What would you have done?

Imagine the scene:

You are at a very formal dinner that a foundation has organized to present its medal of honor to a very distinguished scientist.  You are also sitting next to a quite distinguished scientist, X, on your left.  And on X’s left is a young woman who, as it turns out, is in Chemistry at a quite good university.  And you, mistakenly taking the situation for a reasonably friendly one, mention the NSF Advance program for advancing women in science.  The conversation then goes:

She:  my university has one.

Me:  o, do you interact with it much.

She:  no, I think the best thing to do is for women to ignore any discrimination.  I really don’t think we should be creating special clubs for women.  That’s what creates the problems.

Me:  but universities are full of special clubs for men.

Distinguished scientist:  well, that used to be so.  In the 1970’s.

She:  anecdotes about her social skills.

Me:  Look, this really isn’t about personal anecdotes.  One just has to look at the statistics.  The last time I looked the percentage of female full professors in physics was 4%

She:  Well, maybe they just didn’t want to become full professors.


This was not in fact the end of the encounter.  I felt flummoxed,  however.  Do tell me, WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE?  We were not just having a tete a tete; I had to lean over X to speak to her.  And I basically gave up.

Somehow we fairly quickly turned to philosophy and the distinguished scientist had read about Colorado, so we moved on to easier topics.


21 thoughts on “What would you have done?

  1. For what it’s worth, I’ve encountered this sort of attitude before from women in science. My guess is that many of the discussions concerning gender discrimination (including implicit bias, etc.) that people in philosophy (not to mention other humanities and social science disciplines) have been engaging with for quite a while now, have not quite made their way to (at least some) science departments.

  2. Early on in the conversation the Chemistry student said that she was already aware of the NSF scheme, and had chosen to decline taking advantage of it. AJJ, may I ask: is there anything she could have said to you, consistent with her sticking to that choice, which would have satisfied you? I personally would err on the side of respecting the autonomy of the Chemistry student here — even if I think she had made a bad choice, and had made it for the wrong reasons — after having provided what I think are good reasons and the relevant evidence.

  3. My previous university had an NSF Advance. During the period of the award, they managed to shrink the pay gap between men and women in STEM subjects in the school of Arts and Sciences and the school of Engineering. In contrast, in the school of Medicine (where I was based), the male-female pay gap grew during that same period.

    How do you say “Even worse than the engineers” in Latin” That could be the medical school’s new motto…

  4. When you said “universities are full of special clubs for men,” I take it you meant it as a joking reference to, say, Physics Departments and the like, right? It could be that your interlocutors didn’t get the joke, and then became defensive about their discipline (the sciences). I can imagine situations in which a feminist’s desire to defend her discipline is stronger than her desire to establish her cross-disciplinary bona fides with another feminist, especially when you’re talking about a scientist interacting with a humanist.

  5. Oh dear, I really must apologize for assuming that the Chemist was a student, as I did in my above post. Yikes.

  6. I think that if she had just said that she didn’t want to be part of the program, I would not have been dismayed. But notice that she gave a reason. She said in effect that the Advance Program is creating the problems women have in science. That’s a special case of claiming that it’s feminism that’s creating the problems women have, and it’s also very close to claiming that civil rights activists are the real racists. IT’s beyond me to sympathize with that.

    When my birth family do this sort of thing, I just get out of the discussion as quickly as possible, even when they’re being racist. I’ve felt really bad about the last part, but now I’m wondering if really any good comes from disagreeing.

    It’s also the case that I am (or rather was) in both philoophy and electrical and computer engineering, that I still an directer of a center for neuro-engineering and cognitive science. So I’m really not exactly an outsider.

  7. Anon feminist philosopher, you may be especially insightful. I now think she probably is a student. At the time of the introductions she didn’t say she was, which given the suppositions at the gathering was misleading. Had I know she was a student, I probably would have just said something very vague.

  8. People generally “get” where one is coming from. I suspect that she fully understood your point.

    It’s sometimes possible to get young people to change their worldview through careful, patient arguing, but it’s almost impossible with adults. With adults, you can produce small changes within a shared worldview or paradigm, but in this case, it seems that that shared worldview or paradigm wasn’t present, so, as Grace Paley says, “never argue when there’s a genuine disagreement”.

    At least not with a fellow adult.

  9. AJJ, I agree with you that the Chemist was wrong in claiming that the Advance Program is the cause of problems for women in science. But I think it a bit of a stretch to say that it’s very close to saying that civil rights activists are the real racists. I think it is more plausibly similar to saying that affirmative action programs cause problems for ethnic minorities (a claim I also disagree with), but that’s a much weaker claim — in particular, it’s consistent with holding that racism is a massive, urgent problem. So too here, the Chemist may well agree that institutional sexism is rife and pressing. So I don’t think you’re implicitly being asked to sympathize with sexism apologia. Rather, it is (IMHO!) a disagreement about what is the right course of action.

  10. I can understand what she was saying but disagree.

    I think that many attempts to help women DO backfire. When, e.g. it’s assumed that women can’t/won’t play the rough and tumble philosophy game so aggression is discouraged and “civility” mandated. Programs that provide material benefits to women are another thing.

    The difference is that playing the aggression game is a matter of my choice: no one is stopping me. But getting material benefits, e.g. grants, post-docs or whatever is a matter of other people’s choices, and those choices are strongly influenced by implicit bias. So we need programs to counteract and ameliorate the fact of implicit bias, in order to level the playing field.

  11. No, but I suspect that you’d be professionally identified first as a philosopher, albeit one with impressive cross-disciplinary reach. I also know from experience that folks in the sciences tend to be less activist and more conservative on lots of these issues for whatever reason. That could be at work as well.

  12. When this happens, I usually drown my audience with studies about all sorts of aspects of discrimination (in conversation, in class, in article reviews, in negociation, in resumé evaluations, etc.). I feel obnoxious, but it is efficient. After 5-10mn of this treatment, it seems at best naive to ignore the problem.

    I would also try to manage an honorable escape route for the student you’re talking about, though.

  13. Thanks for all the comments! SW: great quote.

    I think next time I think I’ll just say I’d be interested in hearing why she thinks that, and hope that it is clear that then would not have been the time to explain.

  14. Maybe Chemist resented having her gender noticed and wanted to be seen as a hot shot who couldn’t possibly need assistance from the NSF program. So she dissed the program to express her displeasure. I do think there is a bit of an issue about addressing someone’s atypical gender or race without being invited to. If you meet a black chemist, are you going to mention a program designed to promote black people in STEM fields? Probably not. Moving on to the substance of what she said, well, that could be a pride issue too. I have a niece who’s a stellar chemistry major and regularly does better than males around her. I do think she might be touchy about NSF Advance being necessary, as opposed to people like her being good enough to dominate without any help. So the advice is–recognize the delicacy of the subject. Possibly switch to how rubbery the chicken is or how bad the vegetarian option.

  15. I don’t know how old your interlocutor was – but I think there is an age thing. It all seems fine and dandy and equal, and then at some point it hits you in the face that it is NOT AT ALL equal. Maybe she’s not hit that point yet.
    I usually start telling people about the CV studies. [I.e. same CV – male/female name – different outcome]. I usually have to explain it three times: First response: probably the male had more publications. I: it was the same CV. Second response: but the male must have had more experience. I: it was the same CV. third response: [incredulous]: the exact same CV??. I: yes, only the name was difference. […] [shocked silence].
    I think if I get that across in such a conversation – then it is one step achieved.

  16. Wahine1, great idea. I think the situation wasn’t apt for this, which would Ihave been another reason for my quitting earlier.

    I’ve noticed that a number of people have hypotheses about her motives, attitudes, or whatever. It might be important to note that we were in Houston, and so in a state with a lot of extremely conservative people. In addition, her school is very conservative. I’ve heard a similar line all too often here: you get what you deserve; discrimination is hardly real and is mostly appealed to as an excuse, if a group of people don’t get something, that’s because they don’t really want it or aren’t willing to work for it.

    I don’t know that that is where she was coming from, but it is another possible perspective. After all, Texas is one of the states where the very popular governor refused the fed support that would have enabled millions more to have health insurance.

    Now I will confess I said one more thing, which I thought wasn’t a bad thing at all, but apparently she fumed through the rest of the dinner and really attacked me after dinner for it. Then she went to my husband – also arguably a distinguished scientist – and told him I wasn’t nice to her.

    This is my idea of a big failure.

  17. Does anyone know where I could find the CV study that wahine1 mentions? I’ve never heard of this and would love to check it out.

  18. I don’t have any particular advice, but I am not surprised by this interaction, especially since your interlocutor was a grad student. In my experience interacting with women philosophers, I’ve found that early-stage women philosophers are much less likely to think there is systematic sexism in the discipline. Late-stage Phd women and early-career women in philosophy are, in my experience, much more aware about the sexism that exists.

    These days (some) women enjoy a pretty egalitarian (or at least, superficially egalitarian) upbringing and undergrad education. Coming up in the 90s and 00s, I know I did (at least superficially). They just can’t *believe* how bad it is in philosophy, until they experience it for themselves.

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