What’s a self-respecting feminist to do?

Reader pjs has written in with this query:

Yesterday, I had a bad experience, and I need some advice. I went to return a shirt at Walmart. The customer service employee was maybe five years older than me, late twenties, white male. He asked me if the shirt was too big. Unthinkingly, I smiled and said yes. Almost immediately, I began to feel extremely self-conscious. I believe I blushed, a very rare occurrence for me. At first I thought he was just drawing attention to the fact that I’m fairly thin. Then, it dawned on me that he might be calling me flat chested (I am proud to be a 34A). The remaining few minutes of the transaction felt like forever, and then I dashed away.

Today, I was thinking about it again, and decided maybe I should submit a complaint to the store. But then I reconsidered – the thought of some manager and the guy having a laugh over the complaint was disgusting. From what I hear, Walmart has a terrible track record with these sorts of things (I probably shouldn’t have been shopping there in the first place). The complaint probably wouldn’t have any effect, and I’m highly unlikely to see this guy again. On the other hand, the comment was truly inappropriate no matter which way he meant it… right?

And maybe I’m overthinking it entirely. Maybe my recently acquired interest in feminism is turning me oversensitive and causing me to see males in a new and worse light.

What’s a self-respecting feminist to do?

This sort of thing is very tricky to deal with. It’s hard enough to get one’s complaints taken seriously about comments and behaviours that are unambiguous, and in this sort of case it’s really hard to imagine a complaint accomplishing anything. Then there are the epistemic difficulties of knowing what was really intended. One fairly all-purpose solution I like is to simply look puzzled and ask for clarification, forcing the person to either spell out something offensive, make it clear they meant something else, or simply get embarrassed. I learned this from my excellent Irish friend M. We were dealing with a fool (F) who had come to pick up some boxes to be shipped to the US. M helped him with all the adding and measuring, for which he was grateful. Then he discovered he’d lost his card-reader (the old-style kind that stamps his company’s details on a receipt) and panicked. M explained that he needn’t worry too much since whoever had it could only put payments into F’s company. F started laughing, imagining “some Irish guy” doing just this. M simply looked at him and said “Oh, really?” with a sweet smile. F’s jaw dropped in horror and he froze in that position for sometime. I still smile when I remember it.

So that’s my recommendation. What’s yours?

A Million Dollars for bioethics? Addition

Well, certainly something along those lines.  The US National Institutes of  Health are creating “core centers” with funding from the president’s recovery fund.  One kind of core center is in bioethics.  The grant stresses hiring new tt faculty; that’s what the money is basically for.

The grants are due on May 29, but there should be enough time to write a proposal.  The details  are here.  Don’t worry about the letter of intent; it wasn’t required and it won’t be considered in the  proposal’s review.  It might well be possible to do one that would fit in with a women’s studies group and focus on women and minority issues in health-care.  NIH is aware that diversity is important.  You could end up hiring feminist bioethicists, which would surely be a good thing.

Your administration will love you if you get one.  I’m not sure I can answer questions very intelligently, but I’ll have a go at addressing them.  NIH  gives you a lot of emails and they’re very good at replying.

 I’m organizing one on bioimaging for a neuropsychiatric core center, though I’m trying to convince others that they’ll be a much better PI than I, who has never gotten an NIH grant before.

Addition:  as a colleague reminds me, to get this you’d need a strong tie-in with medical researchers who have good track records with NIH funding.  It might serve feminist needs but it’s relevant to medicine has to be absolutely secure.

“No Child left behind:” Did it work?

No child left behind was supposed to aid minority children in catching up in school with white kids.  It was promoted by Bush as putting a stress on accountability.  That is, it stressed testing to see if the children did learn.  But the NY Times says it did’t work:

The achievement gap between white and minority students has not narrowed in recent years, despite the focus of the No Child Left Behind law on improving the scores of blacks and Hispanics, according to results of a federal test considered to be the nation’s best measure of long-term trends in math and reading proficiency.

But could anything work?  Well, something did make a  lot of difference:

Although Black and Hispanic elementary, middle and high school students all scored much higher on the federal test than they did three decades ago, most of those gains were not made in recent years, but during the desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s.

That might suggest that even a partial equalizing of resourcess makes a significant difference.  Who would have guessed?

Of course, there are still defenders of Bush’s act:

But Margaret Spellings, [the last secretary of ed] under President Bush, called the results a vindication of the No Child law.

“It’s not an accident that we’re seeing the most improvement where N.C.L.B. has focused most vigorously,” Ms. Spellings said. “The law focuses on math and reading in grades three through eight — it’s not about high schools. So these results are affirming of our accountability type approach.”

Texan Armadillo

There really is nothing  like those Texans for persistence in beliefs.  What she’s referring to, though, is the fact that any recent gains appear to disappear in high school.  Hmmmmmm.  We don’t see to have gotten it right yet.

O, this could make one sad: sex ed in the UK

According to the Guardian, there will be compulsory sex ed in the UK, with religious schools free to give  students their own view of sexuality.

Sex education is to be made compulsory in all state schools in England but faith schools will also be free to preach against sex outside marriage and homosexuality, under government proposals.

You know how that goes; homosexuals should never have the sort of close  loving relationship  that provides a nexus for so many of the families aroung them. 

It means that all state secondaries in England – including faith schools – will for the first time have to teach a core curriculum about sex and contraception in the context of teenagers’ relationships, but teachers in religious schools will also be free to tell them that sex outside marriage, homosexuality or using contraception are wrong.

I wonder if they’ll be able to get away with following the pope in maintaining that contraception increases the spread of  AIDS.   If  one could put aside the fear of the damage they will do, it might even be interesting to see if the religious schools can explain what’s wrong with all that stuff without starkly arbitrary (aka factually fantastic) assertions,.   What constraints will be put in  place to keep sex ed anything like accurate?

New Gender Pay-Gap Legislation in Britain

BBC Online is reporting that UK government has a bill in the works that would, among other things*, seek to close the (currently 23%) gender pay gap once and for all. ‘Under the Equalities Bill…firms employing at least 250 staff would be required to publish average hourly rates for men and women by 2013.’ Minister for Equality Harriet Harman says

“This is about employers coming clean with their employees,” […] “Unless we can see it workplace by workplace it stays swept under the carpet – that unfairness stays hidden and we can’t tackle it, if it’s hidden.”

Unsurprisingly, groups like the Institute of Directors are insistent that this new legislation will hurt small- and medium-sized companies who are already struggling in the current economic crisis. Harman’s reply is apt:

Ms Harman said there was “no excuse for having unfairness when times are difficult”.

“The economies and societies which will prosper in the future are not those that have rigid hierarchies, where women know their place and where you can’t go forward because of the colour of your skin,” she said.


*The bill also contains proposed legislation aimed at addressing discrimination against the elderly, as well systemic disadvantage to working class/low-income people.

Pandemic? On getting an idea of the possibility of a chance of…

Schools in NY, Texas and California have closed.  Not all of them, of course.  But here  and there worries about spreading the flu are arising.

Here’s a pamphlet which gives a lot of useful details.   You might well not want to go out tomorrow and start getting face  masks, but getting some sort of start might not be a bad idea.  One’s urged not to forget the furry ones, and think how much easier life would be if you had three months of cat food in your cupboard.  (I’m supposing you actually have one or more cats; if not, disregard or apply to your own fur kids’ species.)

I don’t think it mentions chocolate, alcohol or mystery stories, all of which keep really very well.  They might be a good place to start.  Just think what a three months’ supply of pinot noir would look like.  (Not recommended,  however, for the furry ones.) 



h/t to Obsidian Wings, which has some more useful links.

Obama and women in US Science: Be Still My heart

Could  the President of the United States actually care about whether women get a fair deal if they aspire  to undertake scientific research in a university!?!  Omigod.   I never thought I’d see the day.

So here’s how that’s going.  Title IX asserts,

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

Though there isn’t any qualification in the statement characterizing Title IX, it has been applied  principally to athletics.  But now the President of the United States appears committed, through his statements while campaigning and more recent events, to applying Title IX to university STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields). 

We do have to introduce a little reality into this.  The fact is that the United States has a huge problem.  It is widely agreed that our  economic health (such as it now is) depends on innovations and inventions.  It is also widely agreed that these in turn require a flourishing base in basic research.  And basic research is done largely in universities.   BUT fewer and fewer  US white guys are interested in doing basic research in univesities.  Lots of science grad schools are  filling up with non-citizens, but lots of important positions are  restricted to citizens.  Yikes!  A crisis.  So the ranks have to be opened to non-males, non-whites.  And given the university setting, with people already aboard getting to decide who can get aboard, such diversifying has not been easy.

So Obama thinks the government is going to have to step in. 

Now you’d think we have all there is to interpret Obama’s intentions.  We have what he says his goals are, and they are  entirely consistent with all his other statements in support of US science.  But for the  right wing that is definitely not enough.  They see him as pretty much aiming to use Title IX to enact measures that will obviously greatly damage US science.  Maybe they are confusing him with Bush, but I don’t think so.  In fact,  I am not going to conjecture about what their motives.   It’s enough to note that it is wildly implausble that he’d work with the National Science Foundation and  all sorts of other academic groups to ruin the playing field, as opposed to making it more equal.  And, after all, if this were just about the just distribution of faculty positions, we could hope philosophy would be in his ken; I bet it isn’t.  (But maybe we should write to  him?) 

There are, of course, other worries.  If the government  requires universities to start increasing their non-male, non-white faculty in STEM fields, women hired may find that their merit will be doubted.  In fact, to some extent there  is  already pressure and there are problems.   But Obama does also talk about coordinating with programs like NSF-Advance, which is working hard to invest in universities so that at least the STEM faculty start to realize in how many ways their decisions and practices result in an unjust distribution of educational benefits and opportunities.

Let me close with a cautionary tale and a quote. 

The tale:  JJ-partner is a university scientist who was in charge of a very large multi-field conference.  This was about 5 years ago.   The contributed papers, on which names did appear, ** were sent out to researchers around the country, who were asked to put them in one of 4 categories, according to merit.  The result was that all the papers by women were ranked in the bottom quarter.  JJ-partner had the  final say and could tell, he says, that the rankings of women were terribly skewed.  So he changed it. 

That’s what can go on.   In contrast, as the AACU says,

In too much of the discussion of participation, there is an implication that the activities to diversify STEM are being offered solely for the [benefit of] underrepresented groups. To the contrary, the disciplines have a major stake in opening up their canons and concepts to new perspectives. The society, the nation, and the planet need the multiplicity of approaches that diverse practitioners bring. No country can long afford to waste more than half of its talent pool.


**The merit of a lot of science work depends on factual claims about equipment and results which cannot be well assessed if names are omitted.  That was the  case in the general area in question.

And thanks to NFAH, a reader, who alerted us to the issues.  I apologize for perhaps not being as cautious as you.

Creepy Baby Gear Competition

The gauntlet has been thrown down. We are now officially having a Creepy Baby Gear Competition. (Except that Mr. Jender cannot play. He will win in an instant.) Please leave your entries in comments and/or send photos by way of the contact feature. (can you do that? I think you can. Someone tell me otherwise if you can’t.) For now, here is my entry. I call it the wear-your-recently-dead-baby:


Rita Levi-Montalcini

is an amazing woman.

Here we see her celebrating on the occasion of becoming the first Nobel Prize-Winner to reach 100. The neuroscientist won the prize for her work on Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), with which she’s dosed herself for some time. Others suspect this may be part of the reason for not only her longevity but her amazing vigour. She says her mind is sharper than ever “because it has been enriched by so many experiences”. Levi-Montalcini still works every day, dividing her time between the European Brain research Institute, which she founded and a foundation to help African women with a facility for science. If by some chance your jaw isn’t yet dropping to the floor in admiration, consider how she got her start– fighting both anti-Semitism and sexism in early 20th century Italy (her father didn’t want her to go to medical school, and Mussolini fired her under his anti-Semitic race purity laws). She did research in her bedroom and in a makeshift farmhouse laboratory during WWII. More recently, as an Italian senator-for-life she’s “earned the wrath of the right-wing”.

And here’s a wonderful line from a woman turning 100: “It’s not enough what I did in the past — there is also the future.”

For more see here and here. (Thanks, Jender-Parents!)