Monday, December 20, 2010

"You only got in because you are a [woman, person of color, person with disabilities]"

I recently stumbled across a fantastic blog called "What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy". Philosophy probably has more underrepresentation than CS does, or maybe we're tied, I'm not sure. In any case, this blog is set up in such a way that women in Philosophy submit anecdotes which get posted anonymously.

Today I read this post, and the lines at the end really struck a chord:
"As one of the only female graduate students, I was very involved in a recent job search in which the only fly outs were women. After the final job talk I was stopped in the hall and asked by a group of male faculty members what my thoughts on the candidates were. I said that I thought they all seemed equally qualified, but that candidate X was particularly friendly, approachable, and outgoing while also setting an excellent example of professionalism for the female grad studens. One senior male faculty member interrupted me midsentence with: 'Well they’re all women, so what more do you want?' This was the same faculty member who told me in my first year that I had only been accepted to the PhD program because they 'went out of their way to accept more women' that year. None of the other faculty members reproached him, they all just wandered away into their offices."
Two things about this are problematic. First, someone from a majority group telling someone from a minority group that the only reason they achieved (or can achieve) something was because they are a minority. Statements like this are extraordinarily hurtful because in addition to implying the minority person is not capable of quality, competitive work, it also says very clearly: I do not accept you, and you are not a part of my club.


But double ouch is this: the other faculty members did nothing. This makes me sadder than I can say. Are these faculty members so risk and conflict-averse that they don't stand up to such malarky? When my cousin-in-law made racist jokes at a New Year's Eve party last year, I immediately splashed water in her face. It's like when the cat scratches the couch and you spray them with the water bottle. Conditioning 101.

For the menfolk and other majority folks out there who want to help:  if you truly want to make your workplace hospitable for women, people of color, people with disabilities, etc, you have to help socialize the people who didn't get the memo. Pick those fights - take some risks to help out someone else. This is what it takes to help change things.


  1. I was on a search that had all women candidates. The job wasn't advertised any differently. The committee decided to only interview women much to the dismay of the rest of the faculty (about 30+ men, 3 women), and the search chair was an asskicking woman. I definitely was treated badly by faculty holding grudges about the process, many faculty didn't bother to attend any of the candidate seminars as some sort of protest.

    I need to get myself a waterbottle for my desk.

  2. I'm a white male. I've been in the room when a senior administrator who is (1) well-meaning and (2) on the committee and hence in a position to know whether it really works that way says "Somebody should tell her to apply for [internal award for junior faculty] because as a woman in science she'll definitely get one of the awards."

    I couldn't quite sort out whether the proper response is to be glad that it works that way, or to chide him for demeaning her qualifications. So I said nothing.

    I once said, at an event focused on strategies for institutions with large numbers of ethnic minority students "If a student is from a disadvantaged background then that just makes it all the more important that the advanced courses and projects are cutting-edge," because everybody else in the room was entirely focused on remediation. (Which I agree is important, but it should be the beginning rather than the end.) Afterwards, a woman of color said to me "I understand what you're saying, but the reality is that your minority students will have advantages with affirmative action, even if their advanced courses and projects aren't quite as cutting edge."

    I wasn't sure what to say to that, so I said nothing.

    What would be a productive thing to say in these situations, where somebody says (with apparently honorable intentions) that a person is going to benefit from affirmative action?

  3. Great post. I really like the water bottle analogy, I think that is fantastic. I'm not good at the quick comebacks when it is women they are talking about, but I have quickly interrupted and stopped people from using biased terminology.

    Anonymous- in the second case, I'd say if it's a person of color telling you about people of color you just listen and nod your head. It's not your place to correct there. It's possible they are wrong (we are all tools of the system, hence so many anti-feminist women) but you don't need to be the one to tell her. In the first case, you could ask an innocuous "what's that supposed to mean?" If he persists that it's because she's a woman and minorities get all the awards then you can ask, "meaning you don't think she has the qualifications to get it on merit?" I find a non-combative question-asking approach is a good way to handle those things. If it's something more direct it's easier to call out with a "we don't say that here" or a "we don't do that here" or a "well with someone like you making assumptions like that it's no wonder the award committee thinks it needs to compensate for it."

    You might have responded to the woman the because not everyone embraces affirmative action it's important that your students be as competitive as possible because you don't know where they'll be going. But that seems more like a reality rather than a rejoinder.

  4. Anonymous, I think Frau answered your question pretty well. If someone from an underrepresented group you are not a part of tells you something about others in that group, you listen. That doesn't mean what they are saying is 100% correct, nor does it mean you can't express a dissenting opinion, but in general silence is a reasonable strategy if you are unsure.

    In the case of the well-intentioned administrator, I think comments like his are basically poop-covered chocolate. On the one hand, it is great to encourage more women to apply for awards (because they often don't). On the other hand, his comment definitely has some negative undertones. I like Frau's question-based, non-combative approach.

    You also can pull him aside later in private and tell him directly that while you appreciate his interest in Professor Smith's career, it would be better to phrase things more positively. For example, "We are very interested in increasing the number of female applicants for the Scientist of the Year Award, as there are so many talented women on our campus but few seem to be applying. Perhaps Professor Smith might be interested?"

    I suspect truly well-intentioned people would appreciate the guidance in being more diplomatic in their phrasings.

  5. I love the idea of training people with a water sprayer. Yes please! (I'm a female, disabled, computer science researcher so I have some experience of the minority box-ticking exercise...)

  6. Thanks for the comment and for visiting, Rachel!

  7. I guess I am not gonna to be popular with this opinion, but I understand why the professor told this. If they had accepted her just because she is a woman and they need to fulfill ratios for underrepresented groups than he has to bother with someone inadequate just because some stupid law or regulation about equal opportunities. So you should complain about positive discrimination, not about sincere professors.