July 20, 2011 | 106
Last week, Linda Henneberg, a young science communication intern at CERN in Switzerland — best known these days as the home of the Large Hadron Collider — wrote a blog post about her experiences at the laboratory as both a woman and a non-PhD physicist. Haltingly, timidly, even a bit apologetically, she confessed, “I’ve never felt more constantly objectified, hit on, and creeped on than while at CERN.”
She was careful to say that she has not encountered blatant sexism of the most egregious sort, although she has endured unwelcome awkward flirting: a wink and a hand on the knee, lame attempts at playing “footsie” with her under the table during meetings, and of course, tacky double entendres. Even then, she cut the guys a lot of slack; it’s just social awkwardness, she rationalized, not a malicious attempt to make her feel uncomfortable — and yet, she does feel uncomfortable. (There may also be cultural factors at play, given the international diversity at CERN.)
What she found equally bothersome is that because she’s a woman in education, not physics research, she simply isn’t taken seriously by her male colleagues at CERN, who apparently treat her with amiable condescension. Henneberg holds an undergraduate degree is in physics and a graduate degree in science communication, yet “[P]eople here, men especially, treat me like some sort of novelty item. Like because I am not a physicist, I have nothing substantive to contribute to CERN, but it’s cute that I try.”
There’s a phrase for what Linda Henneberg is experiencing: it’s called a “chilly climate,” and it describes not just overt sexism or sexual harassment — which most people agree are unacceptable, at least in theory — but the myriad unconscious diminishing behaviors that seem to proliferate in any male-dominated environment, whether it be a classroom, a boardroom, an Internet chat room, World of Warcraft, or an international physics laboratory. The Australian band Tripod immortalized this phenomenon with their satirical tune, “Hot Girl in the Comic Shop” (video at end of post), poking fun at the social awkwardness and ridiculous over-reaction of nerdy comic book guys at the sudden appearance of a girl in their male-dominated realm.
What constitutes “chilling” behavior? A teacher calls on the boys in class more than the girls. A CEO ignores what a woman says in a meeting but listens intently when a man makes the exact same point. A conference emcee mentions a female speaker’s appearance rather than (or in addition to) her accomplishments, but feels no need to comment on the appearance of male speakers. A guy at an atheist/skeptics meeting hits on a young woman in an elevator at 4 AM, ignoring the fact that she just spent the evening talking about how she hates being objectified at such gatherings.
All these sorts of things seem tiny and insignificant by themselves, but they add up, and this produces a cumulative “chilling” effect that makes women feel unwelcome, like they don’t belong. That’s a “chilly climate.” The effect is subtle; sometimes we’re not even consciously aware of it. We just have that nagging feeling of being “less than,” unable to put our finger on why we feel that way.
Here’s some good news for Henneberg: in the physics community, the “chilly climate” is a widely recognized concern (yes, even at CERN), with many programs in place to improve working environments for women in physics. The American Physical Society has a site visits program and maintains a “Best Practices” document for academic departments, for example, and in 2007 released a gender equity report (PDF) summarizing the progress made to date and offering recommendations for future improvements. That’s not to say they’ve solved the problem: the number of women physicists is still less than 20%, one of the worst ratios in the sciences, along with engineering and mathematics. But it’s progress, nonetheless.
With all the other trouble in the world, why should we care about this? It’s because those climate issues chase many women out of the hard sciences — and indeed, out of any male-dominated community. In March, the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, conducted an NSF-funded study on the retention (or lack thereof) of women in engineering. Nearly half of the women surveyed who left engineering said they did so because of negative working conditions, lack of advancement or low salary, and one in three left because they did not like the workplace climate, their boss or the culture. Only one in four left to spend more time with family — the usual excuse that gets trotted out when folks try to explain away the low numbers of women in such fields.
The message is clear: if you want to attract women to your community, the first step is to make sure they feel welcome.
Chill, Baby, Chill
The term “chilly climate” was coined back in 1982 by feminist icon Bernice Sandler, now a senior scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute in Washington, DC; an updated 2005 paper addressing the chilly climate in the classroom can be found here (PDF). For those who might not have heard of Sandler, she’s known as the “godmother of Title IX,” having played a pivotal role in the passage of that law prohibiting gender discrimination in education, and she filed the first charges of gender discrimination in the 1970s against more than 250 institutions — at a time when such anti-discrimination laws simply didn’t exist.
I had the honor of moderating a panel discussion back in June for the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools that included Sandler. Honestly? I was expecting a stern, forceful Caped Crusader sort of person, and instead encountered a charming gray-haired soft-spoken woman who shares my penchant for rich jewel toned clothing (check out that awesome jacket at right — WANT!), and who insisted I call her “Bunny.” Yet, in her own quiet way, she is every bit as formidable as the Caped Crusader persona in my head – an iron hand in a velvet glove.
Sandler told me she first encountered the chilly climate for women as a feminist activist in the 1970s, sitting in a policy meeting in which she noticed that the few token women in the room were constantly being interrupted by the men. She decided to perform her own little social experiment, carefully keeping count of the number of times both men and women in the meeting were interrupted.
The results: women were interrupted (invariably by men) at least three times more often than the men. Sandler shared her results with her male colleagues, who were predictably defensive, claiming she must have miscounted or been biased in some way because of course they would never do such a thing. But the next day, when the meeting resumed, the men were far more careful not to interrupt when the women were speaking. Their awareness of the problem altered the way they treated the women in the meeting, even though they denied the problem existed. And Sandler realized, “Oh — this is changeable behavior.” She’s been working to change those behaviors ever since.
I thought of Sandler as I was preparing for The Amaz!ing Meeting (TAM9) in Las Vegas last week, where I was slated to give a light-hearted talk on how changing concepts of the universe have been reflected in popular culture. For the uninitiated, TAM is an annual conference organized by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), and has grown from humble beginnings into the biggest gathering of atheists and skeptics in the country. Science and skepticism are natural allies, so as a science writer, I am tangentially involved with that community, and I’ve met some great people within it. And yet — I almost didn’t go this year. Why? One word: “Elevatorgate.”
The Elevator Pitch
For the two people in the science blogosphere who missed it, here’s what happened. Rebecca Watson, founder of the Skepchick website and co-host of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, put up a “vlog” describing her recent trip to attend a meeting of atheists in Dublin, Ireland, where she was speaking on (of all things) gender issues in the skeptical community. (Full disclosure: I know Watson slightly, and like her, although we’re not BFFs; I mean, we’re not braiding each other’s hair every Saturday night.)
Towards the end of the video, she casually related her discomfort at being approached in an elevator at 4 AM by an intoxicated Irish guy, who asked her back to his room “for coffee.” Watson wasn’t hysterical, or raving, or even angry. (You can see for yourself here. It starts at the 4:30 mark.) She simply said, “Look, guys — don’t do that. It makes me very uncomfortable,” and briefly outlined the reasons why.
You’d think she’d castrated the poor guy on tape and held up his severed member as a trophy, the way some people over-reacted. I won’t bother rehashing the various arguments, or my own thoughts on the matter, which have already been well expressed by John Rennie, Lindsey Beyerstein, Isis Scientist, the pseudonymous “Ryawesome” (who wins the prize for Most Colorfully Profane blog post title: “Frankly, atheists, skeptics, you’re embarrassing as fuck”), and Watson herself. (Watson is also featured in this week’s Point of Inquiry podcast.) Suffice to say, emotions were running high, and I waded through the ensuing comment threads with a growing sense of dismay, then anger, then outright revulsion at many of the opinions being expressed.
Watson was vilified for over-reacting, for being a diva, a “media-whore,” an attention-monger, a bitch, a man-hating feminazi, and a troublemaker who was deflecting attention away from far more important issues. She was accused of being anti-sex (as if), calling all men rapists (she did not), and was threatened with sexual assault at the upcoming TAM “to give you something to complain about.” (Being threatened with rape is not a new experience for Watson, alas.)
Those who spoke up and came to her defense received similar treatment — including a couple of women who had survived sexual assaults. I was tempted to make a bingo card based on Derailing for Dummies and start checking off each hopelessly cliched argument designed to protect those with privilege from having to acknowledge the problem.
It pretty much mirrored every Internet comment thread (follow that link for a terrific comic by Gabby Schulz) that ensues whenever a woman, however diplomatically, dares to raise the issue of sexist behavior, with one crucial difference: Watson was being attacked by members of her own community, who prided themselves on their rationality and critical thinking — in short, by the very people who should have had her back.
Here is the message being sent to the women skeptics and atheists say they want to join their ranks: “If an atheist/skeptic man behaves boorishly toward you, or refuses to respect your boundaries, whether social or sexual, and you have the gall to state firmly that this is not okay, you will be publicly pilloried, ridiculed for being hysterical, called a man-hating feminazi (or worse), and have your concerns belittled and dismissed.”
Why should I, or any woman, want to be part of that community?
Let me be clear: I like men, and enjoy their company. I write about physics for a living, and earned a black belt in jujitsu by training in a mostly all-male dojo in Brooklyn back when I still lived in New York City. Plus I spent the last two years working to bridge the gap between science and Hollywood (still very much a patriarchy, especially when it comes to film). I am very comfortable in male-dominated environments, and accustomed to being the only woman in the room. And yet I have had far more negative experiences with men in the skeptic/atheist community than anywhere else.
Case in point: When I spoke two years ago at TAM7, I was flooded afterwards with friend requests on Facebook from the skeptical community. It was initially kind of gratifying, and I pretty much accepted them all, provided they weren’t using obvious pseudonyms. Most of my interactions on Facebook have been positive, but there have been a dozen or so instances over the last two years where a man has become obnoxious, offensive, overbearing, overly flirtatious, or just plain creepy about personal boundaries, forcing me to defriend him. With one exception, they were all from the skeptic/atheist community. I now rarely accept Facebook friend requests from skeptic/atheist men. No, it isn’t “fair.” But even though 98% of them are probably very nice guys, I just don’t have the time to comb through each profile, trying to ferret out clues as to who is most likely to tweak out on me unexpectedly.
So believe me when I tell you that the skeptic/atheist community has a serious problem when it comes to creating a welcoming environment for women. The APS lists causes of concern in an academic department that are indicative of a chilly climate. Guess what tops the list? “Denial that such issues do matter to people.” And further down the list: “Derogatory comments about female faculty to reduce their ability to bring about change. Branding faculty as ‘difficult’ or ‘troublemaker.’”
Manifesto for Change
It doesn’t have to be this way; as Sandler discovered, this is changeable behavior. That’s why I’m offering a Manifesto for Change, and I challenge those in the skeptic/atheist community to implement its principles.
(1) Ladies: even though you might not feel 100% welcome, grit your teeth and show up anyway, because there is power in numbers. Studies have shown that these chilling effects start to dissipate as communities approach 50/50 gender ratios. I showed up anyway, and I’m glad I did, because I could see firsthand how much has changed since I last attended TAM. TAM9 had markedly more women in the audience (around 40%), and half the speakers were women. I was the only woman speaker at TAM7 two years ago. That is tremendous progress in a very short time, and the willingness of Watson and her fellow “skepchicks” to show up, speak out, and endure the inevitable slings and arrows cast their way played a key role in making it happen.
(2) There are also women out there who do not believe this is an issue because they haven’t personally experienced it, or have experienced things they feel are far worse. Please do not diminish the experiences and emotions of your sisters in skepticism. Remain open to the possibility that you, too, might be unconsciously influenced by cultural baggage.
A few years ago, Bernice Sandler realized that she had a bad habit of checking her watch during talks or panel discussions — but she only checked her watch when women were speaking. That’s how deeply ingrained these cultural attitudes can be: even a woman like Sandler, who has spent her career fighting for gender equality, can fall victim to the subtle assumption that men’s voices are more valuable than those of women. She recognized her behavior, and actively worked to change it: “Now I only check my watch when I’m speaking.” Little things matter.
(3) Foster top-down change. Leadership, especially male leadership, needs to set the tone for what is and is not acceptable in a community. The 2007 APS report quotes Virginia Tech’s Patricia Hyer on this: “The voices of male heads … can carry great weight in moving forward an institutional change agenda, especially if they use their access to institutional leaders and personal prestige to make the case for gender equity.” (Richard Dawkins, are you listening?)
JREF president DJ Grothe did just that when, a few days before TAM9, he openly addressed the rift caused by “Elevatorgate” and made it clear that unwanted sexual advances or other harassing behavior were unacceptable, and grounds for being ejected from the conference. Grothe also deserves credit for making diversity a priority in his selection of speakers and topic. That’s the mark of a true leader, and the JREF is lucky to have him. Kudos, also, to Big Name skeptics like Phil Plait, PZ Myers, Josh Rosenau, Greg Laden and others who spoke up eloquently in support of Watson.
(4) Foster bottom-up change. Men at the grassroots level need to reinforce the leadership position and make it clear to their peers that such behavior is unacceptable. As former APS president Judy Franz said in the 2007 APS report, “If you make all your women … feel more valued by your speech and actions … and if you publicly chastise those that make demeaning or snide comments, you will find the rewards are great.”
Guys, why wouldn’t you do this for people you claim to value and respect? These women are smart, sassy, strong, and yes, sexy. They’re amazing. And they’re your sisters in arms. It’s time to step up and start acting like brothers. The next time you see a guy acting like a jerk around a woman at a skeptic/atheist gathering, call him out: “Dude. Not cool. She’s not the hot girl in the comic shop, you know.” Feel free to quote The Social Network: “You’re going to go through life thinking girls don’t like you cuz you’re a nerd, when really it’s because you’re an asshole.”
If a woman calls you out on your behavior, instead of getting angry and defensive, just say, “Wow, I never thought of it like that. I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable. It wasn’t intentional.” Cop to the behavior, and we can all move on. Or just be like that anonymous guy at Watson’s TAM9 quiz show event; as Watson took the stage, he shouted, “WE RESPECT WOMEN’S VOICES SO HARD!”
Follow the manifesto, and you will continue to see your community change for the better as more and more women (and other under-represented groups as well, because these principles can be broadly applied) feel welcome in your midst. And who knows? Maybe at next year’s TAM, Rebecca Watson will finally get the public apology she so richly deserves.