How To Suppress Women’s Science and Engineering

Joanna Russ wrote a wonderful book in 1983 called How to Suppress Women’s Writing. (You can purchase it on the internet here or at your local bookseller or at amazon.) Sadly, you could read that book today and apply its insights directly to science and engineering.
So, with an acknowledgement to Joanna Russ:

  • She didn’t do science. (But if it’s clear she did the deed…)
  • She did science, but she shouldn’t have. (It’s science with a political agenda, it’s actually masculine thinking.)
  • She did science, but look what she researched. (Technology of household equipment, domestic architecture, women’s health issues!)
  • She did science, but she did only a little. (“Dropped out of the pipeline after the postdoc, poor dear, couldn’t handle motherhood and the lab…”)
  • She did research, but she isn’t really a scientist, and it isn’t really science. (It’s gardening, it’s cooking, it’s fiber arts, it’s pottery, it’s environmental activism…)
  • She did science, but she had help. (Her husband, her thesis advisor, her research partner. Her own masculine side.)
  • She did science, but she’s an anomaly. (Curie, Barbara McClintock)
  • She did science BUT…

From the prologue of Russ’s book (just think “science” or “engineering” wherever you see “writing” or “literature”):

If certain people are not supposed to have the ability to produce “great” literature, and if this supposition is one of the means used to keep such people in their place, the ideal situation (socially speaking) is one in which such people are prevented from producing any literature at all. But a formal prohibition tends to give the game away–that is, if the peasants are kept illiterate, it will occur to somebody sooner or later that illiteracy absolutely precludes written literature, whether such literature be good or bad; and if significant literature can by definition be produced only in Latin, the custom of not teaching Latin to girls will again, sooner or later, cause somebody to wonder what would happen if the situation were changed. The arguments for this sort of status quo are too circular for comfort. (In fact such questions were asked over and over again in Europe in recent centuries, and eventually reforms were made.)
In a nominally egalitarian society the ideal situation (socially speaking) is one in which the members of the “wrong” groups have the freedom to engage in literature (or equally significant activities) and yet do not do so, thus proving that they can’t. But, alas, give them the least real freedom and they will do it. The trick thus becomes to make the freedom as nominal a freedom as possible and then–since some of the so-and-so’s will do it anyway–develop various strategies for ignoring, condemning, or belittling the artistic works that result. If properly done, these strategies result in a social situation in which the “wrong” people are (supposedly) free to commit literature, art, or whatever, but very few do, and those who do (it seems) do it badly, so we can all go home to lunch.
The methods indicated above are varied but tend to occur in certain key areas: informal prohibitions (including discouragement and the inaccessibility of materials and training), denying the authorship of the work in question (this ploy ranges from simple misattribution to psychological subtleties that make the head spin), belittlement of the work itself in various ways, isolation of the work from the tradition to which it belongs and its consequent presentation as anomalous, assertions that the work indicates the author’s bad character and hence is of primarily scandalous interest or ought not to have been done at all (this did not end with the nineteenth century), and simply ignoring the works, the workers, and the whole tradition, the most commonly employed technique and the hardest to combat.

Write and tell me: What are your favorite examples of

  1. informal prohibitions,
  2. denying authorship,
  3. belittlement of work,
  4. isolation of work,
  5. assertions that the work indicates the author’s bad character (this one might be harder to find analogies for in science, at least just for women – I can see the fundies applying it to, for example, evolutionary scientists),
  6. and simply being ignored?
  1. Thinker
    November 20, 2006 at 4:12 pm

    I haven’t heard it expressed exactly like this, but almost:
    “She did science, but have you seen that skirt she’s wearing?”
    Which I guess could be seen as:
    7. Shift the focus of attention to something completely irrelevant

  2. Carpenter
    November 20, 2006 at 10:16 pm

    Belittlemnent(he opposite of embiggening)
    Perhaps you have heard of Lisa Radall, particle theorist, author of a well selling popular book, and highest cited HEPphysicist of the last 5 years…..
    She some work with physicist Raman Sundrum, a cool guy and very very smart dude which got lots of attention.
    Randall had been a superstar for a while before this work.
    I (then a grad student)was having a conversation with a then grad student(now postdoc) and he said that Lisa Randall-who was at Harvard(after having een tenured at Priceton and MIT) got a better deal than Sundrum-who was “only” at Johns Hopkins because women are rewarded more than men for their work….ya know affirmative action and all.
    Never mind that that statement is bat shit fucking stupi on all levels. Never mind the statement is an insukt to Randall and Sundrum.
    In fact, belittlement also equals anyone saying affirmative action isnt doing women any favors becuase they should really proove themselves; women get away with doing less of a god job for the same reward. This despite the findings that th exact opposite is true, men get rewards for being less good than women….men only need to work half as hard as women to get the same credit(commonly phrased women have to work twice as hard for the same credit, but I like mine better).

  3. Carpenter
    November 20, 2006 at 10:18 pm

    forgive my many typos

  4. November 21, 2006 at 8:26 am

    As a struggling assistant professor, I can personally relate to a lot of these. Especially 3, 4 and 6.
    I’ll tell my story one day, probably after I’ve found a new position 😉
    Thanks for bring attention to all of these issues and making me, in particular, feel less isolated.

  5. absinthe
    November 21, 2006 at 12:14 pm

    This is related to the last paragraph of Carpenter’s comment: I have been doing a two-year study of the public online databases of my old experiment at Fermilab that shows that female postdocs have to be *twice* as productive as their male peers to be awarded the crucial career-advancement perk that is a HEP conference presentation (you can’t give one in experimental physics unless the almost completely white male upper admin of your experiment allots it to you). By looking at the career paths of past postdocs on the experiment, I was able to prove that conference presentations were critical to a postdoc’s career advancement in the field.
    The databases showed that former female postdocs also served almost a year and a half longer than than their male peers before being deemed “experienced” enough to move on up the career ladder. Also, former and current female postdocs are more often shunted into “service work” roles than the males, rather than the “physics analysis” roles (where the real glory lies in HEP).
    I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on these studies over the past couple of years (cross-tabulating several databases is extremely tedious). At times I’ve had to leave it for a couple of months because it is just too depressing…after all, I know all the people, and it makes me sick every time I see that yet another one of my female or non-white colleagues got screwed over in some fundamental way.
    I told the experiment upper admin about my findings, and got ignored. So I lodged a formal complaint with the Fermilab equity office, and got told that they don’t meddle with the policies of the experiments on site, and don’t police them for gender discrimination. I told the lab that policy violates their responsibilities under Title IX. They responded that they don’t have to comply with Title IX.
    So I contacted the Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights (who were *extremely* helpful), and got copies of all the documents that prove the lab is beholden to comply with Title IX. (yet another example of why slimy organizations like the Fermilab administration shouldn’t fuck around with Absinthe….she doesn’t give up easily when she knows she’s right).
    I gave the documents to the lab. The lab denied again they had to comply with Title IX. A few months went by, and out of the blue I got a mail from the laboratory saying that they had appointed a Title IX co-ordinator. So I guess I won the Title IX compliability argument. I replied to their mail telling them that if they had received other complaints of on-site discriminatory practices from women or minorties within the Title IX statute of limitations period that they had brushed off like my initial complaints, they would be wise re-open the investigations to those complaints. I left it unsaid that I still have actionable claims against the laboratory under Title IX, and I have nothing to lose by being the first class representative to sign on for a class-action lawsuit. I assume they and their lawyers (who were CC’d on the message) are smart enough to figure that out on their own.
    The lab is still ignoring my formal complaints based upon all my statistical studies of the public databases. I hope they come to seriously regret that.
    The National Women’s Law association is taking a strong interest in these studies, and if I can get the friggin’ analysis wrapped up such that they have enough time to duplicate my findings (all the databases I used are public…they can duplicate everything because I can tell them where to find all the dirt), the studies may be rolled out as part of the “celebration” of the 35th anniversary of Title IX next year. Wouldn’t that be interesting…claims of widespread endemic discrimination under Title IX backed up by hard evidence gleaned from public online databases.

  6. November 21, 2006 at 1:24 pm

    These days I maintain membership in IEEE mostly because of an affiliate insurance policy. I ignore most of the stuff they send me, but I spotted this before pressing Delete:
    Women in Engineering: Addressing the Bias

    “a bias against women in engineering and science is especially hurting many countries in Africa, the Middle East, and even in the developed world

    (Emphasis mine; I just couldn’t resist. I can almost hear the gasp! while reading it.)

  7. November 21, 2006 at 1:24 pm

    These days I maintain membership in IEEE mostly because of an affiliate insurance policy. I ignore most of the stuff they send me, but I spotted this before pressing Delete:
    Women in Engineering: Addressing the Bias

    “a bias against women in engineering and science is especially hurting many countries in Africa, the Middle East, and even in the developed world

    (Emphasis mine; I just couldn’t resist. I can almost hear the gasp! while reading it.)

  8. Helen
    November 21, 2006 at 1:32 pm

    Fantastic, Absinthe.
    Thinker’s #7 is a biggie. I’ve seen that one a lot. Engineers deep in a groove tend to process their environment differently — they don’t see people as people, for example, they see them as envelopes of engineering utility. People not germane to the current microfocus of thought may well be invisible. I’ve seen a number of engineering environments where that’s normal. In such an environment, some doofus constantly shoving irrelevancies in everyone’s face every time he sees someone of the wrong gender/skin tone/eye color/whatever subtly drives home the message by sheer repetition that the hyperfocus I’ve described is inherently disrupted by the presence of someone with the “alien” characteristic.
    Some fall for it. Many don’t, but most of those don’t speak up either, and the disruption of the group dynamic continues.

  9. December 1, 2006 at 2:11 pm

    My favorite example: “Well, if you don’t fit in well to the enviroment and culture, maybe science isn’t for you!”

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