People STILL don’t believe sexism is a problem in science, even when they see evidence

The title of this piece is one meta-level removed(1)And “Men” changed to “People” because I don’t entirely know if the comment I’m responding to in this post is from a man. from the original Washington Post article about, first, several studies showing the discrimination of women in STEM fields; and second, the frequent refusal in online comment threads about these papers for men to accept the findings.

I found the article on the subreddit /r/skeptic, which leans anti-progressive at times. It’s on the TAM, thunderf00t, Shermer side of the movement if anything(2)Those links don’t capture everything about the subject but do explain why I consider them on the anti-progressive side.. Therefore I was not surprised to see objections to the post. Some of them were healthy ones, critiquing the methodology of the meta-review of comment threads. But the conclusions from these critiques seemed to lean too closely to the Washington Post title of denial.

One reasonably-highly-upvoted comment had enough unaddressed problems that I responded in detail and turned into this blog post.

I think a lot of men, especially men of science and engineering backgrounds, feel that there isn’t a major problem of sexism among their ranks – as many of them are highly educated, liberal, with healthy social lives or marriages. Instead, they believe that the problem lies with the marketing and business folks.

Computer engineers, in particular. Some of them are old enough to remember a time when computer engineering was relatively evenly split between men and women on college campuses, and they blame the way PCs were marketed for causing the cultural shift. NPR did an alright segment on the phenomenon, but didn’t dig very deeply.

As someone in the computer technology industry, I feel unfairly singled out. I, nor any of the engineers I know, ever had anything to do with producing the present state of women in computer technology.

Yes, the younger ones were educated in mostly-male classrooms, and their attitudes about women in the field have obviously suffered. But blaming them isn’t going to get you anywhere. They’re products of their environment. Trying to shame them/us is only going to create a backlash, as it already has.

But the environment has made us all extra-wary of women in the field. Now that it’s an issue with social and media attention, we’re wary that someone has been passed through the system by professors not wanting to get into trouble for failing a woman. Or of women who are, as most of us begin, mediocre to competent, but have been celebrated for being a woman in the technology field.

Golden children are poison in engineering fields, regardless of gender. Engineers need to be humble enough to both recognize and accept when they are wrong, and move on. And sometimes you have to let one go, even if they’re mostly competent, because they don’t fit in with the team or can’t deal with criticism. If that person is like Zoe Quinn, however, there’s a lot of risk of bad press in a situation like that.

My response:

You took a few really wrong turns here.

Where in this piece was there any talk about blame or shame? This comes up a lot when discussing how women or people of color or other marginalized people suffer because of a hierarchal society that privileges white men (like myself). If that makes you feel bad, that sucks, and maybe it’s even a good thing. But that’s not the point. The point is to acknowledge the disparity in gender in STEM right now and work to fix it. You feeling bad about it should not supersede this effort. A perceived “blame game” should not toss the entire effort aside.

Then you continue by basically saying the roles are reversed and that women occupy the privileged position of being too essential to the gender parity cause to lose. I don’t deny that situation arises at times, but you’re extrapolating from your negative experience to falsely map it onto all efforts to encourage more women to consider a STEM career and stick with it in the face of the documented additional challenges that await them. A flaw in the system like that is not cause to tear it down entirely.

The narrative you’ve put together is that your generation and field were hunky-dory on gender, and it’s the next one trying to fix a problem you don’t recognize that is the Real Problem. Isn’t it painfully convenient that you not only don’t recognize the problem at the time but see efforts to help in a negative light? That you occupy the space of the victim in this situation? This is identical to the narratives put together against affirmative action for college admissions and elsewhere, which prioritizes the minor inconvenience of the privileged over the recovery of hundreds of years of marginalization. Much of this discussion is about subtle biases or unseen forces or expanding our perspective beyond ourselves.

Also your mention of Zoe Quinn is completely out of left field, and it puts me on edge that you might lean towards GamerGate.

I’ll also note that the NPR link the commenter leaves is one I share quite often, because it feels to me like a strong, stark example of the problem. Obviously I think more highly over it than the commenter.

I post this exchange for a few reasons: first to highlight a bit of an irony; second to make a marker and provide evidence of the tone of this online space; and third because I feel it addresses many common arguments against social justice movements.

Notes   [ + ]

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