Still So Far To Go

Sometimes one deludes oneself into thinking that progress has been made on some important social issue, and then out of the blue, there’s a reminder of just how far things still have to go. Check out this post – supposedly a report on the contents of a physics seminar given by a woman – on the blog “A Quantum Diaries Survivor”, and get a reminder of what women in physics are up against. Near the beginning of the post he spends one of the longest paragraphs of the piece talking about how her hair was done, how fit and attractive he thinks she looks, wondering whether she works out…(!) It’s so completely awful to do this sort of thing and he does it so spectacularly completely that I actually thought it was meant to be a parody of some sort! From his comments in response to people pointing out the inappropriateness of it, it turns out that he really does not get it at all. Not a bit.

It is really sad. It is so embarrassing too, when anyone female shows up in a physics context and guys just start behaving like they’ve never seen a woman before. That silliness alone is simply embarrassing, but this is quite a bit worse I would say, since it is damaging to the cause of women in the field.

I really shouldn’t go on, and I will risk sounding preachy and self-righteous (and I’ll just get yelled at and nobody will learn anything) but it’s important, so I will try some words:

Of course there are contexts in which we can discuss things about each other that take note of (even celebrate) our differences in gender, race, and so forth. I’ll be so bold as to say that with appropriate care, we can even legitimately talk about whether we find someone attractive or not, wonder about aspects of their personal lives, etc. (No, by this I don’t mean it is ok to be a sexist jerk in private.) Nobody is suggesting that we be all gray and genderless automata. These things are part of the spice of life – grist for the mill of human interaction, and we are human. But we are humans with brains that can help us separate out different aspects of our interactions. The point is that these things should not pollute the atmosphere of the workplace – or the extended workplace (he was reporting on a physics talk at CERN to a wider physics audience). In other words, they should not be done at the expense of those around us – context is everything. Most definitely, to my mind, this is really not one of those contexts. One should always be careful in a work context, of course, and in the broader context of a public forum about work and reflections on work matters, one should be very careful to separate out the physics discussion from the other stuff. Even then it is very hard to get right and probably the best policy is to err on the side of caution, I would say. Sure, it’s a minefield – people’s feelings can be involved. That sort of thing is never simple, and nor should it be.

Also, it is irrelevant whether or not the person being commented on is an established respected scientist (in this case they are – it’s Lisa Randall). The key point is that doing this sort of thing in this context does not send a good message to younger women in the field who are trying to be taken seriously as thinkers rather than eye-candy for the majority males in the field (or worse), nor to younger women thinking about coming into the field. It also does not set a good example to other men in the field who have yet to learn about how such comments can make a woman feel about herself and how seriously she is being taken.

This all puts me in mind of that fine Science Friday interview of Ira Flatow’s (of the same person) a while back. If you look at that old post of mine, be sure to scroll down to the comments starting around #58 or so where the man himself (or someone claiming to be him) comes into the discussion and makes it all even more depressing.

Of course, as usual all of these considerations will be lost in the stampede of people rushing to form intelligent counter-arguments which are a variation on “American political correctness out of control” and so forth.

Doubly sad. Triply if one notices that the interesting physics he does get around to reporting on has yet to be discussed in any of the 12 comments so far. I wonder how many comments it will take before the physics is mentioned (not counting the trackback that this post might leave there)?


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