Monday, September 07, 2009

Start Seeing Micro-inequities

Every time I post an anecdote about a possible situation in which I may or may not have been treated in a way that could perhaps be described at least in part as sexist, I always receive one or more comments:
  • giving alternative interpretations of the incident,
  • informing me that I am too sensitive,
  • wondering why I am offended by such a minor incident, and/or
  • telling me that I must hate men (or asking me why I hate men so much).
And there are always comments from women reporting similar incidents that have happened to them.

I agree that any one single minor incident could be interpreted in other (non-sexist) ways. It is important to realize, however, that many of these little incidents are examples of micro-inequities.

Micro-inequities are ways in which people are ignored, disrespected, undermined, or somehow treated in a different (negative) way because of their gender or race (or some other intrinsic characteristic).

A micro-inequity can be very micro. It can involve an action or words or even a tone of voice or a gesture. The inequity can be a deliberate attempt to harm someone or it can be unintentional, rooted in a person's perceptions about others.

Whatever the source and however minor each separate event, over the years the cumulative effect of these little incidents, words, and gestures on an individual and on various segments of society (academia, business, even within families) is not so micro.

There is a complete spectrum between the mini-incidents and the big unambiguous ones that most people would agree are sexist or racist. Clearly we need to eradicate the big unambiguous examples of discrimination, but are some (most?) people willing to accept micro-inequities because the incidents are, in many cases, so ambiguous? Where do you draw the line between deciding that someone is oversensitive vs. the target of habitual disrespect?

Even if most people support the general concept that people should not be disrespected or marginalized because of gender or race, in reality quite a few people are willing to overlook micro-inequities. It is certainly easier to label someone as oversensitive or too quick to see things through the notorious gender (or race) lenses in a mundane situation than to deal with the ambiguity of identifying a micro-inequity.

The conversation I described in my post last Friday was of a type I think of as an I-can't-believe-you're-a-professor incident. For me, this is one of the more micro kinds. I was not harmed by that particular incident. I was not even particularly inconvenienced by it. It was but one of many such incidents I have experienced in the past 20+ years. Any one of them is indeed a micro-incident, and many have multiple possible interpretations.

Over time, however, these incidents are a constant reminder that many people find it difficult to believe that women can or should be scientists and/or professors. They reinforce our sense of isolation, and together they send the strong message that women don't get the same level of respect that men do, even when we are doing the same jobs.

You don't have to believe that every such incident is an example of a micro-inequity, but in the case of FSPs who experience such things routinely, the alternative is to label us all as oversensitive man-haters who feel victimized by the slightest hint of disrespect (which we are probably misinterpreting because we are actively looking for sexism). That doesn't sound like any of the women scientists I know.


Anonymous said...

FSP, you are so correct! "Over time, however, these incidents are a constant reminder that many people find it difficult to believe that women can or should be scientists and/or professors. They reinforce our sense of isolation, and together they send the strong message that women don't get the same level of respect that men do, even when we are doing the same jobs."

Last week I went to visit a 6th grade class in an upscale neighborhood to talk about scientists, science, and science notebooks. I was quietly sitting in the back of the room before class started and one male student asked me, "are you Dr. Marshall? I thought you'd be a man."

Seriously, in 2009?

Anonymous said...

I agree about micro-inequities.

Two examples, both having to do with race, rather than gender - one academic, one non-academic:

1. For decades in my academic career I have found that since my name sounds "foreign", my research papers are referred to (in conversation) by the name(s) of my non "foreign sounding" co-authors. Also when I see other researchers looking at recent or upcoming publications, they quickly spot the non "foreign sounding" names for comment. Perhaps all the "foreign sounding" names look alike? Yes, this is an anglophone bias, but it still is a problem.

2. When I fly commercially I am held for questioning or searching significantly more often when unshaven. No (white) bearded professor I know of is held up similarly.

CurlyO said...

I can well imagine that after a couple of macro-inequities, I will become sensitized for minor incidents as well.

Last week I experienced something falling into the macro-category, I suppose: In the first morning of a three-day workshop organized by my current graduate school, our (female!) coordinator asked "the girls" to join her for a second to be introduced into the kitchen / coffee machine next door so that we knew how and where to prepare coffee for the breaks.

I was speechless, being one of two (!) girls in the room where ten (!) male PhD colleagues were waiting along with us to have the course started.
It was embarrassing.

Fortunately the other girl refused, our coordinator rolled her eyes and in the end me and another boy were going to the kitchen with her. To me that was fair, as the two of us were both sitting right next to the door and are part of the heavier caffeine-dependent fraction of the graduate school anyway.

Kea said...

I think the biggest problem, day to day, is that Priveleged People don't actually see any micro-inequities. It is like they are blind. I know this, because most young women are just as blind ... I certainly was when I was younger.

But do I ever confront a particularly offensive AWM and explain in detail what was wrong with his attitude at event X? Very rarely. One learns that it is more productive to try and educate the reasonable few, in the hope that they will become more proactive in making the world a better place. In science, where the workloads are high and business is cutthroat, AWMs could not possibly justify wasting their precious time trying to understanding what the whingers are complaining about.

The glimmer of hope that I see comes not from within academia, but from governments who have done their homework, and become painfully aware of the reasons why young people are not particularly interested in science.

CrankyMathGuy said...

Here's a comment which could falls under the "giving alternative interpretation" category, but is nevertheless worthy of thought.

There exist many incidents where it is not necessarily clear what lens(es) give the "correct" picture of the inequity.

In some circumstances, it is clear which lens best detects the root of unequal treatment. In others, most likely a combination of lenses works best. Finally, in some cases there are hidden variables present. (As my marriage counselor says "It's not about you.")

One thing I have observed while living abroad and working with a very diverse collection of colleagues (I've now shared offices with natives of every inhabited continent!) is that there is a danger in basing one's identity on merely one particular lens.

One part of the danger is that by trying to push all slights into a single framework, the possibility exists to overlook injustice of another form. The other part of the danger is that self-identity becomes based on being a victim. I've seen both happen, with unhappy results in both cases.

I want to make it clear that I am not accusing FSB of succumbing to these dangers, nor am I denying the existence of micro-inequities.

Rather, I want to advocate for a multi-lensed vigilance, in order to both decrease inequity and prevent those inequities which do exist from over-running our lives.

Kea said...

Actually, I think the women in science blogging phenomenon is quite surreal. There are 100s, no 1000s or more, of us out there, mostly writing posts about how hard it is to be taken seriously. And most of us keep getting the same criticicm from the Priveleged People ... on all of these thousands upon thousands of blogs.

But these critics don't seem to notice how common they are. They don't care that this is all now a written record, or that sociologists are doubtlessly writing theses about all this, as we speak. They don't care, because they think it is all a disease to which they are naturally immune. Clearly, they don't think anything much will change, or else they would probably be doing more to position themselves more favourably in the future (yes, age has made me cynical). If this is not blindness ...

Kris said...

Hear hear.

I never used to be hypersensitive about gender issues, so either I've had a major personality change, or the microiniquities have increased exponentially since taking up an academic post. And I'm pretty sure I know which it is ...

Anonymous said...

So, if I asked you to go into a room and fetch Charlie the football sporstcaster, who are you going to ask first? A man or a woman?

Is it because you don't believe that women can be sporstcasters, or because you know that most of them are male?

You care about being a scientist, but the people asking don't care about science at all, just like you don't care (I presume) about sportscasting.

Anonymous said...

As a postdoc in physics, I'm already feeling the cumulative effect of micro-inequities, as you put it. While any one incident isn't a big deal, after years of dealing with them on a daily basis, I'm sensitive and discouraged. Do you have any advice about how to persevere, or constructive suggestions about how to change the local culture?

Anonymous said...

How nice to get a new post on labor day!

I was amazed at the volume of "you're being oversensitive" comments on your last post. In my experience, those kinds of interactions are *very* common. It's hard to dismiss them all as innocent misunderstandings.

amy said...

Thank you so much for this post! Speaking of disrespect, an undergrad in our department recently wrote an opinion piece for the school newspaper, arguing that "man" should be changed to "person" in a popular university slogan. Her article was very calm, logical, and well-argued. The response was outrageous -- hundreds of vicious online comments, and she's now receiving death threats by email. Feminists have been dealing with this kind of crap for hundreds of years (the response to Wollstonecraft's work was pretty brutal), and it makes me so proud of all the brave women who get out there and carry on with their careers and defend their views, in the face of so much micro- and macro-opposition.

Kim said...


And for people who don't believe these micro-inequities are important, I recommend looking at Dr. Virginia Valian's (Hunter College) work on "gender schemas."

Anonymous said...

You are completely right here. This reminds me of two "Feminism 101" pieces from one of my favorite blogs, Shakesville: about looking for stuff to get mad about and about sexism being a matter of opinion. I think they both support what you've said about the importance of smaller incidents.

Anonymous said...

"Even if most people support the general concept that people should not be disrespected or marginalized because of gender or race, in reality quite a few people are willing to overlook micro-inequities."

As you point out, the ignoring is done by the targets of the "micro-inequities" (or you could also call them the ambiguous cases). I'm glad you talk about them (and that you are in a position where you can call attention to them, without serious risks).

Another caveat is the innocence of the instigators. Take the 6th grade boy -- he is innocent, really, and probably, no more likely to have said "I thought you'd be a man" than the 6th grade girl sitting next to him. Their innocence doesn't change the effect of the weight of a thousand micro-inequities, and are still worth pointing out.

Anonymous said...

As a woman I have to say are right on so many things in this post. Consider for a moment an alternate point of view. Women also deliver a lot of these microinequities to other women and especially to people of different races. I've noticed in your posts that you aren't the kindest to foreigners - misunderstanding normal things; giving the worst explanation for faux pas and such. As a colored woman I have to say I sometimes have better luck with white males -- fewer of these microinequities.

Alyssa said...

This is a great explanation of maybe why some of these "small" incidents really affect us. I will have to keep this in mind the next time someone tells me I'm being too sensitive, or reading too much into a situation.

Anonymous said...

Brava, brava!

Thanks, FSP.

Untenured, junior FSP

Allison said...

What works for different people is different, but I've recently learned that I really am too sensitive. A negative encounter that I can't do anything about can knock me off kilter for way too long. I stay saner if I actively work to interpret these kinds of ambiguous encounters, when they are directed toward me, in the more innocuous way. The saner I am, the better science I can do, and the more people will see a woman doing awesome science.

Digger said...

Agreed; these aren't isolated incidents. They happen over, and over, and over again. Definitely a pattern.

John Vidale said...

I'd agree until the last paragraph.

Perceived slights are notoriously difficult to properly calibrate, and outspoken groups claiming injustice often arise spuriously.

Just to be clear, the micro- and macro-damage appears real to me both from personal observation and sociological studies, but the presence of an aggrieved mob and anecdotes are less persuasive.

Anonymous said...

As a female physical sciences grad student, I agree that there are many examples of the kind of small inequities you're describing, and it's often easy to label those complaining about them as whiners/man-haters/etc rather than acknowledging reality.

However, I also recognize the other side of the coin -- it is often easier for those who have these (sometimes real and sometimes perceived) discriminatory experiences to label others who cause/question these types of experiences as "sexist" or "racist". You're right that the sum of all of these experiences does add up to something that isn't micro. But, these kind of events are almost always ambiguous -- while there are enough of them to believe that, statistically, some of them really are discriminatory, it is often impossible to characterize any individual person/incident as discriminatory or innocuous.

I wonder, then, whether we help ourselves more when we point out cases that are genuinely discriminatory than we hurt ourselves by accusing people of being discriminatory (consciously or not) when there may in reality not be discrimination involved at all. I worry that the latter cases may *cause* future sexism, or at least the perception that women must be treated with kid gloves to avoid offending, which amounts to the same thing.

scicurious said...

An excellent post, FSP. My current beef is the number of (usually male) people who meet me and say "but you don't LOOK like a scientist". What does a scientist look like, exactly?

It has become one of my goals to show the world that a scientist can look like ANYONE.

Anonymous said...

I think a blog like this the perfect place to air these sorts of frustrations. I wonder sometimes if it helps or hurts more to publicly (i.e. not anonymously) air incidences of "micro-inequities" that cannot be proven/disproven. When confronted with a multitude of similar instances the simplest explanation must hold, occam's razor, etc. but each individual anecdote unfortunately proves or disproves nothing. I say that as someone who completely believes that FSP was on the receiving end of gender bias with the student ID incident.

In my experience the only thing that really kills micro-inequities is increasing underrepresented populations. For example, it's really difficult for people to cast aside stereotypes about a certain population if they never have any contact with that population.

About half of the profs in my math department are women and half of the grad students as well. I just started grad school. It's pretty remarkable how completely a lot of the micro-inequities I had been experiencing at my undergrad completely vanished once I got to grad school. It's amazing too what that's done for my confidence.

Geoffrey Falk said...

"...somehow treated in a different (negative) way because of their gender or race (or some other intrinsic characteristic)."

Why "intrinsic," though? How are slights based on things we have a choice about any less of a disrespect or undermining--i.e., less of a small inequity--than if you're treated differently for having breasts?

Plus, are male and female homosexuality "intrinsic," or do gays and lesbians have a choice? Because, according to the definition you've provided, if they have a choice in it, then they can't be subjected to "micro-inequities," right?

None of that affects the validity of the rest of what you've said, of course. And I realize you're giving the definition accurately. It's just that the definition, as it stands, doesn't make sense.

Janice said...

This sounds all-too familiar, FSP. When these micro-inequities happen, your response is a great example: to calmly but clearly correct the person's assumptions. If we don't, we end up leaving this attitude in place to bother others. If we do, we hopefully have educated someone to at least think twice before pulling something similar in the future.

mixlamalice said...

Over the last few years, I:
-have been mistaken several times for a woman because I had long blond hairs (even though I also had a goatee).
-have been refered to many times as a grad or even high school student even though I was a doctor.
-have been treated like a technician or some kind of secretary by my bosses even though I was a doctor.
- have been poorly served by waiters in fancy restaurants.
- have been talked to pretty rudely by boarders agents and administrative employees because I am a foreigner that doesn't always understand how this country works.
-have seen my name (first and last) miswritten and misspelled almost every time it was used by people who obviously didn't give a shit (that happened also in my home country).

Just to name a few examples.

Since I am a middle-sized middle-weighted middle-aged blond white male and so am not a member of any obvious "minority", I wonder how I should interprete these "micro-inequities", pretty frequent now that I think about them all.

To cut down the irony, my point is that everybody is confronted to situations where others don't treat you right or don't guess your status correctly. You can choose to interpret it as racism, sexism or whatever ism, but to me it's just much more simple than that, and thinking about it that way is not going to help at all. Because then when confronted to a real "macro-inequity" some people will just think you're whining one more time (the Shepherd's boy and the wolf story).

Ms.PhD said...

Fantastic post. I've written a little about this phenomenon myself (death of a thousand pinpricks) but I usually don't post those writings, because I find it's too hard to anonymize them. The most egregious, memorable ones are always too recognizable.

And I admit, when I first started blogging I was one of those who often suggested the alternative interpretation or silver lining (devil's advocate) view. I sometimes still do, because it's important to me that we choose un-ambiguous examples from which to educate the Deniers.

To the person who asked what you can do when this happens to you, ideally if it's someone whom you think is doing it unintentionally and can learn to be more considerate, I try turning the tables. I try to give a similar example that plays on a typical male stereotype and ask how they feel if I make reference to that, how does that make them feel. If I tease them about how men don't know how to do something, or aren't good at something, they usually get defensive.

First they say: "I'm not that bad! I can learn!"

And then there is a pause.

And then they say, "OHHHHH. That's what you mean."

I think I've made some progress raising awareness using this kind of approach.

However, there are those with whom I would not even try. My adviser is one of those.

Having said that, I strongly reject the notion that you ever should pretend it doesn't matter.

Turning a blind eye will NOT make the problem go away. If you're actively trying to ignore it, you're part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Wake up and realize this is going to happen to your friends and daughters if you choose silence over education.

I think the point about micro-inequities that nobody has really hammered home here is that it speaks to the larger culture. It is a symptom of much more deeply rooted sexism. So it's not always the thousand pinpricks themselves, so much as knowing that they're always out for blood.

FSP references FSPs specifically, but the larger cultural point is that this is what keeps younger women out of science.

RSB said...

Well said. Thank you for deconstructing this phenomenon. I have read it a few times today and sent it to friends.

Anonymous said...

@ mixlamalice:

Have you considered this all happens to you because you are a foreigner that does not speak the language so well?

mixlamalice said...

@ anonymous 1.14:
yeah, some of it, especially the "administrative" stuffs, even though I also had problems with French bureaucrats. It is sometimes hard for me on the phone (harder to deal with accents and people talking fast).

When it comes to my looks or my social status, obviously not.

And all in all, my language is good enough to be understood most of the times (except when I'm asking for an espresso, for some reason), especially in a big University where everybody has to deal with people from all over the world who don't speak or write English that well.

I just deeply believe that most of the "micro-inequities" people are talking about are simply due to the fact that some people don't like their job (or believe that being nice is not part of it), are tired, don't pay attention, are a little dumb, or inefficient, or willing to make you do the crappy things they don't want to do themselves (this one is coming back to the advisor/student or boss/employee thing), rather than gender or social or xenophobic issues.

Anonymous said...

This was a fantastic post. I read your blog fairly often and am amazed how often commenters suggest that "it wasn't meant that way", "they didn't mean any harm", "they didn't know better", "they would have said the same to a man", "it was just a harmless joke" etc. While all of that may be true, it's not really the point.

I would guess that in most of the situations you describe, the person in question really didn't mean to insult you and didn't mean any harm. But the fact is that these small incidents happen much more often to women - as you point out, showing that women are not taken as seriously or given the same respect as men in academia.

The problem is not entirely (or primarily) with the individuals making inappropriate comments, but with the society and cultural mindset that teaches these individuals that scientists/professors are men. And the cumulative effect of these constant reminders is exhausting and discouraging.

One point of note however: I second the Anonymous at 8:38 that you may reflect on your own mindset and stereotypes towards foreigners and minorities - In this blog at least (perhaps not in real life?) you can be very quick to make assumptions and to generalize.

Anonymous said...

The problem CPP, is that the privileged people that correct FSP's posts don't want to take the time to write their own blogs. They want to spend their time here, correcting FSP's observations - because FSP cannot possibly be capable of making reasonable assessments about her own life experiences. She's just another whiny, oversensitive female who doesn't appreciate how good she's got it and is simply looking for trouble.

Anonymous said...

New Anonymous here (as in not someone who has posted on this particular thread before). So far I've only skimmed the comments, but I was pretty sad to see that some commenters had "taken the gloves off." One of the reasons I visit FSP is to read and sometimes engage in somewhat intellectual discussion between experiments in the lab.

The main types of blogs I read are food blogs (as food photography is one hobby of mine). For anyone who also reads food blogs, you've probably noticed how the comments are bland and "nice." They are simply compliments saying "Looks delicious!" or "Awesome recipe!" Nothing wrong with that, but I am someone that prefers subjects that stir discussion, i.e., where people state their differing opinions and offer their reasoning behind it. ...which is why I usually enjoy FSP readers' comments.

Just wanted to say that although FSP pre-screens comments, I'm glad that she still allows comments that don't always agree with her. It takes a big person to still allow comments that disagree with yours. So kudos for that at the very least.

Anonymous said...

Has anybody else read "Outliers"? Among many points in Gladwell's book is that the number of small advantages given to Canadian boys with certain birthdays in the hockey league leads to a professional hockey roster almost exclusively made up of men who have birthdays in certain months. He points this phenomenon out over and over again, in many different contexts - consistent small advantages, over time, lead to great advantages, perhaps even to great people, or "outliers". Why, then, would the same not be true for any discriminated against group, in any field? I don't understand why people are not open to this line of thinking, and are not open to asking themselves what they can do to try to help remedy these situations when they arise.

Anonymous said...

What is the demographic of these people making the comments that an FSP would be senstive to?

Are they mostly men or are women as guilty? If it is mostly men, then I would say it is probably because most men inherently interact with women differently. It is not necessarily intentional and it is not meant as a slight. (60+ year old male professors, notwithstanding).

What about the reverse bias? I have noticed that female students have better chances of getting their grades upgraded by male TAs, quite often because the TA in question does not know how to argue with the student.
It is likely that a male-dominant committee is likely to blur the threshold for awarding tenure to a female candidate. (Sometimes, to dispel the notion that they are biased against female candidates).

For many, it is probabilistic to assume that a professor is male, simply because 75% (I don't really know the statistics) of the professors they know are male.

How about coming up with ideas that reduce such misunderstandings?
Instead of sending email as Dr./Prof. Marshall, send it as Dr./Prof. Angela Marshall (or whatever). When the 3rd grade class hears that Prof. Angela Marshall is giving a talk, how many students would assume it is a man? Unfortunately, we do not have female forms for these honorifics (No Frau. Dr. equivalent). It is better to proactively reduce the chances of such assumptions. Of course, I know of a Dr. Stacy X, who is male :-)

John Vidale said...

As I read the blogs on the hockey weirdness, it is more complicated.

The older kids have a big advantage through the junior leagues. But then making the jump to the NHL, the best younger kids, who played against older competition and start their professional careers sooner, make up almost the entire difference, so in the NHL, the stars are only 1.2:1 skewed toward the early birthdays.

Still, the example does illuminate the "many small advantages can add up" argument FSP invokes for micro-inequities.

PUI prof said...

Great Post, FSP!

I was listening to this podcast and noticed that he constantly referred to scientists with the male pronoun:

Apparently, to Brian Dunning, there are only male scientists out there. I'd like to listen to a scientific podcast without intentionally exposing myself to microinequities.

EliRabett said...

The real question is what is the best response. Eli would suggest humor, but in a way that lets the other side a graceful way out.

For example, you could have replied to kid who asked you for your student ID: "I wish, but thanks. Actually I'm a professor here and here is my faculty ID."

Straight out agression will get more of the same back. It will not change anything.

Saying nothing just leaves you festering.

EliRabett said...

Oh yeah, you don;t have to, and cannot win them all

NJA said...

Great post, FSP. And very familiar territory.

I once witnessed a senior FSP handle a similar micro-inequity situation in a magnificent manner, and I try to take the same approach myself now.

At a conference, I was chatting over coffee in a small group that included a senior FSP, when a senior MSP from a related subfield joined us. He glanced at our nametags and, when he saw senior FSP's name, laughed and said "Oh you're XZ - no offence, but I always thought XZ was a man."

Senior FSP smiled and asked "Why?" MSP spluttered and said something about how he just thought X was a male name (it's not).

Senior FSP, still smiling, asked "Really? I've never met a male X. Who do you know?" MSP admitted he didn't know anyone personally but thought he'd heard of name X spoken of as male in the past.

Senior FSP nodded and said "Perhaps it was in a conversation like this." MSP paused, agreed.

Result: Senior FSP came across as good-humoured and wise rather than easily offended. MSP came across as ignorant rather than the participant in an understandable/amusing mixup.

yolio said...

It is just so important to talk about this point at every opportunity. This is what the general public needs to be educated about. I like to say that "inequity is a mountain made of molehills." We put women in a lose-lose bind: either you scrable over molehills (and look petty) or try to tough it out ultimately end up weighed down by the burden.

We have figured out how to let women into formal programs, and how to take down legal barriers to participation and how to give women all of the same rights on paper. But this is the nature of the problem that we have not yet solved.

Dave X said...

It makes me think of teaspoons (or here).

Maybe calling out more micro-inequity events might lead repeat micro-sexists to re-examine their micro-status.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

I guess with micro-inequities you've just got to consider what's the worse that can happen and over time you start to get tolerant and immune to it as it's just going to happen recurrently especially when your research collaborations starts becoming international. However, it's always useful if you can quick-fire back intelligently on those comments or actions so that those people who are doing such things unintentionally are aware that they are doing it, as most are willing to correct their slight misconceptions.

Of course there are those who do it intentionally to hurt but in my eyes those are just people who lack the confidence to face the fact that some people are just that little bit better than them.

Kevin said...

While I don't question the existence of micro-inequities and microsexism, I do wonder about the value of dwelling on them.

I found it much healthier (and somewhat more rational) to attribute all the rudeness and stupidity I encountered to incompetence, rather than malevolence. Compared to the people who comment on this blog, most people are fairly stupid. Expecting rational behavior of them is something that only a freshwater economist should do.

Anonymous said...

what is AWM?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I found it much healthier (and somewhat more rational) to attribute all the rudeness and stupidity I encountered to incompetence, rather than malevolence.

What the fucking fuck does "malevolence" versus "incompetence" have to do with the issue of the cumulative effects of micro-inequity? The intent of the person making erroneous assumptions that reinforce privilege is wholly irrelevant.

Unknown said...

I think that what happens in society is there are millions of problems of certain groups being treated improperly due to factor-X. When one group speaks up, the other millions feel unheard. One of two things happens... those who are unheard jump in with a "me too" situation. Or, they try to dismiss the one speaking up in hopes to eventually deflect the attention their way.

For instance, a lot of women are treated as if inferior only for being female. Also, many people (men and women) are treated as being socially inferior because they are intelligent (think of terms like nerd, geek, etc...) Some groups who are very physically fit (usually men) are treated as intellectually inferior (think of the "dumb jock" label.) People who play certain kinds of games (think of Dungeons & Dragons) are automatically labeled nerds... socially inept... or lacking a grasp on reality.

Christians are labeled as being over-enthusiastic, over-bearing, with a holier-than-thou attitude. Muslims are treated as terrorists. Atheists are labeled as angry or immoral.

People who wear glasses are seen as intellectual (see: nerd). Men with red hair are seen as bullies. Women with red hair are seen as sexual spitfires. Women with blonde hair are seen as being more sexually adventurous than women with darker hair.

Husbands are seen as being incompetent in the kitchen, annoying with the remote control, sports junkies, and those who will eventually cheat on their spouses. Wives are seen as being good in the kitchen, annoyed by their husbands, hating sports, and those who will eventually be cheated on by their spouses.

Create a television program about women who cheat on their husbands, and it is seen as an empowering shows, as the women are finally breaking free from their terrible husbands and are seeking new hunks. Create a television program about men who cheat on their wives, and the theme will still be about the women who join forces together to get even with the cheating men.

There are plenty of terrible stereotypes about women. There are also plenty of terrible stereotypes about men. Strip sex out of the equation, and there are still terrible stereotypes about being athletic, intelligent, etc...

In other words, when a group focuses on only one of these atrocities, it is easy to assume that all of the other atrocities are being completely ignores or being dismissed as being trivial.

The solution? Either we all relax, work on the larger things and accept that the "micro-inequities" are just a fact of life. Or, continue to stress ourselves out and keep battling each other until the idea of making fun of someone or making a joke about an attribute someone may have is completely eradicated from our psyche.

Without implementing one of these solutions, we spend all of our time talking down to people for talking down to people.

John Vidale said...

At the risk of being repetitive:

As CPP just asserted, the entire point of micro-inequities is that generally they are NOT intentional, and that cumulatively, they DO matter, gender issues being a prime case.

Yes, there might be other factors also present in the world.

Yes, getting obsessed with them is counterproductive.

The take-away message, as I read it, is to remember them as a contributing factor, and strategize to minimize or counter them, or at least not categorically deny their existence.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree more with Kevin and Bob....

What they say makes more sense. It is more dangerous that 10% of the society think/believe that Obama is a Muslim. The magnitude of the problem?

I don't disagree regarding the existence of the problem and society perceptions. It is hard to change.

Some people perpetuate the problem raised by FSP, both males and females, young and old. Any good realistic short term solutions.

Michael C. said...

Sandra Bartky writes about something similar. Since sexism is about patterns of power/abuse, no single instance can be attributed to sexism. Therefore women must deal with 1) the abuse of sexism and 2) never being able to pin down which instances are part of sexism and which aren't. To paraphrase: "Was I ignored at the board meeting because I'm a woman or because some thing about 'me', not having to do with gender?" Part of sexism is having to deal with not being able to confirm which specific micros are attributable to sexism. Also Crenshaw and Peller write about racist incidents being justified when they are "disaggregated" from the whole.
A science analogy: no weather irregularity can be pinpointed to global warming, but we know that many of them are related. We just can't prove which ones.

Anonymous said...

Are women allowed to use/play the gender card when appropriate.

As a woman, do you ever get asked if you are playing the gender card by a male or female?

The whole issue of respect is pretty complicated. If everyone is created equal....people should respect each other regardless of status or position or money.

Like your blog and respect that you are willing to allow comments that disagree with you. But sometimes wonder what kind of comments you really censor (and not allow)?

JCup said...

actually i think scientists are the most likely to see all evidence as evidence in support of their previous conclusion. It is what you are paid to do and the reason why so much research needs peer review and is still often easily proven to be unsupportable. I think the hypothesis of this article ignores the fact that males tend to exhibit more challenging behavior in quick conversations instead of women, especially men without a ton of social experience (aka scientists). I don't agree with this article at all. I am a male engineer by the way, and I love working with female engineers for the very fact that they don't waste time challenging every sentence for inaccuracies, regardless of what gender is presenting.

The very idea of a "micro-inequity" is simultaneously ridiculous and disappointing to the human race that anyone would waste time defining such an inconsequential event.

Female Science Professor said...

The only comments I reject are obscene, advertisements, are-you-so-and-so guesses, or ones that refer to something about my real life (from readers who know me).

John Vidale said...

JCup opines:

The very idea of a "micro-inequity" is simultaneously ridiculous and disappointing to the human race that anyone would waste time defining such an inconsequential event.

My response:

I guess this poster has never considered physics that solve differential equations, in which inevitably the macro-scale action can be modeled as the cumulative effect of a trillion or so micro-scale processes.

Micro-inequities follow nearly the definition of thermodynamics, which are robust only in the limit that there are very many particles obeying statistical rules.

And most physics can cast as differential equations. There is clearly power in the construct.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The solution? Either we all relax, work on the larger things and accept that the "micro-inequities" are just a fact of life. Or, continue to stress ourselves out and keep battling each other until the idea of making fun of someone or making a joke about an attribute someone may have is completely eradicated from our psyche.

It's easy for *you* to relax, Bob, you priviliged logorrheic fuckwad!

Unknown said...

It's easy for *you* to relax, Bob, you priviliged logorrheic fuckwad!

@Comrade PhysioProf,

Calling me "priviliged" [sic] is a micro-inequity that I simply cannot ignore. I must join forces with all of those who have also been considered to be privileged. When you actually get to know us, you will recognize that we are not at all privileged.

Calling me verbose is an insult to my intelligence, and is a micro-inequity that cannot be ignored. I must join forces with all of those who are allergic to one-liners and will rally against those who make fun of our use of human languages.

Calling me a fuckwad, well, that one I can let go, because it brings a nice sense of "elementary school playground humor" which makes light of this whole topic.

Might I ask you to elaborate on what you mean by "privileged"?

Drew said...

This is the kind of hogwash and malarkey that only a woman could proliferate!

Unknown said...


You just posted a Macro-inequity.

Anonymous said...

You may want to concentrate more on your work and less on PERCEIVED slights and inequalities. I'm not doubting that you have to put up with these things day-to-day, what I do doubt is whether or not your perception is already skewed based on past experiences. If so, you may want to be less eager to jump on a comment, look, tone or whatever and take it for what it probably is -- a non-issue and unintentional.

I'm assuming the "privileged" people you refer to are all men who are either your boss or a project leader of some sort. Maybe you should listen to what they have to say (the vast majority are more experienced than you I have to assume) and follow accordingly. You don't know that he doesn't speak to white males in the same tone.

I find these blogs are getting more and more PC; we're now down to "Micro-inequities". These used to be called "instructions" but they've somehow become sexist. Great, just what we need.

Charlotte said...

Michael C, that's just what I was thinking only more coherent. That's what makes micro-inequities so frustrating - you can never be sure with the little things whether you're being oversensitive (person X is having a bad day) or whether it's actual prejudice (person X is sexist). So you can either think the best of everyone and risk perpetuating prejudice by not calling it out, or you can not react but spend your life wondering if it's 'just you', or you can risk being the angry over-reacting activist. Hobson's choice.

Isabel said...

"These used to be called "instructions" but they've somehow become sexist."

This is so offensive it made me laugh out loud. But I have to agree to some extent with the poster, though I would have agreed more with FSP in my previous career, which seems like it was much worse than science in these regards. But my perceptions may have changed as well. If anything, my current situation is potentially worse, and if I stop and think about it, I have had some issues, even a serious one only about two months ago.

One thing that helped (and I admit all the arguing about it with men did feel like they were minimizing my concerns at the time and did not help) was observing over time that men did experience many insults and indignities, but they noticed them less often and seemed to forget them more easily. I think many of the male posters here are referring to their awareness of this ability.

It could be mainly that I've gotten older and more confident and don't want to waste time on small issues like this, or that I've learned by prevailing in earlier situations where my confidence was more affected. But for whatever reason, this is no longer an issue for me.

It is hard for me to imagine someone actually doubting their worth and potential as a scientist in 2009 as a result of some of these situations, like someone being surprised that you're a woman scientist. It isn't just that things are less sexist now, I seem to have more or less accepted the situation because I've realized that there is still plenty of room for me to maneuver in the world.

Another comment about it being 2009 - if someone expects you to make the coffee and it's clearly because you're a women, you don't need to do it, nothing bad will happen to you if you don't, in fact it's probably better for you if you don't, and you shouldn't be complaining about it here. That is soooo 1970's:). You do not have time in your fabulous life to even get mad at something so clearly stupid.

Anonymous said...

A related discussion came up over on the Geek Feminism wiki, and Mary blogged about it:

Anonymous said...

I also work in a research hospital; I am a nurse who specializes in research studies.

I got tired of (mostly male) MDs who insisted on being called Dr. Lastname (to the point of correcting me if I dare use a first name) but insisted on calling me (and all the other, mostly female nurses) Firstname (even if corrected to Ms Lastname). I finally decided they could all have the first name of "Doc" and that's all they get from me.

It doesn't help that they often have no idea what's going on with their own protocols, and they rely on me to tell them what to do at patient visits.

Unknown said...


From the way you worded your post, this sounded more like a Doctor versus Nurse issue and had nothing to do with male versus female.

Did they allow male nurses to be referred to as "Dr. last name" instead of by first name?

Globalistgirl said...

@ JCup: You do know that it is everyone's own responsibility to work on their social skills, right? And that it's not ok to be rude because you're an engineer, right? You're basically saying that anyone with better social skills than yours that get offended by your lack of them should adjust their expectations. Sorry, but that's not how social skills and expectations work.

@ Anonymous 9/10/2009 10:51:00 AM:
You obviously have no idea what a professor even does for a living. FSP has no boss, project leader, of anything of the sort giving her instructions. She calls the shots, she makes the strategy, she does the hiring, she identifies the opportunities, she decides who and what is good enough. She is the one giving instructions. You are right in that it is important to value experience, though. FSP's is likely significant.

Anonymous said...

It really gets me down how many intelligent, rational people out there fail to see this. Also the fact that sexism alone seems notoriously hard for people to see - I've never seen someone who commented on an ambiguously racist comment or gesture labelled as being over-sensitive. Speaking out against racism draws respect, from my social circles. Speaking out against sexism draws suspicion, teasing, and eye-rolling exasperation. Which makes it ten times harder to endure a situation you feel might be one of these "micro-inequities", even though you have no way of knowing if it really is one.

Thomas Weiss said...

I came here this morning from another blog link, and although this is an old post I felt compelled to come back and comment.

First, micro-inequities as you define them are completely determinate on your perception of the event. The alleged perpetrator may or may not interpret the same event in the same way. Your biases color the results of your "study." I can easily imagine a scenario in which a person looking for these "micro" events could find them at every turn.

Stepping back for a second, I agree that someone who calls a black person the "n-word" because he was brought up that way and doesn't perceive it to be racist is still committing a major offense. But cultural norms have come to a point where reasonable people would agree to this. Cultural norms have not shifted to the degree where reasonable people can agree that these "micro" incidents you describe are indeed sexist/racist. There cannot be a single standard of conduct if everyone perceives a "micro" event in a subtly different way.

Second, I find your argument scientifically lacking. You say that you agree each individual incident can be "interpreted in other (non-sexist) ways," but taken in the aggregate they become "not so micro".

If in the aggregate I have 1000 data points that can be described with either a "yes" or a "no" to signify the presence (or lack thereof) of an actual incident. If you can describe each incident as either "yes" or "no" then you have 1000 meaningless data points. If you can definitely categorize 100 of them as "yes", do you then have something? What about 250? 500?

Reasonable people can agree that there are several possible interpretations of the "I-can't-believe-you're-a-professor incident" that you describe in a previous post. Which leads me to wonder what other standards of conduct you believe should become cultural norms.

For example, growing up I worked in a bar to make extra money for college. I was forced to ask younger women (and men) for their ID to prove that they were 21. I learned quickly that asking older women (mid-30s to early 40s) for their ID made them, at times, literally squeal with delight and, more importantly, more prone to tip higher. A micro-inequity?

In a situation now where I'm forced to guess a woman's age I always deliberately choose a number 5-7 years younger than my actual guess would be if I was trying to be accurate. What about this?

I think you can see where I'm going - I have learned in subtle ways to treat women differently than men. But whereas you define different as negative, I was raised or conditioned to see it as a positive. Something has to give.

As a final point I'll make a slippery slope argument. I'm left-handed. Were I to spend any time dwelling on it, I could come up with perhaps thousands of micro-inequities throughout my adult life where I have been treated in a different way because of that characteristic (indeed, books have been written about it). Where does your argument logically end?

I would argue that it ends somewhere close to where cultural norms are now. The farther we go down your path the closer we come to Harrison Bergeron.

Anonymous said...

"A micro-inequity can be very micro."

then start calling them nano...