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Women in Science: Welcome But Not Welcome

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A few months ago, I received the following email from one of the leaders of a Cool Science Thing. We’ll call him Dude from Cool Science Thing (DCST). What follows is the email from him, modified only to preserve anonymity.

It read:

Dear Kate,

I am writing to you at the urging of [Prominent Female Scientist]…. In return for [agreeing to participate], PFS has given us marching orders: “More women!” Very good point. And she has sent us a list of “50 smart women scholars who are doing cool work”, and your name is on it. PFS writes:

[Then a direct quote from an email from PFS exhorting her list and encouraging DCST to do a better job recruiting and supporting women, and offering to help with the recruiting.]

So, in the spirit of PFS’s “nudge”, I am pleased to invite you to participate in Cool Science Thing. I very much hope to hear from you in this regard.

[Mention of a side project.]


Dude from Cool Science Thing
Cool Science Thing, Inc

I was pretty stunned by this email. DCST shares that he is only inviting me because another woman told him her participation was contingent on more women being invited. The lack of women invited to past CSTs is acknowledged only as a “good point.”

It was the most backhanded invitation I have ever received.

I considered turning down the offer, but then thought I would try to turn it into an opportunity. Perhaps if I tried to explain why I found the email upsetting, even while accepting, it would create some dialogue about how to engage with women and make them feel welcome.

So my response:

Dear DCST,

Thanks for thinking of me (or rather, my thanks to PFS). First and most importantly, I am pleased to accept this.

Second, I am struggling to figure out how to say this, but I am going to be honest. If you want more women, telling the women you are inviting that you’ve been told you have to have more women, particularly said in a way that implies you are being forced to do it rather than are aware of and eager to eliminate gender disparities, does not promote a welcome environment for women. I hope you realize the impact of your statement towards those you invite, regardless of what was likely a benign intent.


I expected either a condescending reply, or a hasty “so sorry, I should have written something more thoughtful.” PFS, who I CCed, responded with a “heck yeah!” email and thanked me for writing that email. But from DCST?


By this point, I felt invested. I knew immediately what I wanted to contribute to CST. I wanted to take this opportunity to do something provocative and meaningful, something that would contradict the dudeliness of CST, something less about me and more about how I wanted to see the world change.

I talked about my contribution to friends and loved ones over winter break, refining my ideas. I did several freewrites. I found the work a bit terrifying, but I also felt good about it. Sometimes I need to spend a lot of time thinking and freewriting before I can put something coherent together, and by then the draft comes together easily. Thankfully, that’s what happened with this piece. I submitted my contribution on the day of the deadline, had a great workout at the gym and roller derby practice that night, and slept very well.

The next morning, in a meeting with a friend, I told her the story of DCST and PFS. I said I submitted my work the day before and was very curious how they would respond to my contribution. I had intentionally gone meta with the kind of contribution I wanted to make, and what I wrote was explicitly feminist, so I worried they would find a way to cut me out of CST. We laughed over the improbability of this and how I was over-worrying.

A few hours later, I got this email:

Dear Kate,

Thanks for your piece which is extremely interesting but doesn’t work for this year’s CST.

It seems more suited for the op ed page of the NY Times. If you are so inclined, try [name of NYT contact] ([her email]).

Thanks, again.

Best regards,

Dudette With Whom I Had Never Before Corresponded
Cool Science Thing


To Raise a Fuss or Smile Through Gritted Teeth?

As my Twitter followers know, at this point I took to social media to express my frustration.

I was met with a variety of answers – some taking my question at face value, others perhaps sensing the anger underneath. I elaborated:

At the same time that I was venting, I was also trying to think through my anger. Was there a way to salvage this? How could I support the efforts of Prominent Female Scientist? My long term goal is to increase representation of people of color and white women in science. It’s really hard to tell sometimes whether one’s effort is better spent making a big stink about something, or playing nice and staying quiet.

PFS and I corresponded during this time. She was upset and wanted me included in CST. So she told me to sit tight, and while she wasn’t hopeful it would do anything, she was going to talk to Top Dude at Cool Science Thing to see if the decision could be reversed. I also emailed the Dudette to ask for clarity around why I was uninvited.

Another few hours later, and I received this message, again altered only to preserve anonymity, misspellings not mine:

Dear Kate Clancy,

[PFS] wrote and asked me to reconsider your [contribution], which I’ve now re-read. But first, one thing to note is that you did write a serious, well-written essay which is intelligently argued. It’s fine. The issue for [CST] is that it doesn’t address [x]. Rather, it’s a commmentary about [x] (and a good one, I would say).

That said, PFS correctly pointed out that we have other responses that are also “meta-responses”…. So it becomes a completely subjective editorial decision on what gets in and what doesn’t (and fyi, we turn down quite a few pieces), and that’s my job. Usually, if I have questions, there are three or four people I turn to as advisors, and although we have no hard or fast rule, in practice, if any of them weigh in strongly pro or con, I defer to their judgement and they get to over-rule me. Now that PFS has  stepped up and spoken strongly on behalf of your essay, she gets to have her say, which is that you wrote a excellent piece that has merit… and we have to publish. An so we shall.

[A few details about the contribution.]



Top Dude at Cool Science Thing

cc: Prominent Female Scientist

PFS and I corresponded some more, and I decided to keep my contribution in CST. My middle-ground decision between shit-storm and smiling with gritted teeth was sharing how my contribution came about via this blog post.

It Happens Every Day

I think it’s worth more people seeing what is behind so many of the contributions women and people in other underrepresented groups make when they try to improve their representation in science (or business, or probably a number of other places). We have to deal with the folks who think we are only being invited because of our identity – and sometimes those people are the ones inviting us. We have to deal with rudeness, tone-deafness, and condescension. And the way we deal with it can have repercussions for how these people and organizations change (or not) when it comes to their own mission and priorities in regard to representation. I constantly worry whether the way I handle sexism in the workplace is going to help those who come after me, or hinder them. And I know too many people who would rather not deal with the condescending invites and #ripplesofdoubt, so they just opt out altogether.

This is only one of many stories of sexism in the workplace. Women get put off, by this and a million other indignities, and many of them leave. The women that stay endure being told – sometimes explicitly – that they don’t belong or are only there by the grace of their identity. Knowing the person who invited me didn’t particularly want me to be a part of Cool Science Thing occupied my brain for almost two months, and frazzled me as I finally put words to page last week. And I even had someone working the inside, PFS, who was trying to fix the situation for underrepresented groups! Most people don’t have that.

Be that person on the inside of your organization. Be that person on the outside. Don’t let people get away with the many indignities that make people of color, white women, LGBT folk, differently abled folk feel like less. And don’t let them stop you from taking opportunities that will open more doors for you, expose more people to your thinking, and make things easier for the brilliant folks who will come after you.

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sjn 9:10 am 01/14/2014

    I agree completely, yet as is almost universally typical in the U.S., when such lists are made (as in the final paragraph) social class is always omitted.

    As a first generation college attendee (& Physics grad student) from a white industrial working class family, I experienced many similar attitudes. Since class is not an immediately visible attribute (if you carefully watch your language, dress etc.) you are expected to hide those origins within an elite system such as the university

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  2. 2. Helen Tam-Semmens 8:05 pm 01/14/2014

    Neurologists tell us that our brains are wired to prejudge (wired for prejudice) so as to save energy. It takes less energy for us to put people into buckets or categories of women, blacks, etc, than to evaluate individuals as they are.

    Many people don’t know that. Even people who are supposed to know (those who read Scientific American) don’t put two and two together and become aware of their own prejudice.

    It is good for you to point that out. It is because the perception of women have been erroneous for so long, under the weight of male-dominated society. The long-established prejudgement of women and our abilities have got to go. A clean slate. People have to see who we really are. Putting us into categories again, and in this case, a category that need increased representation, is obviously the wrong way. Good for you to raise people’s awareness to that.

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  3. 3. larkalt 8:07 pm 01/14/2014

    @sjn But how would people even know your social class in a university? The standard student dress is quite casual, and the students are all thrown together apart from their families.
    People with dark skin are often assumed to have less money and less education – class prejudice seems to be a big part of racial prejudice.
    Social class certainly affects how well one does in the university, and getting into the university – people who have to have jobs as well as study have a harder time. If they do well in school anyway, it’s even more to their credit.
    The only place where I’ve encountered a snobbish atmosphere was at Princeton. I stopped there in the middle of a road trip and wandered around a bit in worn clothes – and the attitude was somewhat north of chilly.
    I read a good article advocating class-based rather than race-based affirmative action in college admissions –‎

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  4. 4. cloughs 8:09 pm 01/14/2014

    Dear Kate,

    thanks so much for your work and for writing about your experience. It is all f***ing exhausting. Keep up the good fight.


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  5. 5. larkalt 4:37 am 01/15/2014

    Racism is connected to social anxiety. People with a rare genetic disorder called Williams syndrome, which causes people to lack social anxiety, also lack racial biases, These people are also vulnerable to attack because they don’t have social fear; they don’t pick up signals that someone may be about to attack them. And the beta blocker propranolol, of all things, makes people less racially prejudiced, apparently because the beta blocker blocks neural connections that are involved in subconscious fear
    Apparently one root cause of racism is a tendency to fear people who are non-kin. Fearing non-kin seems like a useful self-protection, because people who are non-kin are more likely to be aggressive with people that don’t share their genes. (as in The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins). Someone who has a different racial appearance is usually non-kin. All cultures have racial stereotypes.
    The causes of sexism are different, more related to how families work.

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  6. 6. Watman 9:12 am 01/15/2014

    Dear Kate,

    You ordinarily have an ally in me, a male human being, but not this time. You feel short-changed by this invitation, because the dude from the Cool Science Thing was “FORCED” to invite you and he “TOL D”you that. There are two things I think are mistakenly characterized. First, he wasn’t FORCED to invite you. In fact, he received a suggestion (versus an order) that you be invited and he acted on it. I can find nothing insulting in that, unless you are saying you are so prominent that he should have never have neglected to invite you, in the first place. In that case, his mistake. Are you that prominent?

    Second, had he told you nothing about how you came to be invited, you would have felt fine about it. He simply made the mistake, quite innocently I believe, of telling you the story. I say “quite innocently,” because otherwise you have to believe he was being malicious. Knowing nothing about this individual,that seems a bit paranoid as a going-in assumption.

    We do not know the subject of the event (other than Cool Science). Apparently your paper addressed your own subjective irritation instead of Cool Science. So it seems quite appropriate to me that it was rejected. It required a second intervention by your ever-present friend to get it accepted. Again, the Cool Dude wasn’t “FORCED” to overrule himself, he received that suggestion, and he chose to review his own decision-making. That suggests something laudatory in him. Its much more common to encounter academic men and women who would never dream of second-guessing themselves.

    In sum, I believe the invitation was sincere in the first place. You could regarded it as genuine as any other, but you chose instead a backhand characterization. Your paper did not address a scientific issue per se, but rather the sociology of science with your personal experience as the chief example. The Cool Dude reconsidered, something again you could have regarded as genuine deserving gratification, not insult.

    Please forgive my concluding that, purely on the basis of what you wrote defining the events of this incident, I think you are off-base.

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  7. 7. Laura(@MicroWavesSci) 10:46 am 01/15/2014

    In reply to Watman…

    I’m really puzzled that even though you have less information about this situation than Dr. Clancy, you feel more confident about your interpretation than hers. Dr. Clancy spent multiple days dealing with this email exchange and its fallout. You spent a few minutes reading her essay and composing a response, during which you concluded that your opinion was more correct than hers. Why?

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  8. 8. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 10:47 am 01/15/2014


    I’m not sure how to help you here. You are reading different words than me. In the original email you will find the words “in return for [agreeing to participate]” and “marching orders.” This is stronger than a suggestion. Yet, I agree with PFS’s ambition to get more underrepresented minorities and women involved in CST and I fully agree with her way to go about it. What strikes me as ridiculous, and what insults me, is that if DCST understood WHY increasing representation mattered, he would have written a very different email. He may still have included that PFS was pushing for this, but he would then point out WHY he agreed and WHY this is consistent with his organization’s mission. I’m not sure why you get to read a different intentionality into this than I do.

    Next, in terms of how prominent I am. Dammit, yes, I am that prominent. I am only off their radar because they seem to be particularly blind to certain kinds of prominent people — women and men of color and white women.

    Had he told me nothing about how I came to be invited, yes, I would have felt fine about it! That is the point. The nature of the invitation affects the invited! When women are reminded of tokenism — regardless of whether it is or isn’t deserved, whether or not they are actually smart and deserving and badass — it influences how they approach their lives and their work. There are countless analogies out there that people have written that explain how sexism and racism occupies a big part of the background processes of the brains of men and women of color and white women. The more background processes taken up dealing with that, the harder it is to perform the tasks of your life.

    My contribution did not address my own subjective irritation. It fulfilled the requirements of the assignment, and now that I’ve read all the contributions, I can say that with even more confidence than before. It did address a scientific issue (p.s., sociology is a science), it even referred to empirical scientific research. It was in fact far less meta and more embedded in empiricism than many other contributions made by men.

    Finally, Top Dude said “…and we have to publish. An so we shall.” Again, the implication of being forced against his own judgment, suggesting he disagrees with my inclusion. No change in his understanding, no improvement of his awareness, no desire to change the mission of his organization into one that strives for a diversity of voices in order to create a maximally interesting and insightful Cool Science Thing.


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  9. 9. larkalt 11:35 am 01/15/2014

    It’s incredibly insulting to be regarded as a female body to fill a quota, and very insensitive to tell the person this is happening.
    Not seeing people as full human beings for everything they are, is part of prejudice.

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  10. 10. Watman 1:59 pm 01/15/2014


    Your email is excellent, it deserves some time. I will reply. Name’s Ken, BTW. I should have included it.

    As to Laura. I worked with the information Kate provided.


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  11. 11. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 2:04 pm 01/15/2014


    The first set of emails were sent in early November, so… there was a lot of time to respond.

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  12. 12. aidel 5:12 pm 01/15/2014


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  13. 13. VirologyPhD2010 9:36 pm 01/15/2014

    Dear Dr. Clancy,

    I appreciate your effort in trying to open up dialog about the issue of increasing representation of women in the sciences by addressing the communication issues in the initial email you received. However, I found your statement “My long term goal is to increase representation of people of color and white women in science” rather divisive. As an underrepresented minority and female scientist, I believe we do ourselves a disservice of trying to address issues of diversity by dividing people into the “minority” category or the “white female” category. As scientists and role models to future scientists, shouldn’t we be trying to find ways to be more inclusive?
    Best Regards,
    -L (a Ph.D. level scientist who has had to tell people that I got into and graduated from Harvard by merit, not affirmative action)

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  14. 14. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 12:28 pm 01/16/2014

    VirologyPhD2010, I really appreciate your comment. I had a conversation about this exact issue on my public wall on Facebook when I wrote this post:

    Short version: the reason I tried to talk about underrepresented groups in that particular way is that a black woman that I respected explained to me at a conference recently why, to her mind which certainly doesn’t mean it’s a universal, the phrase “women and people of color” makes women of color invisible. Historically, when we talk about women’s rights, or women generally, we often only mean white women. So reversing the common phrase “women and people of color” to “people of color and white women” or, perhaps better and what I should have said, “women and men of color and white women” makes clear the entire group that needs to be considered and does not erase women of color.

    It’s not a perfect fix, and you are surely evidence that it doesn’t make everyone feel *more* comfortable and included. I’m wondering if there is a phrase you think would be better so that I can be clear that women and men of color, as well as white women, are still underrepresented in science?


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  15. 15. stryx 6:59 pm 01/17/2014

    I think Watman should search on the term “mansplain” and then try to figure out why denying the lived experience of another person is often considered poor form.

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  16. 16. britbacca 4:45 pm 01/21/2014

    Dr. Clancy,

    So this morning I was reading a whole host of interesting essays on a website that rhymed with “hedge,” and as I scrolled through the list, I was so happy to see more female authors than I had ever seen before (since they do this sort of thing annually), and it warmed my heart to see some great female scientists I follow, including you, writing thoughtful, insightful essays. Having been disillusioned by the male-centric focus of this particular website in the past, I was almost ready to believe that they independently recognized the need for this sort of thing, but your post here makes me second guess the motivations of said Cool Science Thing, which is a(n unsurprising) bummer.

    There’s a chance I’m guessing wrong, but either way, I am glad there was someone who had the clout to advocate for the inclusion of more women in Cool Science Thing, since it often takes a lot of pushing get female voices heard. Thank you for enduring those small condescensions and worries of tokenism to get your work out there. It definitely doesn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated. In fact, I said to myself, “Yay! They finally discovered how awesome Kate Clancy’s work is!” when I came across your essay. It’s about damn time.

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  17. 17. Watman 8:10 pm 01/25/2014

    Kate et al.,

    I have no doubt that curiosity has neared absolute zero as to my email exchange between Kate and me of 01/15. But I said I would reply to Kate’s email, and I am. Perhaps you, Kate, are still faintly interested.

    1. My priors. I believe whole-heatedly in human freedom by which I mean has a right to find and pursue what enables them to thrive. It follows I object and take action when invidious barriers are placed in the way of anyone availing him/herself of this right. By invidious, I mean a barrier based on anything other than merit. I know we fall well short of this ideal, but this is one of my core ideals.

    The big question behind my email to Kate is how do you know whether a barrier is the result of deliberate bigotry or simple human incompetence, stupidity, rudeness, lack of empathy, honest mistake, tin ears, and all the other frailties that befall people.

    I’m a Jew. There are far more misogynists in the US than antisemites, but that there is antisemitism can’t be denied. So when someone comments about my intensity, nods knowingly when I say I am from NYC, or expresses surprise that I played college football for four years and boxed professionally,I have a choice. I can interpret their actions as signs of antisemitism, or I can interpret them as signs of all-to-human “he just doesn’t get it, but he isn’t an enemy.”

    Being a student of history,I have long concluded that far more human action is explained by incompetent than by malice. So, when I don’t know whether I’m dealing with the KKK or a fallible human being, I choose the latter. If i prove wrong, nothing’s lost. But to do otherwise is to walk around angry all the time. That’s too big a price.

    Sorry to talk about me, but I want you to understand my world view so you can understand better why I replied as I did.

    The most important thing you said is that your status in the field merited an automatic invitation. That’s significant, and it causes me to back-off some from my reply.

    If we set aside your prominence in your field, here’s what I reacted to.

    “The nature of the invitation affects the invited!” It depends on whether one takes the nature of the invitation as just dumb or an indicator of something deeper. And, at some level, each of us can determine to a considerable extent just how we choose to interpret such things. I looked at what he wrote, and I simply could not persuade myself that his negligence was purposeful versus flat out dumb and crude. You and I know plenty who are just that. Hence my take.

    “What strikes me as ridiculous, and what insults me, is that if DCST understood WHY increasing representation mattered, he would have written a very different email.” Well, I think you are right. He really didn’t get the underlying issue your friend was trying to press on him. But the question is what conclusion you draw from that. Does he think women are properly represented or is he simply preoccupied egotist with Asberger’s? He may well have looked at the invitee list, saw there were too few women, took in your friend’s guidance/suggestion/whatever is the accurate term here, and invited you. He may simply not have seen the larger issue, probably because, in his interpersonal incompetence, he doesn’t see himself as prejudiced against women or that prejudice exists right under his nose. It didn’t occur to him that he was insensitive to tokenism, because he may simply be blind to tokenism.
    My bet is that’s because he lacks the introspective capacity to see whether he is or not. So, it follows, he would not have responded as you would have liked. I don’t think you can hold people responsible for being limited. And, forgive my invidious prejudice, many academics aren’t known for their “people skills.”

    If you say your paper was on point than I stand corrected. But, I must point out I was going on what you wrote about the rejection of your paper as being off-point.

    In sum, I go back to your prominence that changes the equities here and the appropriate expectations. In my view, the whole transaction still suffers from that fatal uncertainty and guessing game that befall most human interactions. How many nations found themselves in wars no one wanted war as a result?

    I chuckled at this email to you: “I think Watman should search on the term “mansplain” and then try to figure out why denying the lived experience of another person is often considered poor form.”

    To Styrz: Talk about invidious bigotry. Invent a paragraph and attribute it to “womansplain,” and see what you think. In any case, please read my email more carefully. I never questioned Kate felt what she felt. We all occupy the classic privileged position when it comes to internal phenomena. We feel what we feel, and no one can show otherwise. 8ut, that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about why, and whether there are other ways to feel. I’d hate to think none of your friends have ever helped you that way. Mine sure have, and they’ve saved me from my own impulses many times.

    Kate, even if you don’t like what I’ve written, i hope at least we understand each other. On my end, I believe I do…at least to the extent email permits. Sorry for proofing errors. I’ve run out of time.


    ken Watman

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