The incident that caused a million clacking keyboards in the science blogosphere involved Sci Am blogger Danielle N. Lee being called a "Urban Whore" when she refused to blog for free at another publication. The quote from someone identified only as 'Ofek' who worked for Biology Online was
Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore.
Biology Online apologized and fired Ofek. Further details can be found in Ms Lee's blog.
End of story all is right with the world. Then this sparked a online blog discussion on the issues facing women and minorities in science.
I have tried to stay out of this one but I cannot stay silent any longer. As much as this will be disputed by some it is true that women and minority scientist face a certain level of resistance above and beyond that which effects most white males.
The basic issue is that for deep cultural and psycho-social reasons white males benefit from a presumption of competence when it comes to many activities, science is one of those pursuits. The problem is compounded by other groups being presumed incompetent when it comes to matters such as science. Within the scientific community there is a softer version of the stereotype that is found in society at large.
Society at large sees scientists as all being older white males with tick glasses and no muscle tone, no rhythm, no sex appeal, or any physically attractive qualities what so ever. Just pick any mass media you can think of that has portrayed scientists. From Steve Urkle to Sheldon the mass media has one idea of what a scientists or scientifically minded person would be. Their idea reflects the biases and expectations of the average consumer.
We scientists ourselves know intellectually and from experience that is a false image. People young and old, male and female, white, black, brown, and tan are scientists. However we scientists are part of society at large, and no amount of education can fully erase the overpowering messages that we all are bombarded with.
We scientists are a part of society, not above it. Society places everyone, including various kinds of white men, in very restrictive boxes. Society rewards black men who can play sports or produce a certain kind of music. Society rewards women who look a certain way and have certain interest. Society has built a box for scientists to fit in, the scientific communities box is a little more flexible but only just. As this article in the Chronicle of higher education points out .
According to research by Donna J. Nelson, a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma, only four black female tenure-track physics professors were employed at the top 100 American research universities in 2012.Something like this is not the fault of the top research institutions, or scientists alone. The hurdles begin with a culture that is generally hostile to women or minorities who are into science. Most every black or female scientist has a story about being discouraged from pursuing science at a young age. Then once one makes it and attains an advanced degree there is an enduring presumption of incompetence.
A presumption of incompetence.
One line from the Chronicles article really struck a cord with me. In their discussion of the phenomena where one non white non male person may be used as a token of "diversity" the Chronicle of higher ed said.
Especially irksome, those scholars say, is the constant presumption by students and faculty members that they are incompetent because of their gender and skin color.
This is something I myself have wrestled with. For as my long time readers know I am transgendered. Not that kind of transgendered that makes one change from one perfectly binary role to another either. One could call me a transwoman or a drag queen of sorts but that would not capture all the complexity. I am one who even while I live for long stretches, years even, as a pretty convincing woman. I will live for stretches as a somewhat feminine man. I am two spirited, multi-racial, attracted to masculine males, masculine females, and have had relationships with sensitive yet masculine men and tomboyish women. The deciding factor in what I live as is more to do with my weight and what I look good in/as at different weight ranges. The rest is cosmetic and as shallow as plucking my face hairs. I allow myself this one area of utter shallowness in a life of considering the big foundational questions.
I am hard for people used to black and white thinking to categorize in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. Unless one allows for a person to be a complicated combination of labels and categories. All of that makes people who have systematizing brains, like many scientists, uncomfortable. Add to that all of the above cultural baggage and the result is many people who are in utter disbelief about me actually being a scientist.
There is nothing like being questioned about my qualification for being a graduate student by an undergraduate student to bring that home. Especially if that student isn't even a science student themselves. As if the affirmation implied by acceptance to a degree program of the very faculty we all learn from wouldn't be enough for them.
When living full time as a transwoman, or, as a matter of fact, even just a feminine man I have had to explain to people that I was in school working on astronomy and cosmology after they seriously thought I must have said cosmetology. Sometimes there would even be a mini argument over what I must have said with the person I am talking to assuming that I was mispronouncing cosmetology.*
No matter how I am presenting my gender, my race is a much bigger issue. Some people never quite get that I am descended triracially from colonial stock, my ancestors were in the USA by the revolution or shortly after it. They take me for being from a foreign country, perhaps Latin America. This ties into the above presumptions about what I would be interested in and good at since to some people it is hard to think of an African American as anything but inherently masculine, since I am not, it is too much of a dissonance for them.
It is quite possible for a white male with the wrong look or wrong accent or even who's a bit too religious in some eyes to face similar challenges to a of color based minority or a woman. There are people who once they see tattoo's or hear a southern or even an ethnic US accent shut down their brains and no longer take anything that person says seriously. For example, unless one is R. P. Feynman, and undeniably brilliant, a thick Brooklyn accent could be a hindrance.
We, people of the western world, love to stick one maybe two simple tags on people and have them fit those tags as nearly as possible.** Scientists, are no different than anyone else in that regard.
*Not that I don't sometimes enjoy a good discussion of cosmetics with a woman especially another transgender woman.
**Self labeling is part of this especially in the youthful.