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critical mass, not the bike kind

January 22, 2009

A girl from the physics dept saw the NYTimes article on sexism in the sciences that y’all read here recently, and posted it on her facebook.  Below you’ll find an abridged version of the discussion on her facebook page.  I’ve renamed people and omitted details as it was not a public conversation.

Marilyn Monroe:
I think this article ignores what I think may be a contributing factor to the lack of women in science–we are tired of being treated poorly by our male colleagues and advisors.
Rita Hayworth:

it really seems obvious to me: the culture is one where the healthiest ego survives. On average, given a man and a woman with the same skill set, the man’s ego is going to be larger. Now I just need to get people to listen.
Frank Sinatra:

Who has treated you poorly? I think everyone gets shit in this field as Rita said, the level of shit may differ from individual to individual, but you either go big or go home.

Marilyn Monroe:

It’s very much an old boys club. While the most that’s happened to me is that people comment on my personal appearance, I have observed other incidents that I don’t really feel comfortable discussing on facebook.

Frank Sinatra:

I’ve asked lots of people (including women) about this and unfortunately my qualitative evidence does not support such a view. I personally believe that it is easy to declare it an old boys club and not accept the more likely cause that our societal norms including what Rita mentions above are in fact the predominant factor as opposed to sexism as you suggest.
Gene Kelly:
Rita Hayworth:

Speaking of societal norms, way to bring the discussion down Gene. I’ve got enough penis jokes in my life already. A male dominated environment can get uncomfortable in that regard. When its one woman and 10^23 men {yay hyperbole! :) } the social dynamic can interfere with the professional dynamic. And before someone accuses me of being a bitch with no sense of humor, this was a very convenient example of what can slowly turn hostile. I generally don’t care, and it takes a lot to offend me/most of the stuff is funny. The issue: if you are uncomfortable you can’t do anything because you end being the bitch with no sense of humor.
Dean Martin:

I’m sure it’s an old boys club in a lot of places. But UCI? Maybe I just haven’t been a witness to such incidents. I also believe that any mistreatment is pretty evenly doled out since grad school is quite a competitive atmosphere.
Gene Kelly:

Now, I’ve edited out a lot, including some good points made by the guys.  I’m also really amused at the idea of this conversation taking place between the pen names I’ve given everyone.  But anyway, it’s a good example of what is an important factor in this sort of discussion: critical mass.  Yes, it has a broader meaning than just the bike ride.

Critical mass is the idea that you need a certain proportion of a community to be in a particular demographic for the members of that demographic to feel comfortable.  Example:  A room full of a hundred people.  If it’s fifty/fifty men/women, then of course the women feel comfortable.  They’d still, of course, feel comfortable if it was 51/49.  At 70/30, probably still fine.  But at 99/1, that lone girl would probably feel very alone.  Somewhere in there (I’d guess around twenty percent) there’s a line where there are enough women in the room to affect the culture.  Not convinced?  Imagine it’s some sort of reception, so people are gathered together in small fluid clumps, most of which have about the gender ratio of the room as a whole.  In the 50/50 case, a guy makes a sexist joke.  Whatever group he’s in consists of half women, and they are upset and point out to him what an ass he’s being.  Even at 70/30, there’s still probably two women in most groups, and if the guy told that joke, any woman would have a teammate when confronting the jerk.  Now think about that 99/1.  The guy happens to be in the group where the one girl is.  He tells the joke, and she wants to confront him.  In my experience, you tend to have two choices: confront him and be called a "humorless bitch" to quote Rita from the above discussion, or sit there silently and hate yourself.  Yes, there are guys who would agree with you, but I’ve found that they stand up for you a relatively small amount of the time.  Then again, maybe I’m just jaded, on account of having been called a "feminazi" one too many times in undergrad.

The ironic thing about critical mass is that the members of the majority often have no understanding of the need for it.  Notice the comments of all the guys in the above discussion.  Dean states it very clearly: he’s never seen sexism, so it probably doesn’t exist here.  That’s the sublte irony of the critical mass concept.  Those in the majority don’t have an understanding of the need for having a critical mass.  Those in the minority don’t have enough voices to explain why it’s important to have enough voices.

(A note on Gene’s comments above.  His first post is simply an unnecessary sexual video, which is not insulting to women.  Why it’s insulting anyway?  Men – not all but some – tend to bring in sex as a way to denigrate this particular topic.  They attempt to own female sexuality in anyway they can, just think about how so many men view lesbian sex: a great opportunity for men.)

There are sexist jokes which men find funny and women find insulting (this includes any variation of accusing us of being "on the rag".  I will probably smack you if you say that to me.).  There is the accidental and unavoidable sexism of the culture difference socially (we’re less likely to come over and watch the game).  Then there is the unconscious sexism that exists across the country and has been shown in several studies.  This is the sexism from the resume study.  Identical resumes were sent out with male and female names.  To be rated as just as competent, the female resumes had to add a couple of years of work experience over the male version of the same resume.  Finally, there is the sexism of double standard applied culturally.  A man dresses in the ‘physicists uniform’ of an old t-shirt and jeans and no one thinks anything of it.  When a woman does that jokes and judgements are made; convesely, if a woman puts too much effort into her appearance jokes and judgements are made.  A man who stands up for himself forcefully is respected.  A woman is a bitch, unless she gets trampled on, in which case she’s weak.  If we are too interested in sports and gadgets then we’re either trying too hard or we’re too manly; if we enjoy shopping and makeup too much then we’re too ditzy.  Personal judgements are more often made about women than about men, and we’re made to walk an absurdly narrow line between the extremes.  Don’t believe me?  Go back to primary season and check out the coverage of Clinton vs. Obama.  Sexism is not simply sexual harassement or blatent favoring of one sex over the other.

Anyway, the discussion on facebook continues, and it’s pretty interesting.  I’m glad to hear it talked about.  I do apologize for the lecture tone of this entry… apparently the prof in me is coming out today.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 23, 2009 7:36 pm

    The way you get around being a “humorless bitch” is to tell the guy he’s being an ass with humor- example of a conversation I had with a bunch of guys (oh and critical mass was certainly not in effect as I was the only one lacking a penis in the apartment)
    “The Asshole”- “I don’t see why girls won’t have sex if they are a little unhappy its not like its our fault they are PMSing and get mad just because I didn’t listen to her ramble about her day” (nods of agreement and smiles around the room) <—and no this wasn't Nathan he's not quite dumb enough to say that with me in the same room.
    The “humorless bitch” would say– “your an insensitive jerk who doesn’t understand women’s needs” And sit their with an angry look on her face as she then gets pummeled by the multitude of responses that would be sure to follow. <—-true but totally ineffective.
    The girl who wants to make her point effectively would say (with a smile on her face and laughter in her heart)- “well maybe ya all should put down the xbox controller, learn how to please a girl and perhaps she’d be alittle more willing to give you what you want” (laughter and sheepish looks throughout the room since everyone knew I was right)
    The same thing can be done at work- to use the emotional example from a couple entries back when a guy makes fun of you for crying over something dumb, giving a lecture about girls emotions won’t work. Saying something along the lines of “your right I guess I should just go punch a wall like Frank Sinatra did last week (with a smile on your face)” not only changes the topic with some humor but makes the same point that you did the other day that guys shows of emotions are more acceptable than womens. It pushes a feminist agenda without seeming like a “femanazi” or “humorless bitch” or the other derogatory names you were talking about.
    Doing things like that will change a guy’s mind about how he thinks about/treats women before “telling him how it is” will. That will just get anyone (male or female) made fun of.

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