N.B.: Nature Physics (3, 363; 2007) has an editorial on a recent American Physical Society workshop, Gender Equity: Strengthening the Physics Enterprise in Universities and National Laboratories. This post is based** on that editorial, which is behind a paywall; you can read part of it here.
So, the American Physical Society had a gender equity workshop, and all the bigwigs came - chairs of 50 major physics departments, 14 division directors of national labs, leaders from NSF and DOE. "After all, if there is to be change, it has to come from the top." Sounds good on paper. There was some blah-blah about "leaders should" set codes of conduct, make expectations clear, be aware of subtle biases, etc. - you know, be good managers. Which, it was duly noted, is not a characteristic the usual physics group can claim. Then we get the usual 'times are changing, team work, collaboration, blah blah, this will benefit women, increased global competition means we need the skills of everyone even if you don't feel like being fair, diversity benefits women AND men, and that's a wrap on the article.'
In the middle of the piece we find two other usual components of Gender Equity In (your discipline here) Articles.
- Everything can be blamed on the kids! "The single biggest issue to face, of course, is that of children." Not professors who sexually harass students and colleagues. Not hostile environments in the workplace and classroom. Not the attitudes of male physicists to women who have children. But children. Women having children in a context-free environment, somehow, it's really no one's fault, it just so happens that it becomes a problem for them to continue in their careers. Maybe if we gave them more time to apply for young investigator awards? Yes, that's it!. If you'll excuse me a moment, I am going to phone up Absinthe and let her know about this great new idea. When she's done with her maternity leave, she could still be eligible to apply for a grant and....oh, wait. That's right. Her f*cking pig of a boss hounded her out of science for giving birth, so she won't be applying for any young or old or middle-aged investigator grants, now will she? Lest you worry that any of the actions or policy changes recommended at the conference will actually change things, the Nature Physics editorial reminds us "the playing field will never be level on this score." So there. Women, in pain will you bring forth children.
- Of course, we must not forget the poor advisors, who struggle valiantly to continue their research programs in spite of women dropping babies left and right in the labs and ruining everything. "Extensions and allowances are all very well" but what about those bastards over at CERN who are threatening to scoop us? They aren't going to give a shit if Absinthe's sisters want to procreate. So, a little lip service to the idea of cooperative teamwork and giving a good goddam about women in physics never hurt anyone, but at the end of the day, "there is a need, therefore, to keep firmly in sight exactly how science works."
And exactly how science works, Zuskateers, is what keeps the boys in charge, so what's not to love?
Oh women, we'd love to have you as physicists, especially now that we've caught on to this whole "global competition" and "we need all the talent we can get" rhetoric, and we're considering doing our best to fit you in, you cute little square pegs, you! Let us be clear: things have changed, and square pegs are actually considered to have a modest value these days. Not that you'd ever want one as chair of a top 50 physics department, ha ha ha! But, you know, when you're applying for an NSF grant and you need to address those pesky aspects of the proposal like creative, substantive activities aimed at enhancing education, diversity, and public outreach, the square pegs are sometimes handy to have around.
So, to sum up: Leaders should make a good show of being all for gender equity. Borrow some language from corporate America about cooperative teamwork, global competition, diversity is good for all of us. Exhort NSF to make some minor funding tweaks and keep the focus firmly on the real bad actors, the kids. Support continuation of structural inequalities by calling them immutable and aligning them with national strength.
If you visit the workshop website and download some of the presentations, you'll soon see that at least the material presented to workshop attendees was a bit more complex than the Nature Physics editorial allows for. Certainly there's more talk about transforming entrenched culture and changing values and practices. The presentations that focus on the family vs. career issue make clear that there is a context to this issue, and the solution is complex and institutional, not a few simple policies that have only to do with individuals. Be sure to take a look at Mary Ann Mason's "Do Babies Matter?" presentation. It'll curl your hair.
**The editorial is not merely a reporting of workshop highlights; it's a positioning and interpretation of the meaning and value of its outcomes. The editorial is quite clearly taking the position that men will ALWAYS have an advantage over women who have children, and that absolutely nothing can or should be done about the competitive nature of science which is in part responsible for this advantage. I think this is a load of crap that ought to be pointed out and opposed, hence this post. I'd admit to talking about subtext except that they are so explicit it's hardly a subtext. What particularly hacks me off is that they use the occasion of a gender equity workshop to advocate the position that women must always be disadvantaged 'cause that's just how science "works". The editorial writers ought to be smacked about the head and shoulders with a copy of Beyond Bias and Barriers.