Humanity is My Beat

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.


9 Responses to “Humanity is My Beat”

  1. 1 Jacquelyn Gill February 3, 2012 at 16:23

    I’m sorry that you’re taking the heat for your post, but I’m glad you’re choosing to engage on this subject! One argument I often marshal against the “reverse discrimination” argument is using a power + privilege definition of racism and sexism (and other isms). In order to be racist, or sexist, you have to be part of a group that has power and privilege (i.e. white, or male) — otherwise, it’s not racism or sexism.

    Confronting one’s privilege can be a very scary thing, but it’s absolutely necessary if we as a society are to make progress towards equality. I urge interested parties to the “Unpacking the invisible knapsack” essay (, which is written about white privilege specifically but is also a really useful model for confronting other forms of privilege. One important starting premise is that we can’t just acknowledge that other groups have disadvantages– we have to acknowledge our advantages as members of a privileged group.

  2. 2 Matthew R. Francis February 3, 2012 at 16:32

    I note that some people are seeing very sexist ads under this post. I am looking into correcting that – I currently don’t control the ad content, but I will try to assert that now. Trust me, it’s the last thing I want appearing on my site.

    • 3 Luiz February 29, 2012 at 16:22

      I’ve been finlowolg this thread on and off for several days having been science blogging for six years, on the physical sciences no less (I’m a quantum chemist and female). I appreciate the round-up here.I’ll throw something else into the mix and wonder if women scientists are less likely to have as much discretionary time as male scientists (bloggers or not). Women scientists are less likely to have stay at home spouses than are male scientists and this limits their availability. Tiny time crunches add up I’m a bit less likely to blog, a bit less likely to spend time on self-promotion, etc.Which makes me wonder is this the productivity puzzle in a slightly different guise? (An ancient blog post I wrote on this is ).I wish I had more time to weigh into all this, but I’m writing against deadline tonight .

  3. 4 unstableisotope February 3, 2012 at 16:48

    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.

    This is a very hard concept for some people to understand. One thing I hear a lot from the older white men I work with is that things were somehow “better” before and work is less fun because you might hurt someone’s feelings. I’m always challenging that…more fun for who exactly? Certainly not for the very few women that worked in that environment.

  4. 5 Emily Willingham (@ejwillingham) February 3, 2012 at 16:54

    Great comment, unstableisotope. Matthew, thanks for writing this post and dealing with the flying monkeys.

  5. 6 Zuska February 3, 2012 at 17:29

    Yes, it is less fun for them because they can’t be overtly sexist and all boy’s clubby at work they way they used to when no women were around. They can’t assume that they won’t have to compete against women because it’s just all dudes. They are losing actual privileges that they took for granted and it is painful and they don’t like it. They don’t see an advantage to having women around – they don’t care about the “more talent in science” argument because a, they don’t believe women have any talent to bring and b, they want to hang on to the boys club and the right to be snarky about women. When they say “someone’s feelings will get hurt” what they mean is “I’m going to have to behave like an adult at work and I don’t like doing all the work that requires”. They are whiney little boys who don’t even understand the roots and extent of their own bias and sexism. Pathetic.

  6. 7 Matthew R. Francis February 3, 2012 at 17:34

    Since they aren’t here, I was being kind to them and giving them a little benefit of the doubt, but yes, this is totally on target, all of you. In some of the comments, it was very clear that the man writing it was assuming NO woman is as qualified as MOST men. That assumption by itself is mind-boggling to me.

    It does make me wonder if there isn’t some fear, whether they realize it or not, that maybe women can be better than they are at many jobs, and that fear is realized through anger.

    • 8 Mert February 29, 2012 at 22:20

      This is a very good post, about a topic that I think does not get eoungh attention. I have to admit, as a progressive-thinking male in the 21st century, I still have the nagging feeling that sometimes we don’t get any attention. True, the reason we need a Women’s Resource Center, not to mention Women’s History Month, is because, well, most everywhere else is a hegemonic (and thus, tacit) Men’s Resource Center, and every other month is Men’s History Month .But, you raise a good point: where’s the re-education. Why does the new, redefined man have to be a feminist ? I disagree with the comment above me that reads, When a man defends a man, it’s sexism. When a man defends sexist acts by men, it’s sexist. When a man defends against sexist attacks by men and women, is he a feminist? By today’s standards, yes. Let’s redefine it though. I challenge the next commenter to come up with a new term for feminist men. How about, masculinist? Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, but it’s a start.

  7. 9 Unstable Isotope February 3, 2012 at 18:09

    I think there’s many men in the bubble of male privilege who don’t believe that a woman or minority could possibly be more qualified. That’s the problem I see.

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