More social commentary in comic form, or our sexist origin myth

An unusually biting xckd comic has been making the rounds on the internet. It goes a little something like this

It's pi plus C, of course.

Unfortunately, this is pretty dead-on.

In a separate (though perhaps not unrelated incident), Gil Kalai asks why all the bloggers here are male. I left a flip answer on the comments page there, since I was already busy writing up a more detailed post on the subject.

The “real” answer (of course) is that it just happened that way. (More about what kind of answer that is below the cut).

The idea of the blog and the initial slate of six bloggers were dreamed up at a barbecue in the backyard at my house in Berkeley. I can’t comment on the selection process in too much detail (we weren’t entirely sober at the time) but I can certainly say women weren’t deliberately excluded, and none have approached us about joining the blog (as Chris did) and been turned down. After all, the bloggers are all who knew each other in person, talked about math regularly (or at least had at one point), and who I knew were interested in blogs/Web 2.0. I can’t think of any women who meet those criteria.

Now, I wish that was all I needed to say. But, the point rather cogently made by the comic above is that that isn’t good enough, that an unexamined “it just happened that we were all men” is never good enough. All of us, men and women both need to examine whether they’re being that guy in the comic. A lot of people seem to have picked up the idea that if you didn’t mean to be sexist (racist, etc.), then you weren’t. That is, that sexism is a deontological problem, not a teleological problem. As long as they don’t catch themselves being sexist, they are safe.

So let me be honest here. We probably didn’t do as well as we could have. After all, there are some female mathematicians who were in the same social/mathematical circle at Berkeley as the current bloggers, who we didn’t ask to join the blog. At least in my case, I think I can honestly say it was simply because I didn’t think they would be interested (and I seem to not be only one to have thought this). But maybe they hadn’t shown any interest in writing a blog (to the best of my knowledge) because no one ever asked them too. Probably, I should have. I really don’t believe it would have made a difference to the real world outcome in this particular case, but I would have felt a bit more sure I wasn’t listening to the guy in the comic.

24 thoughts on “More social commentary in comic form, or our sexist origin myth

  1. Strangely enough, doesn’t want you to have mouse-over text on your images, it seems. Mouse-over text on links works fine though (try the first one).

  2. I’m going to be frank here, because you just hit on a topic that frustrates me to no end.


    Of course the “it just happened that way” is more than a good enough reason as to way things turned out the way they did. It is exactly NOT your duty to go and ask every person that you’ve worked with, in your group or not, if they’d like to join something. Why would it be? So, you can say that you don’t discriminate against the Jews/Christians/Arabs/Women/Men/etc? That just plain BS and this post just acknowledges and plays into this Administrative “politically correct” BS.

    The idea was struck when you were having a BBQ with your buddies. Good enough. Anyone else (whether women, Muslim, or other) has no right to feel “not included” and/or “discriminated against” and/or … if they didn’t ask and/or weren’t turned down for those exact reasons. Hell, even if /someone/ else wanted to join, another valid reason is that there’s enough of you; the more people involved the worse the signal to noise ratio becomes. If they really want to do it, they can start there own blog by themselves or with a different group (possibly a complimentary one).

    But, this whole “everyone must be included or have the option thereof” is just an idealistic fantasy. It just doesn’t jive with the real world one little bit.


  3. Of course the “it just happened that way” is more than a good enough reason as to way things turned out the way they did.

    Of course, there’s nothing wrong in principle with the way it happened. I’m sure Gil didn’t intend this as a moral criticism of the secret blogging seminar; the question is just whether it aligns inadvertently with larger, worrisome issues for the mathematics community.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everyone has a moral obligation to go out of their way to help address issues such as the underrepresentation of women in mathematics, but the community will be better off if many people do.

  4. Odd Man Out,

    I think one should be wary of creating a false dichotomy between the status quo and an all-inclusive open invitation. Certainly, you may find some people waving the political correctness banner that overdo it, and some of them may be in positions of authority, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate their entire message. Issues such as under-representation are sufficiently complex that they should be treated with some nuance.

  5. The man divisible by 2 basically made the reply I would, though I would add this: I don’t mean that there’s necessarily anything wrong if a given group of people, say, the writers on a blog, or for a more important example, the speakers at a conference just happen to all be male (white, whatever). But given the history of western civilization thus far, I think it’s justified to say that if you encounter such a grouping, you should give a moment of thought to whether sexism might have played a role in how things played out. Not that you have to include women just for the sake of including women (this post captures very well how badly thought out tokenism can backfire), but for Pete’s sake, if you do catch yourself, try to learn from the experience.

    Huh, and now the new xckd comic is also relevant.

  6. We are really being spoilt: an infinitely subtle and profound comic and a bold and brave declaration that you are not sexist, nay, that you are fighting sexism.
    If you really want to outgalileo Galileo, may I suggest that you courageously declare yourself antiracist too?
    I hope your ideas in mathematics are more original than your ideology, man.

  7. Interesting. I’ve been reading (or at least skimming) this blog for some time (over a year perhaps?) and while I’ve been either:
    a) too busy with other stuff,
    b) not particularly interested in a particular topic,
    c) not able to contribute meaningfully,
    it as never occurred to me that this was an “all male blog” and even I (a woman) am satisfied with the above post. The fact that “it happened that way” and the realization that the current incarnation doesn’t include a particular societal subgroup seems reasonable, and having a discussion of what could have or could still be done to change the group composition doesn’t really seem like political correctness as much as an intellectual exploration. And isn’t that what blogs are good for? It seems like Odd Man Out might have some sort of past negative experience, or perhaps his post wasn’t meant to sound as bitter as it did. The group might change or it might not, but wouldn’t it be worse to never have the discussion at all?

    I have often wondered about the possibilities of sexist motives in my various male dominated workplaces but usually it’s quite a bit more subtle than “am I being excluded because I’m female.” For example, I have in the past felt pulled in opposite directions while working in a software development company because I felt like Management would have liked to have seen me in more formal business attire, including makeup and *gasp* skirts, while at the same time I worried that the geeky, competitive, male developers wouldn’t take me seriously if my outward appearance was too polished, neither of which took into account my own personal preferences on the matter. I think there are just different standards of appearance for women in the workplace; the choice affects your upward mobility and peer collaborative relationships differently. I would be surprised to find out that one of my male counterparts put that much thought into his daily attire. Maybe I’ve been fortunate, but as of yet I haven’t felt any sort of sexism in Academia. I hope that’s not simply because I’ve been lucky.

  8. Hi all,

    I’m the author of the “tokenism” post that Ben has mentioned. Thanks, by the way, for putting up the link to my website.

    I’ve already said that I don’t believe in quota systems. Besides, everybody’s personal blog is theirs to set up as they please.

    But since you’ve brought up the subject – one thing you could question is the assumption that women wouldn’t have been interested in joining the group. Maybe you didn’t think they would be because the subject never came up – but was there really an opportunity for that? You can’t assume that they would have asked to join if they had wanted to. For many women, the default assumption is that they are not welcome to the party unless explicitly invited. We tend to think that way after we’ve been burned enough times. That, by the way, would be an example of women making generalizations about men based on insufficient evidence. I never said that it was simple and easy.

    And Alex:

    I felt like Management would have liked to have seen me in more formal business attire, including makeup and *gasp* skirts, while at the same time I worried that the geeky, competitive, male developers wouldn’t take me seriously if my outward appearance was too polished

    No contradiction there, if you allow the possibility that the management would not mind at all if your male colleagues took you a little bit less seriously. That happens more often than you might think, and it does get worse as you progress through the ranks of seniority.

  9. Izabella,

    I couldn’t agree more. On some level that’s the point I was trying to make. Even if one is right most of the time about who would or would not like to blog, if you suspect your error rate is higher amongst members of any given group, you have a responsibility to think a bit harder about whether they would want to (well, and sometimes to just ask).

  10. Right (comment 4), my question was not meant as a criticism, but I was just curious as 8 is already quite a large number. Indeed it is an extraordinary coincidence that Ben planned a post on a similar topic at the same time. Both xckd comics are very funny!

  11. For many women, the default assumption is that they are not welcome to the party unless explicitly invited.
    I suffer from that tendency, too.

  12. (7/8)^8 ~ .34

    Therefore, a random sample of 8 Berkeley mathematicians has about a one-thirds chance of being all male (the fraction 7/8 is taken from my entering class, which consisted of 21 men and 3 women.)

    Of course, this blog is not a random sample but a group of friends — so if you believe people have some tendancy to socialize more with their own gender (possibly due to the inexplicable difference in beer-drinking habits between men and women), the probability of this blog being all male goes up even more (well, the probability of this blog being all male is 1, but you get what I mean).

    Ben mentions above this idea that “if you didn’t mean to be sexist (racist, etc.), then you weren’t.” I’d like to add, that there are institutions which are effectively sexist, even though none of the people involved in them believe that women are less qualified or desirable than men. What do I mean by that? An obvious example is given by academic culture, which discourages people from starting families before the age of 35 — and disproportionally discourages women from staying in academia. But I’m bored to tears of talking about that. Instead, how about this slight preference people have for same-gender socialization?

    If men and women were represented equally in math and science, this wouldn’t lead to effective sexism. However, since women are under-represented, and tend to slightly prefer to socialize with other women, they end up with smaller social groups (uhm, by which I guess I mean anti-social groups: groups of people you’re comfortable talking math with) and thus fewer social resources. And a system where women have fewer resources than men is effectively sexist, even though in this case it’s due to preferences on women’s parts to socialize with other women.

    Of course, if this is the problem, then there’s no easy answer, is there …

  13. I don’t really disagree on any particular point. I could haggle over the fine points with you, I guess, but I don’t really feel the need.

    I don’t see how anyone can seriously argue that women aren’t held to different, bizarre standards whenever they do something in the traditionally ‘male’ world. Math, golf… Men can succeed or suck as they like. A woman who succeeds is anomalous; a woman who sucks is proof that, well, women suck.

    I’m a student of math right now working on getting into a PhD program. I can honestly say that none of my college professors ever treated me like I was dumb when I didn’t catch on to a concept. I never felt that they were sexist in a negative way. But there was a little bit of “wow! you’re special because you can do this!”, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because I’m a girl, just like black students who excel at public speaking wonder if it’s they’re just ‘articulate’ for their color. That’s just a product of the system, and of the sexism and racism that may be becoming less pervasive as time goes on, but still color everything we do.

    The bloggers I’ve seen taking great umbrage at this particular comic’s message seem to have guilty consciences to me. It’s like they worry that admitting that this attitude exists at all is tantamount to admitting that they’ve either exercised it or benefited from it, making them either a sexist or undeserving of their current success. I don’t think that’s the point of this at all. Attitudes about women affect half the population, and being aware of scenarios like this, or that a female speaker presenting a set of information is less likely to be taken seriously than a male speaker giving the same talk, or any of a million other ways in which sexism colors our culture, is the only way the culture is ever going to change.

    Math is just theorems and numbers. It should be color-blind and gender-blind. :)

  14. > Math is just theorems and numbers. It should be color-blind and
    > gender-blind.

    But maths isn’t just theorems and numbers; it’s also the large and complicated social enterprise of teaching and learning, encouraging others to think of certain problems as interesting, deciding who to read, publish, or support, and so on. I’m not arguing that this means it *shouldn’t* be colour-blind or gender-blind, of course, rather that it perhaps shouldn’t have either special obligations or special dispensations to succeed or fail at this, relative to any other academic enterprise.

  15. Beth, I think you’re the one being a little touchy here, especially with your veiled reference to me. I never said I took umbrage, I said I had an issue with one part of his presentation. As for my deconstruction, it was supposed to be overwrought. It’s also a caricature of Critical Theory.

    Yes, there are still the issues you mention, and they still need dealing with. But as your reaction shows, the whole situation has become so charged that the slightest dissent is equated with outright treason to the cause. There’s no dialogue to be had here as long as that attitude stands.

  16. John, if you didn’t take any umbrage, then it seems like protesting a bit much to respond to comment on someone else’s blog which didn’t explicitly refer to you.

    If you’re going write things on the internet, you’re just going to have to accept that people are going to infer things about you from them, and protesting about what your motivation was is supremely unhelpful to everyone (which ties in nicely with the points I was trying to make about ostensible motivations in the post). Certainly “it was supposed to funny!” is about the lamest excuse in the book.

  17. Just a follow up on Emily’s comment.

    The probability should be computed as sampling without replacement:
    (18 * 17 * 16 * 15 * 14 * 13 * 12 * 11) / (21 * 20 * 19 * 18 * 17 * 16 * 15 * 14) ~ 0.21

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