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.

Apologies for the delay?

If you’re like most academics I know, then you’ve probably typed the title of this post a number of times. “Apologies for the delay” you’ve written, to help alleviate the guilt you feel in taking too long to respond to someone’s email. But, how long is “too long?” Isn’t there an emotionally-loaded nature to the term “delay”? And, why can’t I decide whether to put the question mark IN the quotes or outside of the quotes? SHOULDN’T I KNOW THIS BY “NOW”?

I’ve been gone a little while, doing a bit of reproduction. For various reasons, that would bore some of you and be extremely interesting to others, I had very limited time on the computer during most of my pregnancy and the first year of my baby’s life. I had to make some priorities, which included, predictably, “everything.” (Also: “everything”.) It turns out, however, and some of you may already know this, that “everything” can well be your verbatim priority list IN THEORY but not in actuality. So, though I planned to post on here each week, and duly felt like a guilty no-goodnik each week for failing to do so, I couldn’t do postings because of the actual things I actually had to get done to keep things afloat. What were they, you ask? AREN’T WE NOSY! They included miscellaneous things like, in no particular order: showering, eating, reading student drafts, doing my editor stuff, reviewing people’s papers, doing some of my own research (HOW DARE I), trying not to barf 24/7 with all-day pregnancy nausea, pushing a baby out my bagina (I can say bagina because I’m a sex researcher but you should use the proper terminology until you get a Ph.D. in baginaology), breastfeeding a baby 24/7 (did you know a baby can be on your nipple ALL THE TIME with no consequences except for your sanity?! I DO!), being with my older kid, drinking water, doing Facebook (IMPORTANT), and the many “just one things!” that people ask you to do until you are one-thinged to death (except I didn’t die: surprise!). Well. Writing that list wasn’t cathartic at all. ANYWAY. I could apologize for the delay in posting. Clearly, some time passed. I felt guilty. It rolls so easily off the fingers and seems eminently appropriate: Apologies for the delay. I hope you can ever forgive me for being the most horrible person in the world for taking X time to do Y.

But if I apologize for the “delay”, what am I apologizing for? Sorry for reproducing? Sorry for gestating? Sorry I got so nauseous I could barely be on my computer? Sorry my life happened? Sorry I exist? Sorry I’m a woman and was socialized with feminine gender norms and I’m also Canadian and that is a double whammy of I can’t stop apologizing? Sorry for babies? Sorry for birth and breastfeeding and my uterus and my bagina?

The thing is, though, this reproductive happening isn’t the first time I’ve wanted to “apologize for the delay.” Sometimes it takes me a few days to respond to someone’s email. GASPY! Less frequently, BECAUSE I LOVE EMAIL, it takes me a week or longer. Is that a delay? Sometimes, I’ve emailed someone on, say, a Friday, and they respond on a Monday. With apologies. For the delay. For Saturdays and Sundays? Yes, it maybe three days between when I emailed you and you responded but – in my book – that’s not a “delay.” That’s what labor activists fought for us to have and I call it “the weekend.”

A delay IS something that merits an apology by definition, one I just made up with my gut. So guess what? I’m not apologizing for the time that has passed since I last posted because I’m not apologizing for reproducing and its completely regular accoutrements-slash-complications. I’m not apologizing for having a weekend. I’m not even apologizing for taking some workdays to respond (people who know me are like: WHO ARE YOU FOOLING YOU RESPONDED TO MY EMAIL RIGHT THIS SECOND). Those aren’t “delays”; they’re life. And my life doesn’t need any apologies. And you know what? Neither does yours.

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.

Dear Feminist Scientists (and Science-y Feminists): Do you need a feminist supervisor to do graduate work in feminist science?

This is another installment of “Dear Feminist Scientists (and Science-y Feminists).” Yes, we are still working on a less clunky name, but this one is growing on us. Anyway, a graduate student recently wrote to ask us (and you!):

Do you need a feminist supervisor to do graduate work in feminist science?

It’s a good question. Do you? Did you? Is it only a yes/no question? Is a feminist-who-is-a-scientist enough? Or are we talking someone who identifies their science as feminist? What would you tell past-you? Or feminist-scientist-to-be?

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!

Science and feminism: the holy grail for nasty comments?

Just recently, Popular Science shut off their comments in a move they report here. An interesting post came up on Scientific American about this, with a pretty hilarious graphic to start it off (including a great line: “I can science!”). It seems that comments on posts about, especially, climate change and evolution are rewarded by especially vitriolic, nasty, and (worse yet) boring comments.

So, here, apparently is yet one more thing science and feminism has in common, because feminist blogs and posts are subject to the same treatment. Sort of, anyway, because I’m not sure that commentators on science-related posts threaten their authors with horrendously sexualized and gendered physical violence, including rape, though it’s certainly possible. For example, Feminist Frequency’s blogger Anita Sarkeesian received emails with images of her being raped by video game characters… in response to her work trying to create video games that were less misogynistic. Obviously, this would be a serious contender for “Ironic, version II” if Alanis Morisette ever writes a follow-up. Um, or maybe not, because I guess examples of harassment, rape, and sexism are kind of downers (except, apparently, to all the wonderful people in the world who find them hilarious and perfectly appropriate to threaten).

Not surprisingly, there has been a huge pushback by feminist-identified and allied folks against the online harassment of women, feminist bloggers, and public figures, precisely because the harassment has been so serious, disgusting, and – perhaps most concerningly – normative. It seemed sort of ho-hum, like “oh, there’s a woman in public who is being harassed. And? I think there’s a song on the radio!” In fact, there is a law that specifically addresses comments on feminist articles/posts/writings:

I think the anti-evolution and anti-climate change comments are largely intended to shut down debate on, well, evolution and climate change. I think the anti-women/anti-feminist comments are aimed at shutting down women (and feminism). It’s hard enough to put yourself out there, but when you get really disturbing threats for doing so? Well, that’s hard and brave and really really important because – from what I’ve heard – bullies are scared themselves by shows of strength. And feminists in the public sphere are shows of strength by dint of just existing.

So, let’s sum up: people post nasty comments to science posts. And, people post nasty/disgusting/make-you-scared comments to feminist posts. Let’s see where that leaves us here at Gap Junction Science… Um. So, well, anyway, let’s not. And anyway, evolution! climate change! feminism!

Of nodes, nubs, and shared projects. And cyborgs. And why being alone in your dept is hard, but being alone in a discipline is really hard.

Though it’s decreasingly common, many women in science have had the experience of being the only woman in their department. Social networks have been and continue to be important ways of connecting those who are the only or amongst these few. These networks might take place at conferences, via societies, or through the internet. A colleague of mine, Allison Steiner, leads one of these: the Earth Science Women’s Network. Their mission is (I added the bold) “…to promote career development, build community, provide opportunities for informal mentoring and support, and facilitate professional collaborations.” Community seems crucial for people to feel more like nodes in a connected system rather than, well, nubs.

This is the logo for ESWN; I’m using it here to have a picture on this post so that I don’t get kicked off the internets for having a (gasp) blog post without an image. But the image is also useful to the post itself.

But what about those folks who are nubs? The ESWN logo has a nice earth image, which is obviously related to the Earth Science aspect of the network (this astoundingly sophisticated analysis is only one demonstration of proof that I have a Ph.D.). But it’s also a useful image for discussing the community aspect of these networks. I like to think that the ESWN image also represents the connecting of people from all over. As in the Earth. Like people from all over the Earth. But see those stars in the top? Maybe that’s for the sky part of Earth Sciences (I am entirely making that up), but I like the metaphor it also could represent: solitary stars spread throughout the sky, maybe a bit lonely, like the nub-stars they are (I thought I’d downgrade the poetic rhythm by sliding in the ever-elegant term ‘nub’). In the interests of full disclosure, in case you’re wondering, I’d like to admit that I’m a frustrated art critic. But also: stay with me because there is an actual point I am actually making. Like, what if there’s no pre-established [Insert-your-discipline-here]-Women’s-Network for you? Moreover, what if you’re isolated and different because of group membership along lines other than your gender (or gender-as-woman)? What if you’re the only African American? What if you’re the only immigrant? The only queer-identified person? The only person with poor parents? So, really, the question should likely be: what if there’s no pre-established [Insert-your-discipline-here]-[Insert-your-social-group-here]-Network? Well, I guess you could just establish it. Case closed!

Ok, not actually. Establishing an online network could be a lot of work. And thinking that doing so is a possibility presupposes that there are group members who exist in your discipline, just outside the solar system of your department. You can probably guess what I’m asking now: Where is my chocolate croissant? Just kidding (not really). What I’m really asking is: What if you’re not just alone in your department, but you’re the sole group member in your discipline? Are you a destined to be a nub-not-node forever?

Someone who asks ‘when does that ever happen?’ probably isn’t a multiple minority or a minority in a very homogenous discipline. It might seem inconceivable to some (majority) folks, but there are lots of ways to be the only ‘representative’ of one’s group in a specialty discipline. Did you see how I put representative in scare quotes? That’s because rarely is the ‘representation’ of the chosen kind, and more frequently is of the enforced-not-a-choice kind. For example, you could be the nub in the “crux” or “heart” of an issue sort of way, you could be the “small protuberance”; you could be both. In other words, your presence could bring needed attention to the problem of disciplinary homogeneity or you could be seen as the problem, the thing that sticks out and rubs people the wrong way. As Sarah Ahmed puts it in her book “On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life” (and I paraphrase in the way that suits my point best): by reminding people of the problematic lack of diversity, you kind of become the problem itself. But, that’s so unfair! I totally agree! Still, it’s pretty common for people in power to blame marginalized groups for their own marginalization and their all-around ruining of the power-taking party. Like: What, the ways I’m in power marginalize you, and you don’t like it? YOU’RE RUINING MY GOOD TIMES HERE. Or, one of my personal favorites: Don’t you care about your marginalizing of my efforts to marginalize you?

(If you’re wondering whether you should keep reading, I just want you to know that both Inspector Gadget and Voltron make an appearance soon.) So, being the only group member in a department can feel more like a nub than a node, and being the only group member in a discipline might be replete with nub-ness. But nub can mean ‘heart’ and ‘crux’, which can be positions of strength. I mean, there’s gotta be some sunny side – right? – since no one is handing out ‘hey-sole-group-member’ medals these days. (Granted: any days). Sometimes, the feeling of isolated nub-iness can be so strong that the possibility of node-ness seems remote (yes I, too, am finding ‘nub’ and ‘node’ a little less than poetic, but I’m not rewriting this whole thingie). Societies and networks around minority identities are one important solution. Another is acting on the many ways to build alliances. Group membership – i.e., social identity – is one great way to coalesce and it benefits those of us who are minorities. Unfortunately, it doesn’t benefit those of us who are sole representatives. So then what? Feminist science studies offers another way to think about building alliances: via affinity. With affinity-based alliances, you find people with similar progressive values, and build community there. To be clear, I see the utility of identity-based alliances too, and it’s not up to me, anyway, to see the utility of others’ identity-based alliances. But to sum up: affinity-based alliances are built on shared goals, overlapping experiences of marginalization, a sense of shared project. Maybe even a joint love of chocolate croissants (never almond, though) (let’s be honest).

Donna Haraway is a well-known feminist science studies scholar who discusses affinity-based alliances in her piece “The Cyborg Manifesto” (click here: Haraway-CyborgManifesto). It’s a really exciting piece, though it’s not the easiest read ever in the universe. First off, I hope it’s apparent how allying based on affinity can be really useful for building community among those of us who are sole representatives in our departments and (especially) disciplines. That means it’s useful for all of us, even those of us with developed networks, because we help be community for others and also grow our own. I don’t know about you, but I remember the isolation (just felt it yesterday, in fact!) and my empathy substrates explode at the thought of ‘letting’ someone else go through the same preventable experience. Second off, I should be clear that Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto has literally been the hardest thing for me to read and understand in my whole life. Now that I get it (I think, anyway, or at least I’ve tried and FEMINIST PHILOSOPHERS OF SCIENCE STOP JUDGING ME IN MY IMAGINATION!), it has been life-changing for me. Obviously, you will fare better than I did, but I just wanted to warn you that this article might not be the best entree into feminist science studies. Sort of like: you wouldn’t read a paper from “Acta Metallurgica” (that’s a real journal!) as a starter into, um, metals? Metallurgy? Right? Right.

Who knew that Inspector Gadget was (could be) (isn’t really but should be) a feminist icon?

Third off (it was time for a new paragraph; even I recognized that): Haraway argues that progressive social change requires ever-changing alliances between groups because groups are not homogenous. For example, you may have heard the rumor that not all women want to have children. Some women who don’t want to have children want to work on issues of parenting in work/life balance; some don’t. Some women want to ally with other women; some don’t. Sometimes it makes sense to ally with women. Sometimes it makes sense to ally with people who want to end discrimination in your discipline (and that usually includes some men). Haraway uses the metaphor of a cyborg because you can change the parts of a cyborg. The parts aren’t necessarily interchangeable; they’re useful in specific contexts. They don’t need to all be involved, all the time, in all situations. Like, say, on a cyborg it might be handy to have a hook hand for doing hook-needing things (crochet?) (and pirate-ing?) (and did you see my pun about ‘handy?’ I’M ON FIRE). And then a five-finger hand for, um, typing blog posts with five fingers. And, doing spirit fingers. So, Haraway’s image of a cyborg is like a highly sophisticated, feminist Inspector Gadget (you knew this was coming, right?). Except the Inspector isn’t a person; it’s a community built with ever-changing individuals allying together depending on the goal at hand. And one other difference is that Inspector Gadget is a cartoon from my childhood.

So, sometimes it might be useful for group members to ally across disciplines (e.g., women in science and philosophy, as I put forth in a past post) but sometimes it won’t (when counting, say, science foundation grant rates to women vs. men in a discipline). Sometimes it might make sense to ally across feminists, regardless of gender, to promote progressive practices around diversity in science that benefit everyone, and especially women. Sometimes, it might make sense for a racial/ethnic minority group member scientist-who-is-a-man to ally with the minority group member scientists-who-are-women. Or, maybe, a First Nations/Indian/Native American woman with the Latina women in the discipline, because of shared experiences of marginalization.

I guess I’m saying: how can we find strength in our STEM nub-ness, and ways to build spaces for more nodes, in nontraditional ways that might be especially useful to the most minoritized and marginalized among us? Like, how can we come together based on affinities to promote alliances and progressive action? So, really, what I’m saying is, in all sincerity: I wish we all were the feminist Voltrons of science. Obviously.

Voltron is also from my childhood. Maybe yours! It’s made of different cars or lions (I can’t remember which, and the picture is no help) that come together to make a mega-character (i.e., Voltron). Voltron is super powerful, but so are the car-lions on their own.

Woman + Advisor = Mama? Something’s funny about that math… And we’re not talking ‘haha funny.’

I got my partner to make this in LaTeX so that you would think I’m more of a real scientist. (This is funnier if you read my last blog post about fonts.)

If you’re a scientist-who-is-a-woman (or another academic-who-is-a-woman), you may have experienced expectations from students to be motherly. And, if – or when – you’re not motherly to your supervisees, they may feel betrayed or angry, as people tend to when norms are broken. Because whether you are an actual mother to actual children or not, in most people’s minds ‘woman’ equals ‘mother’. Now this can be problematic, because ‘mother’ is also seen as basically antithetical to ‘competent’. You don’t have to tell me how weird that is; I mean, mothers in the West basically are generally in charge of everything to do with their children’s well-being, which basically involves a whole lot of competency tests. But, (feminist science) research shows that people perceive women as mothers, and mothers as incompetent. So, even if you’re the sort of woman who makes scary faces at babies (by the way: that’s not the least mean thing to do), you’re still being judged against these cultural norms. Students are socialized just like everyone else (plus via some other academic-specific stuff, of course) and they have expectations that scientists-who-are-you-get-my-point should be, surprisingly and not surprisingly, motherly. And you can imagine what research says about perceptions of people, especially women and/or minoritized groups, who break their gender or group norms. (Hint: it’s not good.) So, anyway, it’s a lovely damned if you do (good mama, dumb-y scientist!) and damned if you don’t (bad mama, smart/jerky scientist who gets hated). It’s obviously not a one-to-one thing where every scientist-woman is subject to this in every encounter. More importantly, this all sounds depressing, so just think about unicorns and rainbows instead for while.

What does motherly mean, in the context of science? It could mean giving a lot of your time, selflessly. Of course, we scientists already do give a lot of our time to trainees because that’s a major part of most of our jobs. But there’s a line that differs for all of us between the right amount of involvement and selfless-too-much-I’m-a-good-mom-right?-RIGHT? involvement. Here’s one example from my own experience. I was asked to speak with a campus group for women STEM undergraduates about my experience as a scientist-who-is-a-woman. The invitation was for a Saturday or Sunday (I can’t remember which because I used up all my memory cells on other things), and I had a new baby (like, just from the baby store!) and was on leave. I suggested a weekday, which I thought was pretty generous (remember, I was on leave WITH A NEW BABY, and trust me: getting myself presentable was a major endeavor, perhaps equal in effort to, say, climbing a mountain or digging a tunnel through the earth). I explained how this would be a neat compromise we could talk about at the event, as an example of how one can make life and work and tunnel-through-the-entire-earth digging compatible. I never heard back.

But I’m just me (bo-ring!); let’s hear what others have to say. Karen Smith, a mathematician, shared the following experience with me. When Professor Smith had just given birth to twins, and also had a five-year old child, a student asked her Why aren’t you spending more time supporting the women students in the department? Now, who doesn’t like to give support? And, who doesn’t like to support women students? And, moreover, who doesn’t like to support women students in disciplines where women are traditionally and contemporarily way underrepresented? Answer 1: I guess, to be honest, lots of people because otherwise all graduate students would be well-supported and trainees from underrepresented groups would feel all warm, and fuzzy, and supported rather than sometimes (or frequently) not-that. Answer 2 (and this one’s the obvious one): A WOMAN WHO HAS JUST GIVEN BIRTH TO TWINS. If there is one universal truth in the world, it’s that people who have newborn twins should be expected to do nothing but accept the support offered to them. This is one of those times (not the only one, obviously) where a person can legitimately ask what their country can do for them (where country = community of people who do not have newborn twins).

You know, I have to be honest; I have actually heard anecdotes like this from a number of scientists-who-are-women. In other words, there seems to be resentment towards scientists who are being mothers to their own children THAT THEY HAVE JUST GIVEN BIRTH TO (I haven’t heard similar stories about adoption, but I bet they’re out there) in place of mothering their supervisees or other students. To be clear, these stories are not about missing meetings, failing to return manuscripts on time, or even (gasp!) ignoring emails. These stories are, instead, about resentment towards new mothers who allot their extra time towards their newly grown families rather than towards mothering someone else. And, really, who has more extra time than a faculty scientist who just gave birth to twins?

It makes sense that minoritized individuals would be expected to support others from the same minority group (or even others with the same experiences of marginalization).  Many folks, especially women of color, have articulated how heavy this load can get even while it’s so critically important. But what ends up happening is that folks with the special privilege of not being the only minority member (whether by gender, or race/ethnicity, or intersecting identity) aren’t asked to shoulder this ‘extra’ ‘service assignment’ and therefore aren’t judged for turning it down (not surprisingly, since it’s hard to judge someone for not turning down something you didn’t ask them to do or expect of them).

In the case of students wanting women role models in disciplines where women are underrepresented, it’s a funny (not haha funny) feminist quandary: Yay for community-building and interest in feminist issues of social justice! Less yay for expecting that the scientists-who-are-women have the time and mental energy to always fill that gap for you! Yay for expecting your supervisors to care about you as whole people! Less yay for looking askance at your advisor-who-is-a-new-mother if she chooses/needs to focus her ‘free’ time on her family! And, less yay for expecting more of scientists-who-are-women than scientists-who-are-men! And, finally, yay for exclamation marks!

It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that the equation is built on faulty logic.