Sexist Logorrhea

Apparently, a septuagenarian Nobel laureate thinks women are a distraction in the lab and cry a lot; calls for gender-segregated labs. The Internet erupts.

Whatever. I am actually relieved every time something like this happens. I am relieved that occasionally someone is actually stupid enough to say out loud what many think and act according to anyway.

Over the past several years, I have been a witness of pretty serious discrimination of other women by people considerably younger than Hunt. These men would fight you to the death if you even hinted that they were sexist because of course they don’t think they are; yet, their actions speak differently.

  • We have enough women,” said in earnest by a colleague in a faculty meeting discussing hiring. Women make <20% of faculty.
  • L is not a real candidate,” said by a colleague about a female candidate. The colleague and I were on the recruitment  committee together, I know we ranked all candidates, top 20 were all stellar, L was ranked 3, and we interviewed 5. She is not a diversity candidate, she’s a highly qualified candidate who also happens to be female.
  • A few years back, some colleagues and I went through serious diversity training in preparation for serving on the faculty recruitment committee. I remember finding the training illuminating. That’s where I first found out about how women are expected to act communal and men agentic, and how women are penalized if they act insufficiently communal. I saw the examples of recommendation letters and the difference in the language people use for men and women, how letters for women always veer towards too personal, with comparatively less focus on achievement, excellence, competence, and with different adjectives used for women and men. The male colleagues went through the motions and, when it was all done, said it was all pointless bullshit and a waste of time. We all saw examples of those letters of recommendation; they completely shook my world, but apparently did nothing for my male colleagues. You truly can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.
  • At the university level, we reviewed three candidates from the same general field (different subfields) coming up for tenure. If you just looked at the number of publications and quality of journals where they appeared, the number of  citations, the number of grants, the woman was the best of the lot. But if you looked at external evaluation letters, you’d be appalled by the language. According to the letters, the two men were superstars in the making (not made yet, with writers bending over backwards to attribute lack of citations to the fact that the candidate is a visionary), while the woman’s achievement were downplayed, with statements to the effect that she must have come up with some of her most heavily cited findings by accident! It was disgusting. I read about these instances happening, but it was blatant and real and clear as day. These letters then led to the committee dissecting the woman’s record with a scalpel and a fair bit of skepticism; everything worthwhile she did had to be qualified, while the men were fine just on potential and the letters.  (You bet I was vocal about it.)
  • Being a member of the program committee for a conference in my field, it routinely happens that there are no women suggested for invited talks unless I suggest some. It’s amazing how I can think of 3-4 women easily, and the other 15 dudes together cannot think of single one.

That is not to say that there aren’t men who really and truly are the champions of women. They exist (thank you, guys!), but are definitely a minority. For instance, I have the good fortune that some of my department colleagues, including the chair, are really genuinely supportive of women,  really put their money where their mouth is: they advise female students and actively support female colleagues. However, I would say that less than 20% of men in my department are true diversity champions, who believe a diverse workplace is a better place for everyone. The rest, a vast majority, make allowances for exceptional specific women (“Of course, you are awesome! You are much better than other women!”) but do not see why there is a need for diversity; science is fine just the way it is! They consider all our “hysteria” about women in science to be tiresome political bullshit that has to be catered to when writing about broader impacts in NSF proposals. They will often say things such as “We hire the best candidate, not an affirmative action candidate!” To everyone who ever said that I want to say the following: it sounds like you have no freakin’ clue how it is to objectively evaluate candidates for anything very competitive. There are always MANY highly qualified candidates, any one of them would be a good choice. Now the question is how to pick 1 or some other small number from among these uniformly excellent men and women. I am disgusted to see that people think all of these few spots belong (!) to “real candidates,” i.e., men. The fact a woman is just as good as any of them still does not make her a real candidate in the eyes of some, even fairly junior colleagues with professional wives and daughters.

So I don’t understand the outrage that another sexist a$$hole suffers from the foot-in-mouth disease. Because, really, it’s not a big surprise. It’s just how things are.

In my experience, many men in the physical sciences, even among those who think very highly of their own enlightenment, don’t really think that science needs more diversity, but rather that’s it’s simply something women want and are very loud and annoying about and should be accommodated on occasion to stop the whining (or to snatch the rarely seen unicorn-female-superstar-real-candidate).  They consider all efforts to promote women as a nuisance that gets in the way of doing science as they are used to. My European colleagues can be a special brand of offender here, as they often see (and speak of) the quest for promotion of women as an American problem and not something relevant to where they live and work (this from a colleague who works on a large team of about 50, with a single woman, a student). It is very hard to change people’s minds when they think they are blind to sexism and that all they see is merit. Trying to convince them that much of the merit is really in the eye of the beholder would be positively quixotic.


  1. On the other side of the coin is the dude who won’t stop reminding everyone that he is strongly supportive of diversity in hiring and brings it up every other second, and practically knocks down everyone in his way (women and men, white and of color, heteronormative and otherwise, etc.) to run in front of the nearest camera so that he can be photographed supporting diversity.

    Dude, you want to make a difference? Then shut up, stop straining your shoulder to pat yourself on the back, stop mugging for the camera, read some applicant files, and do the work of compiling a list of arguments for diverse candidates. That’s how you make diversity happen.

    It doesn’t help when that guy also clearly has “a type” of woman that he likes to flirt with, and does so while introducing them as seminar speakers, or having dinner with the speakers afterward. Because he is so supportive of women, you see.

  2. I am a female assistant professor, and in my department, there is a lot of lip-service that is paid to diversity. The department chair and senior faculty and administrators are constantly talking about how we need women, how achievements of women should be celebrated, and on and on and on. If you listen to all this talk, you would think we are just about to hire a whole army of brilliant women belonging to minority groups who will elevate the profile of our department and put us on the world stage, while inspiring and nurturing our undergrads and grads at the same time.

    But in my five years in the department I have never seen anything ever happen. We interview a lot of women candidates, but few offers are ever made to women (and the ones that we make offers to have offers from super top schools). We talk a lot about work-life balance, but women faculty with small children are given crappy teaching schedules year after year after year, and the chair apparently can’t do anything about it. There are a hundred thousand workshops on diversity that women faculty has to go to, but at the end of the day nothing comes out of it.

    At this point, I wish people in my department would just stop talking about this issue. Everyone just wants to talk, and no one wants to actually do anything beyond organizing yet another “diversity” or “work-life balance” workshop which would count towards their NSF “broader impact”. I guess all this talk makes people feel virtuous, and makes them feel like they are doing something, but really, there is a certain amount of disingenuity in the whole process that just sickens me.

    Sorry if this was a long and negative rant!

  3. I was just having this conversation with one of my colleagues. Everyone assumes that it is generational and all the offenders will retire in a few years. But there are plenty of young jerks who keep quiet and are more subtle in their discrimination.

    My personal (un)favorite: the female candidate who is already a PI on an NSF award, but she must not have written it herself so let’s not consider her, and the male candidate who is an up-and-coming superstar who just hasn’t had time to publish anything yet he’s coming up so fast, omg let’s snatch him up right away!

  4. Another old dude tells it like what the younger dudes are really thinking, but cunning enough not to say. Sexism in math is alive and well. -s

  5. Yeah, I used to be the associate vice provost for faculty equity and diversity at a large research university, and can affirm your observation of the person being unaffected by diversity training. What I used to say was that you could lead a horse to water but you just can’t drown some of them.

  6. Oh, this is so depressing… I use to tell students that being female is an advantage these days, as everyone is looking to increase diversity. Than I got to serve on search committees and promotion committees and realized that people just say these things (and even worse, sometimes they think they mean it), but the opposite is true. Just like you said – women’s accomplishments get dissected and questioned and qualified, while men are bone fide geniuses and visionaries that publish “important” papers. It is insidious. You cannot win, even if you have an awesome record, because some asshole is likely to downplay it in the letter. It happens over and over… One of many examples: we had a female faculty candidate who had published a lot of work that involved very difficult theoretical calculations. The letters called her a “robot” (paraphrasing here) and, while they could not deny her incredible technical skills, questioned whether she would have “vision” as a faculty. Seriously?!? Sure, she has done a lot, but will she be able to continue that? Everyone on the committee bought into this. If it is in the letter, it is gospel. Another example: we had a female faculty candidate who was self-conscious and nervous and rambled through her talk. Everyone agreed that we cannot possibly hire her because her talk sucked (although it did suck, it was not really any worse than most talks). Instead, everyone loved a candidate who gave a talk that was completely disorganized and incomprehensible (the guy was clearly somewhere on the autistic spectrum, which men tend to confuse with brilliance). I could go on and on – it is sickening.

  7. So, there was an experiment done a while back where identical resumes were given different names, some “white sounding” and some “black sounding.” And the “white” candidates typically got called for interviews, even though the resumes were identical. Perhaps qualifications should be reviewed in such a way that the candidates’ names/genders are obscured. Sounds like a good experiment for the social science dept. 😉

  8. Erica, this has indeed been done. After reviewing identical resumes under the names of John and Jennifer, even women thought that John was more qualified and deserved a higher salary. Seriously depressing.

  9. Erica, here is the paper that Orangelilly mentioned.

    This is the citation (man, I hate the bio format with year of publication buried in the middle of the citation)

    Moss-Racusin, C.A., J.F. Dovidio, V.L. Brescoll, M.J. Graham, and J. Handelsman. 2012. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109(41): 16474-16479.

    Here is also a PDF from Jo Handelsman’s research website.

  10. Thanks for a post on an important issue. I agree that some colleagues choose not to learn anything from diversity training, but I think they can be helpful. When I took the the unconscious bias training and did the exercise, I was pretty appalled by my own results. That plus the data in Handelsman’s paper really made it clear to me how important it is to do things like have set criteria BEFORE application review starts and use them consistently throughout, and also to really reduce the reliance on letters.

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