Tag Archives: sexism

A question you shouldn’t ask

written on June 26, 2012 and saved for publication until tenure

I’m thinking about this on the heels of the Women in Theory workshop, but it’s something that has been irking me since the start of grad school.

Grad school.  And suddenly there’s this thing we’re supposed to chase.  No, not the next FOCS deadline.  The work-life balance.  I hadn’t heard this term before grad school.  The next thing I head is that “work-life balance” is apparently synonymous with “how to have babies and a career at the same time”.  Now, when I started grad school, I was 21.  Given that the average female Ph.D. doesn’t have kids until much older than the average, it shouldn’t be any surprise that I was not thinking about this.

At Brown, we would occasionally have these “faculty grad lunches”.  One prof, a bunch of grad students, brown bagged lunches and a preset topic.  I remember a few of these:  one on how to give a good talk immediately (with the prof having had just come from the dentist), one on how to get a good job (with the rather depressing message that the only direction is down), one on achieving work-life balance.  Now, this last one.  The invite for this last one was only sent out to the female grad students.

I can’t tell you how much that pissed me off.  Not only do men, apparently, not have to worry about work-life balance, but women, apparently, have to spend time talking about it.

I boycotted.

The Women in Theory conference held a panel on work-life balance [1].  The day before, I chatted with the other speakers about how I found it aggravating that “work-life balance” so often solely focuses on child-rearing and that there are other aspects of work-life balance.  (Before all the parents out there jump down my throat, maybe talk for a while with your child-free friends.  And if you don’t have any child-free friends, maybe you should branch out a bit.)  I related my frustrations with this equation when I was a grad student (which wasn’t very long ago, and less long ago than any of the other panelists).

The panel lasted about an hour and a half and was largely driven by audience questions.  And one question about kids did come up (fair enough).  The answers chewed up a good 20 minutes.  And several attendees approached me after with their frustrations with this.

Now, I don’t bring this up to be critical of this particular panel (which very helpfully ended up spending most of the time on general advice – when and how to switch problems or advisors, how to balance our natural personalities with the aggression that we are told to hone, etc – advice that I was happier to hear than give!).  I bring this up because it keeps happening.

I just watched Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk and one line (her response to a young, single women talking about making choices in order to make room for children later in life) really hit this home for me: “You’re thinking about this way too early”.

So, my advice: let junior researchers lead the discussion.  They will ask if they want advice on that point.  If they aren’t thinking about it, don’t force the issue.

Oh, right.  A question you should never ask.  Unless you are very close with someone.  VERY CLOSE.  Don’t ask them if they are going to have kids, let alone when.  Particularly in a professional setting.  Try the “am I being sexist” test for this one.

[1] Note: the attendees of the Women in Theory workshop are Ph.D. students, largely in their first few years of graduate school.  I would put the average age in their early 20s.  The panelists and speakers were all (relatively) established researchers (professors, etc.).

The is-my-comment-appropriate? test

Take your comment and change any gendered words from male to female and ask yourself “Would I say this to or about a man in the same situation?”

For example:

  • “This office is a lot prettier than when I was here” [to a male graduate student, while thumbing the female grad student hard at work] doesn’t change, and your answer would likely be no.
  • “Little girl, you will have to work a lot harder to keep up with the men!” [to a student in the first tutorial of first year physics] becomes “Little boy, you will have to work a lot harder to keep up with the women!”, and your answer would likely be no.
  • “Be careful, you wouldn’t want to be mistaken for a secretary.” [to a female postdoc as she consults a dictionary to settle a disagreement] doesn’t change and your answer would likely be no.
  • “You should be at home, raising children. That is what women are good at.” [to a female professor in her own office] becomes “You should be at home, raising children. That is what men are good at.”, and your answer would likely be no.

It won't change

It was in the week before Christmas. An older friend of mine dropped by, as he does so every few weeks. He is a university employee, not faculty, with whom I struck up a passing friendship shortly after starting at Oregon State.

We chatted for a while. He asked me how a recent work trip went. I told him that it was okay – not wonderful – it was a little tiring. He asked why. I explained that while I knew many people at the workshop, I didn’t feel at ease with many. I rambled mildly and idly about how I thought that it was a side effect of there being few women in the field, that I may feel more at ease if I had more female companionship on such work trips.

Well, he says, it won’t change.

Well, I counter, I hope it will.

No, he continues, it shouldn’t. You [points at me] should be at home, raising children. That is what women are good at.

My jaw drops. I pause. Hoping for him to chuckle. That it’s all a joke. It’s not a joke though. He went on to say that he’s old fashioned, but he thinks that engineering is for men. That women shouldn’t be doing this work.

I was caught off guard. What I expected to be an uplifting social visit, of the type that I had quite enjoyed in the past, resulted in my being on the defensive. My stunned state prevented me from making a commanding speech about equality and sexism. I did manage to say a few things along these lines. But I hardly made an impact. In the desire to not deal with this at present, I made it clear that he needed to leave.

Inoffensive stable matching

I like to start my grad algorithms course with stable matching.  It is a beautiful, clean, practical algorithm.  It can be covered relatively quickly and give an overview of the basics of algorithm design and analysis.  I love it.

What I hate is that every treatment of stable matching available online and in the textbooks in my office is presented as the stable marriage problem with men getting matched to women and men getting their best possible match and women getting their worst possible match.  Seriously?  This algorithm that is used to match children to schools and medical students to residency programs and dental and medical specialists to hospitals and students to universities and lawyers to law firms and rabbis to congregations (or so I’ve been told)?  We need to teach this algorithm as an exercise in heternormative, sexist coupling?

If half our field were women, do you think women would be repeatedly getting the shaft in this lesson plan?  If we didn’t need It Gets Better in our society, would we be proscribing to man meets woman, man proposes to woman, man marries woman?  If we lived in a dreamy society that didn’t spend one-third of Africa’s debt each year in the wedding industry, would we be using this metaphor?

So, here you go: very basic, stripped-down lecture notes on the Gale-Shapely algorithm that matches jobs to candidates.  (Written quickly, corrections welcome.)

If someone could change the wikipedia page on the problem from stable marriage to stable matching, I would be much appreciative.  (My wikipedia skills are no match.)

Update 9/22: To clarify, it is the United States that spends (on the wedding industry) an amount equivalent to one-third of Africa’s debt.

Update 9/25: Jeff Erickson presents stable matching using doctors and hospitals.

Update March 2015: Motherboard picks up the story.