What I got wrong about women in science


In the comments section of my post last Friday on women in science, a couple people were confused by the idea that bigotry and discrimination could be something done, for lack of a better word, accidentally ... even subconsciously. I can understand why that's confusing. Most of us were raised understanding that discrimination was a bad thing, done by bad people who thought that they were superior to the people they discriminated against. It's logical to look at the way we learn about discrimination and say, "That doesn't describe me, so I'm OK."

The truth, sadly, is a bit more complicated.

Good people—people who aren't supremacists of any sort—can and do act in ways that support systemic discrimination. We do this, not because we're full of hate, but because we're full of other lessons we learned as kids ... things like, "Girl stuff isn't as cool" or "people of that race aren't like me, and that's bad." We might not cosign those ideas if they were expressed directly, but they can still quietly influence the way we act. And, if we happen to have been born into a non-minority category, we have the privilege of not even noticing when those old lessons direct us to do things that discriminate—because, from our point of view, the world still looks fair.

Case in point: That post on women in science, itself. Several hours after I hit "publish", I realized that I'd managed to put together a panel on diversity made up of nothing but white people.

I didn't set out to do that. But it happened, nonetheless. And it still furthered discrimination, by making it appear as if there aren't women of color scientists worth talking to, and by implying that their perspective on the issue wouldn't be any different from a white woman scientist's. Neither of which is true. Without intending to, I left out the people who didn't look like me. And because I have the privilege of seeing myself reflected in the media often enough, I didn't notice the point of view that was missing until after I'd already published the story.

I'm writing about this now with the hope that it makes it more clear how discrimination happens, even in situations without big, evil villains. Sometimes, people with the privilege to not think about diversity don't, and they make decisions that leave out people not like them. When that same situation happens over and over and over, the people who don't look like the privileged end upmarginalized. It's simple. And, frankly, it's a lot scarier than big, evil villains, because it's harder to change. In the future, I'm going to try harder to think past my own privilege. And, whether your privilege is based on gender, race, wealth, sexuality, or culture ... I hope this post will remind you to do the same.

Image courtesy Flickr user fireflythegreat, via CC


  1. Maggie, I think you are being a bit too hard on yourself. The panel lacked “diversity”, so what? Did get a pool of applicants of varying ethnic groups and just happen to select whites? Probably not. you most likely grabbed women in the sciences.

    “Diversity” for the sake of diversity is just as pernicious as intentional discrimination. It says to the person “I’m only including you because I need a token, not because you deserve it on merit.

    The true test of enlightenment is when you can look past the color of someone’s skin without purposely excluding OR including. Don’t beat yourself up.

    1. Let me frame up what you said in a historical context. Obama’s election had a lot of people claiming that because we elected a black president we were post-this or post-that. On the contrary. We’re post X when we elect X … and nobody cares.

      (For example, the election of Nixon meant we were post-Quaker. That’s right, he was a Quaker. And nobody cares.)

      1. (For example, the election of Nixon meant we were post-Quaker. That’s right, he was a Quaker. And nobody cares.)

        Hey, when your religion is forever associated in the minds of Americans with oatmeal and motor oil, then we can talk about being post-Quaker. :P

      2. For example, the election of Nixon meant we were post-Quaker. That’s right, he was a Quaker. And nobody cares.

        Nobody cares because he was the first President to resign and is oftenmost associated with the most disastrous war America’s ever been in… apart from this recent one you folks are having in the Middle East.

      3. The fact that nobody cares if Nixon was a Quaker is a necessary but not sufficient condition for actually being “post-Quaker” (sic). In the case of Nixon, we probably actually ARE post-Quaker, but that doesn’t mean we’ve moved beyond race or gender issues. In fact, we pretty obviously have not.

    2. The true test of enlightenment is when you can look past the color of someone’s skin without purposely excluding OR including. Don’t beat yourself up.

      Wrong. The “true” (as if there is a standard) test of enlightenment is to see a someone’s identity (skin? how gauche), acknowledge it, and consciously keep it in one’s mind, while at the same time acknowledge that being a jerk is not an option.

      1. tboy @ 19 – “The “true” (as if there is a standard) test of enlightenment is to see someone’s identity (skin? how gauche),acknowledge it, and consciously keep it in one’s mind”

        “Identity” – I do not think it means what you think it means. It has little or nothing to do with “skin”

        Nelson Mandela’s “identity” is very different from that of Pele’s, or Clarence Thomas’, or B.B. King’s.

      2. To assume that a person’s “identity” is based on their skin color is, IMHO, “being a jerk.”

    3. American discourses and their systematized expressions of racism and other forms of oppression are not at a point where a blog community can have some mythical race-less dialogue. The fact that we have the time, resources, and interest to discuss this puts us at a privilege that many in communities of color are actively denied.

      The original topic: I think it’s important to address where scientists of color are left out of the conversation, just as much as it is important to see woman scientists working in their fields: the issues surrounding the systemic erasure and marginalization of the scientific contributions by groups of people by arbitrary standards (sex, gender, race, class, age, etc.) have parallels, whether it is race-based or gender-based oppression.

      This isn’t a call for tokenism. But this is me applauding the OP on calling into question their own perceptions and actively clarifying and taking responsibility for the decisions they have made that affect communities of color.

    4. Wonderful job using an example from your own experience to educate others about the possibility and prevalence of unintentional discrimination. I understand the difficulty of coming to terms with one’s participation in systemic discrimination, as a white person, as well as the challenge of communicating this reality to other white folks. Thank you for your insight and frankness!

  2. Wow, great post. That unconscious sort of discrimination is what I notice the most–from Disney animated features to Live Television (I’m a recent BFA/BA film grad). And what bothers me the MOST is when people who also watch the shows try to tell me that I am seeing things or playing a race card when I point out the discrimination, whether against women or non-white people. I’m a white girl, so it’s not like I have a race card to play, and as a girl, well, we who have been discriminated against can sometimes notice these things. For example, often if a filmmaker is a woman, when spoken of her profession is modified by her gender (I.e. when people speak of “that female filmmaker, Katherine Bigelow), whereas men never are–if you say filmmaker, by default, they are thought of as male (and since the early 1900’s the number of female directors compared to men has gone down from 50% to 16% today).

    So anyway, I loved your post when you put it up last week, and I also love this post. Pretty much everyone has some discriminatory acts, but what we need to do is TALK about it, not sweep things under the rug and consider discrimination “the way things just are” or “ought to be.”

  3. +1 on the you’re being too hard on yourself. It’s more likely that it was just a coincidence than subconscious racism.

    There’s also this: sometimes people don’t think about color. Like, at all. If you lined up three women in front of me, one white, one black, one asian, and you asked me what I saw, I would say I see three women. Because I really do just see three women. And that’s probably what happened to you. Nothing to be embarrassed about.

  4. CORRECTION: The true test of enlightenment is when you can look past a poster’s omitting of important words, typos, and beginning quotes then forgetting the end the quotes.

  5. “Diversity” for the sake of diversity is just as pernicious as intentional discrimination. It says to the person “I’m only including you because I need a token, not because you deserve it on merit.

    Because, of course, you couldn’t possibly find anyone ‘of merit’ who doesn’t belong to the dominant group. There couldn’t possibly be any reason except tokenism to solicit the ideas of women of color who work in the sciences.

    1. @Antonius: Thank you for the call-out. While people calling out their own privileges shouldn’t really be something one should be commended for (it should be expected, really), communities who call out their own for discriminatory actions are rare and hard to find.

    2. Actually, yes, sometimes you can’t find someone of merit that fits a particular race/gender.

      FOR EXAMPLE, In Indianapolis, we had a bunch of new recruits in the Police Academy. Someone decided that since women represent roughly half of the population, half of the new police recruits should be women. They dropped most of the people in the academy in order to fulfill their ratio. They then discovered that there was a gross lack of up-and-coming police.

      Let me ask you, how many times do you see a little girl playing make-believe firefighter? How many times do you see a little boy braiding their mom’s hair?

      Sometimes and in some places, you really do have to go way, way far out of your way to find someone who might be female or who might be a minority to fill a position when there are otherwise tons of white male candidates with equal or better merit. This is not always the case, but if you really expect there to be a 50:50 ratio of men and women in the fire dept. or in construction jobs, for instance, or if you expect there to be a perfectly fine black candidate in a town whose demographics are 98% white, you’re delusional.

      1. you’re delusional

        Prejudices are delusions. You might at least try to pick a non-pernicious delusion.

      2. How many times do you see a girl or boy actively discouraged from those activities, even forbidden from them / punished for them? A hell of a lot.

        “That’s not ladylike.”

        “Don’t be a sissy.” “You hit like a girl.”

        “Women drivers!”

        “Men just can’t handle kids in the way their mothers can.”

        I’m not a fan of lowering standards to have someone of a particular gender or of a particular race/ethnicity in a position. Yes, there are times when there may not be a candidate who qualifies, but when there ARE (and there certainly are female scientists of color who are quite good, though it is true that there are fewer scientists of color for all kinds of complicated reasons), it is important to have them represented if possible.

        Why? So that other people like them can see counter-examples to quotations like the one above. In this particular case, it would have also been valuable to hear the particular perspective that a woman of color would have been able to give about how issues of race and gender interact in the sociology of science. How they’re asked to be on tons of university committees, for example, to serve as “representativeds”, and how this takes away from their time to do science. How they can be treated with kid gloves or excluded in part because people are afraid of saying / doing the wrong thing; how people assume that they only got their position because of who they “are”, and not because of their accomplishments.

        Further, it’s arguable that if you have a large population of individuals of a particular gender or race/ethnicity around, but none of them qualify for a particular position, perhaps you should ask why and do something about it. You have a town with 98% white demographics and can’t find a good minority candidate for a professional position, fine. You live in a town with 40% African-American or Latino population and can’t find one, maybe you should take a look at what the education, training, and economic opportunities are for those groups and what can be done to improve them.

  6. Thank you for this simple and honest expression of the difference between overt and covert racism. I make the same kind of unconscious decisions. I’m not beating myself up over it, nor letting myself off the hook; just trying to be more conscious, identifying my blind spots, listening more to people who don’t look like me. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, usually I end up feeling much better about myself.

  7. All the best thinkers and commentators know how to say I was wrong. Usually because they know how to challenge their own ideas and maybe even change them.

    I have been guilty of this type of discrimination myself, and groups of progressives that I have worked with have also been guilty of this. But we owned our mistakes as soon as we saw them.

    Great post.

  8. Thanks Maggie for recognizing a hard truth and speaking out about it. You are very brave, it is difficult for many to realize that if there are disadvantaged people, there are advantaged people; people who have the luxury of being able to ignore other points of view (as learned from by Tim Wise videos).

    Your work is honest and commendable. As an Afro-American scientist I’ve learned to look beyond innocent discrimination but over time it still has a negative effect that causes my spirit to become weary. But I’m not free of behaving the same way in different situations.

    I agree with JohnCJ that you should not beat yourself up but disagree with the idea that “”diversity for the sake of diversity is pernicious”. One only needs to look to proper experimental design to understand that in seeking knowledge we must look at as many diverse variables as possible in order to validate our conclusions. Well done.

  9. “The true test of enlightenment is when you can look past the color of someone’s skin without purposely excluding OR including”

    The true test of a post-racial society (which we don’t even come close to living in) is that it will look at least a little weird to us for a prominently featured group to be comprised entirely of white people.

    I guarantee you that it would look odd to some fraction of the U.S. population (maybe not so much to the average BoingBoing reader) if a group of scientific experts shown on T.V. was, say, all black. Those same people wouldn’t blink an eye if the group was all white.

    That’s part of the privilege whites have in our society: a prominently featured group of all white people doesn’t look weird to anyone. It’s just “a group of scientists” and not “a group of white scientists.”

    We need to recognize that right now, diverse groups “look diverse” to us instead of “normal. We need to recgnize that people would take special notice if a group had NO white people in it. “All white” is just seen as the de-facto default. It’s that kind of unconscious stuff that makes “intentional diversity” efforts important.

    We have to make sure that people who aren’t white are routinely included by default before we can look past the color of peoples’ skin.

    1. A white rapper or blues musician is a white rapper or white blues musician. Hm, guess it works both ways?

  10. I often joke that the key thing I learned as an Anthropology student is that everything is racist. It gets a laugh because it plays on the stereotype of the crazy, oversensitive social scientist, but in a very real way, it’s true. Everything *is* racist. And sexist. And pretty much any other -ist you can think of. I’m limiting myself to the United States here, but think about things logically. For centuries a significant portion of our economic base was founded on the principle that other human beings were a salable commodity. It’s only really been the last 50 years that as a country we’ve entertained even the notion that all people are entitled to equal treatment and that prejudice is bad.

    So, yes, systemic prejudice is still a major problem. I’m certainly guilty of it despite my deep desire not to be. The high school kids I work with are typically pretty shocked by the notion, and even many of my friends are resistant to the idea that they themselves may be, in a way, racist. But what’s important is not to let guilt be our defining response. We can’t sit around feeling bad about ourselves, because then nothing will actually change. Instead, our best response is, as always, openness and honesty with ourselves and each other. This post is a great example of that. That’s mostly what I wanted to say, good on ya.

    Well, that, and I wanted to take the opportunity mention that everything is racist, because seriously, this degree cost a lot of money and I’m going to USE it.

  11. Diversity is about inclusion. Not including someone, just because you didn’t see them isn’t diversity, that’s still exclusion and cultural biases going strong.

    “Diversity” for the sake of diversity is just as pernicious as intentional discrimination. It says to the person “I’m only including you because I need a token, not because you deserve it on merit.”

    This is prime display of white male privilege going on here. Simply because to your eye, it may easy to find a list of well known scientists, who also happen to be all white and male, doesn’t mean its easy to find such a list for female scientists who span all races, it also does not mean that they aren’t out there or they don’t deserve it.

  12. yeah, wiki-up ‘enculturation’ as the reason why this sort of thing occurs in the hooman brain, and if that flips your switch, take some anthro classes.
    growing up in the south(U.S. south, i.e. the last place in the western hemisphere to endorse large scale African slavery, circa 1860, by the Judeo-Christian calendar, forgive me, I couldn’t do the math to translate it to the Muslim one), i always thought of that sort of racism as the ‘polite’ kind. It’s the kind that can build a mob, but won’t necessarily have a rally… yeah? But, I think thanks to the radical shrinking of headspace and online time a lot more people are looking at people as people. or whatever… Dolphins, bearsharktopi, Gay, Furry, Lego, Catholic…
    Anyway, my pizza’s done… xx

  13. The fact that making the effort to acknowledge and commit to remedy the effects of one’s privilege has been referred to in this comment thread as “beating yourself up” speaks volumes to our collective inability to dialogue fruitfully on issues of oppression.

  14. Race/sex CAN be removed from hiring criteria. Hiring practices, especially in industries known to be heavily discriminatory, should move to using 3rd party interviewers plus raw data for hiring decisions whenever possible.

    Schools are the first place that I think this could happen. Entrance applications could quite easily remove all sex/race from the forms and/or be handled by a neutral 3rd party.

  15. (don’t think anyone mentioned yet, but the link back to the original article is broken)

  16. Don’t worry Maggie, per many of your commenter’s sentiments, Antinous, Razzabeth, John CJ etc., your very eloquent description of the subtleties of institutional racism are completely lost on those individuals who need to “get it” most.

    In my continuing cynicism, I have totally and completely given up. Underscoring how right on the money the first commenter was, “beautifully stated, touch to teach, tougher to learns”. Wow, that was beautiful.

    Thank you doctorlawyerengineer, while at Rockefeller for a brief year, when I and other students of color would see each other in the hall, it seemed as if our communal anonymity was the strongest bond we had with anyone in the University, even though we rarely spoke to each other.

  17. “Unconscious racism” is just “original sin” repackaged. Says more about the people pushing it.

    1. Actually, yes, yes it does. It says the “people pushing it” are actually actively analyzing and thinking critically about the world in which they live instead of flowing along blindly. :) Although those who try to say that those who point out discrimination are discriminating “doth protest too much.”

      The key with unconscious discrimination is to become conscious to it and the tendencies of society, and to try to work against them.

    2. Actually, the need to generalize and categorize is an instinct designed for survival. All the “ism”s are fall under the sway of that part of our brain – the part that wants to know right away whether the proper reaction is fear, flight, feed, or f*ck. It has nothing to do with the myth of “original sin.” If by making that comparison you are implying that unconscious racism is some sort of myth in itself propagated to control the masses, I think you may be rationalizing.

      We all do this to some extent – see someone and believe that we know facts about them simply drawn from some sort of category. The guy with the beard and the tie-dye shirt is probably a vegan, right? That slightly overweight girl with the tats and the piercings was probably molested by her uncle. The lady in the mall with the tiny dog and the designer shades is a spoiled b*tch. It’s a gut response based on prejudices formed over a lifetime of unique experiences, and it happens whether you want it to or not. The difference is how you process this “information” – whether you swallow it whole as gospel truth, or whether you question your initial instinctive response and seek to clarify it or dismiss it. I hate to say this, but I don’t think a huge percentage of people ever really question this kind of thinking. But that’s my own prejudice.

      I am just as guilty of it as anyone. Does that make me *feel* guilty? Maybe, sometimes. But most of the time it just makes me feel like trying to be more aware of how I act around people who are different than what I am used to. It makes me analyze my reactions and second-guess my impulses. That may get me eaten by a saber-toothed cat someday, but I’ll take my chances. We’re not talking about sin here. We’re just talking about honest self-appraisal and rising above our instincts a little.

  18. Great post. I’m surprised you didn’t bring up the fact that discriminatory is an inherent part of how neural networks work.

    Even simple computer face recognition networks, evidence these types of behavior. If a network is trained mostly on one race of people, it is very bad at differentiating between people of other races. In other words, to that network, people of other races, “all look the same”. The same thing happens if you train it up on all women or all men, all dogs instead of dogs and cats.

    Prejudice is always a part of our training, and it’s not just because of Barbie dolls and Disney – it’s because the people we grow up around are the people we learn to read emotions from, empathize with, and interact with. Our networks will always have biases around those people, good or bad, that we are usually surrounded by. We see less detail in areas where we have less experience – and we usually give those areas less credence than the areas of our brain space we know well. That’s why a football fan might think ballet just looks like people trotting around, where a ballet aficionado sees that a dancer’s back should be arched by 2 more degrees.

    The sooner we understand these basic facts, and let off the moralizing about them, the sooner we can help ourselves correct for them institutionally.

  19. I can only hope that this is weakening with successive generations. It’s very hard to unlearn, but maybe we can figure out how to keep from learning it in the first place.

    So how DO you fight millions of subconscious minds? Environmental changes?

  20. What the…? Maggie is apologizing? Oh fine, now what am I gonna do with all these torches and pitchforks?

  21. I didn’t even realize they were all white. When I began reading this post, I thought you were going to apologize for having all women, as though a man can’t have insight about this issue. I once had a woman tell me very angrily an din all seriousness (without knowing I might have actually agreed with her) that I had no right to an opinion on abortion because I had no “[insert vulgar term for female genitalia here].” I found this to be a truly bizarre position for a thinking person to take. I asked her, “What about women past menopause? Who’ve had hysterectomies? Nuns? People who’ve undergone sex changes (either direction)? Hermaphrodites? Do they likewise have no right to an opinion?” Then I asked her, “What if you yourself lose the lower half of your body in an accident–will you relinquish your right to think and express certain opinions, too?” She stammered. I walked away–and with a much lower opinion of her. A very well educated person who told me that I needed a vagina to have valid thoughts on a particular issue. THAT, folks, is sexism.

    It’s worth noting that had I expressed the same caliber of sexism toward a woman in that particular workplace I could have been reported and conceivably fired.

    1. Oh my goodness, I think you completely missed the point of both posts. Men have had lots of opportunities to weigh in on this issue. In fact, the original article started because of the comments made by men. This was supposed to be a specific look at how the people most affected by the issue at hand (i.e. women) feel about the issue. And yes, they do have more firsthand experience with this than you do.

      Also, you hijacking this thread to call your female friend a sexist is a little like trying to derail a conversation about the BP oil spill by talking about your friend who’s car is leaking oil onto the road. You’re equating two things that are not at all similar to avoid having difficult conversations about big national problems.

    2. I think Azaner’s point here is critically important to the future of diversity/inclusion: Are we as humans going to be able to tell each other’s stories with legitimacy? Or not?

      I don’t want to live in a “post-” world where only duly authorized representatives are legitimate voices of their particular niche injustice.

      I don’t buy into this balkanization of humanity.

      I’m not saying that you can’t go out of your way to see if you can find a/some female non-white person to discuss the scientist issue. It is important that you do. But let’s not get to the point where we *can’t* have a man’s opinion on the challenges faces women in science – especially if it’s solely because he’s a man.

      1. The original post was in response to a man’s opinion on the topic. If your goal is to see how women feel about the opinions of men, then yes, it would be fairly inappropriate to ask men that question.

        1. Yes. Of course, it makes sense to ask women about it. My example was not exclusively specific to this case, but about all discussion on sexism in science.

  22. I don’t get what’s going on here guys. I thought the original issue for consideration was sex differences in representation amongst scientists, and what the possible various underlying causes (and effects) of that might be. Is there a compelling/coherent explanation of how “color” is an _obligatory_ component of that topic?

    1. I thought the original issue for consideration was sex differences in representation amongst scientists, and what the possible various underlying causes (and effects) of that might be. Is there a compelling/coherent explanation of how “color” is an _obligatory_ component of that topic?

      The experience of a woman of color would be a unique voice in discussing the intersections of race and gender. While, as a white man, I can’t speak directly from these women’s point of view, it seems that gender stereotypes amongst different ethnic groups would have a varying impact on their representation in the sciences. Within communities of color, a woman’s participation in scientific pursuits might be more or less acceptable.

  23. Personally, I think some deeper reading of Pinker might be in order.

    All human animals react to and distinguish the “other” as something different, lesser, and something to be somewhat wary of. This is natural; this is a part of survival, in evolutionary terms; this is primarily R-complex-based chemistry, not culture; not society; not controllable.

    How we deal with that chmistry-based “feeling” is, however, controllable.

    To a large degree society, especially those of us who are favoured in Western cultures with the time and leisure to ponder such things, should begin to work on clarifiying the terms “sexism” and “racism” which have become a sort of catch-all canard for feelings we do not like but for which there is little we can effectively do to stop — terms we then use in a brand new form of marginalization of “you might not mean to do it, nonetheless you are a bad person and we condemn you.”

    The issue is not the feelings; the issue is how we react to those feelings, and how we come out the other side.

    1. All human animals react to and distinguish the “other” as something different, lesser, and something to be somewhat wary of.

      Presuming you discount all of those people who’s natural reaction to the “other” is “oh my god, that’s so cool!”

  24. “A classroom that does not have a significant representation from members of different races produces an impoverished discussion.”

    1998, October. Chronicle of Higher Education.

  25. It would have been better if you had not only included white people. Where were the Morenas? The Pardas? The Pretas? Amarelas? Indigenas? Mulattas? Criolas? Mamulengas? Mestizas? Azul-marinhas? Bronzeadas? Caneladas? Castanhas? Chocolates? Morena-escuras? Mulatinhas? Parda-claras? Queimadas? Paraíbas? Roxas? Marroms?

    I mean, if you’re not going to make this just a first-world problem, why not admit that a first-world model of simplified binary skin color might not be up to the job?

    Here in Canada, “Métis” is a well-understood non-white, non-native group that at least begins to acknowledge the complexity of race. The names above are ones that I’ve heard brazilian friends use to describe themselves or others, and there are many, many more – more than a hundred more. Enough that “Morena” has probably 30 variants: these were brought together in a composite list created by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics in 1976.

    If Brazilians understand that race and skin color has this diversity, I’m not sure why we would think that it doesn’t. Everyone used to know what a high-yellow meant: I doubt many do now. But if terms are shared, and representation is meant to be complete, and failing to represent fully implies racism, then you have a bit more work to do.

    It’s also possible that what this is, is the product of a highly refined discrimination, where “discrimination” is used to signify the workings of a subtle and sensitive, informed mind. Reducing the subtle possibilities of skin color to just black and white seems to be the pattern of societies that are still dominated by groups dominant in colonial or slave societies, and seems to be a move away from discrimination in the positive sense.

  26. Thank you for posting this. It’s refreshing to see someone offer up a genuine apology for an error that includes a cogent explanation for how the error occurred, but isn’t an excuse. The irony of your very useful explanation of privilege serving as a coda to the commentary on gender roles in a scientific context is a delight.

    Again, thank you.

  27. Thanks for posting this. I didn’t realize that they were all white, either. It’s good to have it pointed out so I can work on noticing it next time.

  28. Culture has FAR more influence on this topic than color. It’s worth noting for example that in China there are far more women in the sciences. This is not because Chinese as a race are more into science. It’s because of the culture in China. Anyone growing up in that culture, regardless of their race would be more likely to influenced by that culture than by the color of her skin.

    It’s racist to think that all people of the same color in any country are the same or growing up with the same culture. So in that sense it shouldn’t matter what the races of the women in the article are. If you want varying view points you need people of different cultures. Sometimes that happens to have a correlation with race but very often it does not.

    1. Thank you greggman! That’s what I always feel when I see this sort of debate come up.

      Surely one of the best ways to get different perspectives is to seek people of different backgrounds, not simply people with different skin colour.
      Skin colour does not equate to culture or background.

  29. Thank goodness this is the Internet; you can just ask a more diverse group of scientists for their opinions and publish them!

  30. There’s a difference between not discriminating and affirmative action.

    Using what is closest to us is natural and convenient. I think intentionally paying attention to the races involved and ensuring they are represented (on a relatively tangential issue) calls attention to it and creates intentional discrimination.

    I don’t believe you can end negative discrimination with positive.

  31. Reading the responses here has made realise how far I’ve come and still need to go. I have gone through some pretty major social, political and emotional changes in my life as regards racism.

    I was raised in Apartheid South Africa where serious, unapologetic supremacist racism was the norm. I was raised in white, liberal suburbia and even the most well-meaning people strongly against Apartheid were generally highly paternalistic towards Black South Africans.

    If you watched local TV and stuck around your white suburbs, you would honestly have thought black people were a minority. At least in Cape Town, where I was from. As a little kid, I freely admit I was a pretty intense little racist despite my parents’ charity work with black, Indian, Cape coloured and other non-WASP professionals. Entirely a product of my peers of less PC backgrounds, but I grew out of it thanks to age and wisdom. Seeing decent non-white people shockingly mistreated by proper white racists made me retch inwardly because I do not have a genuine cruel streak, and my desire to not be anything like those bastards followed from there, I guess.

    Apartheid law ended circa 1990 (Group Areas act, Education and so on) and the government changed over in ’94. There certainly was—and still is—a lot of kvetching about “the bladdy Blecks ruining everything” (and to be fair, the ANC’s track record on corruption and service delivery is utterly appalling, and my firends and family have all had far too many close or terminal calls with political bombings, shootings, a black-on-white church massacre in my suburb, crime for the changeover to be seemless), but I kid you not that even the more open racists became at least apologetic and circumspect about their prejudice, couching it in terms of pro-diverse ethnic separatism. Why did change in a huge way, was the media representation of race. Where you only saw white faces, now there was what I would describe as representation. Initially I felt it seemed stupidly forced, because I was still mildly, reflexively racist on some level, but mostly because the white person was nearly always portrayed as the unsavvy, uncool dupe to the black person’s dignified sage. I seemed very clear it was a product of lefty art-school types and it was, in my opinion at the time, harmless but pandering. Looking back I can only imagine how nice a change it was for a person escaping the bootheel of Apartheid to see their people continually portrayed as the voice of reason, the better, the competent person. A taste of my own medicine, in retrospect.

    (continued next post)

  32. Anyway, I grew out of paying much attention to the media (thanks largely to the net), and so whatever commercial racebaiting was going on escaped my attention. Eventually I even stopped seeing the race of faces in ads, or at least it didn’t catch my eye, but then for the sake of power and rabblerousing, some lower-rung politicians upped the anti-white rhetoric and I became horribly conscious of race again. African politicians with connections, luxury cars and sweetheart deals. People (and by people I mean white racists) who like to complain about black people pulling the race card have no idea what it really looks like. YouTube “Julius Malema” for a glimpse.

    For reasons of my own, I moved to Australia about two years ago, and suddenly I was in Whiteprivilegeville again. Australia is if anything more diverse than South Africa, but the ads here do not reflect it at all. Certainly outside of Hicksville, racism is taboo, but you generally don’t see non-white faces in ads. Take it from this painfully race-conscious person: Once you are used to seeing non-white faces in media, stop seeing it as handwringing tokenism ot anything sanctimonious, it is utterly creepy to not see them when there are so many out on the street. It is wrong.

    I probably haven’t gotten past some of my more traumatic background experiences, but being on the end of a national political majority opinion that I was at some basic level an undesirable purely on the basis of my race has opened my eyes to my own most subtle racist tendencies. And now I work against them if I can. If I complained about racism directed at my own family and myself, I’d be a hypocrite if I was actually racist, right? It’s not because I’m a soft leftie handwringer (I’m more a general misanthropic nihilist than anything political at this point), it’s because racism sucks and I want no part of the utterly pointless, dehumanising cycle of stupidity and resentment it creates.

    So when someobody says they regret not including non-white faces in their sample, I get it now. If you don’t get it, do the world a favour and shut the fuck up. I’ve been you, and you are just a boorish, defensive crybaby.

    1. This is a generally complicated issue and it seems like a good idea to take things one point at a time. Otherwise, we get hopelessly mired down in circular arguments and confused sophistry. (I know, I know — welcome to the Internet, the interactive communication functions of which were designed specifically to create confused circular arguments.)

      Taken as an individual point, the original post is fantastic! An excellent bit of awareness raising. Thanks for that.

      And thanks to theLadyfingers for adding to that awareness raising effort. You comment could easily make for a solid post on this web site, perhaps even a feature. The editors would be wise to press you to write more on your experiences.

  33. Prejudice is what everyone does in their heads when they are trying to assess a person or a situation.

    Ignorance is what causes us to act on our prejudice and make bad or hurtful decisions about people or things.

    Awareness of our prejudice lets us decide whether that prejudice is right or wrong.

    Everyone has prejudice but if you step back and take a second thought, you may find your prejudice to be wrong.

    Bigotry is when you do it on purpose and systematically.. I don’t think that happened here!!

  34. I find that this way of approaching topics by looking at different backgrounds is an invaluable tool for understanding them. My concern however, is often people look at ethnic backgrounds and forget that just because someone has one skin color, they do not necessarily have similar life experiences to someone of a similar skin color. The idea seems to be that race is everything despite the myriad of areas people could have been born and raised.

    I congratulate you on this post. It is important to keep in mind the different ways in which people are gendered in terms of race, class, and sexuality.

  35. You know, I’m going to be absolutely thrilled when the demographics kick over and I go from being in the majority to being a minority. Because quite honestly, the older I get, the more annoyed and apathetic I feel about being told how I’m subconsciously racist, sexist, *choose your -ist* and how through my very existence I’m unintentionally making everyone else’s life harder.

    Also, I am shocked to learn Post Cereals makes Quaker Oats. [Though I may be reading that wrong.]

  36. I applaud your sensitivity about this, remember the issue is the power structures of the Great White Males – diversity is good and to realise your selection bias important; but women of colour are still women, and men in power the firsthand issue – great to hit all bases, but sometimes that isn’t possible. So best not to beat yourself up about it but next time think past your own groups.

    And from my LGBT perspective I am aware sometimes the ‘diversity’ card is played as a sort ot unintentional or intentional distraction/division strategy – as opponents know it can just take everyone off into a liberal self-guilt cul-de-sac.

    As long as the furtherment of all women is your goal, then I see no problem, as long as you are open and inclusive where you can be – you can’t win em all for all groups, but you can listen and face up to your own biases and comfort zones.

  37. Did you check your four-person-panel for equal representation in the fields of religion, migratory background, eating habits (vegan?), sexual orientation, age, language, and political leanings? If not, why? Why are there only phds involved? Why only natural sciences?
    Why would you include only successful scientists in a panel about the possibility of systemically lower chances for women in science? A women-only panel on gender discrimination – is that a very involved joke?

    Please imagine the world after it was proven that women performed, on average, worse in a certain field…

    Sports, anybody? So what? Pick any woman at random, and she will kick any man’s ass in any sport. With a certain probability. So to heighten my chances in a bet, i would always bet on the man, if nothing else is known about the contestants. If the only thing i know is both have the same leg length, muscle mass, and cardiac volume, i’d go for the one with the higher testosterone levels.

    What i want to say is this: The observation that in a complex interaction of variables, one variable is unevenly distributed does say jack shit about anything. For years, women were attributed with better touch-sense – turns out it was due to them being smaller, on average, thereby scattering their sensory cells (same number as men, on average) over a smaller surface, giving them better resolution. Men have, on average, the same touch-sense resolution as women, if size is accounted for.

    Plotting the distribution of people along the length of a few busses, we discover that skin color correlates strongly with seating. May be we are looking at 1950’s USA’s public busses, coloured people being banned from the front of the bus, may be we are in 2010’S Thailand’s tourist busses, white and black tourists mingling in the back being driven around by a Thai in the front, may be somewhere else entirely, no telling by the correlation.
    If you are checking for discrimination, do not go by correlation – Why should it be that any field is distributed equally between every possible variable? I recently read an article about a male german Kindergarten teacher. Less than 1% of german Kindergarten teachers are male. Many german job titles are either sexless, or male, being applied to females by adding the suffix ‘-in’. Kindergärtnerin is the only instance where the suffixed word is the norm. No discrimination going on, just plain statistical variance.

    Imagine a world where higher socioeconomic status of the parents reflects on the offspring’s success in the natural sciences – or even in life at large – Seems unfair? It is. Yet it is not a sign of discrimination by individuals, but a sign of dicrimination by the system.

    To go further, why is it that we pay the maximally (for her abilities) qualified IQ120 engineer working 50h a week better than the maximally (for her abilities) qualified IQ80 assembly liner working 50h a week?

    Why is it, that the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine of sports is never challenged with vigour?

    1. Are male grade-school teachers really that rare most places? Here in Canada, half my grade-school teachers were male, so though I saw a slight preponderance of women, it was never that bad. What about high-school teachers? Same for me there, are they also rarely men around the world?

    2. “Imagine a world where higher socioeconomic status of the parents reflects on the offspring’s success in the natural sciences – or even in life at large – Seems unfair? It is. Yet it is not a sign of discrimination by individuals, but a sign of dicrimination by the system.”

      Of course, the alternative is to take children away from their parents at infancy, to be raised in state-run child care facilities with equal opportunity for all. And since parents would have no one to pass on their property to after death, everything would revert to the state (or the parents could bequeath their property to NGOs). Such a system would probably cripple the biological imperative for procreation along with much of the economic incentive for work, since there is no “profit” in having children. And even in this system designed to completely divorce the economic status of parents from the opportunities available to the children, there are the systemic risks of corruption at various levels, discrimination by the child-raisging workers, and mandated “opportunities” for the children that designed to address the needs of the state rather than the needs of the child. All in all, I prefer a bit more free enterprise and ability to pass resources through the generations.

      On the other hand, there’s no reason we can’t use the tax code and public education facilities to help balance the playing field as much as possible without removing the procreation and profit incentives.

  38. You might find some provocative thinking on this topic in Sarah Schulman’s Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and it’s Consequences.

  39. Serves y’all right for electing a Quaker. Shiftless underclass that they are.

    Everywhere in the world people find or create an underclass to despise. In Ireland, where everyone is white, they focus on variations in space ghost worship practices. In Belgium it is language.

    Of course (and thankfully) Nixon is not a typical Quaker. I have no idea what a typical Quaker might be, but Nixon seems somewhat unique.

    I grew up in a town that was predominantly white. Despite the largest Native reservation in Canada being a few miles away, there were literally zero overt natives in my town (no doubt some kept it quiet). There were maybe 3 black families, and they were teachers and doctors.

    I was taught by my parents not to be racist, and it was easy when there was nobody to be racist against. Years later I made acquaintances with a black msn who was of my age and from a neighbouring town. I caught myself just before asking if he knew one of the black families in my town (as if he would).

    It took me a long time to admit seeing myself as something other than perfectly prejudice free. It has taken longer to accept that I will always have to be conscious of reactions and thoughts, and be conscious in recognizing when I am slipping into stereotypical thinking.

  40. NO. You don’t learn to stop being discriminatory by “thinking about it.” If it’s all mental than it’s just more BS. You have to change your feelings, and return to assuming that people that are different from you are not bad.

  41. I don’t think it’s fair to title this post ‘What I got wrong…’ – you didn’t get anything ‘wrong’. Getting it wrong would have been asking all male scientists.

    Getting views from a more culturally diverse group would have given you more data, and more points to talk about, and perhaps even made the article better as a whole. That you didn’t shouldn’t somehow invalidate the rest of your good points.

    Like other people have said – there are a whole lot of groups not represented in your sample of women, and you’d be foolish to try to represent them all.

    1. “Case in point: That post on women in science, itself. Several hours after I hit “publish”, I realized that I’d managed to put together a panel on diversity made up of nothing but white people.”

      Sluisifer got there first. Dr. Isis is Latina.

      Please, though, don’t go on to write another self-excoriation on how you made the mistake of assuming an intelligent woman was Caucasian because you view the world through eyes of privilege and can’t imagine that any articulate, well-spoken individual could possibly be of hispanic origins.

      Sometimes mistakes are simply honest mistakes, not evidence of shortsightedness in oneself.

  42. Excellent post. Those of us with privilege do often support systemic inequalities, and recognizing it and admitting it is one small step to address those inequalities. Thank you!

  43. Really good post, Maggie. My part of the furniture industry employs maybe 10% persons with Spanish-sounding last names, and less than 1% persons of color. Until you get to the factory floor, where it’s maybe 5% white people and the rest varies by region.

    This is not something anyone discusses. No one seems worried about this on a day-to-day level. Persons of color trying to find sales or design positions in this industry will run up against an invisible wall with very few openings.

    I don’t really know what to do about it. Lament it, I guess.

  44. The whole concept of “unconscious” discrimination might be clarified by emphasizing a word that has come up a few times in the responses to this post: “default.”

    Sexist or racist or other exclusionary behaviors by otherwise sympathetic people can happen because the behaviors themselves are a “default” behavior in the society at large. They’re the only behavior that’s on the menu.

    Here’s a pop-culture example. In three out of the first four “Alien” films, the major black male character sacrifices himself for the good of the group. (In the other film [“Aliens”], the two sole black characters are gotten rid of almost immediately.) Would the four screenwriters consider themselves racists? Almost certainly not; almost certainly they’d bristle at the suggestion. However, the fact is that in all four cases the “Hollywood screenplay structure” they’ve internalized “makes” them default to a convention that exists to assuage the anxieties of a white audience. (Eddie Murphy did a classic parody of this convention years ago on SNL.) They’re not “trying” to write racist screenplays — but they’re also *not trying not to*, and in the absence of that conscious attempt not to, the internalized racist convention “does the job for them,” as it were.

    Almost by definition, a racist and sexist society is one in which *precisely when one does not seem to take a position at all*, one “innocently” defaults to a racist and sexist position.

    The gay African American science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany (who knows a thing or two about this), speaking of sexism in the publishing field, said it this way: “In a sexist society there are no sexist decisions to be made. There are only anti-sexist decisions to be made.” What he means is that short of flat-out personal misogyny, in a sexist society individual sexism happens exactly when one is *not* taking a position, when one is going with the flow of convention, i.e. when one is asleep at the wheel.

    I don’t think of Maggie’s “unconscious racism” in terms of deeply buried racist convictions, but rather in terms of an internalized set of racist defaults. In this context, there are only anti-racist decisions to be made — which I think is what Maggie intends to *consciously* (no other way to do it) try to make in the future.

    1. That’s one of the best, clearest ways of putting it I’ve ever seen. I’m going to challenge some of my friends who think systemic racism doesn’t exist to read your comment and hope it starts them down the path of “getting it.”

  45. This issue of “unconcious racism’ or “unconcious discrimination” came up last year or so, with the publication of Mike ashley’s ‘Mammoth book of mind blowing SF” (or something like that). Some blogger pointed out that every single story in the anthology was by a white male, and controversy ensued. I had a big problem with it then and I find myself objecting again now.

    I guess to me it just feels like there’s a suggestion of a diversity “quota” that must be met, and if it isn’t, well, that just looks bad, no matter what the rest of the item, article or what have you in question may be. Like somehow the lack of diversity invalidates any other accomplishments. I particularly dislike the assumption that if you, just trying to achieve your one goal, happen to NOT be diverse, clearly you’ve discriminated, like you’ve committed some crime when all you were doing was trying to achieve your stated goal and race wasn’t even on your mind. This is very poorly stated, and i’m sorry about that, I’m just having a hard time putting into words why I find this whole “unconcious racism” thing so extremely disturbing.

    While I certainly agree diversity is good and should be striven for, bandying about terms like “unconcious racism” or “unconcious discrimination” just feels like its drawing judgement on people who’s focus was just elsewhere at the time. Unless we’re all supposed to think of nothing but diversity, all the time.

    Argh. This still doesn’t fully represent how I feel about it, but its so hard to put into words.

  46. Just because you picked all white women doesn’t necessarily mean you were being racist. If it was the result of subconscious racist beliefs, then it was racist. If you just didn’t consider race at all, even subliminally, then it was just chance.

    It’s impossible to say which of these situations occurred.

  47. One thing noticed in your original post was that the photo featured scientists who were not all white women, which I appreciated. I appreciate your willingness to seek out different viewpoints.

  48. I’m not sure where I heard this story. Maybe it was even on Boing Boing. But it goes like this:

    During Obama’s campaign, a man tells his son, very excitedly, that this is a very important moment because a black man may be elected president. The son replies, “Oh. And why is that important?”

    And that reply was not because the young man was a budding racist, it was truly because he didn’t see the difference between a white man being elected and a black man being elected.

    I actually have a similar story about my own childhood. I was probably 7 or 8 years old, and I wasn’t very into politics at this time, but my parents were discussing Colin Powell’s possible campaign for president (which happened in ’96 according to Wikipedia). They were also pretty excited about his being black and having a shot at presidency.

    I asked, what is the big deal about him being black and president? My parents then informed me that no black person had ever been president before. I said, “Really? Are you sure?” and they said yes. I honestly didn’t believe them, so I went to the encyclopedia (this was before internet) to double-check. And yeah, they were right.

    This is the way your kids are being raised, people. Yes, we all swelled with pride when Obama was elected, but in 10 or 20 years, being black will be no big deal. Being proud of being black will go out of style, just like how it’s a big no-no to be proud of being white.

    In fact, the irony in all this (in relation to this article) is the progress of women in general has fallen behind black progress. I mean, no woman has ever been president. Black men, white men, they’re all men. And if the next Ms. President is black, white, yellow, brown– who cares? Color doesn’t matter anymore, or won’t in the near future. I have high hopes that gender will no longer matter, either.

  49. Treating a person differently BECAUSE of their race or gender (if the situation has nothing to do with race or gender) is racist/sexist – even if you are treating that person in an unfairly positive, rather than an unfairly negative way.

    I mean, am I gonna take issue with the guys who insist that women get out of the elevator first? Nah, it’s not worth it. I’ll say thanks. But it *is* sexist, because my gender has been considered.

    Picking someone to be on a panel (assuming the panel didn’t have to do with the experiences of different ethnicities) *solely* because of that person’s skin color, and not because of their experience, education, or life experience, would be racist.

  50. I am a well-educated 21 year old middle-class white straight male. White. The fact that a Jew like me wasn’t considered white once upon a time is irrelevant now. I didn’t pop out of thin air, I have a racial background beyond “white”. My ancestors have been persecuted. My ancestors immigrated to this country. My ancestors were treated like absolute shit in this country. Still, somehow, they got through it and now I’m the “default human” and there is nothing notable about me beyond that. That’s all society sees. It sure feels great to be king. The only thing better would be if people didn’t make assumptions about me based on my visible traits.

    It’s always the same when discussing the challenges of any minority group. “You couldn’t POSSIBLY understand what it’s like to be black/asian/indian/a woman/gay/poor/etc…” Yeah, I don’t have first-hand knowledge of what that’s like. Duh. I don’t claim to. I still understand that the world is filled with prejudice and I know it sucks being held back in society because of the way you were born. Even a “default” like myself can be the victim of prejudice.

    Ever try to use a bathroom somewhere if you’re not a customer? You see a girl (especially an attractive one) ask and she’ll be shown the way. I ask and I get shown the door… unless I want to buy something. Isn’t that a bit sexist?

    Ever been followed by a store employee who thinks you’re going to shoplift? It’s amusing. You should mess with them if you get a chance. It’s fun. Still, it’s prejudice. I look suspicious because I’m young male.

    To a cop a young male like me is always up to something. They like to point their lights in my eyes and ask what “the fuck” I’m doing. They love to give me shit. Cops love to give EVERYONE shit. I imagine a whiteboy like me gets the best of it, though.

    I’m not good (but not that bad) looking. Large nose. Big ears. Circles under my eyes. I’m over it, but do you know how little respect that gets me? I’m sure you can imagine because almost everyone is guilty of treating people differently based on their looks. I have done it too, it’s human. It’s prejudice.

    I get some racism too. I get the typical antisemitism, of course. Nothing new there. I also have gotten racist remarks intended for Indians/Arabs/Muslims/Sikhs/other-brown-people. Many racists don’t (or can’t) distinguish between those groups. I look vaguely Arabic with my beard and I have a tan. That’s enough to get a “towelhead”. At least it’s nice to be considered somewhat exotic for once.

    So, I may not know firsthand what prejudices YOU have to deal with, but everyone has to deal with SOME kind of prejudice in their lives, even us “defaults”. That’s life. The ones I deal with are much better than the ones “non-defaults” have, but at least I have an idea what it feels like. It’s called empathy and almost everyone is capable of it.

  51. How timely. I’ve just come back from taking 6 children to a movie (school’s out!). They were listening to one girl’s iPod and chatting. I overheard one of the children, a Caucasian girl who goes to a school which is 95% African-American, proclaim something about how AAs had fuller voices and were therefore better singers (the details escape me…I’m too old to hear conversations well over music). I had to explain to them the concept that just because you use the term African-American instead of black and compliment an entire group of people instead of insult them doesn’t mean you aren’t being racist. Fortunately, I think they got it.

    As much as I’d like to think we’ll be finished with overt prejudice in one lifetime, I’m not betting the farm on it.

    1. That’s exactly the one I was thinking of…thanks!

      (Outside the actual town of LaPorte but in the county, right?)

  52. Completely OT:

    Maggie, do you know where that sign post (Fail Rd.) was photographed?

    There’s one just like it in NW Indiana near Michigan.

  53. I came back to read all the replies. I find it fascinating. All the replies that start with “Excellent post, Maggie…” are confessional emails. Those people are confessing to sins. The sin of unconscious racism. Because it’s unconscious, we’re all guilty. By definition.

    “The key with unconscious discrimination is to become conscious to it…” (post #28)

    In other words, we are all racists. But it is useless to to deny it. Rather, we must first embrace it, and only then will salvation be achieved.

    Folks, you are creating a religion here, without even realizing you are creating a religion.

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