Two Small Incidents

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My Wonder Woman costume at Halloween last year 😉

I guess I’m sort of a feminist. My partner makes fun of me because I like movies/stories with “strong independent female” characters (think Hunger Games, Wonder Woman), which gives you a small idea of my character, ha. I strongly believe that STEM can benefit from and therefore need more diversity (although undecided about the best way to get there). I try my best to support the female-oriented student orgs at my school (we just started a new org this year which is going great, and managed to get funding for a couple of students to travel to a national conference).

Recently, I traveled to an academic conference, and there were two gender-related incidents that I was uncertain about. So I’m writing down some thoughts about them, and turning to the blogosphere to help me interpret them.

1) The over-zealous student?

The professional organization I’m part of usually organizes a lunch / workshop at these conferences to bring people together. At this particular conference, there was a lunch, where a few well-established female profs talked about their professional path. Their tone was mostly positive and talked about the challenges they faced and how they overcame them to reach their current success.

During the Q&A, a PhD student brought up some of the issues she’s faced with her colleagues, who tended to discount her ideas because of her gender, and some other discrimination that she’d faced. (I wish I could remember the exact issues she mentioned, but I don’t think she was very specific.) The tone here was a fair bit more negative and critical of the lunch, implying that they had glossed over the current state of things.

Later, I had the chance to get dinner with her and some other people (including her advisor), and asked her about her points and for more specific examples. I mentioned that I couldn’t really relate (since I’ve mostly had a positive experience) but wanted to know more about her experience and the kinds of issues she’d faced. She started going on a long and vehement diatribe that basically alienated everyone at the table, including myself. I had wanted to hear her side of things, but it just got… one-sided. My friend sitting next to me, who has pretty conservative views, was barely holding his tongue.

Was she right to be so angry? On one hand, I’m sure she has good points, and things are really not all sunshine and roses. I had a pretty good experience during school, but I believe there are serious issues, especially in industry or when working with people who may be less sensitive to these issues (unfortunately, if I may make some blanket generalizations, in my experience it tends to be foreigners who have a more traditional view of gender roles). On the other hand, her rant was not really helping convey her message, and seemed to reinforce the stereotype of a “crazy feminist”.

Personally, I think a rant may be necessary to show the depth of her feelings, but it was also out of place. I guess I’m saying the tone has to be right. People can be passionate about certain topics, but alienating others, especially those who are likely to support her, is not the right way to go about it.

2) The sexist analogy?

At the same conference, there was a panel with ~200 people in the audience. Each panelist presented for about 10 minutes individually before the audience Q&A. During one of the panelists’ presentations, he started explaining a technical concept with an analogy: “The cloud [technical concept] is your wife, your kids are the applications, and you are the the channel. Your wife is making a whole bunch of demands, and your only job is to satisfy her and her demands.” (Paraphrased as best as I can remember.) This analogy was repeated throughout the talk.

Is this analogy sexist? On one hand, it was clearly meant to be a joke, and the analogy was the reverse of the usual “male household leader”. On the other hand, it spoken to a room of 85% men, possibly alienating the remaining 15% women, and created the stereotype of a bossy, controlling wife.

Personally, I interpreted his words in a negative light, and I couldn’t really concentrate on his technical content after that. I think it’s the kind of joke that could be told to a smaller group of friends, but not to a 200+ audience at a public venue. My liberal male friend was horribly offended and immediately started group texting about it, and our other female friend agreed. Meanwhile, my more conservative friend was noticeably silent. Who is right here? Am I being over-sensitive, and there’s no need to be so politically correct? Or was was this really an inappropriate analogy?

Any thoughts on how to interpret the above situations? Have you ever been in ambiguous situations like these?

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10 thoughts on “Two Small Incidents

  1. I’ve been to quite a few professional lectures that start off with jokes I find personally offensive (centered around stereotypes of bossy wives, strident feminists, horny men, and prostitution). I try to take what I can knowledge-wise from the lecture and move on. Unfortunately, if I ruminate too much about the feelings of alienation I just get angry and miss out on sometimes useful info. Most such lectures were given by older, white men who seem pretty set in their ways, so I don’t bother following up and telling them to stop. If a friend made such a joke I’d correct them though.

    I think in the first scenario it might be helpful to give the student feedback that though her message is valuable that she needs to work on how she conveys that message in order to be heard. Not knowing what in particular she cited as evidence, I will note that sometimes dog-whistle-y things, when described to others who haven’t had the same experience, can sound nuts and like making mountains out mole hills. For better or worse, she needs to get comfortable with explaining why something is wrong, even stuff emotionally triggering, in the most placid way possible to get good faith.

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    • I was strongly considering emailing the speaker privately and telling him I was uncomfortable with his remarks. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he just didn’t realize that his remarks weren’t funny to everyone. But then I thought that it’s a small world, and since academia operates on peer review, there’s a non-zero chance that he would be reviewing my stuff in the future (although he was non-US based, so the chance is lower). So I decided that I wasn’t offended enough to take that chance.

      Now that I think about it, it’s true what you said about “dog-whistle-y things”. If I were to describe some uncomfortable experiences I’ve had to others, it would be pretty hard to articulate what the problem was exactly. How do you describe tone? Or body language? Or repetition of certain behaviors that builds up to a boiling point? I can see the difficulty in describing these gender bias situations (and also in household disputes between me and my partner, but that’s a whole other story!). Maybe I should have tried to be more understanding and tease out the important points from the student, which seems to be the view of the other commenters too.

      But I will say, it wasn’t just me that the discussion was having a soporific effect on. Her advisor was there at the dinner too and didn’t make any comment, which I found strange, as he seemed like a really nice and reasonable person (from my limited acquaintance and some second-hand accounts). Maybe he had heard it all before…

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  2. I am also a STEM academic (associate professor at a small liberal arts school.) The second incident makes me livid, and I would have fought the urge to be a real jackass about it, and ask some pointed question about my own nagging, bossy wife and my bratty kids.

    On the student, I’m reminded of the paradigm of how when an individual does something consistent with a stereotype, it’s attributed to the group, and when the individual does something inconsistent, it’s attributed to the individual, and how that works to the advantage of individuals in the positively-regarded group, but the disadvantage of the group held in poor regard. Specifically, a man who was being kind of ranty and overly complainy doesn’t risk discrediting all men, but this female student makes us uncomfortable because we worry that she discredits women as a larger group.

    I think the right take is to defend her right to be a bit obnoxious and imperfect in her presentation – to avoid the trap of demanding perfect delivery from wronged parties from vulnerable groups. And if it were to come up in conversation, validate the grounded parts of her rant while explicitly attributing the annoying parts to her as an individual.

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    • Yeah, the speaker was definitely distasteful. I don’t think he got a lot of laughs out of the audience, so hopefully some of them were feeling as uncomfortable as me (or maybe they were just sleeping, lol).

      That’s an interesting perspective about the student. I think a secondary concern was that she was reinforcing some kind of female stereotype, but my main concern was whether her points were solid or not. But you’re right, it’s part of our duty to try to extract the important parts, regardless of the message delivery. It’s hard because on the surface, you’re not sure whether a rant is due to some serious issues imperfectly explained, or maybe this person is just extra-sensitive to perceived slights. Better to assume the former, though, probably.

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  3. This topic is of great interest to me, and I don’t think there are any easy answers. With situation one, I’m sympathetic to the student. I’ve been there, angry enough to want to rant about racism and sexism (I keep it well under wraps except among trusted friends). Almost every woman of color of similar seniority in my first firm had grievances, we shared these stories with each other and even HR, toothless as HR is. We were, from our first days at the firm (before having opportunity to prove ourselves as good or bad associates), not given the same opportunities as our male colleagues, to the point where men junior to us felt empowered to openly reject our instructions rudely, despite how super-hierarchical biglaw is, even when the woman was senior enough to review them.

    Ask almost any man at our firm, and they’d say we were crazy. Where’s the proof, they’d ask? (We wouldn’t have any that would satisfy them. The firm was “genteel” and “collegial”, no one said anything discriminatory.) Similarly, I’m outspoken with people I’m close to, and have had many women of color friends (mostly outside the profession) say they didn’t see why I thought something was racist or sexist. (And feeling like your own friends from a similar background don’t believe you is so frustrating!) So I have so much sympathy for people who feel angry. At the same time, professional civility is important, there’s no point upsetting people for no gain. If Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor can be remarkably calm and civil (having faced so much discrimination over decades), we must emulate them. So while I have the PhD student’s anger, I very much agree that a rant isn’t the right response. (Among other things, women are vulnerable to getting a reputation for being a raving complainer – I see this in perceptions of women judges, the Justices included. If they ever dare show a tiny bit of behavior that’s not completely zen and neutral, they get accused of being shrieking harpies. Federal judges have life tenure and don’t need to care, but us junior people don’t have that!)

    I actually have surprisingly little experience with situation two. The only thing that’s close is that some people in my first firm say… remarkably insensitive and offensive things (about er, the demographics of our pro bono clients, mainly, it’s bad). Push comes to shove, they also happen to be the only senior people we can rely on to devote a lot of time to helping us figure out thorny issues in those pro bono cases. (Bad comments/jokes, especially if they’re common, generally suggest something super not-great about the culture of the profession, but as with situation one, it may not be worth fighting depending on context). Thanks for the food for though!

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    • Wow, your first firm sounds like it had some serious issues. It sounds horrible. I guess you’ll be sharing more of the story on your blog later, which I look forward to reading.

      Like I was saying to YAPFB, I’ve come to see the difficulty of presenting concrete proof to a listener. So many things are small or intangible that are hard to describe, like tone or attitude (although in your case, the task assignment issues sounds fairly concrete). Recently I had a work-related issue that I went to talk to my dept chair about, who basically said it didn’t sound that serious. Was it because a second-hand description of someone’s attitude was too hard to describe? Maybe…

      I laughed out loud at your colorful description of “shrieking harpies”. I realize I get accused of that at home sometimes, so I totally agree with you that the complain-y stereotype is there. I can’t say I’ve observed it in my workplace, but that may be because there aren’t many women to observe 😦 Now that I think of it, though, I tend to get more animated in casual discussion with my colleagues, and forcibly try to tone myself down to fit into the prevailing “chill” mood.

      These things are never easy to judge. I guess the good is mixed with the bad. Like your colleagues who help with the pro bono cases, I have a colleague whom I super respect and has always been very helpful to me professionally. But he also mixes it up with super non-PC statements about relationships being distracting to work life. So much ambiguity…

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      • The public perception of women (federal) judges thing is one of those really obscure and quirky (and also not very important, because they definitely don’t care or need to) things I find so, so interesting. You’d think that they’d be powerful enough (and appointed only via a democratic procedure with lots of checks and balances) that people would be more measured and respectful about how they describe them, but it ends up not bring true.

        There was a New York Times editorial by a now-retired woman judge about how, if we are to have more true inclusion in the court room, judges need to start encouraging law firms to bring more women to court hearings and allow them to speak. (Over time, I think I’ve become convinced that the only way biglaw can start to change for representation stuff is with things like that. People with power, whether judges or clients, need to closely police what attorneys are being used and how on their cases… Which isn’t practical or maybe even proper, honestly, but that’s what’d it take.) Anyway, if it’s done by a judge, it’s usually by inserting something into their individual rules of practice, and it’s always an extremely gentle suggestion (“Judge __ encourages law firms to give junior attorneys the opportunity to participate in hearings where appropriate” or something). I’ve seen this as often in male judge’s individual rules as in women’s. The comments section was terrible (!), one of the worst I’d ever seen (including when I only looked at “NYT Picks” or “Reader Picks”, which normally filters out trolls). People were like “judges do not have that authority!” implying that she was stupid and did not understand her job. Alas, their editors have since gone through and cleaned up the comments section, now that I check back, which is a pity because it was just such a perfect illustration of this phenomenon. It was so bad I’m pretty sure it motivated them to, a few weeks later, publish another editorial by a male judge affirming the exact same thing she wrote. (And they didn’t allow comments this time!)

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      • Oof, those comments sound crazy! It’s an interesting idea to try to police how attorneys get used on cases, or at least keep statistics. Are there some roles that are more important (e.g., speaking vs research?). Are other diversity metrics, e.g., hiring, important or publicized? I know at my school, we keep a pretty close eye on percentage of female students, percentage of first-generation students, etc. When applying for funding from gov agencies like the National Science Foundation, it’s good to brag about how successful your female students are (although it might be lip service…). But at least there’s the appearance of trying.

        It’s kind of interesting the contrast between law and academia, which I imagine are both fields dominated by senior people. Maybe the difference is that in academia, tenure comes up faster (5-9 years) so people are more willing to speak out after that. Or that academic people tend to be more liberal in general.

        So much of it is individual, like you were saying with the judges nudging junior people. Our previous college dean made a special effort to encourage hiring committees to propose diverse candidates (for example, if a department provided a shortlist of candidates, at least some of them should be diverse). And people complained, but they couldn’t really get around it because in the end, the dean has the final say on hiring decisions. But our new dean, sadly, seems much less interested in such issues.

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