tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
From an online discussion about sexism in graduate programs:
"Alice": Dropout rates might be an interesting thing to study, but the simple lack of women in the field is also quite important, and is probably one of the strongest factors affecting the dropout rate. While that is merely conjecture, I would say that it fits well with my experience, and I believe it to be demonstrably true.

And a reply:
"Bob": This "they don't feel included" notion is harmful. The problem is not that someone doesn't feel included. The problem is that we're raising insecure people unnecessarily hung up on what other people will think of them. This should be fixed by raising children better. Not by changing the environments at our universities.

If someone raised their daughter (or son) in such a way that she (or he) discards a carrier simply because s/he feels unwelcome in that particular environment because of lack of other people sharing some physical feature, then they raised an insecure weakling who is overly concerned about what other people think of her/him.

Fuck that. We should not be baby-proofing our environment so that people with stupid irrational insecurities don't have their feelings hurt. We should focus on raising independent people, not on crippling university environments.

All I ever cared about is what I want to do. Other people? Well, why should they have a say in what I should do with my life. It seems ridiculous to me that someone would base their major decisions on what sports do people at the CS department play or what kind of dirty jokes they like


I find "Bob"'s comment (not his real name) to be a great example of a meme that people who want to deny the existence of oppressions and their role in them often employ. The basic template is: "[insert social problem here] wouldn't be a problem if those of you who it affects would just toughen up and learn to ignore it."

Of course, this statement is generally made by people who have never had to toughen up and learn to ignore the problem in question, because the problem isn't their problem.

Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that it's possible for a group -- for example, women -- to learn to ignore a problem that affects them -- for example, institutional sexism that denies them career opportunities. And let's suppose, again, for the sake of argument, that ignoring the problem would make it go away. This seems a bit absurd in the context of being a graduate student where if you ignore the people who are potentially treating you in sexist ways, you can't do your job; also because sexist behavior is often subtle and hard for an individual to perceive directly. It usually bypasses your conscious mind and goes straight to making you feel inferior, all with no chance for you to decide to "be tough" and ignore it.

But maybe the argument is that every woman ought to be supremely tough and completely impervious to anyone else's best efforts to make them feel like less of a person? (Men are exempt from this imperative of insensitivity, of course, as evinced by any "pro-men's-rights" rant about how men are oppressed because they don't get to dictate the contents of their partners' uteruses, have as much condomless sex with fertile individuals as they'd like without paying child support, or... okay, I'm drawing a blank here, but I'm sure there are lots of other ways in which men are oppressed.) I'm not sure how a person would go about doing that (perhaps installing a punching bag in one's basement with a carefully mounted image of Lawrence Summers on it and practicing for 30 minutes a day?), but let's suppose it's possible.

What is "Bob" really saying, then? I think he's saying that the burden of ameliorating an oppression is on the people being oppressed, not the people doing the oppressing. Explaining away a problem by telling people that it wouldn't be a problem if they learned to ignore it explains nothing and solves nothing. It just shifts the emotional labor onto everybody except the people who are causing the problem -- the people who are in a position of power and privilege. And why should we accept that?

As always, Samuel Delany says it better than I can:
There are no sexist decisions to be made.

There are antisexist decisions to be made. And they require tremendous energy and self-scrutiny, as well as moral stamina in the face of the basic embarrassment campaign which is the tactic of those assured of their politically superior position. ("Don't you think you're being rather silly offering your pain as evidence that something I do so automatically and easily is wrong? Why, I bet it doesn't hurt half as much as you say. Perhaps it only hurts because you're struggling...?" This sort of political mystification, turning the logical arrows around inside verbal structures to render them empirically empty, and therefore useless ["It hurts because you don't like it", rather than "You don't like it because it hurts."] is just another version of the "my slave/my master" game.)
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is a parody of an article by Clay Shirky.
A Rant About Men

By Claudia Worky


So I get email from a good former student, applying for a job and asking for a recommendation. "Sure", I say, "Tell me what you think I should say." I then get a draft letter back in which the student has described their work and fitness in terms so self-effacing it would make a Jewish comedian suggest you take up affirmations.

So I write my letter, looking over the student's self-assessment and dialing it up so that it sounds like it's coming from an enthusiastic mentor and not a depressed 14-year-old, and send it off. And then, as I get over my annoyance, I realize that, by understating their abilities, the student has probably gotten a letter out of me that's appropriate to their level of talent without sounding unrealistic.

Now, can you guess the gender of the student involved?

Of course you can. My home, the Solitary Silence Department at Buffalo Lake State, is fairly gender-balanced, and I've taught about as many men as women over the last decade. In theory, the gender of my former student should be a coin-toss. In practice, I might as well have given her the pseudonym Titsy McBoobity for all the mystery there was. And I've grown increasingly worried that most of the men in the department, past or present, simply couldn't write a letter like that.

This worry isn't about psychology; I'm not concerned that men don't engage in enough abnegation of themselves or don't build enough self-doubt. I'm worried about something much simpler: not enough men have what it takes to behave like humble self-mortifying pushovers.

Remember Nora Helmer, the housewife immortalized in "A Doll's House" who sacrifices to save her husband's life? She hides the truth to protect his pride and acts like a ditzy child to keep him from realizing that she earned money to save his life. She didn't miss the fact that she was getting the short end of the deal and suffering just to protect some man. She just didn't care. (Until the end, anyway; everyone has their limits.)

It's not that men will be better off being doormats; a lot of doormats aren't better off being doormats either. It's just that until men have role models who are willing to contemplate suicide just to protect someone else's ego, they'll miss out on channeling smaller amounts of self-sacrificing charity to help who they want to help, and if they can't do that, they'll help people less than they want to help them.

There is no upper limit to the amount of suffering women are willing to undergo in order to protect someone they care about, and if there is an upper limit for men, they will do less good. They will also hurt themselves less, but I don't think we get the rewards without the risks.
When I was 19 and three days into my first year in college, I went to see Billie Lefraw, the head of music theory (my chosen profession, in those days) to ask if I could enroll in a composition class. She asked me two questions. The first was "How's your intonation?" Not so good, I replied. (I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket.) "OK, how's your sight-reading?" I realized this was it. My sight-reading was just okay; I could have said it was good, but I just couldn't countenance getting into a class on false pretenses. Besides, out in the hall I had happened to see three students waiting to talk to Billie about getting off the waiting list who I knew were much better than me.

"My sight-reading's crappy," I said.

That's the kind of behavior I mean. I sat in the office of someone I admired and feared, someone who was the gatekeeper for something I wanted, and I told her something that made me look terrible. We talked some more and then she said, "You'd better take a different class." And I ran to the local textbook store and bought some math books, since I had to find a new major.

That got me out of the fire. I got the satisfaction of knowing that I made way for students with more competence and passion than I had, I never considered music as a career again, and four years later, I got a job after I graduated. I can't say that my escape from a life of poverty working in a profession I was always mediocre at was due to my behavior in Billie's office, but I can say it was because I was willing to do that kind of thing. The difference between me and Nora Helmer isn't that she's a martyr and I'm not; the difference is that I only assessed myself with brutal honesty when there was no real risk to my health or welfare, and I knew when to stop. That's not a different type of behavior, it's just a different amount.

And it looks to me like men in general, and the men whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren't just bad at behaving like humble self-effacing pushovers. They are bad at behaving like selfless altruists, meek softies, or modest mice, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in the world's best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can't say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

Now this is asking men to behave more like women, but so what? We ask people to cross gender lines all the time. We're in the middle of a generations-long project to encourage women to be louder talkers and more sexually aggressive partners, to spend less time obsessing over their own feelings and worrying about others' feelings. Similarly, I see colleges spending time and effort teaching men strategies for being less of a violent asshole, including directly not raping women. I sometimes wonder what would happen, though, if my college spent as much effort teaching men self-effacement as self-control.
Some of the reason these strategies are useful is because we live in a world where men don't do their fair share of emotional labor. However, even in an ideal future, self-effacement will be a skill that produces disproportionate social rewards, and if skill at self-effacement remains disproportionally female, the rewards of a place in the world appropriate to one's talents and inclinations will also remain disproportionally female. This isn't because of oppression, it's because of freedom.

But rather than writing some douchebaggy drivel that tortures free-market economics into supporting my questionable argument (see what I did there?), I'll get straight to the point. Institutions that offer opportunities operate in an environment where accurate information is hard to come by. One of their main sources of judgment is asking the candidate directly: Tell us why we should admit you. Tell us why we should hire you. Tell us why we should give you a grant. Tell us why we should promote you.

In these circumstances, people who wave their hands in the air get called on, and people who wave their hands in the air while yelling loudly get called on more. Some of this is because quiet people are easier to ignore, but some of it is because keeping your mouth shut is a signal that underneath your veneer of modesty, you have self-respect and aren't willing to give it up just to work at some dumb-ass job.

That in turn correlates with many of the skills that douchebags need to work at organizations run by douchebags: recruiting other douchebags and raising money, conning naïve people and fooling skeptics, pretending your company has a business plan when all that's actually written down is "Step 3: Profit". Institutions assessing the fitness of candidates, in other words, often pass over self-effacers because self-effacement is linked with being too smart to play such childish games.

It's tempting to imagine that men could be sensible and reserved without being weak or easily manipulated, but that's a false hope, because it's other people who get to decide when they think you're a pushover, and trying to stay under that threshold means giving those people veto power over your actions. To hold yourself back as someone who's not willing to accept a position that goes beyond your innate abilities is, by definition, to expose yourself to all kinds of negative judgments, and as far as I can tell, the fact that other people get to decide what they think of your behavior leaves only two strategies for not suffering from those judgments: not doing anything, or doing what you know is right despite feeling hurt by the reaction.
Doing what you think is right works surprisingly well. Another of my great former students, now a peer and a friend, saw a request from a magazine reporter doing a science story and looking for examples. My friend, who'd previously been too loud about his work, realized that his work had nothing to do with the reporter's request and decided not to make himself look silly by writing to her about it. Instead, he wrote to the reporter to call her attention to the work of our mutual friend Jane, saying, "Jane's work is awesome. You should write about it."

The reporter looked at Jane's work and wrote back saying "Jane's work is indeed awesome, and I will contact her about it. I also have to tell you that you are the only man who suggested a female colleague's work. Women do that all the time, but men only recommend their own work." My friend started helping other colleagues as well, and now he enjoys the satisfaction of knowing he played a part in others' success.

If you walked into my department at Buffalo Lake State, you wouldn't say "Oh my, look how much talented the women are than the men." The level and variety of creative energy in the place is still breathtaking to me, and it's not divided by gender. However, you would be justified in saying "I bet that the students who are happiest with what they've done for their family, friends and colleagues and for social justice in five years will include more women than men", because that's what happens, year after year. My friend talking to the reporter remains the sad exception.

Part of this sorting out of fates is misandry, but part of it is that women are just better at being altruistic, and less concerned about trying to get people to give them credit for things they haven't done.

Now I don't know what to do about this problem. (The essence of a rant, in fact, is that the ranter has no idea how to fix the thing being ranted about.) What I do know is this: it would be good if more men see opportunities to do something for somebody else, opportunities to sacrifice rewards they might otherwise have enjoyed for the sake of the greater good, and then try to take them on. It would be good if more men got in the habit of shutting the hell up when someone asks for an opinion they're not qualified to give, no matter how uncomfortable that makes them.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
"...compared to what women have to sacrifice to feel safe."

A friend linked to this post, from a woman talking about her experiences with constant, lifelong street harassment (and worse) from men. Reading it, I thought, "huh, this doesn't jibe with my experience having been perceived as female for 26 years." It's not that her experiences, or those of lots of women like her, are anything but real -- just, it's never been like this for me and I can't recall any of my female friends ever saying it was bad for them. Maybe I was just never attractive enough to appear on the radar of random male douchebags; sure, there was the time a guy at the beach told me he'd like to spend some time when me when I was 11 standing next to my mom, and the various guys who have driven by in cars while delivering shouted feedback about the amount of hair on my body, and the guy in a Pizza Hut parking lot in Baltimore who (when I was 16) asked me if I had a boyfriend, and when I said yes, asked if that meant I could still date someone else. But I have few enough of those stories that I can itemize them, and I've never feared for my physical safety whether while walking alone in Oakland at night or on a frat house roof deck (not that I've ever been on one anyway).

So I'm curious...
Open to: Access List, detailed results viewable to: Access List, participants: 22

A question for women and people who have been perceived as women at some point: How much do the commenter's experiences resonate with you?

If anything I've gotten *more* harassment and threats than the commenter has.
3 (13.6%)

Yeah, sounds about right.
3 (13.6%)

It's not quite that bad for me, but close.
4 (18.2%)

Sure, I've gotten a few whistles here and there, but nothing remotely like what she talks about.
7 (31.8%)

I have never gotten any such comments or feared for my safety. Maybe I'm wearing an invisible burqa.
0 (0.0%)

I was too lazy to read the comment, but I wanted to click the clicky thing.
1 (4.5%)

I am a cisgender man, and will therefore take this opportunity to practice my listening skills.
4 (18.2%)

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (disingenuous)
Well, apparently the Flash community has taken it upon itself to find out whether it's possible for a software community to be a bigger bunch of douchebags than the Ruby on Rails community. The preliminary verdict: yes. Don't be fooled: a speaker who gets invited to a conference and then illustrates use of a graphics app by drawing bukkake scenes during his talk is not an isolated douchebag. The existence of a context where anyone would pull such a thing denotes a socially coherent network of douchebags.

The comments on the above-link blog post are surprisingly clueful compared to the whole Rails clusterfuck, but there is just one thing that needs to be said. Guys: you do not get to dictate the terms under which women feel affronted by sexist behavior. Seriously. When you tell women, "You shouldn't be offended by this as a woman; instead, everyone should be offended by flagrant disregard for professional etiquette and good taste," you are not being a good ally. I'm not implying the talk, as described by Wilkes and Lyons, wasn't in bad taste. But complaining about its bad taste is like complaining about the bad smell in the Amtrak bathroom while your train is going off the rails. I'm going to say this in small words and I hope I'll only have to say it once:

When a speaker uses sexualized images of women in a technical talk, that is saying a couple of things. It is saying, "I consider my audience to be straight men, so I'm employing buddy-buddy beer-and-dick-jokes bonding as a good way to gain rapport with them. I don't care how many women I lose in the process. I don't see women as equal colleagues, because if I did, I wouldn't communicate with them in ways that I know will make most of them feel disgusted, alienated, or unwelcome. I know that using porn to communicate a non-sexual idea sends the message that I see women's bodies as tools for achieving my ends. And I don't mind sending that message."

Of course men should be outraged too. They should be outraged that their colleagues think it's acceptable to try to drive away the few women who have shown the fortitude required to assert themselves in a male-dominated field. But people who have never had to assert themselves professionally while also being seen as a woman do not need to claim that this task grants no special perspective to those who've carried it out. It might make you feel better to reduce the silencing of women to flagrant and isolated incidents of crude and adolescent behavior, but in reality, it's regular people being complicit in a sexist culture who behave this way. That's a little scary, isn't it? The next person to expose their complicity at the wrong time might be you. Trivializing the perpetrators as "boys, not men" is another non-answer. If only boys treated women as accessories, we wouldn't have a problem. The patriarchy comprises men, not boys.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
It's amazing how many people seem to know how to apply the argument tactics listed at "Derailing for Dummies" without even having read the site. Worth a read if you've ever been told that you were taking things too personally, that you were damaging your cause by being angry, or that your experience was unrepresentative. Or if you've ever told anyone those things.

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tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

September 2014

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