Diversity? Who needs your diversity, we already know we are the smartest people in the room.

I am a member of an exclusive club. We, in our club, decide who the smartest people in the world are. The club, naturally, only contains white women who are below 5 foot 3 inches in height; 1.61 meters for you Europeans out there. I’d like you all to take a special note of me including the metric and the Imperial as this shows I am not biased!

This exclusive short, smart, white women’s club is undeniably in the best position to decide who is the smartest among all of the people in the world because we members of the club all think alike! Don’t all smart people think alike? We are the judge of that. Did I mention we are all heterosexual too? This is especially important because it ensures that we all have similar desires and backgrounds. That is how we know we are qualified to decide who is smart. We know we are smart – of course we are smart because we are short, white, heterosexual women who are well known to be the smartest among all of the people who ever lived. Largely because we are the only ones who have been vetted using our specially developed what-it-means-to-be-smart criteria.

In the past we didn’t have to justify why were smarter than everyone else. This was better; we were looked up to and no one questioned us. Now we have to provide evidence so we’ve come up with these criteria. What are they, you ask? Anything that shows that short, white, heterosexual women are smarter than everyone else, of course. We work with evidence all day long, so we understand evidence better than anyone who is tall or male or not heterosexual.

Why are you asking me to justify this again? I am smart; you are not. I am also taller than most of the people in my exclusive club because I am 5 foot 3 inches. They all look up to me! I am at the top, they all know I am the smartest too. Why? Because I said so and I am the tallest. It is a well-known fact that the taller women in the short, white, heterosexual women’s club are the smartest. I look at evidence all day long, I remind you, so I know what it is to be smart.

We let a few taller people into this club a few years ago and they just didn’t do as well. They received far fewer accolades. Not as many were awarded prizes from the short, heterosexual, white all women panels comprised of members of the short, white, heterosexual women’s club. When we judged them they simply weren’t as smart, these tall women. We gave them every chance. It was exhausting for us; we had to stand on boxes and wear platform shoes just to make them feel comfortable. I mean there are more of us than there are of them in the club – why do we want to make them feel comfortable? They can go feel comfortable somewhere else, where people are taller and are not very smart.

I am sure that those of you who are not short, white, heterosexual and a woman don’t understand how much effort it is to prove we are smarter than everyone else. We have our own metrics, but people are starting to call those into question. This is outrageous – this is what dumb people do to try to join our club. It would only dilute us and teach us how to think differently.

Thinking differently, quite simply, is not what intellectually curious people do. We stick to our own dogma and fight off any changes. Why? Because we already know we are the smartest people in the room.

Posted in sexism, women in science | Tagged , | Comments Off on Diversity? Who needs your diversity, we already know we are the smartest people in the room.

On Serena (not the Tennis player) and the Smokies. Read the book, avoid the film.

“Read this book, you’ll love it. It’s set in Appalachia.”

This was what my reading guru said as she handed it to me over the summer.

I am from Appalachia. Technically, like a large proportion of American kids my age, I grew up in a suburb. I did however spend 10+ years living and working in the mountains and my kin are from there so I’m going to claim cultural rights.

I was excited about the book, writing about Appalachian culture is a new(ish) thing according to some of my pals who are wiser about literature and poetry than I. Apparently, just in the last 20 years or so books about the lives and souls of hillbillies are becoming more of a *thing*, rather than being solely portrayed as evil stalkers, stupid comedy-relief fools, or the bible-quoting sure-shots in most US war movies. Appalachian culture is unique and somewhat different from other cultures in the Southern US. For one, most people’s ancestors from that part of the South fought for the Union not for the Confederacy. If you go there, especially straight after spending a week in Richmond or Atlanta, you can feel the difference. People talk funny. They sound like me, or they sound like what I used to sound like before I ended up with some redneck, mid-Atlantic weird mutt of an accent.

The book was Serena, by Ron Rash, who clearly knows his Appalachian history. The book, on the surface, is about logging. Rich Yankees (of course) come and rape the land while poor Appalachian folks cut the trees, which is reasonably historically accurate. It is also set in the late 1920’s, after the Crash, when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was being set up there is some logger/enviro tension: a tension that still exists in those parts today. Pro Tip: (in case you get confused like me): Smoky is the range, Smokey is the bear.

I thought the book started pretty slow, but then I know the scene. Rash’s description of the different types of folk up thar in them mountains is brilliant. Of course they are stereotypes, but they are well done stereotypes and it sets a nice backdrop.

Serena (not an Appalachian) shows up, the new wife of the lumber company owner – George Pemberton. She is a bad ass. She can do all the things that gentle women aren’t supposed to be able to do – shoot, chop, eyeball a good straight Tulip Poplar or Hickory for felling. She’s also a bona fide bitch. I think I’m not giving away any spoilers here as you figure this out pretty fast if you read it. While is a female trope, it’s a trope done well. Serena has agency and makes decisions. Serena is tough and strong and also appalling. She is also much, much tougher than her husband George. The other central female central character is also pretty tough, just a different kind of tough than Serena. She’s well described, there are some tough-ass women in Appalachia, I’m related to a whole mess of them.

I liked the book, I didn’t love the book, but I was won around by the book. I am, however, Appalachia-style judgemental about such things so I was never going to love it (I prefer Charles Frazier, but to each her own).

After finishing the book, I decided to watch ‘Serena’ the movie. As with many movies based on books, it’s nothing like the book. I am not a snob about such things. Sometimes movies are better than the book (The Bourne films, trust me), but ‘Serena’ the movie was far, far worse than ‘Serena’ the book.

All of the book’s beauty was boiled away. Watching it, you kept tirelessly thinking it might come back, but it is the hope that kills you. The subtlety of the different Appalachian characters were either absent or so smashed up into a single character they lost any nuance. The mountain folk turned back into the standard-boring Southern stereotypes. Worse and I think so much worse I am going to be shouty… ALL OF THE WOMEN LOST THEIR POWER/AGENCY. They went from tough (yet flawed) women to crazy (think Mrs. Rochester) or just full on whimpy. All of their tough-ass characteristics were given to the male characters and the women, well they had to be entirely *saved* by the boys. In order to make them a bit more exciting than beige wall paper there were a few gratuitous sex scenes added. There were also couple of bat-shit crazy wailing scenes to show lament and to really just seal in that *women are there to be rescued or breed* stereotype.

I’m starting to get more than a little sick of this. Film makers still seem all too eager to revert back to the *women are there to be looked at* stereotypes, even when they have a better starting point from the original source. I know this has gone on in literature since time immemorial but really, can we just stop. Thankfully, Reese Witherspoon is getting sick of this too, so at least some films are getting better about turning women into 1950s stereotypes randomly. Hopefully, the next time Ron Rash has a book he wants to turn into a movie, he’ll run straight toward Pacific Standard productions, so Hollywood will stop turning his women into wimps.

Posted in Hollywood women, Serena the book, women in films | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on On Serena (not the Tennis player) and the Smokies. Read the book, avoid the film.

On double standards – in Tennis and otherwise

I know next to nothing about the official rules of Tennis. I do, however, know a bit about double standards.

Serena

Societally, women are often expected to operate at a different standard to men. Usually, it is a higher standard. Not always of course, we still have the tropes about *women drivers* where women are often expected to be worse than men at handling heavy motorised equipment. Why is beyond me, anyone who has ever ridden in a vehicle with me vs. my late brother could easily tell you I was the better driver – of course David driving skills didn’t provide a particularly high bar to jump over.

This double standard this is not universally adopted, not all people think this. But as a society we still largely expect women to be more ‘moral’ or at least a bit better behaved. Women are sluts when they sleep around, but men are sowing their oats. Women are manipulative if they try to influence an outcome, while men are persuasive if they do. Women are *bitchy* where men are *assertive*. The list goes on and on and on and on.

One of the reasons I believe this double standard is so persistent is that most people don’t want to believe it actually exists. So much so that when folks call double standards out, they are often vehemently attacked. They are hysterical, snowflakes, blind, trying to play the ‘gender’-card (I don’t know about you, but I never got one of these) or told “No, that’s not sexist because I am not sexist!” News flash: you can say sexist things and not be a full-on 100% full-time card-carrying sexist. Just like you can say racist things and not be a Neo-Nazi.

Rather embarrassingly, I am surprised at how often I default to this standard double-standard narrative in my thoughts. I don’t mean to. I am, of course, horrified at myself once I catch myself. I am even more mortified if someone else has to flag this up for me and let me know I am being sexist. If you’ve ever experienced this, it’s shamefully, awful. It makes you want to put a bag over you head and start abjectly apologising to every one you meet for the next 6 days. It is also really hard to admit, when someone flags it. My first response is almost invariably, ‘No, I’m not!” I mostly go all double standard with women I don’t personally know. Women who show up in the news. Sometimes even women who stand up and say ‘this is sexist’. Even though I have done this myself, it is so much easier to think ‘No, it’s not’ and to spend a whole lot of time trying to justify why you aren’t sexist.

Case in point. My first response to watching the recent Serena Williams kerfuffle was to think. ‘Is that really sexist? She was behaving pretty badly.’ I know pretty much nothing about Tennis. So with the magic of the internet, I read about the rules of Tennis violations in a match. There are quite a lot of them, but here is the rub, there is no consistent way about how the rules are applied. As a referee, you can either throw the book at the player or not. It is, like much sport and peer-review in academia, down to the discretion of the referee.

These are breeding-ground situations for decisions to be heavily weighted by unconscious bias and the application of double standards. These at-your-discretion-situations are where unconscious bias most often raises its ugly head. These are the exact conditions under which is imperative we are more conscious of unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is so pervasive because it is so much easier to say ‘No it isn’t sexist’ when quite possible it is. It may not be *meant* to be sexist, but this is the unconscious part.

Personally, where I would like to see our society get to is when someone says ‘Hey, that’s sexist’ our first reaction not to be immediate denial, but rather ‘Maybe it is?’, because 9 times out of 10, there is some truth in it. Women are often held to different standards than men, this is ingrained in so many parts of our society – from films to boardrooms.

After some reflection and education about the application of sanctions to disobeying the rather extensive rules of Tennis, I can see what Serena Williams means and I think she is being subjected to a double standard. Serena gets the book thrown at her, while many a male player is just warned (yes, I know there are exceptions). It is worth reading Billie Jean King on the topic if you know as little about Tennis as I do. Regardless whether you agree with Serena Williams or Billie Jean King or not, I think we should start striving to listen to accusations of sexism rather than just dismissing them outright.

Posted in double standards, sexism | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

On quotas in Academia – do we need them?

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As a graduate student I was asked to participate in a `women in science’ group. I refused. I was an old(er) grad student compared to my cohort, my goal was to get in and get out as fast as practically possible, so that I could be gainfully employed. I’d spent years working very low-paying jobs and I was over it, anything optional that was going to delay me from finishing my PhD quickly, I wasn’t going to do. I also thought all of the feminism of my mother’s generation had acheived the goal, that the issues were over. I grew up at a time when `girls didn’t really study physics’. You could study physics, it wasn’t barred to you as a girl, but people thought girls were pretty weird if they studied physics and it wasn’t exactly encouraged. I thought all that was over. I was 32, not 15 and the world had changed, everyone knew that girls could do anything a boy could do. I believed in the `trickle down’ theory of academic diversity, as more women gained entry, the academy would just naturally balance out.

I was an idiot. I should have known better by simple observation. I was naive and I wasn’t even that youthful, so I can’t even use the ‘lack-of-experience’ card.

When I started my PhD, there were two female full Professors, out of a Department of around 40. There were a few other womn instructors, but no assistant or associate professors on the tenure track. There were a few new faculty hires during my time as a graduate student and not a single one was female. During one of my first (physics) conferences in Toronto – I still remember that strange feeling of walking into reception and looking out among the sea of scientists thinking ‘Am I the only woman here?’. Around 15 years ago, I moved to the UK to take up my post-doc, there were more women at my new institution – post-docs and graduate students mostly- but, again, only two senior women out of 50 senior staff and no one in between.

Initally, this very obvious lack of other women in the room did not unduly suprise me. I’d worked in all sorts of male-dominated environments – many of which were fantastically supportive of women – both the companies and the colleagues (I’m looking at you Wildwater, Ltd , Chattooga). At that early career stage, I was just getting on with my research and, being independently funded, I was only really answerable to my funders and my own production. I have slowly realized over the last 15 or so years that the reason why I didn’t like women in science clubs is because I don’t want these organizations to exist simply because I DON’T WANT THIS TO BE AN ISSUE. I want to believe in a meritocracy where everyone is known professionally, for what they do, not for what gender, race or sexual orientation they are. This mythological world should exist – and I really want it to exist – but this isn’t where we are – and I am not sure we are even close to this ideal reality.

Now, I am (perhaps) less of an idiot. What is clear more than ever to me now, is that we are not going acheive equality by patiently waiting. There are some slow changes happening. Academia talks about these issues a lot more than they used to. We are at least trying to pay attention to unconscious bias and these are all good things. But with these good things also comes an awful lot of backlash (is Athena Swan really working?) and in many cases even with a fair start, institutions revert to being male dominated – Computer programming used to be `women’s work’, now it is a male-dominated field.

How long do are women meant to wait for equality to just naturally arise? I recently heard an excellent discussion with Helen Lewis and Polly Toynbee. At one stage in the discussion Lewis was talking about her research on suffregettes and Toynbee asked her what she thought about the suggestion made by some (not by Ms Toynbee herself) that the more militant suffragettes really might have gone too far because women would have gotten the vote anyway. Helen Lewis’ response? “That’s like saying they would have gotten the vote if they had just asked nicely.” When in reality the proposal for women’s suffrage had been tabled by governments year after year and was quite controversial. There were plenty of men and women who thought that women shouldn’t be voting. Despite years of organization, lobbying and peaceful demonstration in The Equal Rights Amendment in the US HAS NEVER BEEN RATIFIED, even though it has be re-introduced every year since 1982, still no dice. Why has something so simple as a bill – which only wants to ensure that the other 51% of the population in the US is guaranteed equality under the law – never been passed? This just seems absurd to me, democracy is supposed to be about equal rights for all and why wouldn’t any democrat (with a small d) want to support that?

So what is next, how do we fix the academy which is still largely failing when it comes to diversity. Does science need quotas?

I don’t know, but I do know this is where many of us who have been thinking about these issues stop short. There is not overwhelming evdience that quotas always work so well and there is also an inordinate amount of backlash from quotas, they remain highly controversial. I imagine I will even get some backlash for just mentioning this. Personally, I think quotas can be a force for good, they can sometimes force a change a culture; but then again I don’t want to discrimiate against anyone as we should all have `equality under the law’. Most female scientists I know want to be known for their science and they want to be able to compete in a fair environment, where you aren’t judged by your gender, but the reality is that often this is not the case – we are often not on a level playing field but rather are trying to forge up the hill while others are running on flat ground.

In reality, entry into and promotion within academia is often opaque and if we are truthful – quite subjective. It is difficult in academia, to decide who the *best* person is for an academic job. When a member of faculty is employed, they are generally hired for their research and their ability to run a research group. But research scientists (and most academics) are a broad church, so how do you compare them? Applicant X has 50 research papers, spread over a variety of journals and has raised 3 million in research funding. Applicant Y has 25 research papers in good solid technical journals and has raised 2.5 million in research funding. Applicant Z has 15 research papers all in high impact journals and has raised 250k in research funding. They all work in different fields. They could all fit in different niches in terms of teaching. Who do you hire? How do you decide? Neglecting for the moment that X,Y and Z might have had better *success* in publications, for instance, just because of their gender or race or if they worked for said famous person in the first place, how do you actually decide who is *better*? This, often times, is where unconscious bias comes into play, this is where the desire to hire ‘people like me’ can rule the day, reinforcing the academic mono-culture.

I feel uneasy about quotas, as I think many of us in academia do, but what is the alternative? Trickle down employment? What I do know, is that things are getting better for women in science (and other minorities in the field) at a glacial pace and doesn’t seem like it is ever going to change. I didn’t realize until quite recently that people had been saying to female students in the sciences since the 1970s that things would probably equal out in the next 30 years. It’s been almost 50 years and it’s still not leveling out, perhaps we need some kind of shock to the system. Perhaps we need to force the change. Were I still younger maybe I could just ask nicely for some fairness. Now that I am older, I can see why the suffragettes were burning buildings down.

Posted in Bias, Unconscious bias, women in science | Comments Off on On quotas in Academia – do we need them?

On ‘lower impact’ publishing – it’s better than you might think.

Over the course of the last two or so years, I have had a number of personal issues to deal with. Family illnesses, the sudden death of my older brother and some other things (I will spare you the gory details). Fortunately for me, my scientific research kept going. Why? Because I had an absolutely fantastic research group who worked hard and stayed in touch with me during my absences. During all of this the group had 2 PhD and 4 MSc students finish and we managed to publish 13 papers since 2016. Hoorah.

my group
Me with my research group in November 2016.

One of the choices I made during this time was to stop submitting things to high impact factor (or top-tier) journals. Why? For speed and for my sanity. I have nothing against top-tier journals, they serve their purpose. I have several publications in these journals which I am proud of. However, top-tier journals are not the only journals out there and they are not necessarily the most well read in a particular research area.

One of my favourite journals is The Journal of Chemical Physics. This is an excellent physics journal, which has a lower impact factor than, for instance, Nature Physics, but to quote one of my collaborators – ‘people read the shit out of that journal’. My experience with J. Chem. Phys. is that they are fair, fast and on the whole you get very reasonable reviewers. The editors are exemplary and the accepted publication production process is streamlined and easy. I have a bunch of fairly well-cited papers in this journal and I have read a number of damn fine papers in this journal. Word on the street is that you must have good technical chops to get published in J. Chem. Phys. If you ask me, this is what good science is about.

However, there are some among my peers who don’t think publishing in lower impact journals is useful. In fact, they think quite the contrary, that it shows your research isn’t *good enough* to be accepted to a *better* (meaning higher impact) journal. To some scientists and importantly to some people who are in a positions of power to decide who is a good scientist, only the top-tier journals are *good*. If you don’t publish in them enough – as a corresponding or first author – than your research must not be as good. I am not going to name any names but I am sure quite a lot of people think this, because I have heard quite a lot of people say it. It is, quite simply, a ridiculous, yet pervasive myth. There are a number of reasons why some research is not published in top-tier journals rather than just because it isn’t *good enough*. A given researcher may not have many publications in a top-tier journal because they haven’t submitted them there. Perhaps, like me, they are in a hurry to get something out and don’t want to spend the 8 months it takes to go back and forth between the reviewers and the editors – in my experience publication in top-tier journals takes about 100x as long. A given piece of work may have a better fit somewhere else, somewhere where it will have the shit read out of it . This does not mean the research (or the researcher) is not any good, it just means that piece of research is not in a top-tier journal. I, for one, have never decided NOT to cite an interesting piece of work because it is not in Nature or Science.

In the end, science has to stand the test of time, not the test of what journal you happened to get it into during your lifetime as a scientist. The truth is, none of us know what that future looks like – as much as we like to think we can predict where science will go next. In the future, it certainly won’t matter if our contribution was read in Nature or The Journal of Chemical Physics. It is the science, rather than the vehicle it is published in, that actually matters the most.

Posted in Impact Factor, scientific publishing, Uncategorized | 22 Comments

On harassment, the power differential and a modicum of hope

Anita Hill 1991 Testimony Senate

In 1991, I came down with a sudden stomach bug. As is common when I am too ill to think, all I could manage was planting myself in front of the television in an effort to keep myself mildly distracted from reality. Rarely do I have such precision in remembering my various illnesses, but I remember this day so particularly because I spent it watching Anita Hill testify about being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas. What I remember most about her testimony was precisely how calm Ms Hill was, she had nothing to gain by this and everything to loose. Absolutely everything. At least where I was from, people didn’t talk very much about sexual harassment and they certainly didn’t speak up about it very often in public. I watched it thinking Anita Hill was the bravest damn woman I had ever seen. I also watched it firmly believing that there was absolutely no way that man would get appointed; then he did. It was a close vote along party lines but one that was ultimately won by with the support of Southern Democrats.

Why I thought he wouldn’t get appointed then is beyond me now. I should have known he’d get appointed. Even though I was only 23 at the time and no ‘grown-up’ talked about it in public, it is not like I hadn’t seen and heard things of Weinsteinian proportions before. It is just that 30 years ago, most people knew better than to report it, officially anyway, because what would be the point? Usually all reporting would mean is that the victim’s suffering would be enhanced and the perpetrator would walk about with no consequence to speak of. I guess I naively thought but this is a Supreme Court appointment, surely they must believe Anita Hill – she has nothing to gain from this, the “adults in charge” must take this seriously. I was really wrong, and the Senate vote seemed to follow the logic of one Senate Judiciary committee member who didn’t think whatever Thomas had done was all that bad – or as he said ‘Is that it?’ They appointed Clarence Thomas and there, as a Justice on the Supreme Court, he still sits.

Two weeks ago the New York Times broke a story about Harvey Weinstein, which opened a watershed and the stories just kept on coming. Reading these stories is appalling and simultaneously depressing to me. It is an age old story, person in powerful position is an serial abuser, person in powerless position is frightened, horrified, trapped, guilty and feels (or more accurately knows) that the power differential is so great there is nothing they can do. They just have to suck it up.

And then to my inordinate surprise, Weinstein has been fired! This is different. People are still speaking out. This is new, I agree SE Cupp this feels different somehow.

At almost the same time as the Wienstein news broke, Science magazine released an article about David Marchant a BU professor – who bullied and harassed his staff in the antartic and has been doing so for years. He appears to have a particular focus on bullying women and there have now been several complaints. Notably, one woman didn’t report his behaviour until she had tenure for fear of the repercussions. Why? I have seen some folks on Twitter openly wonder; because, like the victims of Weinstein’s advances, there is a power differential. Big famous professor has power over your future, student/post-doc/technician in a position of weakness.

After hearing and indeed witnessing so many similar stories in my life, this made for depressing reading but I then I realised, this article is actually IN Science. It is being covered as a real news story after a build up of allegations against someone who has abused their power. This is different. This is not my fellow graduate students warning me not to be alone with Professor X in a room as in days of yore, this is in Science, for everyone to read.

Maybe, just maybe, we are beginning to shift towards a better, more safe future for everyone – where it is safe to speak out and the odds won’t always be against you.

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On taking a knee

When I was a teenager the 1980’s there was a spate of burning the Stars and Stripes in the US, as a protest to Ronald Reagan’s policies. Which particular policy is hard to remember as Ronnie had a whole heap of policies that weren’t exactly favorable to many people, especially to people that didn’t have a lot of money. Perhaps turning Old Glory into a pile of ash was focused on Reganomics and its core component of ‘trickle down theory’. A tenant an old friend of mine call ‘the rich pissing on the poor’.

What people may have forgotten is that the issue of flag burning went all the way to the Supreme Court – who ruled that flag burning was a reasonable form of protest and that people shouldn’t be jailed for it. People were pretty upset about this issue on both sides and Congress spent a whole lot of effort trying to pass a flag burning amendment to the Constitution (which never passed) to make it illegal. Personally I would rather Congress do things like attend to the Debt Ceiling and ensure that affordable health care be provided to all – but that’s just me.

In the US today, you can burn a flag if you want, but I don’t think people do it much any more – perhaps they got bored with it and Reagan is long gone, even if the lasting legacy of his policies (good and bad) are not. Now people are taking a knee during the US national anthem in protest, which is much less incendiary than burning a flag, following a simple,symbolic gesture by Colin Kaepernick – who says he’s doing because “[I’m] not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

That’s what taking a knee is about. As a side note, Kaepernick is not the African American athelete to protest the treatment of African Americans in the USA, in the 1960’s Muhammed Ali served jail time for refusing to go to Vietnam for the same reason.

Like myself, some people applaud ‘take a knee’. I think it is a sensible, non-violent, important protest and I think Kaepernick is right, I think the US does oppress people of color – whether overtly or covertly. A pretty large number of people disagree with this and believe that the national anthem is some kind of sacred thing and if you don’t stand (and put your right hand over your heart) that you are some kind of evil anti-Patriot. This includes our current president who seems to have a certain a penchant for fueling the fire. Personally I think to get this aerated about a song or a piece of cloth is ridiculous but this is just my opinion. More importantly, all the anger about our little national ditty in the US is swamping out the thing we need to be talking about.

We have a problem with racism in America. We have a massive, national problem, the statistics will show you this in a 5 minute Google search

NAACP – Criminal justice fact sheet ()
The Sentencing Project
The Do Something campaign
Time Magazine – The Great Racial Divide

and there are plenty more.

I am not saying this is our only problem in America, but it is an issue and it appears to be getting worse. We Americans are getting worse and worse about listening to one another. People don’t like to think they are oppressing anyone, so it must not be true, seems to be the attitude. And perhaps on a day to day basis it is not true of what most of us feel about people who are different. But how often do we check ourselves? How often do we listen to each other who have an opposite point of view? How often do we say instead of ‘ooh taking a knee is offensive’, ‘I don’t agree with this guy but what is he trying to say?’

I do not personally know what it feels like to be and African American, as a white woman this is an experience that I couldn’t possibly know much about. My only experience of this is when I had an African American boyfriend in East Tennessee and lordy did people stare at us – either with disapproval or with wonder – for doing something so simple as going to the grocery store. I didn’t know this happened, I didn’t know what it felt like. In reality I still don’t know what it is like as when I walked down a different aisle all that judgement magically went away.

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On Louise Richardson and the avoidance of homophobic teaching

Oxford Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson is causing quite a stir this week. For one, she gets paid a lot of money – which is not as much as footballers or bankers and less than her peers in the US. Prof. Richardson’s salary is within the ‘going rate’ for VCs at the moment and certainly isn’t at the top of the VC pay scale and it is in no way linked to high fees, she says, but is fairly standard for a VC of a big university. This hype about it, according to Richardson, comes from a ‘mendacious media’ and ‘tawdry politicians’ and has nothing to do with student fees, there are student fees because the government is subsidizing Universities less than they used to.

There are clearly two sides to this issue, Richadson believes her pay is fair while others think it is exorbitant to pay a VC this much when academic faculty are paid less and students are paying large yearly fees for university access. What do you think? Let’s discuss both positions.

And that is how you facilitate a discussion as a teacher. What do I think? I’m not going to tell you, it is irrelevant to this discussion, I am more interested in listening to what you think and hearing your arguments – pro and con. What I wouldn’t say, or rather shouldn’t say, as a teacher is ‘you are a bunch of snowflake whingers about this fee business and I think you should pay me extra just for the honor of having me as your tutor and oh and by the way I don’t like gay people’. (For the record, I don’t believe this. I have a healthy disdain for using the word ‘snowflake’ to be dismissive of people with real concerns and whether or not I like someone has nothing to do with their sexuality.)

I agree with Louise Richardson’s statement that:

“As teachers, we must model to our students how to respond to views they find objectionable, not to avoid them. We must be robust in defending free speech against those who wish to constrain it,”

We as teachers must absolutely defend free speech and we must absolutely teach our students to respond to views which they find objectionable and not avoid the tricky stuff. So far so good right?

But what is not OK as a tutor or teacher is expressing your personal bigoted (or non-bigoted) views to students in tutorials or lectures. I, honestly, cannot think of an example as to when this would ever be OK. Oxford spent a long time not letting women into many colleges at the University. Presumably when they did show up, if a tutor who told their new female tutee ‘I don’t think women are smart enough to be here’, Louise Richardson would have expected a first year undergraduate in a male-dominated University to just challenge them to enhance the academic discussion? Or maybe she would have told this new student – it’s up to you to figure out why smart people have views like that? It’s a bit ‘blame the victim’ if you ask me.

We are all entitled to our personal views, and holding these views shouldn’t bar us from employment, but as the The Oxford SU LGBTQ+ Campaign says:

“recognise that individuals are entitled to personal views and opinions, we see no way in which these are relevant to an academic context, and believe that the expression of such views has detrimental effects which go far beyond making students feel ‘uncomfortable’.

And this is the truth of it.

Defending free speech and facilitating difficult discussions is one thing, making students feel inferior and unwelcome is another. I am not sure what Prof. Richardson really meant, but her words certainly suggest that she is not willing to call out her staff for being bigoted towards their students. As one of her staff, if I did this I think that my employer, Oxford University, should call me out for it as it is not acceptable, professional behaviour from a teacher no matter how ‘smart’ I may or may not be. Being ostensibly intelligent does not mean you can behave like a bigot towards your students. Can you imagine someone reasonably suggesting ‘She says really racist things during lectures, but she’s a smart racist so this makes it OK’? Well I can, because when I grew up in the Southern US people did say things like this and substitute ‘homophobic’ for ‘racist’ and this is exactly what Richardson’s words sounded like to me.

Writing this post makes me entirely uncomfortable. I am employed by Oxford University but I feel it is rather important to say. I guess, in the end, I am just following my VC’s advice that if you see ideas that make you uncomfortable then it is up to you to challenge them.

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You only got it ’cause you’re a girl

unconscious bias

This week there was a fabulous article, by Alison Coil, on the bias against women in the sciences and why men don’t believe it exists. For ‘men’ you could just as well read ‘the establishment’ because we know not all men and we know that some of those ‘men’ might as well be women that have ‘made it’. ‘Made it’ meaning a permanent job, research funding, big glory publications and your version of fame in your field.

The people that ‘make it’ like to believe they made it because they have some sort of superior quality to the folks that didn’t make it. As Coil puts it – it is hard for many to believe that those who have succeeded in science have not done so entirely due to their own innate brilliance. Science – and many other professions – tend toward being a monoculture where they favour ‘people like me’, which means if you are a white male (in the West anyway), you can automatically have an advantage whether you know it or not.

Weirdly, often the same people that think people only ‘make it’ because of superior ability, don’t apply the same standards to women or minorities; while those that have ‘made it’ have done so through their own ‘brilliance’, you may have just gotten there because you are a woman. There is a lot of going on about reverse sexism and these mystical things called ‘quotas’ which are biased against men – even there are no real quotas for academic jobs and academic publishing in the main. Believers in the success through ‘superior ability’ model (for the right people of course) sometimes even expound that it’s actually BETTER to be a minority/woman because you have more opportunities, in this gender balance gone mad culture.

This is clearly bullshit. If this were true, then we’d have a gender/ethnic balance by now because this apparent abundance of ‘more opportunities’ for the minorities has been a ‘priority’ for at least 30 years. At least people have been telling me this for the last 30 years.

In my own experience, I have held four peer-reviewed independent research fellowships and each time I have gotten one, I have been told by at least one person (usually more) ‘you only got it ’cause you’re a girl’, like some 7-year old on a baseball field. I have won the occasional award here and there and again – I’ve been told ‘you only got it because you are a girl’. Incidentally, I also won a bike race once because I was a girl, see there weren’t as many girls in the girls field as there were boys in the boys field so it was easier for me to win ‘because I was a girl’. Currently, I, like other scientists, sit on funding panels and scientific advisory committees – but I get to do this because I am a girl, whereas the boys get to do it because they are really clever. It couldn’t possibly be that I might be good at it or that I might have the same ‘innate brilliance’ that they do.

To me these two positions are mutually exclusive, but this is what bias is about. This and why it is so hard to fix within the system. This idea that somehow I have made it because I am great, whereas you have made it solely because you are a girl, or had a bunch of favours, or were merely in the right place at the right time also inhibits any inward introspection about what is wrong with the system and how to fix it. It is also not very logical to think that your success is completely meritocratic and that someone else’s must be due to ‘quotas’. The reality is there is a big package of luck (and yes favours) associated with anyone’s success, it is simply not just based on ‘ability’. A mere look at the statistics of going from PhD to Post-doc to PI can tell you that there are a lot of innately brilliant people that don’t ‘make it’ in science. There are simply not enough jobs. If you work in academia, like I do, you see all sorts of very very talented people leave that could have easily ‘made it’ given different circumstances (funding, job availability, a chance), there are some pretty massive cracks in the system. It is a bit like the Victorian pipes under London, all of that water could have been useful, 1/2 of it ends up in the Thames.

In a perfect world people would be hired just on the basis of ability with no other consideration. This is what we all want, a fair playing field for all where there is no other criteria than meritocracy and where you don’t get hired just ‘because you are a girl’. But here’s the rub it is not a fair playing field and those folks who are ‘the most able’ are really difficult to distinguish as the measures can be quite subjective. People have different experiences. For scientists, different science is published in different journals, with different citation rates. For tech positions, people have different coding experience, different education, different people they have worked for. The best people are not always easy to identify and when life is subjective, bias is a big contributor to decisions. We must be aware of it, and we must take steps to stop it and we must pay attention to the data that is telling us we aren’t doing good enough to address these issues, because, as a society, we are not.

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Stop re-writing Confederate History : this includes you Simon Jenkins

shelby foote civil war

Simon Jenkins published an opinion piece yesterday in The Guardian entitled With every sneer, liberals just make Trump stronger. Jenkins derides those who deride Trump and his supporters and he thinks that Trump missed a trick in criticising the left:

He failed to fully address the one aspect of the riot where attacking the left might have had traction, its Orwellian “history scrubbing” of the Confederate hero General Robert E Lee. Instead he used the occasion to denigrate the “alt-left”, and ramp up his appeal not just to the “alt-right” but to the silent right that, perhaps ashamedly, sympathises with it.

Simon Jenkins while ostensibly deriding the left for loosing Trump supporters because they are too sneering, is misrepresenting the history of Confederate statues in the US South and, perhaps unwittingly, is merely reiterating the fallacious, ill-informed Neo-Nazi/KKK arguments that somehow the ‘left’ is trying to rewrite history.

It is the white-surpremicists who are history scrubbing, and this history scrubbing has been going on for over 150 years. It is the cult of the ‘Lost Cause’ that is really responsible for an Orwellian rewrite of Civil War history. Most of these Confederate statues were put in prominent places around the South to show support for the newly enacted Jim Crow Laws, to intimidate and reiterate that whites were superior to blacks. If Simon Jenkins spent 5 minutes on the internet he could learn this. If Simon Jenkins had merely listened to the Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu’s speech on why that multi-cultural city decided to remove Confederate statues from places of prominence he would have learned that

Removing Confederate Monuments Doesn’t ‘Erase’ History. It Fact-Checks It. And it immediately begs the questions; why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame, all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans. So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission. There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.

Simon Jenkins could have just googled the cult of the ‘Lost Cause’ and paid attention to the complex history of racism in the US and refrained from reiterating this ridiculous ‘Heritage not hate’ argument, but he didn’t. What Jenkins chose to do was to just throw fuel to the fire, about something he apparently doesn’t know anything about and can’t be bothered to read about.

In truth Jenkins has some good points, Trump opposers can be very condescending to Trump supporters and this does not help. Listening and talking and thinking about ways to heal the great divide in our country should be paramount in our minds as US citizens as we clearly have a problem and we need to deal with it.

But Jenkins choose THIS issue to make THIS point at THIS time. This is not only negligent of a real understanding of US history, it is grossly irresponsible. In effect, similar to the President who attacked the ‘alt-left’, Jenkins supports the very arguments that led to this white supremacist rally in the first place the very arguments that revisionist Confederacy lovers have been using to justify their bigoted actions for years. There are plenty of issues where people on both the left and the right must meet part way across the aisle to listen to one another, and there is a time to clearly tell white supremacists that their reinvention of history and purveyance of hate is not welcome. The events surrounding Charlottesville and the removal of confederate statues from prominent places in the South is one of those times.

There is no equivalency between the Neo-Nazi/KKK/white supremist protesters and those who rally against them. As the newly resigned from Trump’s now disbanded manufacturing council the CEO of Intel Brian Krzanich says:

“We should honor — not attack — those who have stood up for equality and other cherished American values.”

This is not a two sides of the aisle issue. This is not an issue over which to challenge liberals who sneer about the president. This is an issue that both conservatives and liberals alike are largely united on. Just say no to Nazi’s. Just say no to white supremacy. It is not hard. And please Simon Jenkins, unlike the US President, do us all a favour and read some Confederate history before you start pontificating about things you know very little about.

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