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Sanders’ “sexist” behavior March 7, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, Politics, societal commentary, teaching.
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I almost made a tweetstorm about this topic, but when you have to confine your thoughts to 140-character morsels, it kind of ruins the flow of ideas.

Apparently Bernie Sanders is sexist for asking Clinton to stop interrupting him during last night’s debate.  You won’t believe how hard I laughed at that notion.

Let’s start by looking at the other debates that have been going on.  Part of the reason that the GOP debates have been such a horrible mess is because the candidates constantly interrupt and talk over each other and then someone gets mad and starts shouting.  As many people have noted, these debates haven’t exactly been the high point of civility, and the behavior of interrupting and talking over other candidates is exactly some of the problem.  I am taking the tack, therefore, that interrupting is rude.

Let me restate that.  Interrupting is RUDE.

This is something that, as a woman, has made me absolutely insane.  I have had a couple male colleagues in the past who would not let me finish my sentences.  I don’t think they’re doing it because they’re sexist (although one of them certainly is).  It’s something they often do to men, as well.  I think that interrupting is just a jerk thing to do because you’re telling the other person that you don’t care what they have to say and that whatever is going on in your head is more important than whatever idea the other person is trying to get across.

When dealing with one colleague, I’ve seriously had to bite my tongue.  I had fantasies of offering to bring in the younger son to demonstrate to him how to have a respectful conversation.  Failing that, though, I’ve also fantasized about telling him simply, “Wait your turn! I’m talking!”  I spent a lot of time wondering how to say it so that it wasn’t perceived that I was being rude…despite the fact he was being rude to begin with.

I see a lot of this dynamic when teaching, as well.  I had one individual student who would sit and talk with his friends in the back of the class, often to the point of being loud enough that nearby students couldn’t hear.  As the teacher, though, there was a bit a power dynamic I could use, so the student and his buddies were told to move to the front row of desks in the classroom where they would sit for the rest of the semester.  I told the students that I liked them which is why I moved them to the front of the class instead of just kicking them out altogether.  Was that rude?  Perhaps, but so is disrupting the class and, as the teacher, I need to maintain at least a minimal level of authority and dominance in the classroom.

If you look at interrupting in the big picture, there’s a dynamic in the workplace where men are more likely to interrupt than women are.  This is because men’s communication style tends toward using conversation to express dominance and women tend to use other styles more geared towards making connections.

On stage, Clinton was adopting, very appropriately for politics, a male style of communication where she was attempting to use discussion as a way to maintain dominance.  It’s a way to mow down Sanders’ ideas and make her own dominant.  In politics, like in many professional areas, women have to learn to adopt this communication style in order for their male colleagues to take them seriously.  Sanders did the thing that so many women have a hard time with but need to learn to do.  He essentially said, “Stop talking. Stop interrupting.  I was speaking. Wait your turn.”  It wasn’t sexist: it was a way to prevent himself from being mowed over.

The problem is that, like Sanders, women who assert that they won’t have their ideas mowed over are often seen as rude and pushy.  The consequences for drawing  your conversational line in the sand can be pretty severe, especially if you’re a woman.  If the roles were reversed, Sanders would have been seen as sexist for interrupting and not letting Clinton speak.  Clinton would have been doing the right thing to tell him to stop interrupting.  If it had been two men, it would’ve been shrugged off.

My take away from this is that the conversation dynamic between Clinton and Sanders shows Clinton and Sanders see each other as equals.  Clinton attempted to dominate the conversation (the way many men do) and Sanders wasn’t going to play the subordinate.  If you really want to make something sexist out of this, maybe more women need to learn to follow both of their examples, and more men need to not freak out when it happens.


Role with it December 12, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, work.
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I am always nervous when I have to deal with the middle and high school crowd.  I’ve had such mixed results in the past.  A couple years ago, I helped out with an astronomy workshop for middle school girls.  My job was fairly easy: I just had to help them find the sun in some solar telescopes.  It was pretty obvious, though, that the girls in the last group just weren’t interested and wanted to be done.  That may have been the time of day, but they weren’t particularly subtle.

I was therefore nervous when I was asked to give a tour of my workplace to a group of high school girls.  How in the world do I keep them interested?!

While we were waiting for the last couple people to turn up, I started out by asking where they were from.  This was a good move: I found out they all went to my old high school, and so we talked about some of the teachers there.  I think that having a way to connect was helpful for all of us.

It also turned out that they were already rather interested in the topic and had lots of good questions and comments.  After I thought we were done, one of them asked another question which led us into another part of the building and looking at even more stuff than I had anticipated.  They didn’t seem all that eager to leave at the end, and I’d wished I had more to share with them.

I know that doing tours is a formality, but it’s nice when the people are actually interested.  It makes it seem less like work and more about conveying how exciting it is to be an engineer.

Yo mama is SO stupid she can’t explain plate tectonics! December 4, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, science, societal commentary, teaching.
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When selling something or conveying information, particularly when it is technical, one wants to make it easy and understandable.  Unfortunately, one of the most common approaches I’ve seen is to say one needs to make it easy enough for an older woman to understand, particularly a mother or grandmother.  One example of this issue was the IEEE article posted about the making of the Arduino that was erroneously titled, “With the Arduino, Now Even Your Mom Can Program.”  They corrected it and apologized.

Last week, I came across another one about having a “grandmother talk.”  Once people got upset about the sexist trope, the author changed it.  However, it was more out of frustration because people weren’t paying attention to his main point about communication.  (Note: if you piss off half of your audience with your title, chances are your communication may weak in certain areas.)

I don’t understand why they don’t just come out and title these things as such:

Yo mama is so stupid she can’t program an Arduino

Yo nana is so stupid she can’t science

I don’t think anyone would intentionally pick on grandma, but they apparently do so without realizing it.

The problem with using this terminology is that it assumes older women have no interest or ability when it comes to technical or complex information.  Frankly, I’m pretty sure that, with the right instructions, both my mother and grandmother could handle a lot of technical topics.  Being older females, however, people often assume that they are too ignorant to really learn things in depth.  But despite myriad counter examples, the stereotype still exists.  Some women really have little interest and ability in science, but there are also many, many women who are exceptionally talented scientists and engineers.

I have not yet seen, however, what seems to me a much better analogy: the kid talk.  What if your kids ask you questions and you have to simplify it to be developmentally appropriate or to meet the constraints of a limited attention span?


When I try to make things understandable to kids, I take the approach that there may be developmental challenges that they’re not ready to meet, such as a particular level of abstract reasoning.  Perhaps they don’t yet have enough math to follow the technical details of a topic.  There is also the reality that even the most mature five-year-old is not going to listen to me go on and on for hours about a particular topic, except perhaps Legos.  The point of meeting them where they’re at is not because they are ignorant but because they’re inexperienced and uninformed.  While I suppose a few would get offended at such a characterization, it also acknowledges that they’re capable of learning more once they’re a bit more mature or if they have a particular interest.  It gives you some wiggle room, and you don’t have to stereotype anyone or be condescending.

I decided to put this into practice and once asked my older son to sit in on my classes.  He would’ve been a year or two younger than most of the kids in the class, but being tall, he blended in very well.  (It also helped that we don’t have the same last name.)  I felt the information would be useful for him, but I also wanted to get his take on what parts were confusing or needed work.  Beyond actually having a kid give you live feedback (because, let’s face it, they aren’t always available), it’s useful to even contemplate explaining concepts to kids.

There are a lot of marketing slogans to the effect of “so easy, a kid could do it,” but science and engineering communicators don’t generally seem to think this way.  Part of the problem is that they don’t view children as a potential audience, even though I think they’re a rather important subset of most groups.  I’m not saying you have to communicate on the level of a four-year-old, but an educated and curious 14-year-old will get you a long way.  I wonder if science would be more interesting if we saw these kids as our intended audience in most communication ventures.  At the very least, I’m sure there’d be more jokes.


Someone was stupid on the internet November 16, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, feminism, math, science, societal commentary.
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See more on Know Your Meme

Even though I am a woman who is working as an engineer at an academic institution, I have no ability or authority to discuss anything having to do with women in hard sciences.

Totally reasonable, right?

The person who told me this is a man who works in sports medicine.  During the course of the conversation on what causes low rates of women in hard science/engineering fields, I brought up “male privilege.”  I even went so far as to say that it benefits men to ignore this privilege because it keeps it in place.  The response to even mentioning such a thing meant I was a conspiracy theorist.  I obviously am incapable of discussing the issues women face in science because I believe in male privilege.  Despite the fact that I was the one posting links to actual studies to validate my claims (using studies discussed in Nature and Scientific American), I obviously am incapable of understanding the issues.

I was attempting to explain that while I don’t think most of this behavior is explicit (although I have definitely seen that, too), there is a lot implicit bias.  As I said in my interview on the Engineering Commons, there is quite a bit of sexism that is a result of people simply not thinking about the advantages they have or the assumptions they make.  That is the very definition of privilege.  I don’t think most people wield it mean-spiritedly, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist at all.

We were discussing a publication claiming that academic science isn’t sexist, a paper also discussed here.  Let’s be honest: claiming hard sciences aren’t sexist is like saying that relativity (or any other major theory) is wrong.  Not only that, it’s willful ignorance because there are so many studies out there to refute this notion.

The most irritating part of this discussion is that it should never have been about this issue at all.  The discussion was in a forum designed to talk about science communication, and yet he initiated the conversation by claiming that the paper proved there is no sexism in academic science.  There was no discussion about how to bring into account all the other data, how to most effectively communicate or discuss the result, or even about public response to news about this paper.  Instead, this person used the forum as a bully pulpit for his own viewpoint, ignoring contradicting data and viewpoints.  If this is how science communicators approach studies to begin with, it’s no wonder the public has a hard time understanding and interpreting these same studies.  If the communicators don’t understand the science within the larger context, they certainly aren’t going to do a good job explaining it to the world at large.

Men are clueless July 13, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineerblogs.org, engineering, societal commentary.
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I wrote up a post over at EngineerBlogs yesterday called Dating Advice for Women Engineers.  (Yeah, I forgot to post a link here…)  After I wrote it up and posted it, I reread it and realized that maybe a better title should’ve been something like “A Woman’s Guide to Dating Male Engineers”.  And then I worried that I was going to get ragged on for making male engineers sound stupid or clueless.  Fortunately, there have been no such responses, which is good because while some may assume that was the implication, that would be a false assumption.

Here’s the thing I’ve come to understand: many males, but particularly male engineers, aren’t clueless.  I know that may come as a surprise to some.  The reality is that I think engineers expect people to just be direct.  And frankly, I really appreciate that.  I like being able to just say what I think to my husband and not try to couch everything in terms that won’t injure his ego.  And I know that if he says something critical, it’s not that he’s saying he doesn’t like me or anything, he just is making a point about something.  It’s a lot easier for us to separate our personal feelings and feelings about outside issues.  We can argue passionately about stuff we do at work, and it has nothing to do with whether or not I like him as a person.

I’ve never been good at the whole ‘dropping hints’ thing.  That’s probably a good thing because I have also observed that a lot of guys think that when you say something doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t.  Being subtle and dropping hints have never been terribly effective means of communicating what you want, despite the fact I see people doing it all the time.  When I do see someone trying it, I seem to pick it up sometimes, but I usually roll my eyes and think, “Just spit it out already!”

Anyway, the point of this was that I think people ought to just be more direct.  Tactful is also appreciated and ought to be used liberally…but not to the point where it obfuscates your message.  And if someone doesn’t get what you’re saying (especially if it’s a guy), it may be because he’s clueless, but it’s also worthwhile to see how clearly you’re communicating.


Advisor Red Flags: choosing your project May 26, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, grad school, research, science.
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I’ve been thinking about student/advisor interactions this week, and I started wondering if I should list some of the red flags I’ve seen over time.  These are the little comments or interactions that I’ve observed.  I would like to say that these are things you should watch out for when choosing a grad advisor, but, sadly, they may not show up until you’re hooked on to a particular advisor.

Today’s red flag is what to be afraid of when approaching a grad advisor about a potential dissertation project.  I admit that, for some people, this isn’t going to qualify: some people’s advisors choose their projects for them.  However, there are some advisors who feel that their students should choose their own projects.  I generally believe this is a good thing, but it can lead to problems if you don’t choose the ‘right’ project.

You see, the frustrating thing is that some advisors say they want their students to choose their own project, but they won’t give the student any guidelines for the project.  No ideas of where to look, no feeling for what the advisor is comfortable advising.  And, rather than trying to flesh out these details if they aren’t comfortable with the idea you’ve developed, you get one of the following responses:

1 – I don’t have funding for that.

2 – I don’t think that’s a good idea.  *silence*

3 – (sometimes) This would be a better project.

One and two are bad…three depends.  The first response means: I have no interest in your project, and I’m not going to take the time to show you how to write a grant.  (Before you say the advisor may not have money, there is a better response.  Read to the end.)  If you’re planning on becoming an academic, this is a sign your advisor isn’t interested in your research and isn’t going to be a good mentor, either.  The second one means the advisor may let you do the project, but they probably won’t be giving you much in the way of constructive feedback as the project progresses.  They may not outright forbid you to do that, but they are going to be rather passive aggressive about helping you along.

The third comment is neutral.  It may be good or it may be bad, depending on how your advisor works with you.  If it’s something related to what you’re interested in but is a bit more cutting edge, it may be great.  If it’s a pet project the advisor wants done, run away.  I’ve seen both scenarios.  The slight redirection worked out well.  The other one happened to a friend who spent two years working on the project before it became obvious that nothing was going to ever come of it.  He put a significant amount of effort into it, didn’t really enjoy the research, and ended up paperless at the end.  He finally went in and blew up at his advisor, who let him finish up his original project and finally graduate.  (Fortunately, he wasn’t looking at a job in academia or he may have had a tough time after graduation with lack of papers.)

So what are good responses?  There are two responses that let you know you’ve hit the jackpot.

1 – I think that’s a good idea (and maybe, “although we want to try to look at it from this perspective”).

2 – Let’s see if we can get some funding to do that.

Either one of these is a good sign.  It means they will (hopefully) be supportive by providing feedback.  The second is even better, as it means the advisor is (hopefully) willing to show you the ropes and provide some mentoring opportunities.

I know the common advice on grad school is to know what you want to do before you go in.  If you are that far ahead of the game, then being able to pitch your idea before you start is an excellent way to gauge how an advisor feels about an area of research.  The downside is that you may really click with an advisor who may not be into a particular field of research.  If you’re stuck on that area, you obviously don’t want to work with them, but if you find someone who is good to work with, you might be able to find something they’d be okay with.  Sounding like you’re too focused may make them think you wouldn’t be interested in working with them.  Being too focused and pitching ideas can have its drawbacks, especially if that person isn’t good about keeping people informed about their current research interests.

If you’re already with an advisor, it’s pretty important to make sure early on that you can communicate with them and that they’re giving you at least a little guidance in choosing your project.  If they aren’t, that can also be a red flag.

What responses have you seen to project ideas and were they positive or were they red flags?

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