Author: Sebastian Cesario

An Unhelpful Study about Women in Physics

An article promoted by the American Physical Society (APS, the world’s largest organization of physicists) has claimed a recent study shows that “Yes, Sexual Harassment Still Drives Women Out of Physics.” Unfortunately, the study does not ascertain the severity of the harassment, who engages in harassment, and whether harassment gets more or less severe as people advance in the field. Moreover, the conclusion that harassment drives women from physics contradicts publicly available data on the progression of women in physics careers. Harassment is a matter that we should take seriously, but we should act thoughtfully, and the study at hand does not provide enough evidence to justify alarm. The authors gauged the incidence of harassment by asking approximately 460 students to indicate “Never,” “Once,” “Twice,” or “More than twice” for the following survey items (text verbatim from the article, numbers added for convenience): While in a context associated with physics, someone… …made sexual remarks or told inappropriate jokes or stories …made comments of a sexual nature or tone about your body, appearance, or clothing, or …

Scientific Progress and the Culture Wars

On April 10, 2019, an international team of scientists from dozens of research institutions involved in the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration published the first direct image of a black hole. This groundbreaking achievement, representing tremendous progress in both fundamental astrophysics as well as the many technologies adopted and advanced for this work, received acclaim around the world and throughout the internet. Scientists had shed metaphorical light on the literal darkest objects in the universe, and they had done it by combining signals from radio telescopes at opposite ends of the globe, a technical achievement with far-reaching implications in many areas of science. (Indeed, I believe that my own research specialty, quite remote from astrophysics, will draw upon some of the fruits of this imaging technique.) Of course, no good thing can last, and people soon found a way to turn this scientific accomplishment into a cultural flashpoint over the issue of gender equity in science. It began on the morning of the announcement, when Twitter activists chided news outlets for not paying attention to Dr. …

Schrödinger’s (Wo)Manhood

Much like Schrödinger’s unfortunate cat, which is simultaneously dead and alive, manhood and womanhood in our era are held to be simultaneously entirely in the brain and everywhere except the brain. In matters concerning gender equity in STEM, one must profess that the differences between men and women manifest solely in the pelvic and chest anatomy, not the brain. Consequently, if women constitute less than 50 percent of the people studying or working in a field, the only acceptable explanation is sexism, not a difference in the typical preferences of the two sexes. On the other hand, transgender activists maintain that the distinction between being a man or a woman is entirely in the mind, and a person’s reproductive anatomy is not what defines them as male or female. Whatever a person states about his or her gender identity reflects their authentic inner nature, and may not be challenged. Scholars who raise questions about transgender identity face not only criticism and counterarguments (fair game for anyone making a claim), but also demands that their published …

Shibboleths That Exclude in the Name of Inclusion

The Bible can be surprisingly relevant to academic politics. The Book of Judges tells of an internecine clash between the people of Gilead and their faithless brethren from the Ephraimite tribe, who had refused to aid Gilead against a foreign foe. Gilead retaliated mercilessly against the Ephraimites, first smashing their army and then setting a clever trap for Ephraimite survivors seeking to return home from the battlefield. Any man caught crossing the Jordan had to utter the word ‘shibboleth.’ In ordinary Hebrew, this referred to a part on a stalk of grain, but at those checkpoints it meant the difference between life and death. In the dialect of Gilead the first consonant was pronounced like the ‘sh’ in ‘shelter,’ whereas in the Ephraimite dialect it was pronounced like the ‘s’ in ‘sinister.’ In this way, a linguistic subtlety became a tool to identify and kill 42,000 enemies. The stakes aren’t as high when universities hire faculty, but rhetorical nuances increasingly do stand watch at the gates of the professorial ranks. Many institutions now require aspiring …

Unconscious Bias Training as a Management Tool

A number of social scientists have pointed to a paucity of good evidence that such ‘unconscious bias training’ is effective in achieving its stated aims. However, I have little doubt that Starbucks’ new initiative will be effective, because it is clear to me that the desired effect is not to change minds but to deter conduct. Boring, uncomfortable training sessions are punishments, which send clear messages about what one must do to avoid further sanction. Frankly, if such punishments were only used to deter employees from calling the police on people waiting for friends before ordering drinks, I wouldn’t object. Alas, such training is far more commonly used to promote hiring quotas. In my workplace (a STEM department in a university), it is widely known that training on ‘unconscious bias’ is the punishment that hiring committees face for not hiring enough female and (non-Asian) minority professors. I have been in the room when an administrator said quite candidly that the latest round of faculty hires had not been sufficiently diverse, “So now everyone [emphasis in original] gets …

Gender Bias in STEM—An Example of Biased Research?

I don’t agree with everything in the infamous “Google Memo” written by James Damore, but I can understand why one might write such a memo after sitting through one too many training sessions on unconscious bias. I’m a professor in a STEM discipline, and like many STEM fields mine has substantially fewer women than men. Like every STEM professor that I know, I want my talented female students to have fair chances at advancing in the field. I’ve served on (and chaired!) hiring committees that produced “short lists” of finalists that were 50 percent women, I’ve recommended the hiring of female job applicants, I’ve written strong reference letters for female job applicants and tenure candidates, and I’ve published peer-reviewed journal articles with female student co-authors. At the same time, I’ve become increasingly frustrated by the official narratives promulgated about gender inequities in my profession arising from our unconscious biases. These narratives are, at best, awkward fits to the evidence, and sit in stark contradiction to first-hand observations. My field is smaller than many other STEM …