Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Towards a Language for Physicists and Astronomers to Discuss Sexism

(HT Carole Mundell)

Last summer, the American Physical Society's journal Physical Review Physics Education Research published a focused collection on gender. In their contribution, "Gender discrimination in physics and astronomy: Graduate student experiences of sexism and gender microaggressions", Ramón Barthelemy, Melinda McCormick and Charles Henderson tell us what they learned from semi-structured interviews with 21 predominantly white, middle-class women pursuing PhDs in physics, astronomy or astrophysics at "major research universities that are highly ranked and respected in the physics and astronomy communities".

They found that 5 had no experiences they would attribute specifically to gender, 2 had positive gender experiences, 5 experienced overt gender-based hostility, and 16 experienced the ambiguously negative encounters that are commonly called "microaggressions". Interestingly, the purpose of the paper isn't actually to establish prevalence but, rather, "to share the gendered experiences of successful women in pursuit of their educations in physics or astronomy, while also demonstrating a language for physicists and astronomers to discuss sexism in their departments" (p. 12).

Since they are explicitly suggesting their results as a "demonstration" of a "language to discuss sexism", I'm a bit concerned about the way they have coded their interviews. It seems to me that they are calibrating their instrument in an overly sensitive way.

Here's an example of a form of sexual objectification that the paper classifies as a "microaggression". A female PhD students explained that:

At conferences I feel like I get a lot of attention at my posters because, I don’t know, I feel like people want to come talk to the friendly young girl and maybe they don’t want to talk to some guy. (P. 8)

As I understand this, the decision to talk to a "friendly young girl" rather than "some guy" at a poster session is here being counted as a microaggression. That is, if you find yourself at a poster session and a woman catches your eye, you should not try to strike up a conversation with her. The argument, I guess, is that she's "at work", so you should only talk to her if you actually find her poster interesting.

To me, the obvious solution here is for pretty young women to get used to the attention of men and to brush them off if they aren't asking them anything interesting about the poster. Or, conversely, if no one is actually interested in the poster, to enjoy the company of an interested man to pass the time. To count this as evidence of sexism in science strikes me as absolutely ridiculous.

But it gets worse when we go beyond the microaggressions. Here's an example of "hostile sexism"* that is given in the paper. An interviewee recounts an experience from high school:

Many of the boys in [the AP physics] class expressed interest in engineering. When it got around to me, I responded that I wanted to major in physics. The teacher raised an eyebrow and said “Oh, so you’re going to be a waitress”. (P. 10)

I suspect this is just a misunderstanding. Suppose the same thing had happened in a high-school English class and everyone had been expressing an interest in journalism. Then a boy says he wants to major in poetry. And the teacher now jokingly says, "Oh, so you're going to be a barista." Similarly, I don't think the point here was that girls can't do physics. It was that the road from high-school physics to a paying job normally runs through engineering. It was the idea that you could actually be a full-time physicist that the teacher found implausible.

Now, it's possible he wouldn't have made the joke if the aspiring physicist had been a boy. But that doesn't make it a sexist joke. In any case, to code this as "hostile sexism", i.e., as something worse than a microaggression, suggests to me that the instrument is going to give us way too many false positives.

I've reached out to the authors with my concerns and will report back when I hear from them. After all, I too think we need to learn how to talk about sexism in science.

*Update: It's instructive to look at their definition. "Hostile sexism is defined as overt discrimination against women, which may include sexual harassment. An example of hostile sexism would be making sexual advances toward a co-worker or believing that a female co-worker should not be in the workplace because of her gender" (pp. 3-4). Notice that merely propositioning someone you are sexually attracted to is here counted as a "hostile" and "sexist" act. Notice also that merely holding a sexist belief is counted as a kind of hostility. I'm not, of course, saying that these acts and beliefs aren't worth discussing. I'm just saying that coding them in this way is imprecise and is likely to make communication between the sexes more difficult.

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