apparently only for women to watch anyway.
So yes, this post about women in science just turned into women in the media.  But they are related, because they have to do with “male” as being the “default human,” which is certainly understandable given their prevalence in the media, especially for children.  But why should there be a default human in the first place?
But the non-gender related analysis of the drawings are interesting too.  To a certain extent, I understand why the kids would draw labcoats and such, even if they don’t really think all scientists wear labcoats, because it’s just an easy code to identify “Hey, it’s a scientist!”  But this does at least show that a lot of kids don’t really know what scientists do anyway – and why would you want to pursue a career if you don’t know what they do, or you misunderstand what they do?  It’s useful (for all kids) to know that not all scientists are old, stuffy, bald white dudes.  Also, I remember once reading an essay by a woman who told the story about how, after learning from science textbooks in school, thought (as a kid) that there was no science left to do, we know it all, that’s why it’s in textbooks.  It’s important that kids know that there’s lots of exciting science to do, cool people doing, and that they can be those cool people someday!

SMBC Gets It


Ahh socialization. Today’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

House Vote This Thursday on STEM Bill


Here’s the most recent email from the AAUW Action Network.  Please contact your representative (see the link the email, it’s easy as pie) if you support this bill!

Read more…

“A Little Bit of Knowledge”


I’ve been going through a list of old episodes of This American Life that my friend recommended to me, which have been getting me through travel and observing runs.  For some reason I decided to save the ones that most intrigued me for last, which means when I got to A Little Bit of Knowledge, I thought “Why did I take so long to get this into my life?” and also “Oh no, I wanna listen to the whole thing and now I can’t go to sleep!”  (Sleep = the most desired thing on observing runs [erm, other than clear skies, of course], but hard to come by when it has to happen during the day.)

The first act is about those little things that we believe until we embarrassingly find out that we are wrong.  Give it a listen to see what I mean; I loved this section.  But in addition to believing things like, oh, unicorns are real, what about all the things that people believe about science that are so wrong?  Why aren’t people as embarrassed when, at a party, it is revealed that they don’t know what causes the seasons?  (We watched the video mentioned in this article for our TA training.)

I can recall a few of these scenarios of my own… only one is “scientific,” and luckily all of them were corrected in my mind before I reached adulthood.  What things have you thought were true that were just so, so wrong?

  • I remember once when I was very little, our flight was really delayed leaving Washington DC after visiting my grandparents.  It was practically the middle of the night before we took off (“middle of the night” to my preschool mind, which very well could have been 9PM) and at some point, I asked my mom for a Fruit Roll-Up.  She unrolled it on my tray table for me, but I said I would wait a few minutes to eat it, during which time I fell asleep.  When I woke up, the Fruit Roll-Up was gone and only the plastic wrapper remained.  When I asked my mom where it went, she told me “it evaporated.”  For years I thought Fruit Roll-Ups could evaporate if left out too long.  Although I never asked, I’m pretty sure my dad just ate it.
  • When I was just learning how to read, the Schwan’s delivery truck drove by and I recognized the words “ice cream.”  I excitedly told my babysitter that it was the ice cream truck (our town had no ice cream truck), but she told me that no, that truck carries diapers.  Even when I could solidly read, I was like, why would that truck say all those words about food if they carried diapers?  Even when I learned what Schwan’s was, I thought, “Isn’t it funny that a company delivers frozen foods and diapers?”
  • Our grocery store had a sign on it that said “WE SHIP VIA UPS.”  Somehow I thought that “via” was some weird way of saying “ya” as in “you.”  And “UPS” was the word “ups,” like somehow the plural of “up.”  So I thought this somehow meant “We ship ya up!” like “We make you happy!” (like a “pick me up”) for such a long time.

The second and fourth acts are adorable, but completely unrelated to science and this blog.  Listen to them.

The third act is about a guy who is sure that E=mc, not mc^2.  This is no new story for scientists, but something that I didn’t really know about until my name and email address were listed in graduate school directory.  People will take their absurd ideas and randomly email them to anyone that they feel will listen to them.  Do some great ideas come from non-academically trained people?  Sure.  But if there is a great idea somewhere stuffed into the rambling, conspiratorial email about extraterrestrials and how the sun is about to fall into a “null space,” then yep, I’m guilty for not seeing it.  I can only imagine the frequency of these emails increases if you are a professor.

There’s an opportunity here to talk about scientific illiteracy, but I’m not gonna take it.  The first set of stories is just too funny to be upset about, and the other one is just so far extreme that I can’t pretend this guy is guilty of the same scientific misunderstandings of the general population.  I just wanted to share this great episode that anyone can appreciate, but scientists especially.

What wacky things have you believed or have you heard other people believe?

Race, doubts, and the 3L email


Despite the handful of posts that I’ve been intending to write, I have to jump in on this latest internet firestorm.

The Background

Stephanie Grace, a 3rd year law student at Harvard Law School, felt that the views that she was trying to express at a dinner were not sufficiently explained, so she sent out an email afterwards to clarify.  Though it was only sent to a few people, the email was forwarded to the Black Law Student Association at Harvard, then the BLSA nationwide, and eventually for everyone to see.

Race, Gender, and Bad Science

Let’s pick this apart piece by piece, shall we?

… I just hate leaving things where I feel I misstated my position.

Okay, fair enough.

I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. I could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as white people under the same circumstances.

Bingo.  I intentionally didn’t say what the email was about before, because the first line says it all.  I want to clarify an important point – I think that discourse on controversial and uncomfortable topics is imperative in our culture.  The fact that race is so rarely discussed really hampers our ability as a culture to address issues of inequality, bias, and discrimination.  (See a chapter from Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s NurtureShock, excerpted in Newsweek.)  I think it should be okay to ask questions and try to learn.  However, I think it is not okay, and in fact irresponsible to assert opinions as facts.  It’s irresponsible to act as though you are an educated authority on a subject that you are not.

The fact is, some things are genetic. African Americans tend to have darker skin. Irish people are more likely to have red hair.

We are moving into dangerous territory here.  Warning signs are going off everywhere in my mind at this point.

Stephanie is about to make the race –> genetics, genetics –> intelligence, therefore race –> intelligence connection.  But the problem is, race /= genetics.  Race is a social construction.  For great background readings, start here with PBS.  But most importantly, read Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Race.  Race is a modern idea, but most importantly, it is a changing idea.  In fact, the example in the email is a perfect example.  Currently, we consider African Americans to be of a different race than “whites,” in which an Irish American would be included.  But we in the United States used to consider the Irish to be of a different race. Nowadays, someone descending form Irish immigrants would be called “white” and someone descended from African immigrants would be called “black.”  But only one of them would have their innate intelligence questioned based on the color of their skin.

(Now on to the more controversial:) Women tend to perform less well in math due at least in part to prenatal levels of testosterone, which also account for variations in mathematics performance within genders.

This is where the red sirens in my head really started flashing!  Hopefully now it’s apparent why a post largely about race appears in a women and science blog.  Stephanie conveniently made the link for me; discrimination against race or gender (or anything else) are just two sides of the same coin.  And they are often based on junk science.

But to set the record straight, just in case, from the recent AAUW report: “The rapid increase in the number of girls achieving very high scores on mathematics tests once thought to measure innate ability suggests that cultural factors are at work. Thirty years ago there were 13 boys for every girl who scored above 700 on the SAT math exam at age 13; today that ratio has shrunk to about 3:1.”

If the difference were genetic (or due to prenatal hormone levels), such a shift wouldn’t happen in 30 years.  Stephanie qualifies this statement “at least in part” in order to soften her position, but it’s a subtle strategic move – more on that below.

This suggests to me that some part of intelligence is genetic, just like identical twins raised apart tend to have very similar IQs and just like I think my babies will be geniuses and beautiful individuals whether I raise them or give them to an orphanage in Nigeria.

Although it’s not explicitly stated, I can’t shake the feeling that she is somehow implying that if she were to adopt an orphan from Nigeria, the baby would not turn out smart or beautiful.  So to avoid putting words in her mouth, let’s instead analyze the absurdity of the statement.  What is “genius?”  What is “beautiful?”  Does any of that matter for millions of orphans who do not have access to basic medical care or even enough food? The assumption that your baby will be a genius is one thing; the assumption that they will somehow rise above the poverty and tragedy of millions of other orphans to even survive long enough to express that genius is another.

And re: twins raised apart, that doesn’t prove anything about the median intelligence of one race or another.

I don’t think it is that controversial of an opinion to say I think it is at least possible that African Americans are less intelligent on a genetic level, and I didn’t mean to shy away from that opinion at dinner.

I wonder if there were any African Americans at that dinner.

I also don’t think that there are no cultural differences or that cultural differences are not likely the most important sources of disparate test scores (statistically, the measurable ones like income do account for some raw differences). I would just like some scientific data to disprove the genetic position, and it is often hard given difficult to quantify cultural aspects.

Okay, in a rational argument you try to recognize the possible validity of both sides.  If that’s what she’s trying to do, why am I picking her apart?  Because there is a subtlety here.  It sounds rational to say “show me the data and I’ll believe you.”  But within this statement (and the next) is the assertion you cannot truly take perfect data, therefore I will never have to rescind my position, but I can still claim that I am just being rational and following the data.

One example (courtesy of Randall Kennedy) is that some people, based on crime statistics, might think African Americans are genetically more likely to be violent, since income and other statistics cannot close the racial gap. In the slavery era, however, the stereotype was of a docile, childlike, African American, and they were, in fact, responsible for very little violence (which was why the handful of rebellions seriously shook white people up). Obviously group wide rates of violence could not fluctuate so dramatically in ten generations if the cause was genetic, and so although there are no quantifiable data currently available to “explain” away the racial discrepancy in violent crimes, it must be some nongenetic cultural shift. Of course, there are pro-genetic counterarguments, but if we assume we can control for all variables in the given time periods, the form of the argument is compelling.

In conclusion, I think it is bad science to disagree with a conclusion in your heart, and then try (unsuccessfully, so far at least) to find data that will confirm what you want to be true.  Everyone wants someone to take 100 white infants and 100 African American ones and raise them in Disney utopia and prove once and for all that we are all equal on every dimension, or at least the really important ones like intelligence. I am merely not 100% convinced that this is the case.

Again, exactly what I described above.  Because we cannot prove it 100%, I don’t have to believe it. If this were just a statement on how we cannot completely isolate all variables in social science experiments, fine.  That’s true.  But it’s preceded with an argument about how her poor understandings of race lead her to believe that genetics plays a role in intelligence.  The argument about social science experiments is just meant to say “you can’t prove me wrong.”

Also, you want to talk about “bad science?”  The “conclusion in your heart” is probably bad science.  It’s based on the culture in which you’ve been raised, the circumstances that you have been through.  The heart is biased.  The heart is our center of love and compassion, so it is twisted to me to use the heart to discount a group of people just because of their appearance.  And it’s certainly not science.

Please don’t pull a Larry Summers on me,

Stephanie Grace

If you have to make that request, you probably should have thought twice before hitting “send.”

End Notes

On privacy: Above the Law originally posted this without Stephanie’s name and deleted all references to her identity in the comments.  However, her name was subsequently published by other sources, and since it’s already out there, I feel no problem with using it.

On apologies: Stephanie later apologized to the BLSA, saying “I emphatically do not believe that African Americans are genetically inferior in any way. I understand why my words expressing even a doubt in that regard were and are offensive.” I haven’t yet thought too much about if I buy it.

On privilege: Jill at Feministe does an excellent job looking at this email and especially “the system that made Stephanie Grace feel that her email and her arguments were totally appropriate and within the realm of acceptable academic discourse, and that lead her to believe that her views would be accepted and welcomed,” which I did not really touch but I find incredibly important.

“Everyone’s a little bit racist”

Race isn’t easy to talk about.  This email wasn’t outright in-your-face racist like some people still are.  I wanted to talk about this email to try to illustrate how even simple ideas that are commonly accepted in society, even by well-educated people, perpetuate bias and discrimination in society.  I don’t want to be the PC-police.  I don’t want to “pick on her” so much as pick on all of us a little bit to examine what the things we say and do mean.

Would you say the following things to a person?  “I’m pretty sure you’re here because you deserve to be, but there’s a teeny tiny bit of me that thinks you might just be here because of affirmative action.” “We’re all equal here, but since you kind of come from a race that possibly just might have less intelligence, you must be doing quite good for yourself.”  Not even a compliment eases the sting.  No amount of qualifiers makes it less hurtful.

It’s the doubt that gets you.  Far more women in science feel the doubt from others about their abilities and their “innate intelligence” than actual, verbal comments about women’s brains and science.  But the impact is just as strong.

Links of Interest

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Here are a few of the interesting links that have been passed around by the women in our department the last few days.

Gender Bias Bingo: I haven’t gotten to look at everything on this site yet, but it seems to explain the patterns of gender bias very clearly!

New AAUW report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: A monster 3MB PDF, which I plan to take a deeper look at (when I’m not pretending to prepare for seminar) and post about later.

But I did also just want to include one quote about it, as from this article in Education Week:

That study, from the Washington-based American Association of University Women, offers a set of recommendations for educators, parents, and others, including a call to “spread the word about girls’ and women’s achievements in math and science” to combat negative stereotypes; teach girls that intellectual skills are “acquired,” and not simply the product of “innate talent”; and explain to girls that buying into negative stereotypes can diminish academic achievement. It also says that in high school, girls should be encouraged to take classes in calculus, physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering when available. [Emphasis mine.]

So perhaps my high school guidance counselor should not have suggested I take fashion instead of physics.  Wow, I wish that story were an April Fool’s joke.