On power and powerlessness in anonymity.

I am judging an elementary school science fair tonight. I am very excited about it. So this morning, after I woke up I deliberately made myself appear feminine (put on a dress, wore contact lenses instead of glasses, hair blown dry instead of wrangled into a wet bun) so that I could go and show little girls that it’s okay to like girly things AND be a scientist. I was going to mold some young minds. I was going to be a role model. I was going to inspire a generation of Goldiebloxes.

And then I got to lab, and guess what. Some shit was going down on the internet.

I had to work my way backward through this Dr. Isis thing. As a new blogger, I am on baby deer legs trying to find the right balance of hyperlink-as-enhancement and hyperlink-as-rabbit-hole. So I’ve tried to reconstruct, below, what happened in a more narrative way than I’ve seen so far.

In 2011, I guess a guy wrote a thing in Nature. People were angry

Dr. Isis was one of those people.

If you care, he wrote another thing and she did too.

Then a couple years later Dr. Isis hopped on board with boycotting Nature and the editor figured out who she was, outed her on twitter, calling her inconsequential, and then deleted his account.

Dr. Isis flak

Scene of the crime.

I myself am afraid of twitter (mostly because of the time I fear I’d waste, which, good call on writing WAY MORE than 140 characters as a time-saver???) and am like an old person when it comes to deciphering, embedding, etc. but bear with me: I do understand enough to read the twitters backwards, and I do speak Spanish, so I know Dr. Isis tweeted that she had died but not to worry, she is like the phoenix.

Some more internet stuff happened and as you see at the top of the screencap there, Dr. Isis wrote again.

Some other people weighed in too. One such person was the lately always-right Dr. Michael Eisen, who writes about anonymity here. If you only click on one link here, let it be that one. Eisen nails it when he talks about how he felt being criticized by an anonymous blogger:

In the heat of the moment I found Dr. Isis’s anonymity incredibly frustrating. It felt somehow unfair. Here I was – me under my real name – being publicly taken to task by a phantom. It was unnerving. It was disarming. It made it more difficult to fight back. And of course, I now realize, that is the whole fucking point!

If our conflicts had existed in the “real world” where I’m a reasonably well known, male tenured UC Berkeley professor and HHMI Investigator and she’s a young, female, Latina woman at the beginning of her research career, the deck is stacked against her. Whatever the forum, odds are I’m going to come out ahead, not because I’m right, but because that’s just the way this world works. And I think we can all agree that this is a very bad thing.

I won’t let it go unsaid that it bugs me that this dude’s piece is what I, and every angry female scientist, is posting on facebook, twitter, etc. today as the thing that best voices our anger. I will also say that I thought Dr. Isis’s response to being outed was classy as hell, and spot-on:

That someone would engage a personal vendetta and conflate it with how I should expect to be treated by an allegedly peer-reviewed publication gives me more pause than having my name displayed publicly. And, it should serve as a gentle reminder of the possible outcome women face when they speak up about misogyny and sexism in their field.

Once I’d pieced together what had happened, the entire morning had passed, and I felt extremely tired. I looked down at the dress I’d put on and felt embarrassed and fraudulent and small. I had gone to all this effort to look like I was a lady who had it together, and I hadn’t done a thing of scientific worth all day. And I am going to quote the inimitable Caitlin Moran when I tell you how I feel about this:

“You can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, ‘And are the men doing this, as well?’ If they aren’t, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as ‘some total fucking bullshit’.”

After I read her book I found myself using the word ‘knackered’ a lot. I found it described my feelings about my efforts very well. I am knackered. Women are knackered. Too knackered. From all of the total fucking bullshit. I have done no actual scientific research before noon because of the primping and prettifying and then showing up ready to work and falling into a rabbit hole of anger. And in doing no work, I am letting women down. And in feeling guilty about this, I continue to do no work. When Michael Eisen has to step in and unpack his invisible knapsack in public to get people to listen, because I was shaving my armpits and drying my hair and angry-reading the internet for hours without getting up to refill my coffee, it makes me feel knackered.

This morning, before I even left my bed to find this fresh internet hell, I was recalling an argument I had at a bar in New Orleans during the 2013 Society for Neuroscience meeting. A shitstorm had started over a sexist tweet which, oh look, Dr. Isis was THERE FOR. Like the fucking boss she is and was. Anyway, the shitstorm was about how some dude scientist had complained that the women at the conference weren’t hot enough, and we were fighting about whether science was a hostile environment for women generally, and the argument was made to me that, if you’re a scientist who cares about furthering science, you shouldn’t hire a female post-doc who you know plans on getting pregnant and taking maternity leave, because this does not further science. Gosh, blogging is hard, because I could waste so much more time finding and linking you to every piece that has ever made me angry on this front. Instead I will just tell you that it has always angered me that “women be gettin’ pregnant” is still a reason we cite for why there are no women in science. That we are still hearing this belies the extent to which we still think of the world as it was described in that first Nature piece, the one that first made an enemy of the Nature Publishing Group for people like Dr. Isis and myself. Men sitting around talking about science while the women clean house and fix supper and keep the children in line. It’s depressing. If we’re still having to battle the idea that raising children is women’s work, and cleaning up is women’s work, and looking hot while presenting your science at a conference is women’s work, then yes, we are knackered, and yes, we are angry, and yes, anonymity fucking matters.

Here is what I think is the great irony about anonymity in this story. When you, as the editor of Nature, use your power to out someone for whom anonymity was a very real source, arguably their main source, of power, it makes me want to scream for all of the anonymous women whose work and sacrifices gave you your power. As long as the pregnancy card is still played, as long as it reflects the very real beliefs of those in power that women should be penalized for their non-decision to take on this work, these women’s achievements will remain anonymous. It makes me want to contact the mothers, wives, and daughters of every prominent male scientist who does not see it as their job to raise their child, and politely suggest that these women demand authorship. As tax for the incubation and care that allowed their son to grow into a person capable of publishing groundbreaking science. As a tax for countless invisible sacrifices and hours of invisible work that allowed their partner to thrive. As maybe the only fucking way of driving home the point that they didn’t build that.

Today’s flak revealed a great irony of this gargantuan edifice of anonymous work, which is that it allows those who benefit from it to sit visibly and prominently atop it and, ultimately, deny someone anonymity as a leveler of playing fields. So let me get this straight. We are knackered from our women’s work before we even show up to lab, and then our anger further knackers us, and then we live in fear of failing because if we do fail, then our failures speak for all women (wouldn’t anonymity be nice then?), and then when some brave soul has the energy and confidence to attempt to speak for all women by appropriating the very mask of anonymity that has kept women in the shadows, it is then that you decide that anonymity is bad and must be squashed.

Do you know why I think there are no women in science, really? Because the publish-or-perish model rewards those who have been socialized to be confident in their approach, loud in their claims, and unapologetically demanding of others’ time. Guess who these people are.  I’ll give you a hint: they’re not the ones doing invisible work, anonymously. That is another post for another time and it will require more tact, delicacy, and yes, energy, than I currently have, to decide what is appropriate to share and what isn’t, without a pseudonym. But in the meantime, I turn to my research utterly knackered, hoping to get enough done that I can look a little girl in the eye tonight and tell her she has a great future as a scientist.

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This entry was posted in Angry Woman Stuff, I didn't mean to write this it just happened, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to On power and powerlessness in anonymity.

  1. Me says:

    YEAHHHHHHHH!!!!
    Thanks for a great post.
    That is all.

  2. Steph says:

    This whole piece is *fantastic.*

  3. amelia says:

    BLAMMO. i love this.
    —junior woman #12384735876458763487682347

  4. You write concerning Henry Gee’s (I presume) outing of Dr Isis: “someone for whom anonymity was a very real source, arguably their main source, of power”: my comment to that, having been on the receiving end of “Dr Isis’s” wrath, as well as a shitstorm from many more unidentified bloggers, is that with such power comes responsibility.
    Responsibility to NOT engage in vituperation without fear of recourse; responsibility to NOT trash identified people close to the object of your venom – and responsibility NOT to try and get them fired from their real jobs, because they wrote a fictional story you objected to. Anonymously.
    Michael Eisen was in fact one of the very few named folk to interact with me: I respect him for it, even if I don’t agree with him necessarily. Those who actually used real names, I engaged in discourse with. Those who didn’t – not. Like Dr Isis, that Contemplating Mammoth, and that idiot Physioproffe.
    And if you think the story was about “Men sitting around talking about science while the women clean house and fix supper and keep the children in line”, then you didn’t read it properly.

  5. Marco says:

    Thanks for sorting those links out for us; now I finally know what all the fuss is about! It’s sad to see these things go down…

  6. Andrew says:

    Just read the story and followed many of the links. I have to say, it seemed like a funny and innocuous little piece that made me want to meet the author, have a beer, and shoot the shit. It most certainly did not evoke the impression of misogyny, nor did I get the idea that these words were an epitome of everything that is wrong with sex relations in our world. I found myself disagreeing with basically every part of “Dr. Isis”‘s piecemeal analysis of the text. Indeed, I felt more and more that it was a disingenuous attempt to make a mountain out of a molehill in order to use that mountain as a soap box upon which to expound her ideas about sex relations in science and society. This impression was accentuated by his having made a substantial effort to clarify his position and the context of the story (the wife is an accomplished astrophysicist who happens to also be a great cook, the husband a stay-at-home dad who does most of the shopping, actually — not exactly “traditional” gender roles, apart from the cooking).

    This is not to say I entirely disagree with her, or you, about the existence of sex bias in research, or the persistence of gender roles in our collective unconscious (or whatever Jung called it). I acknowledge these are legitimate concerns and not to be ignored. I simply do not make any connection between this story, or its author, and that larger struggle. If Dr. Isis simply wrote to disagree with the proposal of Dr. Rybicki — that (if I may be permitted the speculation) there are inherent differences between men and women in the way they accomplish goals, which may have evolved as complimentary roles which conferred an advantage over species lacking such specialization of the sexes — then she would be reacting in the spirit of scientific dialogue; in which ideas are proposed, tested, contested, modified, and ultimately integrated into a larger body of knowledge.

    The way she (and others) did react, however, was political and disingenuous. Such reactions have the effect of stifling dialogue, by promising that any unpopular ideas regarding sex differences will not be worth the storm of righteous indignation (ad hominem attacks and calls for dismissal, apparently — as if, even if he were a misogynistic pig, this would ever constitute legitimate grounds for being fired) that follows. Do we really want to get to the point that one is afraid to write a piece of fiction reflecting the reality that a woman happens to be cooking supper while delegating knicker shopping responsibilities to her husband and friend, who share an interest in virology and (inexplicably) Jethro Tull? Seems a bit Kafkaesque.

    My two cents: in earnest hope that they will be be misconstrued.

  7. Andrew says:

    *not be misconstrued

  8. Pingback: Dr Isis gets outed. I get hits. Life goes on. | Ed Rybicki's Blog

  9. Ed & Andrew–Thanks for these responses. I wrote this piece largely as a way of working through exactly what it was about Gee’s outing that stuck so hard in the craw. It turned out to have everything to do with the fact that it seems unconscionable to punish women both for taking on thankless, anonymous labor AND for daring to be anonymous in their speech, as well.

    And I think in the end, while it’s true that most people are just people making dinner and shopping and whatever on a day-to-day level, it absolutely rankles when charged imagery (Kitchen. Kitchen kitchen kitchen.) is used as a narrative shoehorn aimed at the “women have magical shopping powers” hypothesis. It’s these claims of innate divides that have led (in many an evo-psych blog post, in the national subconscious, in how we shape children’s beliefs in their own abilities) to some really nasty abdications of responsibility for the males of the species in particular.

    I get it–we all want to be the too-brilliant-for-busywork absentminded professor. It must somehow prove that our bulging, sinewy brain matter squeezed out all of the space that was required for navigating such universal necessities as places of commerce. But to paint this vignette of book-learned befuddlement in the knickers aisle is to insinuate that one half of the species’ time would be better spent figuring out the mysteries of the universe, so can’t you gals just take care of it for us like always? I’m certainly not really suggesting we ban images of women cooking (I myself love to cook) but my actual beef with the imagery was that it was used to pave the road for the reader’s belief in an unbridgeable divide, and that in disseminating it, Nature seemed to jump on board with this project as well. I’m reminded of the scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy yells at the wizard, “And to think we came to you for help!” If Nature is our Emerald City, our kingmaking Wizard of Oz at the end of the yellow brick road of science (excuse my “beefy” Saturday metaphor stew, aaaah I kill myself sometimes), you can maybe imagine how disappointed Womanspace made us collectively feel.

    • Marco says:

      Starting with the same preamble as Andrew did, I have to agree with him that some of the reactions to Womanspace seem a bit excessive. While I can appreciate that the old jokes about women and shopping are a bit crude, they come from life. The author blows this particular stereotypical difference between men and women up for comic effect, to spice up his story; I doubt he meant anything more by it. Your average sitcom does this all the time.

      When you write, “But to paint this vignette of book-learned befuddlement in the knickers aisle is to insinuate that one half of the species’ time would be better spent figuring out the mysteries of the universe, so can’t you gals just take care of it for us like always?” my response is: that’s not what the author wrote. He doesn’t say he thinks women should be doing the shopping. I can see it might be one way to interpret things, but you could just as well interpret this passage as no more than self-deprecatory humor on a man’s part. (Perhaps Occam’s Razor would even suggest so?) Wouldn’t you have a better time if you were confident enough to assume the latter and not worry about it, rather than take it as an insult?

      I’m not saying you shouldn’t be insulted. It’s not for me to decide what anyone else should or should not find insulting, but I don’t see how it helps you here. I think you have a choice. Any remarks that could be construed as sexist in the story are vague at best. You could decide to say, “If you want me to feel bad about this, you’ll have to do better than that.” The author probably didn’t want to, anyway.

      Like Andrew said, this is all well-meant and I hope it’s taken as such. I don’t deny the existence of a fundamental problem, but I’m not sure this entire episode, which you helpfully reviewed in your post, and the way it’s been handled will do much to bridge any gaps.

      • Lulu Bland says:

        This is unreasonably curt, but I am resolving to apologize less for tone this year: Maybe it’s best to not give advice on how best to react to things to people whose experiences are not accessible to you.

      • Ed Rybicki says:

        …and the author says…Thanks Marco! But it was a 973-word story. Things that might otherwise have explained things better (as in: friend is househusband; wife is breadwinner) got left out. The author didn’t want to make anyone feel bad about anything – but rather, to give them an opportunity of having a laugh at two hapless men who came up with an ingenious idea to explain their incapacity for finding knickers (although they are both pretty good at finding just about everything else).
        Sarah, I really hope you carry on with what you’re doing – because as a father of a not-so-little girl myself, I am grateful to everyone who has given her inspiration to do what she wants to do. Which is all around art and drama, which is so foreign to both her mother and I as to be a foreign country. Which she is exploring with glee.

    • Ed Rybicki says:

      Sarah: you wrote “But to paint this vignette of book-learned befuddlement in the knickers aisle is to insinuate that one half of the species’ time would be better spent figuring out the mysteries of the universe…”
      Ummmm…no, it was to insinuate that the two individuals depicted had wasted their time in an electronics shop, ogling iMacs, rather than doing what they were supposed to be doing. THEN figured out the mysteries of the universe to explain why it is they were so hapless.
      And I like to cook too.

  10. Pingback: Mandatory confessionals upon receipt of tenure. | Sarah Hillenbrand

  11. Pingback: Lately: a link dump, with some updates and pictures | Sarah Hillenbrand

  12. You have made your position very clearly!.

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