Heteronormativity in STEM

There are abysmally few women in mathematics. I had taken 35 math and CS courses in my bachelor’s and master’s before I first had a woman lecturer. It makes me feel demoralised and alienated. I feel lonely when I see that nobody in my field looks like me, which makes me doubt whether research is the career for me, no matter how happy I feel when I’m working.

There are efforts to make STEM more inclusive to women. In the long run, those hopefully help to improve the gender balance in these fields. But they also help in the short term, as an occasion to meet other women in different areas who are in the same situation. Bonding over sexism is an excellent way to stave off loneliness.

Meetings on women in STEM do leave me emotionally drained for another reason: they are drenched in heteronormativity. It’s all talk about how women are giving up their academic career or working part-time because they’ve got a husband and kids and their husband earns more money or whatever the cishets are worrying about these days.

Screenshot of https://twitter.com/HITStudies/status/1045645770001698816 Heidelberg Laureate Forum @HLForum tweeted ""Behind every succesful woman stands a strong man". Anna Wienhard credits her husband and mentions this as one of the success factors in her career. The crowd applauds. Just as important: mentors, determination, decision making. #HLF18" which got retweeted by dr. Wienhards institute HITS gGmbH @HITStudies who added "We fully proudly retweet this quote by @HITStudies group leader Anna Wienhard #HLF18 @HLForum"

It is frustrating on two levels. First off, it feels like people are saying that only straight women have a place in academia. They probably don’t explicitly mean it that way, but there is a message in their language, and it is not a friendly message. Secondly, if the straight cis women’s issues were the main issues, then why are nearly all cis women in STEM straight? If 10% of the people in the field are women, but only cis women in relationships with men were getting pushed out of STEM careers, then half of all women in STEM [w]ould be LGBTQI+. [But that is not the case.]

Asymmetry of passion

Some time ago I first read the phrase “asymmetry of passion” in an article (in Wired via Kottke) about so-called “keyword voids” in internet search engines. The article starts by discussing the internet search results for “vitamin K shots”, a routine injection that newborns get.

This is a routine practice—ask your pediatrician, your obstetrician, or the CDC. “Babies are born with very low stores of vitamin K, and without the Vitamin K shot … they do not have enough Vitamin K in their blood to form a clot,” the CDC says on its website.

But new parents who turn to search engines to understand the practice will find an aberrant—and dangerous—strain of thinking. Google “vitamin K shot” and the first result advises “Skip that Newborn Vitamin K Shot.” It isn’t until below the fold—the fourth result—that the CDC website appears.

This is blamed on an asymmetry of passion; anti-vaxxers put much more effort into writing blogs stating that the shots are unnecessary or even dangerous than government organizations like the US’ CDC do to refute their claims. Hence the search results get populated with all-natural anti-science lies. (I just tried the search and my results page only has a single anti-vax result. The Wired article made more scientifically literate websites write about the shots.)

Asymmetries of passion happen more often. One good example is blockchain technology, which has no use-cases apart from cryptocurrency, and possibly not even that.  Other examples include conspiracy theories and the alt-right.

The “marketplace of ideas” is a cute idea, but it is too bad that you can’t short.

Language policy for this blog

See also: content policy for this blog.

I have a habit of using ableist slurs. I used to think those words weren’t ableist at all, or maybe that ableism in that sense wasn’t bad. I have learned to think otherwise, mainly from this series of blog posts. Those posts highlight one important reason for avoiding certain words: it’s lazy language.

 “stupid” isn’t constructive. You’re not criticizing… you’re just denigrating. The other person can’t learn anything from being told that their idea is “stupid”. Like I said before… it’s lazy. It elucidates absolutely nothing.

Instead, you could be constructive. You could say “that’s a bad idea, and here’s why” or “I think you made a big mistake there. You should have done this, instead” or “I don’t know if I like that choice. Here’s a better one.” Explain why you don’t like whatever it is, instead of just calling it “stupid”.

Don’t have the time to go into specifics? It’s still better to just say something like “nah, that’s a bad idea” or “you know what? No. I’m against that” and move on than to say “that’s stupid”. Even when you’re using it against ideas or actions or such, there’s still splash damage.

Avoiding certain words forces you to be more articulate. To be more constructive in your criticism. To apply a growth mindset towards the outgroup.

(I am NOT saying that intelligence is a completely non-existent property. Some people are mentally impaired in ways that chronically prevent them from functioning normally, and it is harmful to think that this is not the case. I am saying that for most people, most of their usage of those words is inappropriate and harms their communication.)

Not only is there a practical advantage; using inherent properties of people as slurs is not so nice. I don’t feel welcome if I hear people use “gay” as a slur, so I should probably not use ableist language either.

Want to try this as well? Do read a list of alternative words like this one.  My favourite default replacements are:

  • Stupid -> willfully ignorant/frustrating/obnoxious/unfathomable
  • Crazy -> fascinating/amazing/extreme
  • Lame -> bad/awful/inadequate