Because We Don’t Have To

I started this as a reply to a comment by Chris on my post Why Are All The White Men Sitting Together In The Other Conference Rooms? but it became a post of its own. Chris wrote:

As someone who’s attended quite a few engineering conferences, I find that sessions about the profession/discipline tend not to be very well attended, and not representative of the meeting attendees as a whole. For instance, sessions on engineering education tend to attract only a small fraction of the attendees that come to sessions about using steel reinforced concrete in bridge design or retroreflectivity in highway signage. The only people who show up are usually professors, and perhaps a few grad students who intend to become professors (I’m in the latter category). Of course, this makes discussion of engineering education rather insular, which isn’t good considering that most engineering students will be going into the government or private sectors rather than academia.
I suspect that “diversity” sessions are much the same way. You generally only get people with a specific stake in the subject (in this case women and minorities rather than professors) and hardly anyone else.
At least in my experience, most engineers going to conferences aren’t really interested in going to sessions about engineering as a profession (which is how I’d group both education and diversity sessions). They’re more interested in networking with people, picking up practical knowledge, etc. Some of this may be specific to engineers, and some may be a product of the “professional” nature of most engineering conferences. In addition to engineering conferences I also go to some academic conferences in the social sciences. The attitude there is quite different. People are much more interested in thinking about the discipline. Sessions on education, diversity, etc. are very well attended and not necessarily by people with a specific stake in that subject.

First of all, this was an engineering education conference: Frontiers in Education. We can presume the audience was already somewhat self-selected for people who do care about the profession. Pretty much it was all professors, postdocs, and graduate students, and folks from places like NSF and the foundation sides of corporations. Presumably, a great target audience for sessions on diversity, or so one would think.
In a sense, saying that most engineers going to conferences aren’t interested in going to sessions about engineering as a profession – or in this case, engineers at an engineering education conference aren’t interested in going to sessions about diversity in engineering education – is just restating the problem. Why are they all sitting together in the other conference rooms? Why don’t they care? Why don’t they perceive such sessions as “for” them, or people like them?
One (white) guy gave a work-in-progress talk titled Crossing Technical, Social, and Cultural Borders Within the Engineering Classroom. Here’s the abstract of this work done by David DiBiasio, Stephanie Blaisdell, Calvin Hill, and Natalie Mello of Worcester Polytechnic Institute:

We piloted an integrated approach to engaging early engineering students in cultural and social issues within their engineering courses. Preliminary results showed an improved understanding of cultural issues related to engineering, but the ability to integrate appropriate social and cultural considerations during calculation-intensive activities was inconsistent. Students’ reactions to globally-related activities were more positive than those related to diversity. There were significant, large gender differences with females showing higher understanding and depth at both the intermediate and persistent levels.

The work by DiBiasio et al. doesn’t fit theframework suggested by commenter Timothy Burke as one way to explain away the dearth of white men:

I think that you’re probably right about the whys and wherefores of this clustering, but another angle on it might be that at least some of the panels you describe (in almost any discipline) are going to less exploratory and open in the way they think about these issues and more about delivering relatively fixed and sometimes polemical positions on the problems and experiences involved. So the exclusion sometimes operates at both ends: white men don’t come to the panels, and they’re assumed by the panels not to be coming. On the rare occasion when a standard-issue white guy comes who is not assumed to be coming, he may find that no one is really talking to him or exploring issues with him, that they are just talking *about* him as a kind of irresolvable problem or issue.

DiBiasio et al.’s work is not exceptional for the session he was in, or for the other sessions on diversity. These were not white-male bashing sessions. And they weren’t polemical. It was solid scholarship with data and anyone could have benefited from the fascinating results that were presented.
In the case of the work by DiBiasio et al., the results were particularly instructive. The authors incorporated some work on global, social, and cultural diversity into a chemical engineering course (taught by the department head). The instructor collaborated with colleagues outside the department who had expertise in integrating global, social, and cultural diversity issues into subject matter courses. A class session on diversity was included. This was successfully done in the introductory chemical engineering course “without loss of technical rigor”.

During the courses students had multiple opportunities to engage locally-specific cultural issues during calculation-intensive assignments. These included designing a power plant located in Thailand, analyzing a potential chemical process accident in India, and designing a pedal-powered water pump for small communities in Namibia…most students were able to address appropriate cultural issues while at the same time demonstrating competency in the engineering topics.

The problem, however, was in long-term retention. The authors used an exam question in a subsequent course to test retention.

Only 52% of the responses were acceptable. And, of the 15 acceptable responses, 4 were males and 11 were females. Of the unacceptable responses, 10 were males and 4 were females. Similar results were demonstrated in a repeat course offering.

Why is this? Why did the males in the course overwhelmingly fail to retain the information on global, social, and cultural diversity? They learned it the first time around, but they just didn’t retain it. Are women just better at long-term retention? Are they better attuned to these issues?
Let’s turn the question around? Are men less attuned, and why? I suggested to the authors that men, and white men in particular, are socially and culturally conditioned to learn that they don’t need to attend to things like global and cultural diversity issues. That stuff is for “other” people to deal with, and other people will take care of it; they need not waste their time on it. That which is not important is not retained, except for the exam at hand. I also suggested he share the results of his study with his future classes, as a spur to the men in the class. He thought that was a good idea.
So, all the white men are sitting together in the other conference rooms because they believe that diversity is someone else’s problem. Note that in the comments left on my original post, the suggestions imply that if we were only talking about diversity in ways that were certain not to alienate the white males, they might be more likely to come to the diversity sessions. I don’t think this is the case. It doesn’t matter how nicely we speak, how nuanced our arguments and discussions, how sweetly we invite. They just don’t fucking care, because they don’t have to. That, as I said to David DiBiasio, is white male privilege in/action: the privilege not to care.
That’s why Debra Rolison titled her infamous talk Isn’t a Millenium of Affirmative Action for White Men Sufficient? because, as she said,

I could cut down on the confrontation and make it something like, why we need more women in science. But that’s not going to get their asses into the seats in the auditorium either. I think we’ve had far too many of the helpful, educational approaches. We don’t have 30 years here.

So maybe we need to stop giving these sessions bland titles like “Diversity”. Maybe we need to call them something like “What You Ought To Know If You’re Going To Survive In The World of Changing Demographics”. Or, “How Not To Be A Total Ass”.
I’ll tell you one talk that was well attended. It’ll be the subject of a future post. Here was the title:

“YOU’RE ALL A BUNCH OF FUCKING FEMINISTS:” ADDRESSING THE PERCEIVED CONFLICT BETWEEN GENDER AND PROFESSIONAL IDENTITIES USING THE MONTREAL MASSACRE

Here’s a hint for the future post: even this session was not about male-bashing.

  1. gwangung
    November 8, 2006 at 8:03 pm

    You know….
    This is a running theme at American theatre groups. When they hold seminars on diversity, the only people who show up are…minorities. And when they hold sessions on getting diversity into mainstream theatres, the only people who show up are…minorities.
    And this is a profession noted for its free thinking and liberalness…

  2. jackie
    November 9, 2006 at 2:09 am

    Gee, why wouldn’t a bunch of white men want to sit and get berated for not letting women and minorities into “their” profession? What’s in it for them?
    I think the sessions would attract more people if the sessions were “marketed” differently. I certainly think scientists could use a bit of training in marketing, or they could at least hire a few consultants.

  3. jackie
    November 9, 2006 at 2:09 am

    Gee, why wouldn’t a bunch of white men want to sit and get berated for not letting women and minorities into “their” profession? What’s in it for them?
    I think the sessions would attract more people if the sessions were “marketed” differently. I certainly think scientists could use a bit of training in marketing, or they could at least hire a few consultants.

  4. Greg
    November 9, 2006 at 3:47 am

    “They just don’t fucking care, because they don’t have to.”
    Yes. Exactly. They don’t have to. Why should they care?
    You should check out 12-step doctrine. Nobody (give or take a few) does anything until they have to.
    “privilege” is too strong a word. To use it misleads you and mystifies those whom you label. They simply do not care.. it is saner for them not to care.. because there are (for them) no consequences.

  5. gwangung
    November 9, 2006 at 10:37 am

    Gee, why wouldn’t a bunch of white men want to sit and get berated for not letting women and minorities into “their” profession? What’s in it for them?
    I think the examples from the theatre world indicates that it’s the very concept of diversity that scares them off and not just the marketing.

  6. November 9, 2006 at 11:15 am

    As far as I can tell, there isn’t sufficient information here to back the assertion that there is a real difference in the kinds of information that are retained (by men or women) from one class to another.
    Certainly, long-term retention was poor in the case of the question in the subsequent course.
    But what was the control?
    It is well known in education that information has a half-life and that new information is rapidly lost.
    If the authors wished to rigorously investigate the hypothesis that there is something different about the retention of cultural information – they have to include control items. Otherwise they could be seeing a more general phenomenon that’s true about retention of new information overall.
    Maybe the authors did include controls and those controls are simply not described here, but I’ve seen lots of things in my teaching years about the things that students do and do not retain – sciencewise – and without controls, I’m not convinced that there is real difference.

  7. Nicole
    November 9, 2006 at 2:53 pm

    Maybe you’re giving 10/14’s of men too much credit. We know there are differences in the way that women and men process information. The obvious answer is that they just don’t have what it takes to learn about cultural issues. Must be something to do with the testosterone level. Since we now know that women and men perform similarly in science and engineering disciplines when given the same training, it seems clear to me that about 75% of engineering jobs should go to women. But I don’t mean to say that ALL men cannot learn about social issues, clearly a minority are intelligent. We can still hire them.

  8. November 9, 2006 at 4:05 pm

    Jackie, apparently you didn’t pay attention to anything I wrote.
    “privilege” is too strong a word. To use it misleads you and mystifies those whom you label. They simply do not care.. it is saner for them not to care.. because there are (for them) no consequences.
    Pardon me, Greg, but this would be how white male privilege works. It’s saner for them not to care, because for them there are no consequences. Why are there no consequences? Because they have white male privilege. Someone who does not – like an African American female in engineering – can’t actually afford not to care at all about issues of diversity, because they affect her every day.
    Actually, there ARE consequences to white men of not caring about diversity. It’s just that for the most part those consequencs are not readily apparent to them. Or the consequences are distant. Example: not caring about global diversity issues might lead one to happily accept a high-paying job with a company that is a major polluter in third-world countries. But that environmental devastation has global consequences that are now beginning to be felt as, say, global warming becomes a major issue of our lifetime, or deforestation and destruction of habitat leading to loss of biodiversity, etc. Not caring about the issues of the African American female in your class may lead you to being deprived of some very good insights, or a study partner who could have helped you a great deal, or a future colleague who could have enriched the company you work for. Or a future genius who could have founded a company like Google that would increase the economic base of the U.S.
    But it’s hard to see how not caring about diversity affects us all in these ways. So it’s much easier to think it has no effect at all and to keep on not caring.

  9. November 9, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    As far as I can tell, there isn’t sufficient information here to back the assertion that there is a real difference in the kinds of information that are retained (by men or women) from one class to another.
    Certainly, long-term retention was poor in the case of the question in the subsequent course.
    But what was the control?
    That would be their performance in the whole course, which was the next in sequence following the introductory chemical engineering course. Presumably if they were able to perform in the course and understand its concepts, that demonstrated that they had retained enough technical information from the intro course to be able to function in the follow-on course. The one exam question was designed to specifically test retention of the specific global, social, and cultural diversity material included in the intro course. Perhaps I didn’t make that clear. This is why the gender split in performance was so shocking, because there was no such gender split in any of the technical component of the follow-on course material.
    Otherwise, Sandy, you seem to be suggesting that women in general are much better at retaining any sort of information in chemical engineering classes than men in general, as a way of explaining away the results described in the post. And THAT to me seems more unlikely than the socio-cultural explanation for the results that I postulated.

  10. November 9, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    As far as I can tell, there isn’t sufficient information here to back the assertion that there is a real difference in the kinds of information that are retained (by men or women) from one class to another.
    Certainly, long-term retention was poor in the case of the question in the subsequent course.
    But what was the control?
    That would be their performance in the whole course, which was the next in sequence following the introductory chemical engineering course. Presumably if they were able to perform in the course and understand its concepts, that demonstrated that they had retained enough technical information from the intro course to be able to function in the follow-on course. The one exam question was designed to specifically test retention of the specific global, social, and cultural diversity material included in the intro course. Perhaps I didn’t make that clear. This is why the gender split in performance was so shocking, because there was no such gender split in any of the technical component of the follow-on course material.
    Otherwise, Sandy, you seem to be suggesting that women in general are much better at retaining any sort of information in chemical engineering classes than men in general, as a way of explaining away the results described in the post. And THAT to me seems more unlikely than the socio-cultural explanation for the results that I postulated.

  11. transgressingengineer
    November 9, 2006 at 4:28 pm

    Greg had said that privilege is too strong of a word to use to describe what is happening in engineering concerning race and gender, that it mystifies the people whom get that label attached to them. I respectfully disagree.
    By only focusing on the people who are discriminated against (people of color and women), we set up a deficit model where we depict people of color and women *lacking* in something that that the people not in those groups (i.e. white men) have. This means that we are comparing people of color and women to a norm, in this case, white men. We’ve seen the logic that comes out of this deficit model all around us: white men don’t see themselves as playing any part in this system that allows for the discrimination of people of color and women because, according to the model we use, there is something lacking in those *individuals.* This is a fundamental stumbling point for the “diversity problem” in engineering.
    This deficit model allows for the responsibility of discrimination to stay at the individual level, instead of at the organizational level where it belongs. By allowing people to focus on the individuals that are ‘discriminated against’ we lose sight that there is a counterpart to this situation- if some are discriminated against, others must have extra advantages (or privileges).
    By recognizing this powerful system at play, we can see that the discrimination and privilege do not (for the most part) reside at the individual level, but rather at the organizational level. Naming the privilege that exists in engineering allows for the acknowledgement that a culture of whiteness exists in engineering today. By naming that culture and acknowledging its existence, we can finally begin to talk about it in a meaningful way and work towards making engineering a field that is welcoming to *all.* So if “labeling” individuals with the title of privilege seems uncomfortable to you, how does it feel to be labeled as inadequate?

  12. Greg
    November 9, 2006 at 6:49 pm

    It can seem to you all you want. If you want them to change, you need to find something which seems to them.
    You need to find something which is “readily apparent to them”.
    To them. You are already persuaded.

  13. November 10, 2006 at 12:28 pm

    Greg, on the one hand what you say “seems” to sound very reasonable.
    On the other hand it’s a load of crap. The point I have been trying to make – in this post, and in others on this blog – is that it doesn’t really matter what the hell we say or how sweetly (or not) we say it. They aren’t listening because they don’t HAVE to listen, because that’s what privilege is. We can shout all we want. Or we can talk sweetly and ask nicely and try to be non-threatening. Or we can go for cold steely logic with charts and graphs – see responses to recent NSF study. It doesn’t frickin’ matter. What. We. Say. Or. How. We. Say. It. They. Are. Not. Listening. Because. They. Don’t. Have. To.
    So stop trying to shove responsibility for having to find the one perfect way to communicate issues of global, social, and cultural diversity to unwilling white male ears onto the backs of the people who suffer most from their unwillingness to listen. The few white males who ARE willing to address such issues have a special responsibility to round up their peers and get them to listen as well. Because they are the only ones with peer authority to get the morons to get their heads out of their asses and start looking at structural inequalities and stop hiding behind the fake fear that someone is going to accuse them of being personally responsible for all inequity in the world.

  14. Greg
    November 10, 2006 at 8:24 pm

    Do you want it to change? Or are you here for the endorphin rush?
    Is that why you are shouting all you want?
    This continent is crowded with righteous progressives who don’t feel virtuous, until they have done their daily Two-Minute Hate. Then, they figure they have done as much as anyone should expect. Besides they don’t want to spoil the groovy vibes.
    And thas sho nuff fine fo Massa, cos it makes him look ever so White, tolerating the loudmouth fieldhands. He knows that, as long as you’re shouting, he doesn’t need to listen. And he knows that, as soon as one of those willing few rounds up some peers for listening, you are going to come along and shout at them, drive them away.
    You want to scare the shit out of Master, stop shouting. Whisper. Start looking for what hurts. Find his wallet.
    The Civil Rights Act was written in Black blood. The White Northern Liberals were not actors, they were witnesses. If you wait around for somebody else to free you, you’re gonna find yourself squatting in somebody else’s corral.

  15. November 10, 2006 at 9:57 pm

    Spare me the patronizing tone. I spent 3.5 years directing a Women in Engineering and Science Program, helping 17 science and engineering departments figure out how to do a better job of making their disciplines/departments welcoming for everyone, not just white males. I helped raise millions of dollars in grant money and private funding. Some of that money is for an NSF ADVANCE grant to promote institutional transformation, and it uses money as an incentive to get partner departments to develop and implement their own transformational strategies and programs. (See http://www.k-state.edu/advance/ ) I know something about the power of the pocketbook, how to motivate with money, and how to pick and choose from the arsenal of potential strategies. I know when to sweet-talk a department chair and when to stare down a dean, and how to do both most effectively.
    I also know the limits of working for change within the institution. As Audre Lorde so famously said, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. She also said, “In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.” She also talked about the transformation of silence into language and action.
    This blog is about defining and empowering, about transforming that which has remained unspoken about women’s experiences in science and engineering into language, so that action may be taken. It has to be spoken first before anything can happen. Sometimes I’m going to speak loudly. Some people aren’t going to like that. If it makes you uncomfortable you ought to think about why it does. Stop telling me how I ought to talk and start engaging with what I say.
    If you think the post above was about a Two-Minute Hate then you didn’t pay attention to it very well. If you insist on that view, it seems you provide yet another example of how it is impossible to talk in any manner about gender and race without having someone tell you “no, no, you are doing it all wrong. You need to do it this way. If only you do it this way, THEN people would listen.”
    Finally, have you ever considered the possibility that the audience for this post might just possibly be women? That perhaps I am speaking to other women, to help them understand similar situations when they encounter them? Or to give them something they can take to a sympathetic colleague and say, “here’s something interesting to think about, I read about this study on this blog post”. Sheesh. Get over yourself already.

  16. Greg
    November 11, 2006 at 4:28 pm

    They. Are. Not. Listening. Because. They. Don’t. Have. To.
    I know when to sweet-talk a department chair and when to stare down a dean, and how to do both most effectively.
    The few white males who ARE willing to address such issues have a special responsibility to round up their peers and get them to listen as well.
    If you wait around for somebody else to free you, you’re gonna find yourself squatting in somebody else’s corral.
    As Audre Lorde so famously said, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
    I’ll shout and scream
    I’ll kill the king
    I’ll rail at all his servants

  17. transgressingengineer
    November 13, 2006 at 12:05 am

    Wow (read in a taken aback tone). Let me throw in another voice to say:
    Greg- I find your comments in the last two posts demeaning, sexist, racist, and not contributing to a *meaningful* discussion in the least (*especially* your post on Nov. 10 at 8:24pm). As Zuska pointed out, you are providing one more example to folks of how some people don’t really listen to what others say in conversations about the intersection of race and gender.

  18. Greg
    November 13, 2006 at 6:27 am

    It is not sufficient to hear what is said, transgressingengineer. It is necessary not to hear what is not said.
    I’m through here, anyway. Zuska discredits herself by citing Lorde without bothering understand what she, both shes, mean.

  19. November 13, 2006 at 7:43 am

    Zuska, you rock.

  20. November 13, 2006 at 3:21 pm

    “That, as I said to David DiBiasio, is white male privilege in/action: the privilege not to care.”
    Oh yes.
    Around here, we need a seminar titled “Hey Old White Guy Professors, Shut The Hell Up”

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