This post will eventually come around to the topic of women in science -- a topic about which I am wholly unqualified to write. But before getting to my main points, I will have to tell you about the time I had to tell a bunch of administrators why empathy is bad, I will have to explain why preschool graduation makes me angry, and I will have to have a talk just between us guys (but you ladies can listen in if you want).
For a time, I served on my institution's Student Learning Committee, which was charged with writing this Statement of Student Learning. One of the stated outcomes is that students will "demonstrate empathy by acting in a supportive manner that recognizes the feelings and perspectives of another cultural group." I think this is a nonsensical goal. Maybe my objection boils down to semantics, but to me, the basis of empathy is not "support." Empathy has to do with shared experience and emotion, and perhaps a partial dissolution of the boundary between oneself and others.
For instance, take a person from a cultural group other than my own -- perhaps a latino person. I can try to recognize the feelings and perspectives of a latino person, and I can try to act in a supportive manner, and I can even search for some of my own experiences that might approximate certain aspects of the latino person's, but in the end, I cannot deeply empathize about being latino because I have not had the experience of being a latino person in our country.
I laugh at myself when I recall that committee meeting, in which I found myself arguing passionately against having empathy as a goal for our students (at least, with the phrasing that was proposed and adopted). The people who were in that room must think I am real prince. But I felt -- and still do feel -- that there is a great deal of arrogance at the root of that goal.
I think that what we need is not empathy, but humility. Yes, we need to seek what experiences and feelings we might have in common, but at the same time, we need the humility to say "you know what? I can't know exactly what it is like to be you." If we don't have that humility, there is a real danger that our attempts to provide "support" will go off the rails. After all, I am sure that the imperialist missionaries to Africa thought they were being "supportive."
This is all one long preface to disclaim the rest of this post, in which I will write about women in science. I recognize that I am not a woman in science, and therefore, as I said, I am in some respects unqualified to write about this topic. But it is a topic of concern to me nonetheless.
If you can easily picture me in an academic conference room railing against empathy, then you will also be able to picture me getting irate at a preschool graduation. Recently, my daughter's preschool had its annual graduation for the kids who will move on to kindergarten. My daughter has one year left in preschool, but like most families at the school, we attended the ceremony anyway. During part of the ceremony, each graduating kid had a chance to go on stage, stand in front of a microphone, and say what they want to be when they grow up. Let's just for a moment suspend the overarching absurdity of asking five year olds to state a future profession. I didn't record data (I should have) but to the best of my recollection, there were 12 kids graduating, and about half were girls. Of those estimated six girls, four of them said that they wanted to be ballerinas when they grow up.
Before the ballerina lobby starts sending me hate mail, let me say that I think being a ballerina is a perfectly fine career choice. I have a lot of respect for ballerinas, who work incredibly hard to produce a beautiful art form. But I strongly suspect that the 66% of graduating preschool girls at my daughter's school didn't choose ballerina because they admire the grace and hard work. I'll conjecture that they chose ballerina because society tells them "little girls should want to be ballerinas."
I thought about discussing this with the school, but I can already hear their response in my head: "why are you complaining to us? It is important to let little kids dream about being whatever they want to be." Yes and no. Yes it is important to let them dream. But they are not dreaming in a vacuum. They are dreaming in the real world, where all sorts of messages -- good and bad -- get thrown at them. To me, one of the school's roles should be to provide a sensible and somewhat unbiased palate of options to the kids.
This is why my husband and I have a rule in our household that our daughter is not allowed simply to be "a princess," which society also loves to tell her is her life's calling. "You have to be a productive member of society," we tell her. "So you can be a princess poet, or a princess builder, or a princess teacher, or lots of other things. But you don't just get to sit around and be a princess." She has decided that she is a "princess scientist."
Speaking of princess scientists, I recently met a graduate student who is midway through a Ph.D. at one of the top applied math programs in the country. She reminisced to me that in her youth, her dad had once said something to the effect of "I always wanted to have a kid who was good at math but then I found out I was having a girl."
On that note, now it is time for me to talk to the guys. Ladies, feel free to stick around if you want. Guys, I know you are scientists, but I assume you still watch Sports Center. Please put Sports Center on pause and put down the remote. You can keep drinking your beer if you want, but please focus on what I am saying. We have a women in science problem in this country. Though this amazing historical anecdote isn't directly about the hard sciences, check it out. Sadly, this kind of bs is equally likely to happen today, though the sexism might be slightly less overt. I hate to be a predictable gay man quoting Madonna as the source of all wisdom, but she sure nailed it -- or at least, part of it -- in the song "(Do You Know) What it Feels Like for a Girl," when she said "When you're trying hard to be your best / could you be a little less?"
Dudes -- when you look around your science departments, do you notice that there are far fewer women faculty? When you look around your science classes, do you notice that there are far fewer women students? Do you ever wonder why studies show that there is a gender gap in scientific publishing with a tantalizingly-nearly-causal link to disparities in financial support, and why female scientific job candidates with equal credentials get evaluated less favorably than male counterparts?
Do you give a crap about this? You should. Because first of all, sexism and gender inequality are ethically wrong. And because selfishly, and closer to home, it might be your friend or your mother or your sister or your daughter who is one day penalized by our unfair system. And because if you care about the progress of science, you should want all the best scientists to be players in field without being held back by systemic bias against their gender.
Guys, you should all be concerned about women in science. So do something about it. If you need a suggestion, start modestly. When you write your next grant proposal, don't look at the broader impacts requirement and groan and think of it as some hurdle that has to be jumped over. Think of it as an opportunity to actually do some freaking good. But before you do some good, talk to every single woman in science you can find and try to learn from them about the challenges faced by women in science, and women-who-might-like-to-be-in-science. And have a little humility, because you don't know what it is like to be them.