Like a pig to the slaughter

Via Feminist Law ProfessorsNature reports on a study by Sherry Towers, a former Fermilab physicist, showing a consistent pattern of discrimination against women postdocs at Fermilab from 1998-2006.  (You can read the whole data-rich study here.)  In sum:  women worked harder but were consistently rewarded less than their male peers.  Surprise!  “Women did 40% more maintenance work than their male counterparts, and . . . female postdocs produced significantly more ‘internal papers’ per year. But based on that productivity they were only one-third as likely to be allocated conference talks as their male peers.”  The article in Nature explains the importance of conference papers to building a strong resume: 

Conference presentations are critical to a young particle physicist’s career. Papers from collaborations such as DZero have hundreds of authors in alphabetical order. Being given the chance to present results at a meeting is a major way for young researchers to stand out. “It’s important,” says Pauline Gagnon, a physicist with the ATLAS detector at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland. “Being able to give talks is a way of rewarding individuals for their work.”

Most particle detectors have internal committees that allocate conference presentations to researchers. These committees are frequently male-dominated, and Towers believes this lies behind the discrimination. “I don’t think for a second that there is a conscious bias going on,” she says. But the committees “are in danger of being prone to patronage and cronyism”. Male committee members are more likely to nominate male protégés to receive presentation time, she claims.

The study suggests (once again!) that informal networking is key.  “Female physicists contacted by Nature said Towers’s data matched their personal experiences of institutional sexism in physics. ‘You often see a young guy with an older guy gossiping and having coffee, but never a woman,’ says Freya Blekman, a physicist on the CMS experiment at CERN.”  If you check out the Nature article, be sure to read through some of the comments, particularly the first one (and the many replies it inspired), which is as sparkling an example of defensive asshattery as I’ve ever seen.  Says Dr. Paul Kantorek:

My experience as a physicist working with the occasional female colleagues leads me to a subjective impression that women really think differently. Female thinking seems to be more lateral then vertical. By that I mean, women in physics are generally harder working than male colleagues and are great co-workers in terms of encouragement, diligence, and backup support. They do not, however, contribute a great deal of original ideas and rigorous logical analysis to the research. Female judgment seems to more emotionally biased.

Um, yeah.  Inadvertently, he gives an excellent explanation for why women are so underrrepresented in physics:  a**hole gatekeepers like himself.  Paging Dr. Kantorek–the twenty-first century is calling!  Just be glad that you’re not a student or faculty member at Ryerson University in Toronto, where the esteemed Dr. Kantorek teaches.  (Unless you are–in which case, my condolences if you have to work with him.)  Other reactions to Kantorek here, and here

Fortunately, the other commenters (women and men alike) at Nature seem to have him in hand.  As Tanja Schmidt suggests, “Imagine Kantorek would have said the same things about jews, gays, black, foreigners or other minorities.”  Well–that’s the thing.  We can’t imagine that he would have eagerly jumped to the head of the line to say the same thing about an entire ethnic group.  (Not so sure she’s right about the gays, who are after all gender queer, just like women physicists!)  He might think it–but he wouldn’t probably say it out loud or write it under his real name.  As we have learned this year, it’s permissible to say absolutely anything about high-achieving women, even to engage in eliminationist fantasies and rhetoric.  It’s all good, if you’re just putting teh bitchez in their place!

0 thoughts on “Like a pig to the slaughter

  1. Pingback: Feminist Law Professors » Blog Archive » “Data show extent of sexism in physics”

  2. Hmmm, Historiann, you are curiously silent on Rev. Wright (he of my favorite new T-Shirt, “Rev. Wright for Secretary of State”). The lack of comment, I suspect, may speak to a new strategy on the part of the Clinton campaign and its supporters: let Obama and Rev. Wright do themselves in. Now that Wright has stepped up to claim his 15 mins — or fifteen days, at the rate it’s going — there may actually be hope for Senatorella.

    As far as the situation among physicists — maybe we could have a Sexism Olympics. Physicists vs. engineers vs. other disreputable sciences. And while we’re at it, I want universities to start publishing faculty demographics by disciplines and schools/colleges. The Humanities and Social Sciences and Education are carrying so-called diversity for many universities.


  3. Rad–you’re entirely right. The pathetic job that disciplines like History, English, Foreign Languages, and Philosophy are doing are still much, much better than disciplines that are either failing to recruit or driving out women and nonwhite doctoral candidates and post-docs. Universities relies on the humanities to hire a few XX chromosome-types and a few brown faces that they can use in promotional materials. (See GayProf’s post a few months ago on the “Lite-Brite” approach to faculty diversity hires, and my response on this blog.)

    As for Rev. Wright: it’s not a “new strategy” on Clinton’s part or my part not to comment on Rev. Wright. I just feel very badly for Obama that he had to come out and denounce someone who clearly has been an important person in his life. I think the media attention on this has been really unfair to Obama and Wright, when the really crazy-assed crazies in right wing religion get a total pass (Franklin Graham, John Hagee, Rod Parsley). I understand that Wright wanted to clear his name and speak for himself, but the speaking tour this week seemed like he was enjoying the spotlight more than a little. I also think it’s really, really unfortunate that Wright spoke about HIV/AIDS in such a way as to give life and breath to conspiracy theories, but at that point he gave Obama no way to maneuver without denouncing him. That’s about all I have to say. The whole scene is just regrettable and gives the media an excuse to talk horserace rather than focus on policy.


  4. Thanks, David, for the post on Wright. It is very smart, and as an academic in an English department, I appreciate the underlying notion that discourse creates a certain reality and speaks to a different type of truth than verifiable facts, figures, and events. The righ twing has been extremely adept at using this to create its own reality and disinform people. (e.g. Iraq’s weapons of mass destrution). Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) the public, media-induced discussion of this discourse is not an English department. And most people (myself included) still prefer to be grounded in more mundane empiricisms. And while that might not be any more real in terms of evidence available, it does speak to a need for different rhetorial approaches in pubilc. I think that’s historiann’s point about why Obama had to denounce Wright.


  5. Thanks, Rad readr, although I think it’s unfortunate. The media-driven discussion of the discourse is facile, and more than a little racist. We could use more English department discourses in mainstream life, however utopian that wish might be.

    I know Obama has to live in the reality of politics, but I still don’t like it, which is why I write up these posts on an insignificant blog.


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