A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.
– The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. I’m a white male living in the United States of America. I wear glasses, and I’m straighter than a highway in western Nebraska. I’m a physicist, with a heavy mathematical focus in my research. Although I’m not an astronomer, I’ve studied and taught enough astronomy that I’m fairly confident discussing it (though again my approach is heavily infused with physics). Though I haven’t worn a labcoat since 1995, I fit fairly well into the “scientist” stereotype. In other words, I could probably get away with never writing about gender or race issues. That stuff is sociology, social psychology, “soft” science.
My good friend Cedar Riener compared the bubble surrounding the experience of many white males as akin to the limited sensory range humans have. Visible light and audible sound comprise a very tiny portion of the total electromagnetic spectrum and range of possible acoustic phenomena. Even more, as he points out, the color we perceive as “purple” is triggered by multiple sets of retinal cells in the eye. (Actually, just go read Cedar’s piece “Purple Doesn’t Exist” now. I’ll wait.) I know a lot of men who are privately supportive of our female colleagues, but feel reluctant to speak out on these issues.
Maybe it’s my own arrogance that leads me to break from that pattern. After all, I do live in that bubble of white male experience, privileges I’m not always aware of simply because they enfold me like air. Knowing that I say and write the wrong things doesn’t stop me from doing them again, but it seems worthwhile to try. I see certain colleagues think it’s hilarious to create Womanspace, a parallel universe where women exist and in which men are helpless. I see other people who find nothing wrong with shouting down or even threatening women who say things they don’t approve of. Frankly, men have less excuse than ever to ignore cold or hostile environments for women, since many women are taking a public stand against sexism in its various forms, and banding together to do so. Male trolls travel in packs, being cowardly beasts, so it makes sense to form posses in defense.
In addition to this blog, I write for Ars Technica and Double X Science, two sites that are very different in audience and (to a lesser degree) content. The readership at Ars Technica is overwhelmingly male, though not by explicit design; Double X is intended for everyone, though (as its name suggests) with an obvious slant toward women readers. In fact, I’ve had several people ask me (generally in snarky tones) what qualifies me to write for Double X, which of course begs the question: can and should male writers work for woman-oriented publications? Obviously my personal answer is “yes”, but the fact that a kind of gender essentialism is still at work in our society, Mars-vs.-Venus mentality in which men and women occupy separate realms in which there is little meeting except as foreign tourists visiting each other’s countries.
However, it was for Ars Technica that I chose to write my first actual social science piece. The article I wrote describes a recent study published in Science, in which researchers in Europe implemented various schemes to encourage participation by women in competitions, then measuring performance in a cooperative activity after the contest. In their experiment, they found cooperation wasn’t impacted by giving women a leg up in the competitions. To quote from my article,
Note that none of these constitute “reverse discrimination,” an accusation affirmative action plans often face. In no case was a top-performing man denied a reward if he outperformed everyone else. The main effect the researchers found was an increase in the number of able women willing to participate.
These three sentences sparked a firestorm of outrage in the comment section. As of this writing, there are 139 comments, nearly all of which are very critical, crying discrimination against men. Some are overtly sexist, saying very unkind things about women as a group. Nearly all assume that the readership will agree with them wholeheartedly, and based on the comments, they seem to be right.
Affirmative action inspires a lot of strong emotions in people. Many automatically assume it involves reverse discrimination, substituting unqualified applicants from the underrepresented group for qualified people. The comments on the article often have a very personal tone: I do not wish to lose out on a job to a less qualified woman, I lost a job because I’m male. There is also a sense of anxiety that men as a group will lose out if the the schemes described in the study are implemented: if a certain number of positions are reserved for women, for example, a huge number of qualified men will lose out. I sense an undercurrent of anxiety, perhaps enhanced by the unstable job market, but also a feeling that current group privileges may be lost in the name of correcting societal inequalities.
Looking at the design of this particular study, I did not see discrimination, and I think the researchers did a good job trying to control variables under difficult circumstances. (All human research seems complicated to me, which is why I study simple stuff like the universe.) I’m not a social scientist, so I worry that I may have missed something significant; in my Ars piece, I tried to focus on the evidence. Call it my physics bias if you will, but as the Martin Luther King quote above indicates, when a group has faced overt and covert discrimination, it’s not enough to simply say, “OK, everything’s fine now.” Societal pressures on several levels seem to discourage many women from entering competitions, running for elected office, or applying for certain jobs.
To bring things back to a personal level, I care deeply about bringing people into science who are traditionally excluded or marginalized. That’s not because I wish to exclude white males like myself, but as things stand right now, we don’t need special outreach or assistance. If we want to make science relevant to everyone, then we need participation from every group…along with people who don’t fit neatly into standard groups. Physics may be my field, but if as a writer and teacher I truly care about sharing it with the world, humanity is my beat.