Saturday, October 2, 2010

Scary smart women

I have a few things in the queue that I meant to write about ages ago, but I kept getting distracted by other topics. So, here we go! (We're FIFO)

Just a thought, but you may be interpreting intimidation as sexism. A lot of times people are discomforted by having a conversation with a smart person. This discomfort probably conflicts with the initial impression given by an inviting appearance.
I thought I replied to this comment, but it's not showing up, so perhaps I forgot. I'm not in any way meaning to pick on Tyler, because I am taking his comment completely out of context, but I have heard variants of this argument used before and would like to discuss it. The argument usually goes something like this: "It's not that he means to be a jerk, it's just that she intimidates him."

I can't think of anyone who intimidates me who is both friendly and smart. Once I had a friend who was a musical and programmer savant, and I suppose I found myself a bit intimidated by him just because he was so smart and so talented. And I guess a few months ago when I read about Terry Tao I felt like a slacker, because I always had to work my tail off in mathematics. You could take an infinite number of copies of me and an infinite number of pencils and I'm not going to win the Fields medal, I can guarantee you that.

But even when I encounter someone who is {smarter, more successful, more X} than me, I don't really view them as a threat whose Life I Must Destroy. I don't view them as someone who is going to take resources away from me. Like most warm-blooded humans, I'll probably feel a twinge of jealousy, but they'd never know it. I'm not going to start acting like a jerk to them.

In dating situations, I suppose I can forgive men being intimidated by women and acting goofy because of it. But in professional interactions, men being intimidated by smart women and acting poorly because of it is a form of sexism. It implies the inherent possibility of a non-professional relationship at some future time. And furthermore, it implies inequality between the sexes because a man with those same attributes is probably less likely to elicit the same sorts of goofy behavior.

I of course can't speak for all women,  but for myself and other women I know, we just want to be treated politely and respectfully, aka, professionally. Not strange specimens to act weird around, or to point out our Otherness at every possible moment, or to always be viewing us as competitors Who Must Be Destroyed. There's enough cool problems in science that we really can all peacefully occupy the same space. 


  1. It's not surprising to me anymore how many men turn into insecure babies that lash out at women. The object is to throw her under the bus so he can get farther than her. Maud forbid he get his ass smoked by a girl who isn't even trying to win his imaginary race! SHAME. EMBARRASSMENT. DOOM!

    Tyler, we don't have to "interpret sexism" because we live it, eat it, breathe it, smell it, experience it every day of our everloving existence. It's not up for debate. It's not something we need microscopes to find. It's not something we go out looking for. It's not all in our imaginations. Sexist shit happens to women all the damn time. I'm so very tired of men telling women that sexist shit is open for debate, open for interpretation and analysis, that women must not understand something because their pretty little heads aren't thinking things through with enough "just a thoughts". WRONG. There are plenty of men who are all nicey nice to other men, but when a woman enters His Space, he goes all asshole on her. Double whammy if the woman is smart, intelligent, and competent. She Must Be Destroyed. Welcome to our world, now please help women around you deal with men trying to destroy and undermine them at every step. Your buddies are not buddies to her, so you'll have to learn 12 dimensional chess and mental gymnastics. First you'll have to stop dismissing the experiences of women who tell you about what's happening to them. Maudspeed.

  2. I don't really have anything to add except AMEN, SISTER!

    Also, I don't know how I didn't discover your blog until just now but hey, better late than never I guess? I'm definitely adding it to my feed reader!

  3. I was tempted to reply to Tyler with "Just a thought, but maybe you should try shutting up and listening to someone with far more experience in these matters than you." I've seen Tyler around other blogs and he deserves to be picked on.

  4. Great post! I agree that it is pretty annoying when someone says "Are you really, really sure it was sexism/racism/homophobia/insert bigotry here? Maybe they were having a bad day/just misunderstood/intimidated by your awesomeness/from a different culture?" Yeah, sure. And that it why it happens so often to people in underrepresented minorities and not to White Dudes, right?

  5. This isn't the place for me to whine about how hard it is to treat 'scary smart women' professionally, and I'm not trying to excuse the behavior you describe. But in all fairness, if you're a shy, socially awkward, anxious sort of guy it's awfully easy to be intimidated by women who also happen to be good at The Thing You're Good At; imagine having exactly one thing to stand on in conversations, one subject on which you can speak fluently and confidently, and then having that knocked out from under you whenever Talented Female is around. All of a sudden your crutch is gone and need actual social skills, which were basically frozen in 6th grade.

    I'm sure that behavior like this comes across as sexist, and excuses aside that's what matters; moreover I'm sure that most folks in this situation are actually misogynists on some level and a bit of wrath is appropriate. But it's not as though we chose this, and it's not as though there's a clear way out. Nobody puts on workshops about "how to be a competent human being for a change."

  6. Magnus, in professional contexts, why is Talented Female different than Talented Male to the socially awkward person?

    For the people who I know who are socially awkward, some with ASD in fact, they are equally awkward around everyone. I am more curious about people who are perfectly chummy with the guys but become super strange around women.

  7. I don't claim to understand this well, but I think it boils down to the strange status game that's played by men around women: we're given the impression that the respect of men is contingent in some way on our handling of women. The rules aren't clear but awkwardness is punished, so awkward men associate 'talking to women' with 'feeling like a loser' early on. (We also conflate 'the respect of men' with 'respect in general.' Funny how that works.)

    I'm not sure this generalizes to the folks you intend, though. Perhaps they similarly feel that their chumminess is endangered by your presence -- that if they fail to pass the trial you represent, that they'll lose face amongst said chums -- and this tension causes the strangeness?

    Does this square with your experience? And if so, I wonder: do the people who handle themselves well seem to balance these concerns more skillfully, or are they aware of this and 'opt out' of this status game entirely?

  8. Magnus@"Does this square with your experience? And if so, I wonder: do the people who handle themselves well seem to balance these concerns more skillfully, or are they aware of this and 'opt out' of this status game entirely?"

    I am the only woman PhD in my building. When the male:female ratio is so awful, there's no way to avoid the bullshit that comes along with insecure d0uchebags. I am an unwelcome invader in their bullshit games because I don't play along. I ain't a "chum" like you say. I don't kiss their sorry asses or pat them on their widdle backs for breathing while being male. I actually do the damn work well, rather than blither about it. My publication record is better than 3 of my male colleagues put together, for real. My record is on par with my male boss (with 20 years more than me).

    Women have to be twice as good as men, yet we are lashed out at by our male peers for being twice as good because we are surrounded by men who are HALF as good as US. You need more than skill to make 1/2 = 2. For my case, I'm leaving. I don't want to work in this environment anymore. It's not "opting out", it's making a choice to be unemployed rather than be treated like shit, marginalized, and not supported. You imply that we have OPTions. It's like hearing that women "drop from the STEM pipeline" after they earn PhDs. We are dropKICKED by d00dz. Big difference.

    Another thing is that this crap goes way beyond awkwardness. 25% of women in college are raped, sexually assaulted, and abused by the time they are 21. The abusers are men of ALL ages, students, professors, administrators, coaches, scientists. The women are dropkicked at all stages of their education, we watch our friends get kicked, our mentors get kicked, at all levels. There are few of us left standing with PhD in hand, which makes it interesting that women now make up 50% of PhD earners. Imagine the % if all the women who were dropkicked along the way would have made it without interference? Imagine all the things not being invented or studied or cured because men like hanging with their boyz. Being awkward is one thing, dropkicking women out of the male-bullshit environment to keep chumminess is another.

    1. You are right. I have been to several interviews which observed that men are intimidated with my intelligence. They could imagine if I join their organization, I may question their act which means possibly to "correct" them. This is totaly unacceptable by egotistical men. I surrender. I do PhD now. I feel comfortable.

  9. Sorry, I wasn't clear. By 'people who handle themselves well,' I meant the men who aren't intimidated. It wasn't my intention to imply that anyone could simply tune out the assholery and carry on.

    For the rest, consider me the choir, not that I can sing.

  10. Magnus --

    Ah. Hmm. There are all sorts of male politics and posturing that I am ignorant of, and some evolutionary biology explanation wouldn't surprise me whatsoever (alpha males, mating rites, etc).

    So perhaps some exclusion practices are ultimately about fear of rejection. If you're a man and you ask a male colleague to collaborate and he refuses, it's no big deal, but if you ask a female colleague and she refuses You've Failed As a Man.

    I still think it's nuts, because, again, I really feel like work relationships should not have this element to them. But, I suppose you put a tie on an ape and he's still an ape.

  11. To be clear, I'm not proposing an evolutionary biology explanation -- I consider this a function of what we're taught to value, how we expect people to behave, the things we as a culture look for in charismatic and powerful people. One of these things, among men, is the ability, at any time, to slip into a certain style of interaction with women (unprofessional flirtatiousness? condescending command? uncomfortable smarminess?) and I think this is what's fouling up these otherwise fluent people around you.

    That's what I'm trying to suggest; they're after the respect of other men, and feel the pressure to put on a display when you're around, to that end. That gives them a sort of tunnel vision; they're only interested in how you fit into that scenario. Your personhood is invisible to them until they can remove that lens.

    Switching metaphors, evolution may have given us the rope, but we knotted it up ourselves. The knot's consequences are senseless and arbitrary, unjust when not criminal, but it's been pulled awfully taut -- untying it takes a certain skill, and some painful contortions. I think it's complicated enough that we need to see it from a number of angles to know how it fits together. And since you asked, I'm just trying to articulate the view from mine.

  12. Sexism makes me sick. I am a Languages student about to change over to a Computer Science degree. I was finding my languages course boring and started getting into learning various coding languages instead and started getting into programming. I discovered I'm good at it and it really interests me. I know this is what I want to do, and I'm going to go ahead and work hard and get the credentials for it. I'm still young, I will be starting the day after my 21st birthday and I only hope that by the time I'm done, there will be more women who have had the chance to succeed in the field of computing so that we can all help each other out and start our own companies. If after all the years completing my degree, I get shot down for job opportunities or get treated badly for being a female, I will be absolutely disgusted.

    And also, it has been commonly noticed that a lot of people (not saying all) who are succesful in the field of computer science are maybe quiet people, introverted, nerds, maybe even with ADD...who said all those traits can only exist in men???

    I am a very quiet girl, not shy but just quiet. I'm intoverted and I don't like to spend too much time talking to people and I don't even have much friends. I enjoy working with computers, infact I enjoy many things that are traditionally thought of as being male hobbies like golf and mechanics and I'm sick of people (mostly men) acting so wierd around me when they find this out...I'm just being myself, so why is it hard to take?