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Taking responsibility for our academic community: a response to sexism in the ESA’s list-serv

You’re enjoying your morning tea, browsing through the daily digest of your main society’s list-serv. Let’s say you’re an ecologist, like me, and so that society is the Ecological Society of America*, and the list-serv is Ecolog-L. Let’s also say that, like me, you’re an early career scientist, a recent graduate student, and your eye is caught by a discussion about advice for graduate students. And then you read this:

“too many young, especially, female, applicants don’t bring much to the table that others don’t already know or that cannot be readily duplicated or that is mostly generalist-oriented.”

I’m not interested in unpacking Clara Jones’ (yes, a woman’s) statement beyond saying that “don’t bring much to the table that others don’t already know” is basically a sexist way of saying that female applicants “are on par with or even slightly exceed others,” which is rather telling in and of itself. There is abundant evidence that perception, not ability, influences gender inequality in the sciences– it’s even been tested empirically.

What I am interested in is why other people in my community don’t think those kinds of comments are harmful and aren’t willing to say something about it if they do.

When someone makes a sexist (or racist, etc.) statement on a society list-serv or a blog, how do you respond? Do you ignore it? Do you call the person out privately? Do you call them out in a response on the list-serv? After the sexist comments were made in Ecolog-L, some members did in fact call them out. This was immediately followed up with various responses that fell into two camps: 1) “Saying female graduate students are inferior isn’t sexist” (this has later morphed into “she was really just pointing out poor mentoring!”), and 2) “Calling someone out for a sexist statement on a list-serv is inappropriate.” Some have called for “tolerance” on Ecolog-L; arguably, more real estate in this discussion has gone into chastising the people who called out Jones’ comments. These people are almost universally male. I would like to ask them this question:

Why is it more wrong to call someone out for saying something sexist than it was to have said the sexist thing in the first place? 

This isn’t the first time there’s been a gender-based kerfuffle on Ecolog-L; last April, a discussion erupted when a female asked for advice about taking a baby in the field, which devolved into various rants about how women academics were selfish and bad mothers. ProfLikeSubstance has a nice overview of that discussion on his blog and, as he points out in in a post yesterday, Jones was behind many of the sexist comments then, too. Back then, I responded to some of the folks during that discussion, and was flooded with supportive emails off-list. A number of them were from young female graduate students who felt alienated and hurt, and even doubted whether or not they should stay in science– not because they doubted their abilities, but because they felt as though the climate of academic science was hostile. 

So, readers, which camp do you fall in?

1) Do you think that it’s okay for you to make off-the-cuff or even deliberate statements about women being inferior, or guilting women for not being good enough at science, parenting, or life in general? Your words are harmful. They contribute to a hostile culture that drives women out of science. We have empirical data on this. Even if being sexist was not your intent, the damage is still done.

2) Have you been called out for saying something sexist? You probably feel uncomfortable. Stop for a moment. Sit with that discomfort. Do not belittle, dismiss, or lash out at the person who called you out. Apologize. Acknowledge that you have heard the person and will think about their words and your actions. Realize that by calling you out, the person is taking a huge personal risk– women especially get bullied for making these kinds of statements all the time. Also know that being a woman, having female friends, and being married to a woman do not in any way exempt you from having said something sexist.

3) Have you seen a sexist statement and stayed silent? Remember that silence is often read as your being complicit with what was said. Even if you think the statement is beneath you, your speaking out matters, especially if you’re male. Being a good ally sometimes means standing up to sexism publicly, because the risks are much lower and the payoff greater, in part because men are perceived as having less of a stake in the argument (as opposed to being made by “yet another angry female”). It’s okay if you don’t know how to respond; sometimes a simple, “hey, that’s not cool” is all it takes to let others know you’re listening, and you’re an ally.

4) Have you told someone not to complain about a sexist statement? You are silencing them, which can be just as harmful as the original sexist statement. You’re creating a space where it’s more okay to say something sexist than it is to call it out. You’re marginalizing people, especially when you bring up concerns about censorship and not wanting people to push their “values” on others. Free speech does not entitle you to speech without consequences, and equality is a value that, last I checked, was central to the ESA’s mission.

5) Have you told someone to “just ignore the trolls” when they’re upset about sexism? Especially if you’re male, saying “just ignore it” is an act of privilege; that is, the very fact that you can ignore it means that you’re not as affected by the statements or the culture they represent. Not everyone has the luxury of walking away. When I as a woman see sexist statements, they are reminders to me that the environment I work in may be hostile to me and to people I care about. That isn’t easy to ignore, especially when we still have a leaky pipeline problem (and a society that focuses on telling women how not to be raped, rather than telling men not to rape, and etc.).

6) Have you called out sexism, publicly or privately? Thank you. Your work matters, even if you don’t end up convincing the person you called out. You’re pushing back against a broader culture of discrimination, making others feel as though they have allies, and even educating people who are watching silently from the wings.

Why are these conversations so prevalent in Ecolog-L? It’s not exactly a fringe community; the list-serv has more than 16,000 subscribers. Is it because (ironically) ecology tends to have more women than other sciences, and therefore people feel more comfortable engaging in discussions about gender? On Twitter, ecologist @Duffy_Ma rightly asked, “I mean, do other society listservs periodically debate whether women are qualified to do science?!” In the ensuing discussion on Twitter, many people have expressed the fact that the negative responses to gender discussions are why they have left or are considering leaving Ecolog-L (though I would add that no one has an obligation to remain in a space they feel is hostile to them). This makes me sad, in part because it means we’re bleeding out potential allies, leaving a space for troglodytes making sexist comments that are observed by early career folks with no real push-back (and then they see what happens when someone does take the time to respond). While I love the Earth Science Women’s Network and think safe spaces are important, I don’t think that women should all have to jump ship and find our own little clubs, because we all do science together. We review one another’s grant proposals and papers. We invite one another to symposia. We’re departmental colleagues. We’re friends.

Sexist statements like this matter. They matter because there is pervasive gender bias in science and science education. So, what’s next? I’d argue that the first step is not to filter out problematic statements with better moderating (within reason), but rather to create a culture where the anti-sexism take-down is so swift and overwhelming that it sends a clear message that sexism is wrong and not to be tolerated. If you find yourself– intentionally or not– on the receiving end of a take-down, take responsibility for your statements. All of us, regardless of gender, need to take responsibility for the culture of our academic communities. Yes; I mean you.

*I would like to state for the record that this post is not an indictment of ESA (and Ecolog-L is not officially tied to ESA). ESA has done really excellent work to broaden the diversity of the ecological community, and has to my knowledge only been supportive of gender and other diversity initiatives.



Categories: Commentary Good Causes Women in Science

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Jacquelyn Gill

86 replies

  1. I’m having trouble understanding how this statement is sexist. Honestly. She is not making a comment about some innate inferiority, but she is simply pointing out what we already knew. There are fewer women trained in math, physics, engineering, and quantitative, geospatial, and other technical skills are marketable. Maybe her word choice is poor, but I have observed more men with technical skillsets. This is certainly due to societal influences rather than biological differences, but I believe it is there


    1. I posted links to a number of resources that show that women are on par with men, but that perception, not ability, contributes to such statements. You might also want to read my comment to Simon below about how framing the issue differently, and more positively, makes a big difference. Especially given the context of the rest of the post, as well as Jones’ statements in the past, it’s pretty clearly sexist.


      1. But aren’t women under represented in computer science, physics, and engineering? Most men and women in ecology have poor technical skills, but of those that have acquired such skills (think mySQL, differential equations, computer programing) most seem to be men. Or is my perception incorrect?


    2. There’s a difference between women being underrepresented in computer science as a field and women ecologists lacking computer science skills. You seem to be conflating a couple of things. And again, in my comment to Simon I talk about framing, which is important.

      There are lots of well-documented barriers to women in various fields, but these are due to institutional sexism, not because women are poor at computer science or lack the skills. I know lots of very technically-adept women! There are certainly barriers to women being supported in math and stats courses, for example (like stereotype threat) but that’s not the same thing as saying “women don’t bring much to the table that isn’t already known.”


  2. Yes, this happens in other fields and on other list-servs (and their equivalents). I came to ecology from computer science and I’ve recently been semi-sucked into the astronomy world. In both places women are very much a minority and the gender “conversations” are much nastier than they are in ecology. Typically, anti-woman comments are more along the lines of “there’s no value to having equality — it doesn’t matter if women are marginalized in our field” rather than the more subtle sexism in ecology. Note that this does *not* mean that all men in these other fields feel this way (in fact, many are active supporters of equality), rather that in my view, the overall culture in fields with fewer women is more hostile.


  3. Thinking further about Ecolog-L, I’m curious what it would cost to hire someone to moderate it, by which I mean filter out all the offensive and crazy comments, not just filter out spam. I imagine that would be significantly more time-consuming than just filtering spam as is currently done, hence my suspicion that you’d have to hire someone to do it. But maybe I’m wrong on that?

    Alternatively, I wonder whether commenting shouldn’t just be turned off entirely on Ecolog-L. For instance, I believe Evoldir doesn’t allow comments (someone correct me if I’m wrong; too lazy to check…) Of course, if you did that, you’d probably also want to block new posts that are really comments on other post, which would effectively be equivalent to comment moderation.

    Another easy thing Ecolog-L could do would be to force people to fit their posts into one of a few categories, the way Evoldir does. And then let people subscribe to posts or digests in specific categories. That way, if all you want is to look at “postdoc ads”, or “faculty ads”, or “workshop announcements”, or whatever, you could do that without having to wade through other stuff. The hope would be that all the offensive posts, and posts attracting offensive comments, would end up in one category or a couple of categories (like “other” or “discussion topics”), which hopefully people would quickly learn to (or could be warned to) avoid if they care at all about being offended. Public commenting could even be allowed only for posts in certain categories, just to further ensure “quarantine” of the offensive stuff.

    Heck, maybe it’s even worth considering just limiting the categories to job ads and other sorts of announcements, and not allowing any posts on anything else. That would prevent people from asking for feedback or discussion on anything, even private feedback. But perhaps that’s a price worth paying for an offensiveness-free job/announcement listserv?

    I don’t claim to have easy answers as to what the ESA should do here (and like Jacquelyn, I would emphasize that the crap that goes on on Ecolog-L isn’t the ESA’s fault). On the one hand, the fact that lots of people still stick with Ecolog-L would seem to indicate that there is a desire on the part of many ecologists for what’s effectively a massive, unmoderated group blog. I don’t share that desire myself, but clearly it’s there. On the other hand, massive, unmoderated group blogs attract a lot of terrible and offensive posts and comments. Given the form in which Ecolog-L currently exists, I can certainly see the argument for people being willing to speak out when they see offensive posts and comments there. But in parallel with that, it seems like it’s time for us all to rethink what it is we all want out of Ecolog-L, and whether there’s a way to get that while keeping out the offensive stuff.


  4. To the blog author, yes I agree there have been a noticeable number of sexist comments on ecolog-L recently. However, if we all called them out, we would defeat the purpose of the list. I subscribe to advertise jobs, apply for jobs, and learn about new opportunities (granting or otherwise). I am a woman in science and I support my students (currently, all women) and I contribute regularly to women in science events and discussions. Please note, however, we will never mute all the objectionable people. Instead, consider reinforcing your support of women in STEM fields among the people around you, and deleting the rude emails. Regards


    1. I don’t think it takes 16,000 people to make a point. And, arguably, the purpose of the list-serv is not to promote a hostile atmosphere that reduces number of women in science. Not everyone has the support they need, and even if you are in a supportive lab, you it may come as an even bigger shock that there are other spaces out there that aren’t as supportive. As I mention in my post, just deleting the emails does a disservice to the younger, newer members in the list that don’t know to ignore someone, or don’t have the confidence to do that. I’ve gotten about 30 off-list responses so far from young female grad students, expressing concern and thanking me for reminding them that they have some support. There’s very good evidence that speaking out does make a difference.


  5. Just to leave my two cents: It is these types of posts (the discussion about the baby into the field post in particular) that has turned me off of Ecolog. I went from reading almost all the posts each day, to using the digets version only to look for potential jobs and conference announcements. Where I once was excited to be engaged in the ecology community and felt connected through the list-serv, I now feel it is in my best interest, mentally and professionally, as a female ecologist to stay off the list-serv’s general discussions.


  6. Jacquelyn, thanks so much for your thoughtful response to all of this. I have to admit to just rolling my eyes (again) when I read what Clara wrote, and even chuckling at Julian’s tip to filter her out — but that’s because I’ve been on Ecolog long enough to know she should be ignored. What didn’t occur to me was that new people are joining all the time and likely have no idea of her track record — or that there may be a lot of folks out there quietly agreeing with her. I’m fortunate to have had great mentors through grad school (even recognizing that they’re all male), and after reading through the comments here, I’m apparently naive to the kinds of experiences women in science (and women in general) are still having on a regular basis. So thanks for (re-)opening my eyes and please consider me another ally.


    1. On a related note — has anyone compiled in one place papers on gender bias in science? It might be a useful resource to direct people toward every time a comment pops up on Ecolog.


  7. I see I’m quite late to the discussion here. I’m sure I’m not saying anything anyone hasn’t said already, but my two cents:

    -Personally, I’d call such obvious sexism out, either online or in person. Although on the other hand, the fact that this person apparently has a long history of spouting nonsense might cause me to ignore her if I was aware of that history, at least in an online setting.

    -This kind of thing illustrates why every decent comment section in the world is moderated. And while nominally, Ecolog-L is moderated, in practice I don’t think comments ever get blocked. Which is why I hardly ever look at or use Ecolog-L, except to post adverts for grad student and postdoc positions. The comment threads are almost always horrible in my experience, no matter what the subject (not necessarily horrible because of sexism; they’re horrible in all sorts of ways) But judging from this thread, lots of folks do keep an eye on Ecolog-L, and not just for job ads. I’m genuinely curious: why? You could be reading and commenting on amazing blogs like Jacquelyn’s instead! Given how many good blogs with good commenting communities there are in the world, why allocate any of your online reading time to reading Ecolog-L, unless you have some very specific goal like looking for a job?

    -Wish I had some useful thoughts to offer on the broader and far more important issue of sexism in science and what can be done about it. But I don’t know that I do. I like to think of myself as not sexist–but of course, so does everybody. And all the evidence available to me says that I’m a good and non-sexist mentor–but while that’s fine as far as it goes, it’s consistent with me being sexist in subtle ways. I confess I’m not sure what, if anything, I ought to do differently, or even if I ought to make a special effort to find out if I ought to do something differently (e.g., taking some sort of training class or workshop on mentoring, just in case it turns out that I need the advice). I’d welcome suggestions.


    1. “I’d welcome suggestions.”

      The anonymous author is brimming over with anonymous advice. As academics, we are so busy relentlessly criticizing each others’ work, that I think we lose touch with the Power of Praise, and no I don’t anonymously mean that the same way a televangelist does. The only real victory to be gained in science is longevity, meaning that if you jump over or bash through all the hurdles and stick around, the fact that you’ve stuck around is the only satisfaction you’ll ever come by. Seniority won’t get you the respect, appreciation, happiness you deserve and it won’t even smartify you all that much. Down deep one has to love science enough to still be grateful you get to do it at its suckiest instead of slaughtering pigs all day, as was the career destination for most of my graduating class. As a mentor/teacher/prof/employer there’s a LOT that you can do TODAY to improve things and change the whole system, and after a great deal of anonymous introspection, I believe that the most radical, empowering and immediate thing we can all do is to stop being so g*dd*mned stingy with the Praise. After your next exam/paper/assignment, why not hand them back with “This was the BEST one in the class” written in red on the top (underline “BEST” twice) of the best one? Chances are super non-zero that the recipient will be a female student and that she’ll remember that red penmanship for the rest of her life. Phrases like “no one could have done this better” when you see good work that no one in that position could have done better, are totally appropriate and totally rare in our business, and need to be said outloud preferably in public. Who cares WHO you are telling it to if it is true? If it is someone unhappily destined to face a crapload of undeserved static throughout their (her) career, this explicit deserved praise will fortify them (her) and comprise a precious piece of hardtack that they (she) can put in their (her) rucksack and pull out and suck on when the justice food-car passes them (her) by for twenty days in a row. As I get older and grayer, the stunning moments of sexist-misogynidiocy all start to run together and become a din not unlike the busted fridge in my lab with a noisy and ineffective freon coil that is prolly that way cuz we kick it so much. My own socks were knocked off by all kinds of crazy so long ago that I can’t even imagine wearing any (in fact, I had to move to a place where socks are not necessary), but guess what Daddy-O, I’m still here. What I do and vividly remember are the moments when people in power explicitly told me I was special and that I had performed exceptionally. Not as awards, but as a spoken or written statement. Some of these people in power were male, some female, some old, some young, some likable, some not really (though I respected them for their keen insight into the human character). For me, it is anonymously simple. Believing that you are undeserving because you are different from the mold is the most dangerous potential outcome of discrimination. Deserved praise acts to exterminate the belief that we are undeserving.


      1. I already do make a point of praising students who do well, both male and female, and in general being positive with all of the students in my classes about their ability to get to grips with the (often quite challenging) material I’m teaching. It’s reassuring to hear that this is something it’s very important for instructors to do.


  8. It would be so much easier to ignore comments by someone who has a history of this (Clara Jones), if the follow-up comments weren’t also often just as disappointing. She might spark debate with outrageous statements but it seems that there are many others who share a more subtle form of her opinions. I’ve certainly come across this kind of sexism, although happily the vast majority of my experiences have been very positive and supportive. As a youngish female without a permanent faculty position it does make me wonder about my chances. If I don’t voluntarily drop out of the system are my prospects as good as my male counterparts? Or will there be people on the search committees thinking I have nothing to bring to the table because I am female (and even worse: I have a family)?


  9. So, if someone says something sexist in my presence, I generally call him/her out on it, if possible with humor. However, I generally assume, perhaps mistakenly, that almost everyone on eco-log knows that the habitual sexist and otherwise irrational posters are just a form of troll, and that responding is probably feeding them. I think that’s why DeOlden was suggesting adding them to the kill file, to avoid having to deal with the mini-barrage that generally follows their posts, and probably feeds their egos.

    I hope by not responding, they will vanish for a while and we can get the nice ecological questions and job postings expected when we subscribed. From some of the comments now, I see it’s possible that the comments these trollish people make are negatively affecting some readers — that surprises me and makes me sort of sad that everyone doesn’t have the confidence to just realize that most subscribers just think these people are wrong and not worth responding to, so that silence may not be agreement in this case.

    Also, we’re all super-busy trying to establish work-life balance 🙂


    1. Judging by the dozen or so folks who have contacted me off-list about this, I think there is evidence that saying something openly helps! The new folks don’t necessarily know that the person should be ignored, and in the meantime, the hostile climate continues.


  10. I have been told to “sit at the table with the big boys”, called “frigid” in front of my female grad students, and outright ignored in group discussions, by older male colleagues. I am on the review panel for AAUW (look it up, it’s amazing), try to mentor younger female students to be go-getters, and not be naive to inherent and still-present gender bias, and try to be supportive of other female faculty as much as possible.
    However, I was useless in all three of the above mentioned instances, because I was so shocked and incredulous that they happened, and as pre-tenure faculty, I know that I have to pick my battles.
    Only the second sentence in this comment is okay. I may have forfeit my job, future grants, favorable reviews and lord knows what else simply by writing this comment.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Sadie. I completely understand the reasons why women in vulnerable positions might not want to speak out! I’m sorry if it came across that I was not supportive of those reasons. Rather, I was speaking more specifically to the folks who were making some of the comments on Ecolog-L that the people who did speak out should keep quiet, be civil, etc. Allies can be a huge help in this way, because the risks for them are often not as high. Ditto to already-tenured folks.


    2. It’s terrible that your acknowledgement of such a prevalent problem could have such consequences. I’ve also noticed how many men from their late forties, and particularly their 50s seem to act like this, either ignoring women in discussions; or if a women does speak interrupt, change topic-it’s so frustrating!


  11. Hi All
    I’ve been following the gender discussion, and commend Jacquelyn on her well composed post. I’m originally from the UK, and have done a fair bit of work in Asia. However it was only when I moved to Australia I really began to feel the effects of Sexism on a regular basis.Whereas in a traditional UK environment their were biases-they are nothing like the level I’m aware of here, and the frequent patronising remarks from males here, and confident females taken to one-side at academic meetings to be told they are too forward, when the trait was accepted and commended in men of the same status. At an ACEAS-TERN symposia-though a highly successful symposia only one of the 6 plenary speakers was female, of the abstract presentations there were 69 male presentations and 17 female, and at the dinner (invite only) many tables had only a single woman on a table of men.
    I’ve read the stats and the papers about the problems women face. But when I review I frequently don’t even look at the author names, and I would imagine that many of my peers from my former position act in the same way. But why is it that we still need to have this debate, and we clearly do when almost everyone at least claims to abhor sexism; yet it has become and insidious and often subconscious part of academia.
    Though I think that some of the bias in recruitment may fall to the relative mobility of young men and women, as it may still be that on average young men maybe more likely to move their families than a young women; but none of this explains why we still treat women as inferiors. Why is it that even in the developed world some countries are still perceptibly more sexist than others and what’s more how can we curb this.I think that once again we need to start trying to understand what has allowed this problem to persist and how can we go about changing it, and facilitate fair and objective evaluation of people regardless of what chromosomes they have!


  12. This is why the blog exists, to serve as a repository for Ms. Jones’ special brand of equal-opportunity offending. If anyone needs some back story on why she gets singled out, you’ll find it there.


    1. OK, that is funny! I think her ability to push the shift key and any letter simultaneously has also been declining, but don’t have the time to document this in the manner of your most excellent ellipse work 🙂


    2. Yep. Unfortunately, Clara Jones often makes some odd and often incomprehensible statements about most topics. The above mentioned website is quite good and accurately represents her contributions to the listserv.


    3. This tumblr is brilliant! Thanks for pointing it out. Reading all of them at a stretch, this woman doesn’t strike me as crazy. She is looking back at some difficult life choices, realizing that they were awful, and trying to retroactively justify them with the “That’s totally awful, but those are the only choices any of us will ever have” line of thinking instead. In her mind, she is probably trying to prepare us young folks for reality. Never mind that some of us believe we have the power to change the situation for ourselves and others.


      1. … “trying to retroactively justify them with the “That’s totally awful, but those are the only choices any of us will ever have” line of thinking instead.”

        SMC, you just put together pages and pages of gibberish in a very smart clear package. FWIW, I predict that you will go very far in life.

        @SandraMChung followed.


  13. Thank you for writing this post and linking to it on the listserv. I am a young female ecologist who has been disgusted by the blatant misogyny many members of Ecolog-L post seemingly without any thought about who is reading them. I personally have put together a list of names of people who have said awful things (things along the lines of ‘women are more likely to drop out of graduate study because they will get pregnant’) in order to ensure I avoid them in my future career.


  14. Thank you Jacquelyn for a wonderful post. As a high achieving female undergraduate in marine biology I was somewhat naive to the sexism present in our scientific community. I was always encouraged and supported by my lecturers/tutors, and I never felt a disparity in treatment between myself and a male peer. But, within the first 3 months of my Phd, I got a rather large wake-up call. I was at a student workshop and my team, consisting of 2 males and 2 females, were presenting our project proposal that we had spent the last few days working on. Purely by chance (well so I thought) the 2 guys ended up doing a majority of the presentation, with us girls answering only a few questions. I thought nothing of it, but the first comment from our judging panel – which consisted of a very prominent anthropologist, a university deputy vice-chancellor, and a dean of graduate research – was that they would not award us the hypothetical grant because it looked like a male dominated team. I was given some serious mentoring about my role as an young female graduate to represent and stand up for myself as a women in science.
    Since then I have been all to aware of the issue and it is a major talking point among my peers. I am now only 8 months into my PhD and I have had another three similar mentoring experiences, where female presence, contribution, and leadership in science has been encouraged. The most recent being a workshop with Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt @cosmicpinot who tweeted this about the event: “Just finished with the ARC CoE for reef studies student retreat – my first science meeting dominated by women. May many more follow!”. I am honored to have had these experiences so early on, and with mentors such as these, broadening our perceptions and encouraging us, I feel that there is hope yet. So as a graduate student, I encourage those I look up to to continue to support us, we really do appreciate it!


  15. I think the original perpetrator has had plenty of shocking statements about totally inappropriate opinions, judgements, and actions in the mailing list. I therefore as a young female ecologist was inititally shocked by her statements, and then remembered she’s very offensive and often illogical in general and so I choose to ignore her- not because i think we should brush sexist statements under the carpet – but because the statement came from an unstable person who’s opinions should not be given any weight or importance and do not represent others.

    The way that the argument has become inflammatory is saddening because its turns the rest of the community against each other, instead of collectively agreeing the comments were inappropriate and to be ignored rather than used as a marker of the rest of the community’s beliefs or behaviour- yes there is sexism in many areas and it needs to openly addressed, but this was not the forum or the posting in which to do it.. What should have happened is we should have all noted that it was totally inappropriate to say such things and condemn her – possible request her removal from the list as a nuisance. But not start arguing whether we should ignore it or not- the intent was not to ignore sexism- it was to ignore her.

    If someone was to make a bizzare statement about rape being ok, and that they would encourage it in the work place, and would like to compare notes about it, or something equally inappropriate and shocking and irrational, should we start a huge debate about ethics and rape or just tell the person to shut up and delete them from our inbox?


  16. As a close follower of the Ecolog listserv, I had the misfortune of reading the original comment when posted. I felt it as a jab in my gut, a rather unpleasant feeling. I hope to enter graduate school as an older-than-average student, who also has two young children, so I certainly feel enough doubts and pressures as it is. I am confident enough of my track record and abilities, but who really needs to read that crap? If this had not been a gender remark, but instead a racial remark…I wonder if there would have been a more serious consequence for the poster? It seems someone who posts remarks against the standards of the site, should be warned, followed by being banned from posting if the warning is ignored. Though, it is definitely a good clue as to people you may not wish to apply to join their lab. After all, don’t lead scientists need graduate students as much as they need them?


  17. “too many young, especially, female, applicants don’t bring much to the table that others don’t already know or that cannot be readily duplicated or that is mostly generalist-oriented.”

    Seriously? Too many young, especially, male, members of that listserv are stuck in the 20th century.


  18. Thoughtful comments Jacquelyn, as usual. Before I start, please don’t take *anything* I say below as endorsing or agreeing with the comments made on Ecolog-L by the person in question.

    I do think some people have over-reacted to the inflammatory comment that you quote. The wording is not addressing the entirety of young female scientists, just *some* of the population of young women scientists that have had the misfortune to cross paths with the person in question. Likewise, this was her personal observation; it might be total crap, possibly representative of the thoughts of a particular demographic within the ecological or wider scientific community, but it is just a personal observation of the quality of candidates. Let’s be clear; she did not say that all young female scientists were inferior to their male counterparts.

    If I’d said “I observe, in the course of recruitment or teaching, that grad students do not have adequate transferable skills” is that discriminatory to grad students? If I added “male” before “grad students” would that make it discriminatory or sexist? If I inserted “female” instead would that then be sexist? Of course not. It might highlight an issue with graduate training, mentoring of particular groups or demographics, or, yes, some in-built prejudice I might have.

    The Ecolog-L discussion then evolved via some over-reaction to various comments about ignoring certain individuals. Julian Olden’s post for example was jumped on by some when all he was doing was pointing out how one could filter out rubbish from a particular individual or individuals; many reactions were based on a total misunderstanding of what Julian *actually* said. He was not advocating that the community ignore or push under the carpet these important issues. Rather he was doing a public service by suggesting a way in which people who find the sorts of comments made offensive could filter them out. Note this is not advocating ignoring the issue in general, but ignoring it in the context of Ecolog-L. Nor am I advocating filtering people in this manner as that is not constructive; what Ecolog-L really needs is stronger moderation when things go off-topic or too many people jump on the band wagon and post “me too” responses.

    Ecolog-L, like other online communities, fora or list servers, has a particular remit or scope and people generally sign up with expectations that things will remain reasonably on-topic. Many would agree that Ecolog-L’s discussions now vary widely from a general ecology-focussed list server. (Is this a good thing? I don’t know; I didn’t sign up to receive much of what is now posted and am considering unsubscribing, not because I want to ignore these issues or think they are not important for the scientific community to address, but because they drown out the signal I was hoping to get from the list in a barrage of noise, inflamed debate etc.) In general, getting into *on list*, extended discussion, that is often inflamed by the nature of the topic and opinions being put forth, is not helpful (you will just end up arguing /ad infinitum/ with people, but to what end?) and may actually be harmful to the wider community.

    These things occur frequently in more technology-oriented lists/communities where flame wars and trolling are commonplace and are highly destructive to communities and the actual functioning of the list/community. In fact many of these lists will have moderators that will actively step in to quash heated discussions because it doesn’t paint a good picture of a community to newcomers. If you were coming to Ecolog-L recently and got a barrage of gender-related emails in your inbox when you were expecting something a little more ecological, you may well consider your subscription choice and make a sharp exit. That would be to the detriment of the entire community.

    So yes, on Twitter, I did suggest that one option would be to ignore the trolls (in response to your suggestion that Ecolog-L be made subscription only, by which you meant paid subscription!, which would be catastrophically bad). The individual in question has form in this area, which you allude to, and the fact that the whole baby + fieldwork thread from last year had already aired many of these issues (and highlighted the unsavoury views of some commentators on Ecolog-L) really made me question why we needed another inflamed, lengthy discussion (well outright hostility in some quarters) on an *ecological* list server? Far better would have been for one person or even a moderator to step in and admonish anyone posting sexist or other discriminatory comments (where appropriate) and to remind people of the posting guidelines and scope of the listserve. And leave it at that.

    In sum, I think there is a time and a place for everything. I didn’t like the comment that sparked the extended gender thread but I also didn’t like the ensuring spat, the like of which contaminates many online fora.

    Context is everything; I wasn’t advocating ignoring gender bias or outright sexism, just questioning if Ecolog-L was the appropriate forum for that extended discussion.

    (Sorry I have gone on so long…)


    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Gavin. I can see that you’re putting a lot of time into thinking this through, which I appreciate. I can understand where you’re coming from with your response, though I disagree that there was an overreaction.

      One thing to keep in mind during this discussion is that these aren’t standalone incidents, either on Ecolog-l or in the broader community. Because of the broader context (which you mention), and because there is a habitual pattern of sexist comments (and I think reading my comment to Simon below on framing would be helpful in getting at the differences), each of these incidents carries with them the weight of many other incidents. Ignoring is one strategy, and filtering and blocking are another, but the damage in some cases is already done, and my filtering Clara B. Jones doesn’t protect the other people who may run across her comments later– especially if they are new.

      I do think that discussions of sexism in science are on-topic for Ecolog-l. They may not be as fun, or as comfortable, but they are important discussions to have. For every one post that you see chastising someone for a sexist comment, there are many off-list conversations. When I made my response last April, I had around forty people contact me off-list to say that they were really concerned and troubled by the commentary.

      Fortunately, I had the time and emotional energy to be civil in this post. I could have been angry, or sarcastic; I think those responses are valid, too, though they may not be as ultimately effective. If I can get people thinking about these issues in a new way, I’ve done my job. If I can identify myself as a “safe” person to talk to about their concerns, questions, or uncertainties about feminism (or racism, etc.), then I’ve done my job.


      1. The issue of repeated sexist comments is one that needs to be addressed by the list moderators. It is they that set the tone of the community and they should police it appropriately. You or anyone else should not need to feel compelled to weigh in *on list* to such comments because that is the job of list moderators. These heated “back and forth”s do do damage to online communities and drive people away as will a sexist or discriminatory atmosphere. Neither has a place in any community.

        Reasoned debate is to be encouraged, but the current thread really doesn’t constitute anything “reasoned”. Your posting here is a perfect response. Raising these gender-bias or discrimination issues in appropriate fora is also an excellent response to the sorts of comments that started the current and previous similar threads on Ecolog-L. I just don’t think Ecolog-L is the right place for that sort of debate. I’m sure there are plenty of online fora discussing these issues and if not, set one up.

        I am not suggesting we let sexist or discriminatory comments go unaddressed on Ecolog-L, just that stronger moderation is the appropriate means of achieving an inclusive online forum for the ecological community.


      2. (I’m responding to UCFAGLS)

        The issue of repeated sexist comments is one that needs to be addressed by the list moderators

        In a perfect world I agree that this would be a good solution to the problem. But then you open up a whole other can of worms, namely: who decides what is a sexist comment? Where is the bar drawn? Because I agree with Jacquelyn and the women who called this out on ECOLOG that this is a sexist comment, yet someone responded on ECOLOG today that it’s not. Using that old “it was said by a woman, therefore it *can’t* be sexist” trope. Yes, yes it can. Women are raised in the same society as men, and can be just as sexist. Witness that recent paper showing that both male and female faculty rated applications with a man’s name higher than equivalent applications with a woman’s name.

        I think there is a problem with gender bias in science, including Ecology, and only two things can change this: more education, and more women at upper levels. I think we need to keep having these conversations, even if they are uncomfortable at times.


      3. @Nicole

        I would have thought off-list complaints to the list moderator should be sufficient for them to realise that some subscribers thought a post to be discriminatory. Then one would hope the moderators would step in and act accordingly.

        Your comment reinforces my point; by allowing the OT discussion to continue, further half-assed comments about whether the original post was/was not sexist are now in the public record.

        Regarding your point about continuing to have these discussions; I fully agree. These issues are not unique to ecology and Ecolog-L is not (or at least was not when I originally subscribed [or I thought it wasn’t]) a general-remit science forum for ecologists. I’m not the only one who thinks Ecolog-L has lost it’s way of late and these drawn-out, non-constructive (at least in part) discussions just add to the noise obliterating the signal.

        Speaking with Jacquelyn via Twitter and reading the thoughtful comments here and elsewhere on blogs I am firmly of the opinion that far more good has been done in those fora, off Ecolog-L, than the comment thread on Ecolog-L.


    2. We will need inflamed, lengthy discussion on this topic until the issue goes away. Which, I fear, will not be for a long long time.

      I am not part of the mentioned online community so I don’t know/understand the dynamics. But this blog post, to me, speaks to the larger issue: Females are constantly discriminated against in STEM fields. It’s a well-known fact.

      In answer to a question that was posed, if you added male OR female to the beginning of a statement like “I observe, in the course of recruitment or teaching, that grad students do not have adequate transferable skills” it would be sexist. It implies that just by BEING male or female you are inherently at a disadvantage and are probably inferior to the other sex.


      1. We need debate, not the sort of inflamed responses that characterise may of the postings in the current thread. That debate should happen, where is happens is another question.


  19. I can think of a few directly sexist/racist things being said in department meetings or other work settings. Most are just met with awkward silence. Hard to think of anyone calling it out at the time. That includes myself and once instance where the comment was directed at me. Even more so instances where the sexism/racism is merely implied occur. So less “women candidates are X” and more “do you think she’ll get pregnant and stop working?”. I honestly can’t say how often I counter that. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes it slides by for whatever reason.


    1. Five years ago I entered the field of Ecology as a student intern and the second day on the job my male boss shamelessly made a statement along the lines of “Do you thing she’ll get pregnant and stop working?” A fine introduction to the field…


  20. I have a sneaky suspicion that the reason everyone remains silent has to do with the fact that we all need jobs at some point and the sexists are still in charge in many cases. NOT a global statement of course but I don’t find that things are getting all that much better for females.


      1. Let’s also not forget that standing up to those that will be your future referees for MANY YEARS to come is not a good idea – therefore, they get away with it free and clear because we need them. The “system” is set up this way, after all, and if
        “they” had to slog through then so should “we.” blah blah blah… 🙂


    1. Amazingly, this was the warning I received from a person after my original email responding to Clara’s comment – that being perceived as too confrontational or expressing too many negative emotions would be detrimental to a future job seeker on a public forum such as Ecolog. Luckily, most of the emails I received from other people were supportive and grateful.


  21. I saw some stuff going around on Twitter about #ecologate and – not being an ecologist – wondered what it was. Then I found all the backstory online, and was shocked. I honestly can’t say I’ve seen anything similar on the listservs I belong to. The Canadian Geophysical Union (CGU) listserv generally doesn’t have any personal discussion, and the Cdn Assoc of Geographers (CAGlist) often has a lot of personal discussion but it never gets into the “women in academia” arena. Cryolist members likewise seem to limit themselves to pure science discussions – never anything about women in science.

    That said – I think the best approach if these types of comments arise are similar to what people recommend at meetings or conferences when someone in a group says something sexist. Call them out on it – maturely and swiftly – to show that it’s not accepted AND to show the women present that they have allies and the discipline is NOT hostile to them. This is the only way we can enact some structural change in attitudes towards women in sci. If we want to plug the leaky pipeline, this is a place to start.

    BTW I thought Down With Time’s comment above was really interesting. I’d never considered it that way, but I wonder if there’s some truth to it. Some colleagues – one of whom has had a >25y career and only 1 female grad student – might fall into the ‘given women softer projects’ category…


    1. Ecolog-l is my main list-serv, along with ESWN, and so I’ve been really curious about @Duffy_Ma’s question. Interesting to note that the other lists you’re on don’t seem to have the same issues.

      I absolutely agree that the swift, firm, and mature take-down is the best approach. It is so very important for the rest of the people in the room, even if that “room” is a list-serv!


  22. I’ve been pretty clear in my feelings here too – I think it’s critical for senior people in the field to come down hard on ANY type of discrimination. Especially over media like listserves where we don’t see all the damage that is done. There has to be a clear voice that says “we don’t tolerate this shit here” and if it comes from those who could just as easily ignore the statement, all the better. Silence speaks volumes too.


    1. And I thank you for the consistent work that you do in this regard, PLS. The kind of damage being done is really hard to quantify, because there is this entire population of young list-serv members that not only sees the sexist crap, but also sees what happens to those who speak out. And they’re in the most vulnerable position of all.


  23. Excellent post, Jacquelyn! Thanks for responding at length to that most annoying thread on Ecolog-L. I agree that more of us need to speak up and shut down such sexist nonsense when it rears its head (all too often, perhaps) over there – and apologize for not getting around to doing so in this case.

    I love the anonymous author’s response too: laughing them off is a great option! Further, I would add that young female students looking at grad school options might find such threads useful in terms of winnowing down their options too – partly addressing another issue that was discussed in the wake of Kevin Zelnio’s farewell post. If someone is building a database of grad advisors to score how good mentors they are, it would be worth adding a sexism score in there too!


    1. Thanks, Aranyak! And that’s a really good point that keeps coming up– we need to reframe this issue as one of mentoring. I know lots of folks who had a really bad time in graduate school– some even left science– because of poor (and even sexist) mentors.


  24. Okay, you know my feelings, and I hate to have to start out with this cop-out: I’m no sexist. I just want to address something I’ve been thinking about the large-fonted point, and although I’m arguing (potentially) the same point being made, I think I’m arguing it from the other direction:

    What if institutionalized sexism is actually leading us to provide female grad students with lower-quality training experiences? Maybe there is a disciplinary bias against letting female grad students “sink or swim” with stats programs, GIS and more complicated analysis, and advising them to cut and run (for example, advising them to finish up a Masters instead of switching to a Ph.D) when a problem seems difficult. I can certainly conceive ways in which this might happen.

    Given that this bias appears to persist in meetings (a bias against female presenters), and also seems to exist in more model-centric community, maybe advisors are giving female students “softer” projects, and taking the discussion of difficulties with a project more seriously then they would from a male student, leading them to give “bad” advice to female students based on pre-conceptions of a female’s abilities.

    How would you measure this? Look at departmental rates of transfer from M.Sc to Ph.D (in departments that allow someone to do this)? Would attrition rates be symptomatic of this problem as well? Just sounding this out.


    1. Thanks, you bring up a really good point and one that I forgot to mention but had meant to. To me, it’s all about *how you frame the discussion.* Frame the issue as one of poor mentoring, not encouraging students, not being aware of the extra work of organizing and clerical tasks that are often given to female students, etc., is very different than framing the discussion as a mere deficiency on the part of the female students. Saying “I have noticed women don’t add anything” is very different than “we have this gender gap in the sciences, and so one way we can make a difference is to make sure you’re mentoring females with this in mind.” You can also simply say “If you want to be successful in science, you have to do X,” regardless of whether you’re male or female. As I put it, the original problematic sentence was a bizarre reframing, which is especially important given that there is SO much evidence that perception plays a huge role.


    2. Certainly there could be bias on the part of the mentor, which leads to females being ‘assigned’ to lower-impact projects, which leads to the perception that women are not bringing as much to the table as men. What you are suggesting is a mechanism through which Clara B Jone’s comments are valid.

      Her comments are not valid. In any way, shape or form. Her statements are misogynistic, and you are on shaky ground, at best, by trying to develop an explanatory framework for another person’s intent. As is anyone that has attempted to ‘interpret’ Clara B Jones’s comments. Pay attention Ecolog, I’m looking at you.

      I have experience on search committees and I can tell you that the women perform or outperform men. Women are not bringing less to the table — to suggest they are, as a group, is misogyny.


      1. I don’t disagree that women can and regularly do outperform men, but I am not sure that I am on shaky ground. We have clear evidence that women leave the academic workforce through attrition, so even the women that you see on search committees are ones that have successfully navigated both the social and institutional challenges placed on women in academia.

        I do not suggest women bring less to the table, I am trying to understand why they might be perceived as bringing less to the table, and I suggest that mentoring in early stages of the academic career may play a role in that. There is lots of evidence that gender plays a role in the perceptions of performance, and evidence that gender acts as an inadvertent gatekeeper in the dissemination of research output. I am just asking if we can see a facet of that in the early career advancement of women in academia, and I am presenting metrics for looking at this. I certainly hope that I wasn’t coming off as a misogynist.


      2. Yes, a lower proportion of women declare that they want to be a TT R1 prof compared to men after 3 yrs of graduate school — and we need respond to this by creating an environment that does not dissuade women from continuing on the track. Clara B Jones’s assertion that women bring less to the table at the application stage is incorrect, and, is a clear example of bias against women and the type of bias that influences women to change course. There is no weakness in the female applicants — there is an inherent weakness, however, in the field’s tolerance of this crap.


      3. Right, I think we’re saying the same thing. Do you think we’re saying the same thing (honest question)? I certainly don’t tolerate it, and I would challenge anyone who says I do. I also think that we may be institutionalizing sexism at a much earlier stage, and in many more ways than we recognize, and I think we need to think about the ways we could measure our progress in combating it. Obviously I posted something not completely thought out (!), and I’m willing to let the idea evolve.


      4. No, we were not saying the same thing. In your original post, you suggested a scenario under which Clara B Jones’s statement could have validity — ie, women are not being trained correctly/fairly/equally by their mentors. Thus, Clara B Jones’s personal observation *could have* basis in reality. I am telling you that her opinion does not have a basis in reality, and that by building up a story or mechanism regarding her ‘observation,’ you are giving it credence.


      5. Hey Cor, Simon’s an old labmate of mine, and he and I have talked about this a lot. From our conversations, I don’t think his original statement is the same thing as validating Jones’ comments. My understanding of what Simon is saying is that he’s asking how we make sure that institutional sexism isn’t doing a disservice in the training and mentoring stage. An analogy would be the difference between blaming women for not being paid as much as men, versus examining the institutional barriers that precent women from negotiating. While I do think that female grad students bring as much to the table as males do, I do think it’s important to look at the ways in which pervasive biases are stacking the odds against females in the training process. A classic example is women grad students having to do party planning, or clean the lab, or being forgotten at the all-male pub night. Those things do have deleterious effects on womens’ careers, even though they don’t make women inferior.


    3. Very good questions. I think the real threat here is not the stuff that shows up on the record in public listservs; it’s the unspoken and unconscious assumptions that we all still make about women in science and that can lead to differential treatment of the types Simon has pointed out. Plenty of us harbor conscious or unconscious biases based on race or sex or looks, and we keep them to ourselves. It takes a clever social science researcher to trick us into revealing our hidden and unconscious biases in a measurable way, or someone else speaking up about our bad behavior. Neither that kind of research nor that kind of speaking up happens anywhere near enough.


      1. Great points Sandra. The list-servs create the forums for discussion of the overt stuff, but the subconscious biases– the institutional barriers– those are really hard to fight. Scientists don’t get cultural competency training or its equivalent, either.


  25. You left out a potentially important option, which is to make delicious fun of the sexist idiot to his face. “Gee, lil’ ole girly me can bring to the table that you’re an ass, but you already put so much ass on the table that I see I aren’t bringing nuthin new, just like you said you witty ole man! Byes the way, when will you retire and stuffs cause we’re already planning your party! Gals love that kinda stuff, you wonts believes my nails!” Immature? Yes. Satisfying? Sometimes. But you know what they say about taking the High Road: the absence of traffic is spoiled by the fact that it’s hella uphill all the way. My unprofessional psychoanalytical opinion is that they secretly crave an indignant superior response (no-no from mommy, anyone?) but why should they get what they want? In my experience, these guys are never able to come back with anything beyond “Awwww … girls are meeeeeeean,” and in the further they at least won’t say that sh*t around YOU anymore. Perhaps that’s the best to be hoped for from that generation.


    1. Thanks for commenting Anonymous Author! Your contributed posts continue to be a huge hit here at the Contemplative Mammoth. You bring up a really good point, and one I forgot. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to do exactly as you say. Some people will bring up The Tone Argument (readers: look it up– there are reams of discussion about Tone in sexist and racist take-downs), but sometimes a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do to get by. And, oddly, some people tend to respect you more when you take this approach.


      1. In a rare serious moment, the Anonymous Author wishes to note that this sort of take down, by a senior female, can be very supportive to the junior females in the room, who are probably seething with a less emboldened and more raw type of rage. They are the ones who matter in this scenario, not Dr. Misogynissimo. It’s more about fighting for them than about fighting against him. And … the moment has now passed.


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