Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Why the F*ck I Waste My Time Worrying about Equality

Last week, I spent an enjoyable hour of a conference hanging out with five extremely smart people in remarkably tall chairs on a stage, talking about some of the opportunities and potential pitfalls of social media as a vehicle for scientific discourse. (Video here.)

The conversation was thought-provoking, as conversations with smart people tend to be…I sometimes disagreed with the other speakers, but always found their positions reasonable and often we would realize that we agreed more than we disagreed as we delved further into a topic.

One of the issues that came up early on was the question of gender bias in online discussions of research, because data from a survey of psychologists using social media suggested that there are some pervasive discrepancies between men and women when it comes to participating in scientific discourse on social media as well as with respect to how helpful men and women think participating in social media is for their careers. A comment from a female participant in the open-ended section of the survey summed up a common sentiment: “I just don’t have time for this sh*t!”

Late in the panel discussion that followed, an audience member asked about whether gender bias was apparent in the panel itself—were the male panelists talking more often or longer than the female panelists? Some intrepid coders went back to the video and figured out the answer was almost certainly no. But the fact that this question was even asked seems to have offended some people online, as illustrated by this comment:

At the apparent risk of causing someone to become literally sick, I’m going to take just a moment here to wonder why the fuck I worry about gender equality.

Let’s set aside for a moment the current political context in the United States and why that might make a person especially prone to worrying about gender equality. Let’s talk about just what’s going on in our science these days.

Early on in our panel discussion last Friday, Brian Nosek made the excellent point that “science proceeds through conversation.” He went on to elaborate that scientific conversation needs criticism and skepticism in order to flourish—and I completely agree. But I also think it’s worth juxtaposing this idea that science proceeds through conversation against the data presented at the beginning of the session, which suggested some big inequalities in WHO is participating in scientific discourse online. Across various social media platforms (PsychMAP, PMDG, and Twitter), the data from the SPSP survey suggest that men participate more than women. Moreover, if you look at who is posting in the Facebook forums, it turns out most of the content is being driven by about nine people. Think about that for a moment. NINE people—out of thousands of scholars involved in these forums—are driving what we talk about in these conversations. [UPDATE 1/26/17: The "about nine people" estimate mentioned in the presentation of the SPSP survey was a ballpark estimate of the number of people IN THE SURVEY saying that they post frequently on Facebook methods groups. You could translate this estimate as "about 2% of respondents post frequently," but it should definitely NOT be taken as meaning that only nine people post on social media! The point I was trying to make here was that a very tiny fraction of the field is currently driving the majority of the conversation on these platforms, and that I think we could do better.]

The idea that conversation is central to the entire scientific enterprise highlights why we should care deeply about WHO is participating in these conversations. If there are inequalities in who is talking, that means there are inequalities in who is participating in science itself. To the extent that the forums we build for scientific discourse enable and promote equality in conversation, they are enabling and promoting equality in who can be part of science. And the reverse is true as well: If we create forums that exclude rather than include, then we are creating a science that excludes as well.*

What makes a science exclusionary? Proponents of open science often point (rightly) to things like old boys networks and the tendency for established gate-keepers sometimes to prioritize well-known names over merit in publication or funding or speaker invitation decisions. But there are other factors that influence the exclusiveness or inclusiveness of a science as well. For instance, we know from Amanda Diekman’s work on why women opt out of STEM careers that when a career is perceived as less likely to fulfill communal goals, women are more likely than men to lose interest in the field (see also Sapna Cheryan's research on gendered stereotypes in computer science). Changes that make a field seem more combative and less communal are therefore likely to disproportionately push away women (and indeed anyone who prioritizes communal goals). 

Meanwhile, participating in a conversation about science obviously means not only that you are talking, but that someone is listening to you. To the extent that audience attention is finite (we only have so many hours a day to devote to listening, after all), then the more one person speaks, the less attention is left over to spend on other speakers. That means that the people who talk the most end up setting the threshold for getting heard—if you don’t comment as loudly or as frequently as the loudest and most frequent contributors, you risk being drowned out in the din. In such an environment, who is talking—that is, who gets to participate in science itself—becomes less of an open, level playing field and more of a competition where people with more time and more willingness to engage in this particular style of discourse get to drive disproportionately the content of scientific conversation.**

Here again, we might think about various demographic inequalities. Take just the question of time: Women in academia tend to spend substantially more time on service commitments than do men. Scholars at teaching institutions spend more time in scheduled teaching activities than do their peers with more flexible schedules at research institutions. Primary caregivers have greater demands on their time than people with stay-at-home partners or people with the means to pay for full time childcare. If we create venues for scientific discourse where your ability to participate effectively depends on how much time you have to make your voice heard over the din, then we are effectively saying: We prioritize the voices of men more than women, of scholars at research rather than teaching institutions, and of people with more versus less childcare support.

So to those who keep saying why worry about inequality in scientific discourse, just so you know, this is what it sounds like you are saying: Why worry about inequality, because the existing inequalities don’t bother me. I’m fine with them. I’m okay with our science excluding some groups more than others. I’d like to focus on other things instead, and let psychology become more like other STEM fields in terms of what they look like demographically.

And you know what? You are totally entitled to that opinion.

And I am entitled to mine. Which is, in a nutshell: Fuck that.

*Note that I'm talking about any forum for scientific discourse, not just social media. For the record, I thinks social media offers some amazing opportunities for increasing inclusiveness in science. And I think that with some careful attention and creativity, we could maximize those benefits while mitigating some of the issues I raise here. (Here's an example of one recent attempt to do that.)

**Again, this issue is not remotely unique to social media...it's true of lab meetings, conference panels, publishing in traditional journals with limited page space, you name it.


  1. The following is written above:

    "Late in the panel discussion that followed, an audience member asked about whether gender bias was apparent in the panel itself—were the male panelists talking more often or longer than the female panelists? (...) But the fact that this question was even asked seems to have offended some people online, as illustrated by this comment: "

    I listened to/watched the video and the comment to me does not seem to be formed as a genuine question like you write but more like a statement (without presenting any evidence):"How are we not talking about the gender dynamics here. The men on this panel are speaking much more than the women...".

    I understand how this can come across as inappropriate, and i think you should have presented the situation/comment more accurately.

    Leaving that aside, or wait perhaps not. Maybe we can take this as an example of what my other 2 points are/what i don't understand.

    I personally don't participate on social media platforms like twitter, or facebook but i do post replies to blogs like this. To me, this does not mean that i feel that my point of view is not being heard because i use other formats (like this blog).

    The point i am trying to make is that 1) perhaps it's okay to not participate in particular ways (e.g. on social media), because there are more suitable ways in which one can try and contribute something useful that better fit your character (as i am trying to do here).

    More importantly, i am puzzled by the following:

    "That means that the people who talk the most end up setting the threshold for getting heard—if you don’t comment as loudly or as frequently as the loudest and most frequent contributors, you risk being drowned out in the din."

    I always thought science is about evidence, argumentation, etc. From this post, and also from listening to some of the things that were said in the video like "The loud voices, who seem to know a lot of stuff, and have strong opinions must be right", i get the feeling there is way too much attention payed to who speaks, instead of what is being said. If this is what really happens in science, science has much bigger problems than possible gender inequality.

    2) Science is not a shouting contest, nor does it matter how many times you react on a social network. Just because i post less on social media platforms does not necessarily imply that my voice isn't heard, or perhaps phrased even better: that my arguments aren't taken into account.

    Perhaps this reply to your blog-post can be an example of what i am trying to make clear...

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for obviously thinking so carefully about them. I agree with your characterization of the audience comment that was made about gender toward the end of the panel as being more of a statement than a question. At the time, I think I mentioned that it didn't fit my own perceptions (and when someone went back and coded floor time later from the video, it was pretty clear that by most metrics, floor time was evenly distributed across the men and women in the panel). I personally wouldn't have asked a question or made a statement in the particular way that this audience comment was phrased, but I also think it's really important that we allow and encourage people to raise the issue of inequality in contexts like these. What motivated my post was really a handful of online comments that are illustrated by the second part of the comment I quoted above...that it's "sickening" to "waste time" worrying about inequality in contexts like these. I disagree strongly with that sentiment.

      I agree wholeheartedly with you that it makes sense to participate in scientific discourse in ways that feel comfortable to you and that fit your character. And, I think it's important that we as a field attend to questions like what are the various options for people to participate in scientific discourse? Do those options provide welcoming opportunities for people from different backgrounds to participate in one way or another, or do they systematically encourage or privilege some people's participation over others? If some fora for scientific discourse systematically exclude or discourage the participation of certain groups of people, does that have a negative effect on either those people or on scientific discourse as a whole, even if there are technically other fora available that feel more inclusive? Etc.

      Finally, I agree with you that we have a big problem is too much attention is being paid to WHO speaks rather than WHAT is being said. In fact, as I think I said in the panel last Friday, one of the main reasons I started PsychMAP in the first place was to try to help focus conversations more on what is being said rather than who is saying it. I think many people focus on the "what" much of the time. But sometimes focus shifts to the "who." I think the more we can do to combat that, the better.

  2. Ow, i forgot to mention in my earlier comment that i really appreciate it when blogs allow comments (like yours does). To me, that shows the person behind the blog is genuinely interested in evidence, arguments, and scientific discourse. I think that's tremendously important for improving science.

    1. I agree - blogs that don't allow reply are frustrating (even if no one reads this) - so thank you, Alison!

    2. Thank you for this important post. If the title is viewed as strident -- GOOD -- maybe more people will listen.

      So what are some solutions? How do we make progress?

    3. I think this is exactly the right question to be asking! What are some solutions and how do we make progress? How can we leverage the opportunities provided by social media to build a more optimal, more inclusive discourse?

      PsychMAP itself was one attempt to try to make progress -- to create a forum for discussions of methods and practices that prioritized not only critical and open discourse but also civil and inclusive discourse. My impression is that it has helped some, but we still have a looong way to go. I also recently curated and then published in traditional print form an online discussion (see https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/what-do-we-want-our-scientific-discourse-to-look-like), which seemed like a promising strategy for facilitating discussions and amplifying a greater diversity of voices than might typically be heard.

      In general, I think we could make a lot of progress if we each looked around and thought about how we might personally help encourage diversity and inclusion in science. It might be reaching out to underrepresented group members who do well in our classes to invite them to apply to RAs in our labs. It might involve nominating a colleague or student from an underrepresented group for an award that they might otherwise not think to apply for themselves. It might be talking to underrepresented voices one-on-one, and then bringing their perspectives to the table when we have a seat at that table. It might be putting in the extra effort to find a less well-known speaker for a symposium. Or it might be something like this:


      Those are my ideas...but I'd be really interested to hear ideas from other people, as well!

  3. Is it definitely nine, and not twelve, people who are contributing? And are all men? Because I was hoping we could have a blog titled Twelve Angry Men.

    1. It sounds like the "about nine people" estimate that Tessa West (one of the moderators of the panel) gave was definitely an estimate and not an exact number. (And I believe that it was about the people who most frequently initiate new threads on both of the methods discussions groups on Facebook -- a lot more than nine people are talking within those threads.) But to return to the crux of your question, I am fairly optimistic that one could find twelve angry male posters about which to write a blog post if one tried. :)

  4. As you will see, there is a gender differences in socializing.
    Men prefer the group socializing. ie wide network of "weak links", whereas women prefer closer one on one relationships.

    This implies that men will participate more in social media discussions. Where the discussion is with a broader audience


    What do men want? Gender differences and two spheres of belongingness: Comment on Cross and Madson (1997).

    Baumeister, Roy F.; Sommer, Kristin L.

    In response to S. E. Cross and L. Madson's (see record 84-35311) suggestion that men's behaviors reflect a desire for independence and separateness, the authors propose that those same behaviors are designed to form connections with other people but in a broader social sphere. Women's sociality is oriented toward dyadic close relationships, whereas men's sociality is oriented toward a larger group. Gender differences in aggression, helping behavior, desire for power, uniqueness, self-representations, interpersonal behavior, and intimacy fit this view. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)

  5. Unclear to me how much a closed group on FB is considered a "large group" versus small. One could easily make the alternative argument that since so few people are actually active in a given FB group, posting on FB is experienced as relatively intimate. In other words, we need much more data before this explanation is tenable.

    1. Hmm...I can imagine that argument being plausible in some cases, but it seems unlikely to me that many posters experience these particular FB groups as intimate. For instance, PsychMAP has over 4500 members, and the most popular posts tend to get between 50-150 likes from individual users. The idea that these spaces feel intimate is also at odds with the data presented at the beginning of the SPSP conference panel session (the video I linked to near the top of this post).

  6. I feel quite offended, personally attacked, and intimidated by your blog post which mischaracterizes my Facebook comment in major ways (see below). This is quite ironic given that you’re advocating for inclusivity in scientific discourse, yet your actions make me feel categorically excluded from the conversation. This is way worse, however, because you're doing so in a deeply personal way, individually targeting and attacking me. You're publicly shaming me for having strong FEELINGS about how spending our precious time counting the exact minutes panelists of different sexes are talking **takes away** from time we could spend improving our research practices (e.g., increasing our transparency, falsifiability, replicability, generalizability). Such practices are in dire need of improvement so that we can actually become a replicable, cumulative science that yields valid insights to address extremely important social psychological phenomena, including my debilitating social anxiety (for which I've been stigmatized and marginalized) and suicide prevention research that could have prevented my brother's, aunt's, and first cousin's self-slaughter (for which I've also been stigmatized; these are my lived experiences).

    We owe it to ourselves, but most importantly we owe it to society and tax-payers because they pay us to do research to better understand our world so that we can make it a better place. Gender equality in science (and everywhere) is of course important: if there's compelling and verified evidence of sexism/racism, then of course such cases should be seriously pursued and rectified as appropriate. But if we spend MOST of our time obsessively counting and making sure researchers of different sexes (and all other imaginable social categories) are speaking EXACTLY the same number of minutes on panels and social media, then there's really no hope for academic science.

    I've dedicated over 7 years of my life making social psychology more rigorous and cumulative because I care deeply about making our science cumulative and trustworthy so that we can help improve the lives of (vulnerable) individuals who are suffering from debilitating emotional and social conditions, including many of my family members, and I assume many of yours.

    (1) I said "wasting time worrying about gender equality IN SPEAKING TIME", rather than your mischaracterization that I don't care about gender equality more broadly.
    (2) You also mischaracterize the context of why I felt so strongly that male panelists were being mistreated for gender bias: You frame the situation as an open-ended question to be discussed ("...an audience member asked about whether gender bias was apparent in the panel itself—were the male panelists talking more often or longer than the female panelists?"). In reality, Tessa West said: "How are we not talking about the gender dynamics here: The men on this panel are speaking MUCH MORE than the women, just like the data suggest on social media." And then accused the males of mansplaining: "Is this a mansplaining panel?" (actual words transcribed from video). These are strong accusations, made even worse by the fact they turned out to be completely false accusations.

  7. Hi Etienne, Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts in this public space. I'm so sorry to hear that you feel offended, personally attacked, and intimidated by this blog post. I wish that you didn't, but I understand why you do. To me, your response raises the important issue of how we can and should balance between multiple important values in our scientific discourse - namely, being open and critical on the one hand, and civil and inclusive on the other.

    This is obviously a hard issue and one that I and many others have thought a lot about (here's one example: https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/the-tenor-of-discussions). And it's an issue that I think is important to keep thinking about and wrestling with and discussing. On the one hand, I think it's really important that we are able to advance strong criticisms of other people's views and statements, and I think there can be a lot of value in that criticism being open and transparent. On the other hand, I think it's important to keep discourse civil (e.g., by avoiding ad hominem attacks or name-calling) and to strive to make discussions as inclusive as possible.

    Here's how I see those competing values playing out in this particular case. Of course it can feel bad to have one's comments and opinions criticized - we've all had the experience of having someone judge our work or our viewpoints in a negative light, and it can feel horrible and often very personal because often our identity is wrapped up in the things that we say and do. And I certainly share your concern about avoiding personal attacks that target individuals rather than substance. To me, in balancing between the values of being critical and being civil, it is essential to draw a line between targeting WHO says something versus targeting WHAT a person says. I tried my best to follow that distinction in my blog post: I focused on criticizing WHAT was being said rather than WHO was saying it. I included your comment, which you had posted in a public Facebook forum, in the same way that I would include a citation - the point was to communicate that here is an example of the kind of comment I am talking about, here is where it came from, and here is what it said. In the interests of openness and transparency, I did not black out your name and I included the verbatim comment so that readers would be able to see the original text for themselves rather than relying on my interpretation of it (you mention that you feel I mischaracterized you; one reason to include the original comment is so that readers can also make that judgment for themselves rather than only having my characterization to go on). I did NOT attack you on a personal level (in the sense of going after you as a person rather than going after the substance of what I thought your statement conveyed) - I didn't make any attributions about the kind of person you are based on your public statement, I did not make some claim about the validity or importance of something else that you do on the basis of what I think of this statement, and I did not say that I thought your statement was wrong because of the kind of person you are. Instead, I explained how I interpreted the substance of your public comment, I strongly criticized that stance, and I explained why I had a different viewpoint.
    (cont’d below)

  8. To me, this kind of approach (criticizing a stance rather than a person; focusing on what a person says rather than who a person is; being open and transparent about what has been said/the basis for one’s interpretations and conclusions) strikes a balance between critical and open discourse on the one hand and civil and inclusive discourse on the other. I think that to have a healthy discourse about any aspect of science, we have to be able to engage in strong criticism, and I think it's crucial to aim that criticism at ideas and substance rather than at a person's character. And, that said, I am always interested in hearing other people's views on how to navigate this tricky issue, and I would be interested to hear yours.

    I think it's problematic to suggest that we should seek to avoid saying things based on how they will make other people feel (even though in general, I would certainly prefer to avoid hurting people's feelings), both because people's feelings are so variable and because this doesn't seem like an especially relevant standard for judging the appropriateness of scientific discourse. For instance, I felt offended, attacked, and intimidated by your Facebook comment (and a handful of similar online comments from other people) about "why the fuck we're wasting time worrying about gender equality in speaking time." As a woman who deals with various aspects of gender inequality on a daily basis, and who had just been part of a panel discussion discussing (among other things) empirical data on gender inequalities in who participates in scientific discourse online, and who has spent a lot of time trying to combat various forms of gender inequality, the sense I got from your comment was that you thought raising concerns about gender equality was stupid...so stupid that you called it sickening. That felt pretty heart-droppingly horrible to hear. But my feelings about your statement don't mean you shouldn't be allowed to make it. Likewise, I might feel attacked and shamed if someone publicly criticizes a conclusion I've drawn based on my research and suggests the research was flawed, or if someone argues that a blog post I wrote was completely misleading and utterly trivial, but again, I don't think the fact that these criticisms would make me feel bad should be the basis on which we judge whether it's okay for someone to make them.

  9. I share your commitment to making science more rigorous and cumulative, I believe you when you say you are deeply committed to those goals, and I think it's laudable that you devote so much effort to advancing them. And I understand that different people might place more or less priority on different goals, and that it might be frustrating when someone seems to prioritize a goal that you see as especially important over one that you see as less important. One of the big opportunities that I see in the way our field is changing is that we have a chance right now to build new tools and new modes for talking about science and conducting research, and that -- if we pay attention -- we can shape those new tools and modes of communication to be far better than our old ones in terms of making science replicable AND cumulative AND inclusive. I therefore think it's important to evaluate how we're doing with respect to each of those things as we go, and to adjust course and think of creative improvements when we can. It sounds to me like you are concerned that because there is limited time for talking about improvements, devoting time to raising concerns about one of these issues takes away from time we could be spending on another. I agree with you that there are trade-offs here in terms of where we devote our attention and sometimes which goals we prioritize. I think we might disagree on how important it is to put our attention on one or another of these sets of concerns. And I think it's important that we can be critical of each others' views on these issues without going anywhere near name-calling, personal attacks, etc.

    With respect to the last part of your comment about mischaracterizations - I'm glad you spoke up here to clarify what you meant, and I hope you can understand how regardless of what you meant or what you personally care about, your statement could come across to others as conveying disapproval of raising concerns about gender equality in various forms of scientific discourse. I totally agree with you that it would be more accurate to describe that particular "audience question" as a comment. I personally wouldn't have worded that comment in that way and I can see how it would feel accusatory. As I said while on the panel, the perception of inequality in floor time didn't match my own perception. (I interpreted...and I think the other members of the committee interpreted...the "mansplaining" quip as a joke among a friendly group of colleagues, but I get how it could come across as an accusation from an audience perspective). But at the end of the day, even though I might have thought at the time that a different audience question might have proved more fruitful for the panel to discuss, I think it is essential for the health of our science that people are able to raise concerns about inequality and inclusiveness, I think it's important that we can do this even when it makes people feel uncomfortable, and I think it's important that we can do this even when it turns out that the concern raised doesn't characterize a particular situation. To me, raising these concerns is an important first step in addressing them -- it's hard to gather "compelling and verified evidence of sexism/racism" without first asking the question of whether sexism/racism characterizes a given situation. Again, there are more or less diplomatic ways of raising that concern, but at the end of the day, I'd rather it were raised and considered than ignored, regardless of the phrasing of the question.

    You are, of course, welcome to disagree with me and to criticize my views and to argue strongly against any part of them. But this is what I think. And I would be interested, anytime, in hearing your thoughts.

  10. Thanks for the long-winded response.

    So how many hours per week (on average) do you spend trying to make science more "inclusive"??

    1. It was long, wasn't it? I'll keep this one short. It depends. Sometimes, I spend a long time trying to engage with someone who says they feel excluded from the conversation, only to find out they didn't really want to have one. Which is my cue that my time would be better spent elsewhere.

  11. All else equal (I'm sorry), those who specialize and spend more time with a subject are better at it.

    Further, why not let the communal and the competitive style... compete; allow/create groups with different rules (pluralism), rather than aiming for one type of rules, namely "inclusive" ones. It hasn't been shown that "diversity" enhances (group) performance, while the attempt to implement it is costly.

    Consider these: