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.
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:
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:
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]).
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.
Has anyone ever been invited to write something, then condescendingly disinvited? Asking for a friend.— Kate Clancy (@KateClancy) January 10, 2014
I was met with a variety of answers – some taking my question at face value, others perhaps sensing the anger underneath. I elaborated:
Let me add to that first question. Were you invited because there were too few women, but then they didn't like what you had to say?— Kate Clancy (@KateClancy) January 10, 2014
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.