Sexism in the lab: Perception and reality mingle

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A three part conversation between two women overheard on the University of Minnesota campus.

Part 1 of conversation:

“So, did you read that obnoxious post that that Isis the Scientist, that Goddess blogger, did and her yelling at ERV and all?”

“Yeah, I did. What a bunch of stupid.”

“If you listen to Isis, all you get is ‘misogyny this, misogyny that, he touched me, he looked at me, yadayadayada’ but if you listen to ERV you get a whole different thing about what working in a lab is like.”

“Yeah, I know. S’all stupid shit.”

“You work in a lab, right?”


“You’re hot, right?”

“Yes, baby, I’m totally hot.”

“D’you ever get shit like that? Lab guys hitting on you, older men treating you like eye candy, all that shit?”

“Naw, never. That kind of thing just does not happen in the lab I work in. It’s totally cool there.”

“I suppose it all depends on the field, the place you work, the specific lab and shit.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Part 2 of conversation, a few days later:.

“I can’t believe what a crappy day I had today.”

“What, at work?”

“Yeah, at the lab.”

“What happened?”

“Well, the guy I work with has been sick, so he had an undergrad follow me around to learn the procedures.”

“Was that not good somehow?”

“No, it wasn’t. I feel like I’m losing my sense of patience. The student hardly ever listened to what I said, always corrected me when I mentioned details about the procedure, all that.”

“Sounds sucky.”

“It was totally sucky. We had this thing we have to do with the software because it isn’t set up right. We put in the standard error calculated on the raw data instead of the transformed data, because we can’t get it to work any other way for now. We’ll fix it later. But this undergrad lectured me on how I don’t get what a standard error was and how important that was and how I was totally doing it wrong.”

“That sucks.”

Part 3 of conversation, two minutes later:

“OH, that undergrad that is being so obnoxious in your lab. It’s a guy, isn’t it.”

“Yeah, how did you know?”

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29 thoughts on “Sexism in the lab: Perception and reality mingle

  1. Actually, Becca, I think the original complaint was that Greg never talks about sexism. Not that that keeps the other complaint from being made, of course.

  2. I never talk about sexism. I am silent on the topic of Sex differences as well as Sex Differences. (note the very subtle difference between the two.) I never touch GLBTA issues. Feminism is not my bailiwick, nor is the topic of gender and sexual orientation. Human sexuality? Forgetaboutit.

    The accusation has been that I am a mysogynist, a sexist, a racist, that I don’t talk about sexism. I have been told to not talk about sexism or feminism. I have been told to not blog about Isis or mention her blog or her name. I have been told to not comment on conversations being held by any two female science bloggers.

    Isis can not write a blog post without inferring that I annoy her some how, and if I ever point that out, DrugMonkey can not resist telling me that I only *think* is it all about me. But it is, really, all about me. These people are truly crazy, obsessed, ineffective, disturbingly narrow-minded, and in the end, not very smart. I may begin to get annoyed soon. I even tried to be nice today by writing a supportive comment in which I essentially agreed with Isis, and she deleted the comment. How nice and friendly, how open and conversational, how productive, how mature, how non-middle-school-level capacity for social engagement, how backwards, and how counterproductive. Too bad, really.

    Here’s the sad thing: Becca, who has all sorts of smart going on, addresses the meta-issue of whether or not Greg is allowed to speak about a certain topic, rather than the topic itself. I totally appreciate Becca’s comment and it is just fine, but at some level can we please move the conversation to the point so that my daughter can live in a slightly better world as she grows up? And stop the shit? (Which is,as I say, starting to get annoying.)


  3. I don’t know that perception and reality quite mingled for the woman in the lab situation, though they appears to have done so for her friend.

  4. I totally relate to this post. It reflects my experience perfectly and at so many levels. I’ve been at both ends of this conversation, sometimes the sexism being much more subtle than the snot-faced sophomore male syndrome exhibited here.

  5. Well, there seem to be two dimensions going on here, one about the level of actual sexism in different settings (yes, folks, it varies, and it is OK to describe your own experience) and the other about the perception of sexism … noticing sexism as opposed to just jerkiness. (I suppose it is possible that the student is not really being sexist but is just a jerk, one has to investigte.)

    This is relevant in relation to the blogging going on now about the TAM7 conference on skepchicks and elsewhere.

  6. Greg, you are going to need Cliff Notes on this one:

    1) Girl blows off Isis.
    2) Evidence shown that level of sexism varies across contexts.
    3) Girl who blows off Isis has failed to see sexism that directly affects her.
    4) Will girl now become more aware, more enlightened?

    … stay tuned for the next episode.

    (ERV is going kick your ass.)

  7. That is a pretty good summary. In real life, this conversation involved further learning and identification of the problem.

    I don’t think ERV is necessarily going to kick my ass here. My only implication is that people have different experiences, and that different settings are … different.

  8. Does it matter what kind of lab or other science work setting people work it? Are there different fields that are more or less sexist or accepting of any kind of diversity?

  9. I will make one more meta observation before moving on to the topic at hand. For as much as some blogs are supposed to be “safe” places to discuss sexism and other blogs are supposed to be lawless and hostile, I find that I get more out of discussions like this one at the “lawless” blogs. There is more room for people to shift in opinions and more tolerance for differing perspectives. There’s more room to screw up and still be part of the conversation. These are tough conversations to have, which I think is why you see some joking around here before people dive into the topic. (Okay, two meta observations.)

    That said, yes, the different settings are important. When dealing with sexism, it makes a huge difference where it comes from. The difference between generally having the support of your lab and adviser and other institutions while dealing with this kind of idiot and having your institutions run by this kind of idiot matters. It’s the difference between dealing with an immature asshole and dealing with a threat.

    That doesn’t excuse the idiot. It doesn’t mean sexism doesn’t exist and isn’t a problem. But it does make a big difference in perception. It also makes a difference in how much energy people want to put into the problem. Fixing institutions is necessary and big enough to be rewarding. Chasing all the assholes into the dirt is a losing proposition.

  10. Sorry! I was trying to make that argument seem silly so it wouldn’t come up, and I probably just drew attention to it more. DOH.

    As far as your comment at Isis- I read it, and it made wish it was something more of my professors could have written… but at the same time, I think there’s some animosity toward academics who are focused on research and academics who are focused on teaching (naturally, the rich researchers are going to usually be seen as the group with Privilege, but the animosity does run both ways).
    Given that, PLUS your personal history with Isis, and it might have come across as a “you made your bed, now lie in it” snark, or patronizing “I always Prioritize My Students (because I’m a Good Teacher)” snobbery.
    I assumed you didn’t mean it like that at all, but if I had to guess, that’s why it got deleted.

    As far as this actual post goes- I find it most helpful to view such attitudes as defense mechanisms.
    Otherwise, it would be inconsistent of me to not want to shake the denialism out of them.

  11. DC: I love that quote about not getting a clue even if….

    Stephanie: It will be interesting to see how this particular thing develops, if I am privilaged to find out. The adult male silverback may have to slap down the upity sexist undergrad, or have a talking to, or something. Or, not back him to the exclusion of the grad student. We’ll see. If I know, you’ll know.

  12. Becca: I essentially agree that your theory is likely right, or as I’ve said to you elsewhere, that things are simpler: The delete Greg no matter what rule.

    But as most have noticed, I really was being sincere. My comment was a valid attempt at being helpful and it wasn’t anything else.

    Irene: Verily, my comment truly was a martyr.

  13. I didn’t see Saint Comment. I suppose nobody kept it, either. Now how will I be able to see pareidolia of it in my toast? We’ll have to draw Westernized caricatures of Saint Comment in flowing robes and a halo now.

  14. I’ll be completely honest, I am confused by the whole thing. I’ve never quite gotten all the subtleties of the all this sexism stuff. Before I get written off as a misogynistic asshole, lemme ‘splain. Having some mental traits generally associated with Aspergers, I don’t get the subtleties of many social interactions. Unless it’s printed in 30pt courier font and prominently hung in front of my nose, I’m liable to miss it. Sometimes it’s easier than others. If I hear a man tell his wife, “Get back in the kitchen and make me some pie, bitch,” that’s pretty easy to call.

    I’ve read a lot of Greg’s stuff and never had any impression of sexism. He can be obscure and obtuse (at least to me, but I never done gradiated from colluge), but I haven’t seen him be sexist.



  15. Why am I going to kick Gregs ass? I agree with this post. Personality conflicts being degraded into ‘UR SEXISZT!’, when gender has shit to do with anything.

    Their analysis program is wrong. The kid is right, and anal retentive. Has nothing to do with ‘boys’ looking down on ‘girls’ in math. Passing it off as a ‘gender issue’ demeans everyone.

  16. Passing it off as a ‘gender issue’ demeans everyone.

    But it might actually be a gender issue.

    The problem is that in the vast universe of human behavior, there are always ambiguous cases where there’s room for doubt [1]. For those of us who can deal with (or even like) ambiguity, uncertainty, error bars, etc. it’s a question of where we strike the balance between Type I and Type II errors — and the prices we’re willing to accept for being wrong. Which we accept will happen.

    For those who can’t stand being wrong, can’t handle ambiguity, etc.? I guess that’s a different story.

    [1] At least in the real world. I reject the degenerate cases of “there is no such thing as sexism” and “of course it’s sexism — now what was the question?”

  17. How many times did I have this conversation with fellow women in grad school? “Oh, sexism never happens to me, we are in a post-sexist academia, hooray.” And then “I couldn’t believe that guy in my section and how he demeaned me and doubted everything I said” or “That prof’s eyes never went higher than my boobs” etc etc etc…

  18. Huh.
    It’s funny you titled this with ‘perception’ because without knowing any other information about the post and taking it completely at face value I was left with a different perception than everyone else I guess. I was left feeling like the ‘friend’ was being sexist because she guessed that it was a guy undergrad. Now I admit that I also guessed part way through that it was a guy (so that wasn’t cool of me either), but by the end I thought that was Greg’s point.
    Weird, have I got something totally wrong here?

  19. Jodi: No, you’re just smarter than most people. You knew it was a male undergrad because otherwise there would be no story: she would have crushed the whelp at the outset.

  20. I might have a little something to add to this conversation. I am a female coder in the video game industry, (we’re a rare breed) and I don’t notice too much overt sexism. Well, there is that one guy who can’t talk to me without talking to my boobs, but I’m more amused than offended by that.
    I do see a lot of what is in this joke, though. Not being included in lunch outings with the boys, having to constantly fight not to be pidgeonholed in non-hardcore coding jobs like high-level scripting, etc. (It’s funny. I don’t know a single woman who works on graphics or engine. It’s always scripting or build configs or sysadmin. Wonder if they want those jobs or have just been herded towards them. I know a lot for whom the latter is true.)
    Our company even has a condescending newb who will walk by the office when I’m asking a question to another programmer and announce “That’s easy! You just do this! (MATH MATH MATH).” He’s a wanker to the other guys, too, so maybe that’s just a young coder-thing.

  21. the only problem with Greg is that he won’t shut up about Linux!!!!!!!!

    everyone knows VMS is the wave of the future.


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