What’s an Introduction For?

At the University of Michigan, I have been the Director of a Feminist Science Studies program, funded by our Institute for Research on Women and Gender, which means our group has had a lot of speakers come in. I haven’t introduced all of them, but I have introduced a lot of them. And, not to be all a bunch of bitches, but I’ve also given a lot of talks. Someone once said “DON’T SAY A LOT; SAY HOW MANY”, with the idea that someone might say “a lot” when they mean, like, four. So, maybe I’ve given 70-100 talks? And, maybe I’ve introduced 20-30 speakers? So, while I haven’t had as much experience with introductions as some, I’ve still had a pretty good share to think about. But only recently have I wondered what should actually be in an introduction. Or what an introduction is for. Or, for that matter, who it’s for. Or, for that that matter (the grammar police one), whom it’s for. Is it for the speaker, to welcome them or honor them? For the host, to explain why you invited the speaker? For the audience, to make clear why listening to the speaker is worthwhile, and/or to give them context for the expert/content/topic?

I can’t lie; I love this ppt template but you can’t just, like, use it. OR CAN I.

Sometimes, the more famous and fabulous the speaker is, the lengthier and more wonderful the introduction is. Arguably, though, this famous person is more likely to be known and therefore, perhaps paradoxically, be less in need of contextualizing for the audience than a less well-known person would be. But, does “Person who needs no introduction” really deserve no introduction? That feels a bit cheat-y. And, people coming to hear a talk might be coming for Super Famous Speaker (TM), but they might just be coming because it’s the Wednesday noon colloquium and that’s where they go on Wednesday noon times and they have no idea what’s on the menu. What if someone just wandered into the talk?

What if you ask the speaker what to say and they say “whatever you want to say is fine!”? Does that mean you can introduce them however you want? Clearly, no. there are still some expectations (but what are they?). And, what if the speaker feels like it would be rude to ask you to sing their praises, which is, incidentally, something that women and minoritized folks are socialized to feel (i.e., to take up less space than they deserve)? If you ask speakers, you might end up with really thorough elevating introductions for people who already occupy a position of privilege and sparse hellooos! to those that are less likely to be seen as gifted, accomplished, or leading experts by dint of their social position. In fact, this might happen anyway, if the host chooses what to say about the speaker, right? Like, the speaker might undersell themselves, but the host might do that too, because our culture tells all of us to see minoritized folks as less accomplished, able, brilliant, etc.

Why does this need to be a guessing game anyway? After some discussions with some thoughtful people, I came to the conclusion that, as host, I should aim to ask everyone for a set type of material – they can choose to give it to me or not, and they can choose to give me what I ask, more, less, or something entirely different. And, as a speaker, I would create a general bio, update it somewhat regularly, and send it out a few days before my talk to the host each time regardless of whether the host asks me for it. Will I feel kind of self-aggrandizing doing so? YOU ARE TALKING TO A PERSON WHO LITERALLY TEACHES A SEMINAR ON SELF-PROMOTION. Ok, yes, I will feel kind of self-aggrandizing. But so what? This introduction – this talk – this event – is not just about me, as counterintuitive as that may seem.

Another reason to ask for specific info and give it is that different people may value different things. Like, you as a speaker may be all “why didn’t they mention my Nobel Prize?” and they’re all “wow! this person was interviewed by Lindy West!” Or, you might be like “why didn’t they mention I have 200 papers?” (by the way, congrats on that!) and they’re all “no book!?” if you’re in different disciplines. Also, I would choose Lindy West over a Nobel Prize and you are duly warned, world.

What do I think should be in these bios? Let’s see… (oh, and aim for a paragraph unless you’re super famous, confident, or fabulous, and then do what you want with my permission!)

  • Maybe phonetically spelled out, now that I think of it! People always call me Suh-ree, or Seeree, or Sorry. It’s pronounced Sairy! It’s not even hard to say! Yes, it’s spelled like a garment but that is not my fault. Maybe we should do that.
  • Position and Institution. Should it matter whether you are a lecturer, named chair, graduate student, etc.? Should it matter if you are at the University of No One Knows It or Famous U? If your ideas are awesome, they should be judged as such. But, you do have a position and a location, in most cases, so let’s just say it unless you have really principled stances against doing so (and then: fair enough).
  • What You Study and Your Discipline. But just in a few words. Yes, everyone should know what you do by the talk title… maybe? Say your discipline/field/topics. I usually push people to say all of mine, which last an hour, because they help make what I do intelligible (or at least make its unintelligibility more clear ).
  • Your Big Deal Stuff. Maybe this is awards, fellowships, accomplishments, books, articles, places you’ve published, honors, your Nobel Prize (as if anyone cares). Someone once described these as gems? or jewels? Or sparklies? SHOW SOME SPARKLE. You judge what’s important. But don’t be disingenuous and be like: oh my, I couldn’t possibly decide what is sparkly on my CV. YOU KNOW WHAT IS SPARKLY. Also, don’t worry about offending people with your greatness. People won’t faint away when they hear your amazingness. Trust me: they’ll be able to manage. As we like to say in my house: don’t be so humble; you’re not that great.
  • Other Formal Metrics of Success/Accomplishment. You could say how many peer-reviewed papers you have published, your book titles, your art installations, your public outreach (twitter followers, e.g.!), grant amounts and/or funding sources, editorial positions, whatever. DO NOT BE SHY. Go be shy at a cocktail party. These people invited you to speak. By definition, they have decided what you have to say is worth hearing! Oh, and don’t say numbers unless they are impressive, is my unsolicited advice. You have 10 papers? Don’t mention that unless you’re a graduate student or in a field where 10 is impressive. Instead, say you have published in journals like X, Y, and Z.
  • You Do You. Are you a parent, and that’s an important part of your identity/academic experience, or you want people to expand their notion of what being a professor is? Say it! “And, Dr. So-and-So has three kids, one of which is a cranky cat.” If you can be funny (unlike me, there), do it. If there are other aspects of your life that are important to you and interesting to share, go for it! And consider sharing things that, as I noted about parenting, can expand people’s narrow ideas of experts and speakers by seeing you, who is X, do phenomenally well (but, um, don’t get stereotype threat-y). In addition, there may be social location factors that you need/want to say, from your gender identity to race/ethnicity to immigration status to tribe membership to all the things I should put here but amn’t.

Now, of course people will judge you by your introduction. If you are a minoritized person, your sparklies may be just what is needed for people to judge you as (just maybe) competent or exceptionally competent. But, of course, your sparklies may violate your social location norms – I mean, it literally violates the gender norms for women to be successful! rock, meet hard place! AMIRITE – and no one likes that. There might be eye rolls or internal sneers at you – who do you think you are, to have accomplished things and stuff! But, here’s the nice ticket: no one will know you gave this to your host! Your host is introducing you! They are saying these great things about you. So, even if you’re being too successful-read-uppity, the success will shine through more than the uppityness because it’s not coming from you! Win win. Yes, totally, your host may balk. More likely? They’ll be like: Yes! Now I don’t have to write an introduction! I love this person even more than I did when I invited them. So, introductions matter for you, your audience, and your host. They position us, they’re political, and they matter, so it makes sense to be more thoughtful about them. Go forth, and get that intro!

But, also, if I’m missing key things – let me know! Comment below.

Wisconsin Symposium on Feminist Biology!

Wisconsin Symposium on Feminist Biology

Join us October 10 – 11 as we consider how to uncover and reverse gender bias in biology

Keynote speakers:

Anne Fausto-Sterling, Brown University

Sari van Anders, University of Michigan

Featured speaker:

Caroline VanSickle, Wittig Postdoctoral Fellow in Feminist Biology, University of Wisconsin—Madison

Open to faculty from all disciplines, researchers, and graduate students!

The Center for Research on Gender and Women at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is pleased to announce the Wisconsin Symposium on Feminist Biology to deliberately examine creating new research, new topics, new methods, new theories that remove the gender bias in biological research.

Click for complete conference details including directions on how to submit a poster

At a glance:

When: Fri-Sat, Oct 10-11

Where: Red Gym, Madison, WI

Cost: Full symposium early bird $55 until Oct 1st, $70 after. Students $10.

Register online» | Details»

Questions? Contact Janet Shibley Hyde: jshyde@wisc.edu 608-262-9522

Made possible through the Gertraude Wittig Endowment

Co-sponsored by the Departments of Anthropology, Medical History and Bioethics, and the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute

Supported, in part, by the University Lectures Committee

Save the Date for Feminist Biology!

Save-the-date for Feminist Biology! Why? Because Anne Fausto-Sterling will be speaking. If hearing one of the key players in feminist biology isn’t enough for you, I just heard her at NeuroGenderings, and she has some amazing new data. Plus, she is a major tweeter (@Fausto_Sterling) and I know that the day is coming when she livetweets her own talk. Also, you will get to hear Caroline VanSickle, the fabulous inaugural Wittig Post Doc in Feminist Biology at Wisconsin (read about her and the postdoc here and here). Finally, I have it on good account that Sari van Anders will also be speaking, mostly because I am Sari van Anders (and by ‘mostly’ I mean ‘entirely’). Save the date, plan to attend, and help spread the news. More information is forthcoming in July, including about registration and posters. Here’s the PDF to share: Flyer Symposium 2014

The Transparency Project: The scientific panel as a place for feminist science practice

Just recently, I enjoyed reading a great blog post about gender diversity in the constitution of conference panels here. Long story short: Jenny Martin, who runs the blog cubistcrystal, wrote about intervening in the lack of gender diversity on conference panels in her field of crystallography. It’s a great post; well-written, full of pragmatic advice, and some guidelines about what might work and what to do when it doesn’t. That blog post links to a petition about committing to gender equity at scholarly conferences (not just scientific ones). All this got me thinking because thinking is one of the things I like to do.

Recently, I was on a panel that had five speakers, four of whom identified as women and one of whom identified as a man. Eight percent is a lot of women! Also, there was lots of sexual diversity, with folks identifying as straight, bisexual, lesbian, gay, and probably many other identities too. That’s a lot of sexual diversity! But one thing stuck out at me as I slowly found out whom the other speakers were: we were four white folks, plus one ethnic minority (Latina/o). There’s a part of me that wants to name this the “+1 approach,” after ‘you are invited to this occasion, plus one’ that I hear gets put on fancy invitations (but wouldn’t know because I’m really un-fancy) (you’re probably like: really fancy invitations would never do that, and I’m all like: I’m busy rolling in mud with the rest of us un-fancy folks, so whatever!). But I don’t want to be snarky about the presence of any kind of diversity because that undermines the attempts that people do make. I do, apparently, want you to know that I have a good snarky joke ready.

Though I absolutely 100% recognize that you can’t represent all social locations in one panel, the constitution of panels that are diverse by one metric but not others is still worth thinking about. So, thinking about the relative lack of ethnic/racial diversity on the panel I was on, I wondered: should I encourage the organizers to invite some folks of color to the panel, offering my spot if they needed it? There were lots of great scholars doing exciting work I could imagine. Maybe the organizers had invited some other scholars of color, who had declined, and us white folks +1 were all that were left. I knew the organizers to be progressive folks, which almost made it harder for me (poor me, invited to the panel, life’s so hard!). It’s almost easier to say something to folks you know not to be progressive because they will either be like “OMG, sorry, you’re right!” or “you’re a crazy feminist jerk and this is about merit and obviously no minorities have merit and how dare you call us racist?!” Either of which is awesome because in the first case you’ve spoken up, they’ve answered positively and learned, and things move forward. In the second case, you can be righteously mad and push for change (not that being mad is awesome, but it’s a clear emotion and you can have a clear goal). But, if you’re like me, you’ve had experiences of addressing marginalizations within marginalized groups, like thinking about women of color issues within feminist (read: white feminist) spaces, or discussing trans issues within lesbian/gay spaces, and those experiences have sometimes been disheartening. I often think: oy, groan, if these folks don’t get it, WHO WILL? No one. The world is crap and I’m going to live under a rock, if someone can figure out how to get Amazon to ship tampons to a rock. So, I didn’t say anything and, after wringing my hands for months, I feel badly for my not-action and also complicit (and, no, I don’t think my apology and acknowledgement somehow are magically atonement that erase my guilt and responsibility, but I’m also not self-flagellating for a decade either because there is, incredibly, a middle ground, even to us feminists).

What should I have done, in the case of concern about the social locations of a conference panel make-up? Well, when I invite people to a panel, I think a lot about the diversity of social locations of those scientists and scholars I’m inviting. I try pretty hard and lose some sleep (and I really like sleep. It’s up there with milkshakes). It doesn’t always work out how I want it, to be honest, or how I should want it but haven’t gotten far enough, but more often than not, it’s an ok line-up in terms of representing underrepresented groups. I say this not to be like: wow, how awesome am I?! Am I right?! SOMEONE GET THIS WOMAN A MILKSHAKE TO REWARD HER AWESOMENESS. (Obviously, that last part is a lie, because I am all-milkshake-ready, all-the-time.) But more to say that when you think about it, not surprisingly, you have better outcomes than when you don’t. That’s obvious, but still a hard-learned lesson for most of us some of the time. But there’s a second secret lesson in here, to be honest, because I am just that sneaky. I think about the panel line-up before I do the inviting and also while people are accepting/declining. If I looked at my panel’s diversity after I invited everyone, it would be pretty useless, eh? Like, let’s check I have a diverse panel that represents the diversity of my field rather than my own myopia. OH NO! I am shocked to learn that my myopia struck again and the panel’s not diverse! Good thing I can change the panel now, right? OH NO! Apparently once you’ve invited people, they don’t take kindly to being disinvited and it’s seen as “inappropriate”! What shall I do?! Nothing. NO THING. There’s nothing to do afterwards, but suck it up and swear at yourself. And, of course, learn not to do it again. That seems obvious, too, but I think it’s also a hard-earned lesson for many of us.

This is an empty room. How would you fill it? I would fill it with milkshake people, but diverse milkshake people.

But what about the panel I was on? That’s where the secret lesson really comes in (it’s like I’m a TV show writer, inserting cliffhangers before each commercial and then never really delivering. Well, HERE’S WHERE I DELIVER. SORT OF). If I’m invited to a panel and wait until after the line-up is announced to peruse its diversity, what can I do then? No. Thing. Yet, I’m on the panel so it kind of looks like I’ve put my imprimatur on it in a way, even though I’m not the organizer. I’m lending my name to the panel (I have no delusions of grandeur, but if I make a hilarious self-deprecating joke about how no one would know me so I wouldn’t add anything, that doesn’t really make women in science look strong, so you can see I’m stuck between a rock [joke about any obscurity I might have] and a hard place [suggesting that my name might actually be known to one person out there and then being thought of as an arrogant stuck-up dragon lady bitch scientist, even though that’s – obviously – my favorite kind of scientist!]), and the panel is lending its authority to me. I mean, that’s probably partly why I said yes, right? Like, being on the panel is somehow good/useful/important/worthwhile for my career. So I can’t have it two ways, I can’t be on the panel and get the small authority boost I’d like from being on it while denying it has anything to do with me. So, wow, here I’ve gone on for some time, promising secret lessons and tricks, but where are they? In the next paragraph. I swear.

I now realize that the time to find out whether the panel I’m on is diverse is before I give a final acceptance. For example, I may be the first person they invite. Should I say no because the other people are nonexistent, and therefore the panel of one is not very diverse? Obviously, no, because sense-making is a good thing. But I could say “Wow – thanks for the wonderful invitation and for thinking of me. I’d love to sit on your panel, though I have a personal/professional/academic commitment to increasing the diversity of conference panels so that they better represent the diversity of our field and involve people who are sometimes left out because of majority groups’ perceptions of people who occupy minority social locations. So, here is my enthusiastic yes assuming that the panel reflects diversity along a number of social location axes that reflect under-representation in our field. Keep me posted, and let me know if I can help in any way. Looking forward to being a part of this great, exciting, cutting-edge, diverse panel that will ignite our field!” (I like enthusiasm just a little bit!)

I think it’s critical to think of under-representation and diversity in a local way. One of my academic homes is feminist scholarship/women’s studies/ gender studies. Do you think having a panel of five women is very diverse? It’s not a problem to have five women, but it’s not really taking any step towards diversity. There are intersectional locations (e.g., women with disabilities, women who have transitioned, women of color, women from low income groups, women who have immigrated, along with gender-diverse peoples and many other important social locations) that experience minoritization and marginalization in some spaces of feminist scholarship. So having 5 white women is not ‘diversity’ for feminist scholarship, even though it might be for many fields of science (though we’d still want to think hard about the potential for snow-blindness amidst all that whiteness).

Is thinking about social location variety tokenism? Tokenism is inviting someone to your scientific panel only because of their social location to “diversity up” your line-up and for no other reason. Like, tokenism is adding a stroke of color to make your artwork of presenters visually appealing. Thinking about social locations because you want to balance your own social location myopia or that of your field is not tokenism; it’s acknowledging your limits and biases, and working to change norms in your field so that certain groups aren’t repeatedly ignored, forgotten, or excluded.

I was once on a program committee where a very senior person (VSP) made it a point to ask about the gender diversity of speakers, alongside other considerations (e.g., geographic location). Someone else asked in a mild but still challenging way: Is that important? The VSP said: Yes. It definitely is. What an amazing move! Instead of justifying the ‘yes’, VSP made it the other person’s responsibility to explain why gender diversity wasn’t important. I.e., instead of going on the defensive or reactive, VSP made gender diversity the center rather than the margins. No one did any dislodging because who wants to be the jerk who’s all like “I hate gender diversity”? That said, often people will be that person, so it’s not like this strategy is foolproof, but still: it’s an important rhetorical move (I mean rhetoric in the sense here of thoughtful and strategic discussion/debate) and it worked.

The reason I like the cubistcrystal post so much is because it gives such clear guidelines to something I didn’t know what to do about… So many times, we don’t have an idea of what to actually do. Each time there is a conference or a panel or I’m on a program committee, I see the lack of diversity as a problem on two levels: when I want to deal with it, it seems local, idiosyncratic, and individual; when I recognize it, it seems systemic and structural. And how do you have a systemic response to local problems? The cubistcrystal post provides a model of how to do that. You have a principle (panels should reflect diversity of field and practitioners) and then a plan (I will take part in panels that reflect that diversity). There’s no handwringing, dancing and tiptoeing around, wondering what to do each time the same thing happens in a different costume. You just do the same thing, slightly adapted to each field. Martin focuses on gender for reasons that probably have to do with a glaring underrepresentation of women in her field’s conference panels. The same principle undergirds focusing on any and all underrepresented social locations, using intersectionality as our guide (e.g., is it really all men on the panels, or all white/western/straight/able-bodied/etc. men and is it really just women who are missing?). For me, this principle is social justice in terms of science reflecting its diversity and not further marginalizing marginalized groups, such that adding women isn’t really the solution, even if it’s a start. If it’s an end, then we haven’t really gotten anywhere, to my mind, in the path to feminist science. So my view of feminist science isn’t ‘add women’ or ‘add gender’, it’s ‘incorporate social justice.’

Feminist Science Studies Organizations

Guest post by Kgupta

Here are some of the feminist science studies organizations that I am aware of:

FEMMSS (The Association for Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics and Science Studies)


FiSTS (Feminists in Science and Technology Studies): FiSTS is a group connected to the Science and Technology Taskforce of the National Women’s Studies Association


The Fembot Collective (feminism, new media, science and technology)


I would be interested in learning about any other organizations/networks.

What’s in the Box? Defining Sex and Gender.

Guest Author: Zena Sharman, PhD

It all started in a windowless hotel conference room in the basement of a Toronto hotel. There was a weirdly patterned carpet and a buffet lunch and that awful, burnt-tasting drip coffee that I couldn’t stop drinking. [1]

Finding myself in a windowless hotel conference room was not particularly unusual. I spend a lot of time representing my organization at out-of-town meetings – it comes with the territory when you work for a national research funding agency. What was unusual was being surrounded by experimental researchers enthusiastically discussing sex and gender. This felt kind of like being in a room full of unicorns. Brilliant, highly accomplished unicorns with PhDs who really knew their way around a petri dish.

I happened to be sitting beside an eminent feminist environmental scientist during a discussion on methods for integrating gender and sex in experimental research designs. At one point she quoted the definitions of sex and gender from our organization’s website. As I listened to her read them out loud, two things dawned on me: first, we had inadvertently let several different versions of these definitions accumulate on our site. Second, these definitions didn’t reflect our organization’s current understanding of gender and sex. I scribbled a note in my notebook with a giant “do this!” asterisk beside it as I mentally vowed to update and harmonize our definitions.

Why was this so important to me? Because definitions matter. In Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences, Bowker and Star tell us, “all category systems are moral and political entities.” They go on to explain that such systems always represent multiple constituencies, they become potent and invisible as they get embedded into working infrastructures (in our case, a website), and they’re exclusionary, in that there’s almost always an “other,” a someone or something that’s outside the categories.

The categories “sex” and “gender” permeate our lives. Think about it: on an everyday basis we’re asked to choose which public washroom to use (men’s? ladies’? gender neutral?), to pick between female, male, and sometimes, transgender tick boxes on forms, to decide between Irritation Defense or Pure and Delicate [2] shave gel at the drug store. When we make these choices, are we doing so on the basis of our chromosomes? Our identities and lived experiences? Our hormone levels? How other people relate to us and we relate to them? Our reproductive and sexual anatomies? All of the above? None of the above? Something else entirely?

Gender and sex are everywhere, they’re inside and on our bodies, and they’re interconnected. We live sex and gender every day, yet it can be hard to perceive or define them. As Riki Wilchins wrote in 2002, “…trying to understand gender sometimes feels like trying to take in the Empire State Building while standing only three inches away: It’s at once so big, so overwhelming, and so close that we can’t see it all at once or conceptualize it clearly.” How can we put simple boxes around something as complicated as gender and sex?

A big part of my job at the CIHR Institute of Gender and Health (IGH) involves fostering the integration of sex and gender in health research. One of the ways I do this is through outreach to and capacity building with scientists who might initially assume that sex and gender aren’t applicable to their research practice.

My professional life is informed by my experience as a cisgendered queer femme married to someone who proudly identifies as both butch and trans. I feel an ethical responsibility to ensure that the work I do makes space for and reflects the identities of the trans and gender diverse people who are an integral part of my life and community. One of the places where this gets complicated is when I’m trying to create inclusive materials that are also accessible to the diverse and multidisciplinary community of scientists and stakeholders that IGH serves. While we’ve been seeing exciting advances in the uptake of sex and gender across the spectrum of health research, it’s apparent that the majority of scientists – especially in biomedicine – still aren’t accounting for sex or gender.

In December 2010, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research introduced mandatory questions on gender and sex. All funding applicants are required to indicate whether they’re integrating sex and gender, to explain how, and, if they aren’t, to justify why. When we analyzed data from the first three funding competitions after the introduction of these questions, we found that biomedical researchers were the most likely to say that they weren’t accounting for sex or gender (about 81% of them, compared to 21% of population and public health researchers).

At IGH we see these numbers as an opportunity for outreach, education, and innovation in research practice. I had them in mind as I challenged myself to write definitions of gender and sex that would resonate with, be relevant to, and be accessible to the majority of scientists who might think these concepts don’t apply to their work, while also reflecting the diversity and complexity inherent within the categories of sex and gender. They’d also have to be relatively short and make sense when translated in French. NO PRESSURE.

Spoiler alert: I did it (with a lot of help)! Here’s what we ended up with:

Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and gender diverse people. It influences how people perceive themselves and each other, how they act and interact, and the distribution of power and resources in society. Gender is usually conceptualized as a binary (girl/woman and boy/man) yet there is considerable diversity in how individuals and groups understand, experience and express it.

Sex refers to a set of biological attributes in humans and animals. It is primarily associated with physical and physiological features including chromosomes, gene expression, hormone levels and function, and reproductive/sexual anatomy. Sex is usually categorized as female or male but there is variation in the biological attributes that comprise sex and how those attributes are expressed.

The process of creating these definitions was iterative (as reflected in the subject line of an email I sent out during the process of writing them: “sex and gender definitions, version eleventy million”). It involved working with a staff member to inventory all of our definitions as well as scanning other leading organizations’ definitions of gender and sex. After reading these to assess their strengths and weaknesses, I sought input from people – researchers across the spectrum of health research and queer and trans folks (not to mention people who situate themselves in two or more of those categories).

I did this in person, by email, and even via Facebook – the medium that generated some of the most interesting feedback, in that it was a way to foster a conversation among a community of friends and colleagues who share an interest in gender and sex. It was also a way to create instant accountability – when I got something wrong, people told me right away. The process taught me some important things about defining sex and gender:

  1. Binaries are useful. Binaries are complicated. How do you refer to a binary without reinforcing it? Many definitions of gender and sex default to binaries (e.g., female/male, masculine/feminine). We’re used to thinking in binaries, and in my experience they can be a useful point of entry into conversations about sex and gender (even if your ultimate aim is to challenge those binaries) – especially in introductory conversations about them. (You know, like when you’re at a dinner party and you ask the scientist seated next to you, “So, do you buy Irritation Defense or Pure and Delicate shave gel? Have you ever thought about why?”). I’ve started thinking about binaries as a heuristic – a sort of imperfect mental shortcut aimed at helping people solve problems or make decisions. When developing our definitions I had a lot of conversations about whether to refer to females and males, whether I could use an all-purpose term like “people” or “humans.” It was our Institute’s Scientific Director, Joy Johnson, who reminded me that most people tend to think about gender and sex in binary terms, and that it would be productive to both invoke and challenge these binaries in our definitions.
  2. “Other” can be othering. It’s challenging to find accessible shorthand for gender diversity. I wanted to make sure our definitions made room for people who identify outside of the familiar gender/sex categories of girl, woman, boy, man. (I also wanted to make sure we made specific reference to boys and men because in my experience people sometimes assume that gender applies only to or is synonymous with women and girls.) How could I find a relatively simple way to capture the diversity of non-binary gender identities? I knew that I didn’t have space to list the myriad gender identities out there – plus I had to consider my audience. How could I capture “other” without othering or excluding anybody? I ended up taking my cues from language in the Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health’s 2013-2018 strategic plan, which refers to “trans and gender diverse people.” In our definition, I shortened it to “gender diverse people” – it seemed like a simple way to give a nod to the diversity of identities that exist outside of girl, woman, boy, and man (as well as acknowledging, if indirectly, that there are many trans people who identify as girls, women, boys, and men). I’m conscious of the fact that this compromise will probably still feel exclusionary and invisible-izing to some people.
  3. Common metaphors used to describe gender and sex are inaccurate and insufficient. We use metaphors to symbolize or represent something else, yet language often feels insufficient to capture the wildly varied realities of our lives, minds, and bodies. Two words that often get used in relation to gender (and sometime sex) are “continuum” and “spectrum.” Several people who weighed in during the process of developing our new definitions suggested using these terms as a way to represent what lies outside the traditional binaries of sex and gender (for example, “the gender spectrum from male to female, in between and beyond”). We’d used similar language in our original definition of gender. What changed the conversation this time was when a number of people commented on the inadequacy and inaccuracy of these metaphors, primarily because they suggest a directionality and an accumulation (the idea that as you move in one direction, you become more of something – say, more female or more feminine – and less of something else – say, less male or less masculine). As one of the commenters put it, “some people are very much both and some very much neither, and some off the line entirely,” while some dimensions of sex are categorical, not continuous. I was reminded of an exchange I’d had on Facebook about a year earlier when preparing for a workshop on gender research methods. I asked my friends for alternative metaphors to describe their genders – they came back to me with phrases like “an amorphous blob,” “a ball of yarn with both ends connected,” “a colour wheel,” “a swirling spiral,” “a galaxy,” “a planet,” “water; fluid, fitting into all manner of containers,” “a Möbius strip,” and “a sphere.” Our metaphors are only as limited as our imaginations.

If I were going to do this all over again I’d include an even more diverse array of readers – especially scientists from the disciplines IGH is trying to make inroads into. Are you one of those scientists? What do you think of our definitions of gender and sex? Do you have suggestions for how we could make them even better (or strong opinions about Irritation Defense vs. Pure and Delicate shave gel)? Either way, I’d be happy to hear from you! Feel free to Tweet me your feedback (@zenasharman) or contact me through IGH.

Want to know more about IGH? Watch our video!

Zena Sharman is the Vancouver-based Assistant Director of the CIHR Institute of Gender and Health. Though based on the west coast, Zena’s work takes her across Canada, training and consulting with researchers and students, developing funding opportunities, informing policy, and perfecting her all-purpose “gender 101” taxi spiel. Zena has a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies, a reflection of her longstanding engagement with interdisciplinary scholarship on gender and health. She’s the co-editor (with her partner, Ivan E. Coyote) of the Lambda Literary award-nominated anthology Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011). Zena’s also a board member of the Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health.

Works cited

Bowker, G.C. & Star, S.L. (2000). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Wilchins, R. (2002). A continuous nonverbal communication. In J. Nestle, C. Howell & R. Wilchins (Eds.) Genderqueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary (pp. 11-17). Los Angeles, CA: Alyson Books.

[1] What’s with that? And why are the cups always so small? And why do I care about the size of the cups if the coffee’s so bad?

[2] Actual product names; I’m hoping they’ll introduce the gentle-yet-militaristic, gender-transgressive Pure and Delicate Irritation Defense shave gel in 2014.

Are people evaluating your science or your gender? Could you ever know?

You’re not the only one who has wondered if those people were reacting to your gender or to your work. And you’re also not the only one who wishes you could scientifically test your hypothesis. Too bad that it’s impossible. Well, maybe not impossible. I mean, you could alter your appearance and present yourself in a gender you don’t regularly present as, assuming you could do that. But of course, when you talk, people usually know the work as belonging to you, so you’d have to talk about something you’re not known for doing. That would be hard in any case. But it also would be a problem because then you’d be a non-entity, and that alone might affect the way your work is received. So, you’d have to present new work as a non-entity in the gender you do regularly present as, but somehow unrecognizably so, in addition to presenting elsewhere in a gender you don’t regularly present as. And, um, control for the conference too (you can’t present the same talk in two different genders – people might notice that). And, you’d probably have to do it lots of times to control for noise and error. Can you tell my day job involves designing human experiments? (Noninvasive and ethical ones – otherwise this makes me sound crazy!)

So, let’s be honest: it would be nigh impossible to do a scientific test to see whether those people were reacting to your gender or your work. Though, it definitely is possible to look at how groups of people are treated, even holding content constant (e.g., through studies of CV’s, job applications, and blinded vs. unblinded papers – as people have done, showing gender bias in favor of men). But it’s not really possible to know about your treatment as a particular case. That’s one reason why qualitative work, lived experiences, and narratives are so important. Sometimes, someone shares a life experience that helps us understand questions like these. Questions like: would my science be taken more seriously if I were a man? (If you are a man, you could always wonder if your science would be taken less seriously if you were a woman. Go ahead! Have a ball with that! It’s a lot of fun thinking about it!)

Ben Barres is a world-renowned neurobiologist who apparently publishes only in Nature journals, PNAS, Cell, and nose-bleedingly high impact journals. And who also appears to like Harry Potter. Are the two correlated? Inquiring minds want to know!

He also has transitioned gender/sex and generously shares his experiences of once being a scientist-who-presented-as-a-woman and now being a scientist-who-is-a-man (or, in the eyes of the world at large: a scientist). I first read about Professor Barres’ experiences from a commentary in Nature called “Does Gender Matter?” some time ago. Before I go on, I want to clarify an exceedingly important point from the Nature commentary PDF I attached: if you read one of my last posts entitled “Philosophers got beards, scientists got crazy hair? Thinking feminist across disciplines” you may be tempted to think that the man in the photo (on the PDF, not Barres) is a philosopher because he has facial hair, but you’ll notice, upon further inspection, that his facial hair is a moustache, and not a beard. Is his hair crazy enough to be a scientist-archetype? Head-hair: no. Moustache hair? YES. I never specified that scientists have crazy hair on their heads (phew. close call). Here is also a nice write-up referring to some of the main points from the Nature commentary, in Science Daily. I do have to admit that according to my formula and close inspection of Barres image, he must be a philosopher… but he’s not.  So he should probably change his hair to be more crazy because I’m not changing my theory. (Always the mark of a good scientist.)

By the point that I read Barres’ commentary, I was knees deep in thinking about gender and academia, feminist science studies, and gender/sex, so it’s not surprising that the article was incredibly exciting to me. It made me want to do the running man all over campus (a 90’s dance move that has been scientifically confirmed as “awesome”) (not exactly). Here’s my favorite quote, one I still remember, that Dr. Barres overhead another faculty member making: “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but his work is much better than his sister’s work.” If you don’t get why this statement is so powerful, it’s this: Ben Barres doesn’t have a sister. What-? But-? Who-? That faculty member was comparing the science Dr. Barres presented as a man to the science he presented before his transition, when his public presentation was as a woman.

I want to intervene in my own blog post for a moment. There is a long, sordid, and disturbing history in both science and feminism to use the experiences of gender-variant people to prove some point about gender/sex. People with same-sex interests, intersex-identified people or people with disorders of sex development, girls who like “boy” things and boys who like “girl” things, and – you guessed it – trans-identified folks. In fact, a widely used term in science (or at least the disciplines I roam around in) is “natural experiment”, which refers to when something happens that allows you to test your hypothesis that you would otherwise be unable to do for ethical reasons. I don’t think it’s a good idea to use trans’ experiences just to exemplify some other point. And it’s never a good idea to refer to actual people, especially marginalized groups, as “natural experiments.” So I hope that it’s clear that I’m not using Ben Barres’ experiences to make a point; he is. And lucky for us, ’cause it’s a really great fucking point.

Barres makes a larger point: “Like many women and minorities, however, I am suspicious when those who are at an advantage proclaim that a disadvantaged group of people is innately less able.” Basically this means: people in power like to think they deserve it, which basically means they have to think that people out of power must deserve their lack of power. And by “deserve”, people in power mean “innately suited to” X. Like, women are just innately worse at science than men, and all the known discrimination has nothing to do with nothing! I mean, obviously in our evolutionary history, women were too busy picking nail polish colors and complaining about muffin-tops to deal thoughtfully with all the test tubes and generators and Bunsen burners lying around, so men got “evolved” to do science and women didn’t really get evolved at all (Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has a perfectly-titled book to reference here called “The Woman That Never Evolved). Men = good scientists, women = not. Thems the breaks! Taken to a logical extension, we can imagine that the reason that the U.S. has few scientists from, say, the Congo, is not because of silly, ineffectual things like colonialism, arms dealing, racism, nationalism, poverty, immigration policies, etc., but instead because those Congolese just don’t have what it takes! I mean, that’s obvious, right?

In science there is a rule called “parsimony” that refers to taking the most obvious and simplest answer supported by the evidence of all possible answers. Obviously it is more parsimonious to assume that marginalized people have lesser innate ability than to point to the structural barriers to their involvement that are well-documented (Barres has a great powerpoint about all this, here). Um, or do I mean ‘convenient’ rather than parsimonious? Or maybe “a better way for people to explain why men get to be good at science and women kind of don’t (or at least don’t really) so that no one has to feel bad about their own complicity in a problematic system.” That’s a mouthful, I agree. But, hey, what do I know? I’m just a scientist-who-is-a-woman and this all sounds dangerously close to logic and theory and, well, thinking. Maybe my brother, if I had one, would get parsimony better than I do. It seems obvious he’d be a better scientist.

Thanks to Ben Barres for suggesting some great content for this post!