gender, other topics, politics

Keeping Women Out


A very interesting, if depressing, article appeared in the New York Times’s “Sunday Review” on March 6. In it A. Hope Jahren, a professor of geobiology, offered one answer to the question, “Why are there too few women in science?”


The problem doesn’t stop with science. An article, “Emoji Feminism,” by Amy Butcher, in the “Sunday Review” on March 13, notes that:


In most professions, women make less than men, but in academia this pay gap is compounded by the fact that women tend to spend more uncompensated time advising students while also being subjected to student evaluations that studies show are consistently biased against them. Female academics are promoted at much slower rates, and fewer still choose to stay in the field as a result, and even fewer, then, are even present when the time for tenure comes. Perhaps it’s no surprise that men hold three-quarters of full professorships within the United States.


The problem is arguably worse in the physical sciences (the STEM fields) because they are especially prestigious, so women lose more if they are kept out of those fields. But the reasons why fewer women than men hold tenured positions in all academic fields are similar. In the humanities as well as the social sciences, there is a curious downward spiral: in most of these fields, the number of women admitted to Ph.D. programs is at least equal to that of men, and often greater; but women fail to get their degrees, or drop out early in their careers, at disturbing rates. Something is keeping smart women from using their intelligence.


Jahren offers one reason: high-ranking men in scientific departments too often are sexual harassers. Women at the beginning of their careers know that if they complain, (a) nothing will be done, and (b) they will be stigmatized as troublemakers and their careers will stall. They try to bear up, but the situation is intolerable and they eventually give up.


In 2005, Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, set off a firestorm with a public “off-the-cuff” remark that women might be underrepresented in science because of “innate” differences. That has been a commonly held position, despite the lack of evidence. There are, however, more persuasive reasons:


Particularly though not exclusively in STEM fields, to be highly successful requires a 24/7 commitment to research, especially early in one’s career. Men have been willing (and able) to do this. Even though they aren’t home much, they can have families: the spouse is expected to keep the home fires burning. But male spouses too often aren’t willing to do the chores and husband and child care, and if the wife isn’t there to do them, the marriage often fails. So women have to choose between family and career, as men do not, and many choose the former. This is especially likely to happen because women are not treated equally with their male colleagues at work.


Essential to achieving early academic success is the support of a mentor. Scholarly work is hard, and the budding scientist needs to feel that someone important believes in her. Someone is needed to write letters of recommendation and support her research in other ways. But eminent researchers like to mentor students who remind them of themselves at an earlier stage. Since older scientists most often still are male, the students they are most apt to encourage are also most likely to be male.


Sometimes the non-support takes a more noxious form. Because female scientists have been scarce, it is easy for too many men to form the conclusion (à la Larry Summers) that women are by nature not equipped to be first-rate scientists. Not only are such men not supportive, they are actively discouraging and demeaning – women, they say, just don’t have what it takes. They just aren’t smart enough.


All of this would be enough to discourage plenty of women, but it gets worse, as Jahren’s article demonstrates. Prestigious men sexually harass women at all levels: students, young professors, and even tenured older professors. The harassment takes all kinds of imaginative forms, from groping and grabbing, to sexually colored comments about dress and makeup, to “love letters,” to outright physical assault. Too often, if a woman tries to report these misbehaviors, the official to whom she has to report pooh-poohs or ignores the complaint. This is the same problem found elsewhere in academia and other institutions: when women complain about the actions of prestigious males, whether scholars, administrators, or athletes, they are ignored or blamed for the males’ behavior.


Jahren makes a powerfully persuasive case. But she omits one important point.


One reason administrators downplay harassment and don’t punish harassers is that they understand the conduct as “romantic.” The poor guys are in love; they are merely the victims of the women’s wiles; poor dears, they cannot control their normal and manly passions. The course of true love never did run smooth, did it? So let’s give the poor guys a break: they acted on their feelings, perhaps a bit inappropriately, but boys will be boys. It was all in fun, she was merely hypersensitive. Et cetera, et cetera.


But that’s totally misunderstanding the harassers’ motives and intentions. These guys are not remotely “in love,” nor are they in the throes of irresistible passion. Nor did the women lead them on. Sexual harassment of all kinds is always not about desire, but power, driven by emotions less poetic than love — fear and jealousy. These men, however prominent, remain at heart the boys who didn’t make the team, and couldn’t get a date for the prom. Today they are alphas – admired, financially well off, sometimes even on the Nobel shortlist. But they still see themselves as omegas and worry that others are gaining on them, even some who have no business trying to play the game. If even women are catching up to them, how can they maintain the superiority that they fear, deep down, is not rightly theirs? These women must be brought down, embarrassed, driven away – only then can they once again feel strong and competent. Sexual harassment is a good way to achieve this goal, because it’s confusing to the woman (and everyone else): it looks like admiration, so what’s her problem? It doesn’t look like professional jealousy. And the sexual double standard ensures that his target will feel shame and humiliation, driving her out of the competition.


The assumption that the poor male just let his emotions get a little out of control is particularly strange when he is a prominent scholar or scientist. To reach their current level of success, these men had to learn to control their impulses and master self-discipline. They had to work very hard for very long hours: no parties, little fun. Those who succeed in academia, especially STEM fields, are not only the best and the brightest, but also the most disciplined. So it’s hard to understand how men like this suddenly lose control of their of sexual desire.


So ambitious girls get the message: lose that unfeminine ambition, or society will punish you. Many women, weighing the odds, take that warning seriously.


Yet there is one acceptable way for a woman to seek prominence: the respectable path to success, through marriage to a great man. Our society is comfortable with that route; and we still use examples of this kind to covertly discourage those “ambitious” women who want to achieve success on their own.


Consider the amount of attention given to Nancy Reagan on her recent death. Her story – her abandonment of her career in order to support her husband’s, her unflagging devotion to him and his to her – has occupied the media for a week, in the middle of a presidential campaign, weird and terrible weather, and existential problems all over the world. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, as this story plays out, a woman is running for an office no woman has ever had – the most symbolically powerful position in the world. Is there an implicit comparison between Nancy, the good woman whose career was supporting her husband, and Hillary, the ambitious bitch? Perhaps this is why so much negative attention has been focused on Clinton’s tiny gaffe in her eulogy of Nancy Reagan, about the Reagans’ (actually nonexistent) support for AIDS research: a contrast and a warning to us all.


And thus we may understand other current Hillariana:


There is the way HRC’s victories and defeats are discussed, vs. Bernie Sanders’s: when she wins narrowly, the win is always “razor thin.” When he wins narrowly, as in Michigan (which he won by a 1.5% margin), the victory is called “shocking,” or “surprising,” which makes it sound huge, but seldom “narrow.”


She is continually being told what to do and not to do – a way of maintaining authority over her and emphasizing her womanly unfitness for the job. After her huge victory in Mississippi, a reporter corralled one of her supporters, a state senator. His first question: what did HRC do wrong, what would he tell her to do? (The guy, to his credit, seemed embarrassed.) How often, after a victory, is the victor told what he did wrong?


Joe Klein, in Time (3/21) has a column in praise of John Kasich. Praising Kasich’s quiet demeanor, he contrasts it with that of others – in particular, you-know-who:


Kasich is the least hortatory candidate in the race. You listen to Hillary Clinton making grand pronouncements–“And isn’t it about time that we had equal pay for women?”–and you cringe: Yeah, of course, it is … but why are you yelling at me? Yelling is what politicians did before there were microphones.



Why is “equal pay for women” a grand – indeed, Klein suggests, an overly grand pronouncement, and anyway, what’s wrong with making a big deal of it? It is a big deal. Who cringes? Not me. And besides, she doesn’t “yell” — she speaks in a normal voice (compare it with Trump, or Sanders, for that matter). But women speaking in public necessarily “yell,” are “shrill,” or “strident.” And of all the other candidates, why does Klein single Clinton out as the #1 malefactor? I can’t imagine.


So Clinton must be wary of everything she does and says – it will be hyper-interpreted and used against her. In an editorial on March 10, the New York Times (which has endorsed her) criticized her for untruthfulness in attacking Sanders’s position on the 2008 auto bailout bill. The Times was right, of course, but again, it seems gratuitous to single Clinton out as the only non-truth teller in the race. In general, it seems that a lot of the “reasons” voters give for their opposition to Clinton – “untruthfulness” and “inauthenticity” – are smokescreens for the real, unacceptable reason: they cannot get their heads around a woman in the Oval Office. There must be something wrong with a woman who aspires to that position. Just as eight years ago people used Obama’s alleged foreign birth and Muslim religion as reasons to vote against him, today people devise “acceptable” reasons for their discomfort with Clinton, which no one questions.


Too often in interviews questions to Clinton quickly turn intrusive and personal in a way that doesn’t happen to her male counterparts. Thus after the March 9 debate, Jorge Ramos of Univision asked her if she would drop out of the race if she were indicted: putting the cart way before the horse and trying to humiliate her any way he could. Andrea Mitchell asked her why she was so unlikeable – another question male candidates don’t get too often (even Ted Cruz, whom everyone is said to hate).


And younger women still won’t support her. I suspect that a lot of their distaste is due to their perception of her as “bossy”: she reminds them of Mommy or their third-grade teacher. Why is it mainly younger women who feel this way? Maybe because they have not been around long enough to understand what women do for all of us. Once they have grown older, women come to understand that one of their necessary tasks is to civilize the youth, a job that causes them to seem bossy and boring, but one that has to be done.


The young women’s lack of enthusiasm is especially unfortunate because, of all groups in the population, young women have the most to gain from the election of a woman president right now. At the beginning of their careers, they have to look forward to encountering the same old gender-role stereotypes and fears of powerful women, the noxious assumptions that will erode only if the most powerful person in the world is a woman and the world doesn’t come to an end.


So there is a connection between pervasive sexual harassment in science, academia in general and elsewhere, and the unequal treatment Clinton is experiencing in her campaign. One will not end unless the other does. Keeping women out is still important to a lot of important people. They have to learn that it’s OK, and in fact essential, to let women in.