Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Sexism in science

A debate has exploded at Cosmic Variance (here and here) recently over the issue of gender discrimination in science. I like to dip into their blog occasionally to remind myself of a carefree life back in the distant past when I was just doing some fun maths which had no relevance to the real world :-)

Anyway, on the one side are the idealists who deny that there can be any inherent differences between the sexes (better make that inherent differences in intellectual ability, I think even physicists will have noticed some differences), and on the other side there are the idiots who assert that women simply aren't clever enough and should take up sewing instead. As I've insulted both sides, the attentive reader will hopefully have concluded that I think there is probably some component of both innate aptitude differences and discrimination involved, but while there seems little support for the premise that the genders are necessarily indistinguishable in every detail mentally speaking, I definitely wouldn't want to downplay the drip-drip effect of continual minor differences in treatment, even when the most blatant and overt discrimination is eliminated. [That was really clumsily written. I hope its meaning is not too badly obscured.]

Working in the same lab, at the same level, as my wife for the past decade has given us a fair amount of anecdotal evidence for this. I offer here one case as an example. It's a fairly minor matter - no one would have been clumsy or nasty enough do anything really blatant - but also rather typical.

Some time ago (back in the UK), we both had a minor spat with some guy from the admin department in Head Office (who we had never met) who used to send out emails as Word documents. All the scientists were unix users, and this was back in the days when reading such a message required us to (a) put the message on a file server (b) boot up the old dusty PC that no-one ever used (c) copy the file over (d) boot up Word and read it (e) swear loudly on discovering that the message was just some worthless admin-type notice that didn't need to be sent, let alone read. We had both previously tried to encourage said admin person to just send his messages in plain text, to no avail ("Word is the lab standard. You have a copy available"). Eventually we both sent rather aggressive messages - jules' was rather snarky (no-one who knows her will be surprised to hear) and mine was downright rude (ditto). Nothing more was heard about it - or so we thought.

At the end of the year, we got our annual performance appraisal forms. As the name suggests, this is the official judgement on our performance over the year, which determines our pay rise and promotion prospects. One of us (do I need to say who?) had a complaint about our behaviour noted on their form, citing this email exchange. We don't actually know whether the admin guy had only complained about jules, or whether my boss had laughed off the complaint while hers had taken it more seriously, but either way, it was clearly not an objectively fair judgement, especially since I'd definitely been ruder.

Of course, there have also been numerous occasions in meetings when she would say something, and get ignored, and I'd repeat it, only to have the room fall silent and everyone agree it was just what was required. Sometimes it's so blatant it's funny. I can try to put some of it down to my opinion being rightfully judged more valuable than hers, but a head can only swell so much.

Being in Japan changes everything. Here, we are foreigners first, second and third, and gender is probably a distant 4th or lower in determining how people treat us. In fact jules says she sometimes finds it a bit scary to be taken so seriously, and has to be careful about what she says in case everyone believes it :-) Things seem rather different for the natives, but that's not a battle we can play any part in.

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