Marker 1:01:30 is where this story begins
Hey Everyone, Shannon here. Up until now I have kept this blog quite consistent, each week delivering you a seriously badass woman to get to know.
Today, I watched the video you see above of Neil DeGrasse Tyson responding to a question at a relatively obscure (according to UpWorthy) conference.
I can’t stop dissecting it and for that reason I feel compelled to write about it here. I did watch the full hour panel so as not to fall into the UpWorthy trap of what I call “editing for reaction”. It was a brilliant hour and I highly encourage you to enjoy the whole thing.
The full scene: A room chock full of white male scientists. The panel is titled “Science of the Public”. The moderate announces that the panel will focus on roadblocks to science education and science literacy and potential solutions for overcoming said roadblocks.
They spend an hour tackling incredibly insightful topics like: What is science? Do we need to “re-brand” science? What are the benefits and values of science? Can we foster an appreciation of science that inspires involvement? The impact of science on religious thinking and vice versa. Is the biggest barrier to buy-in among students that the teachers are teaching it wrong? Why aren’t we teaching critical thinking in science to inspire? How is pop culture effecting perceptions of science and scientists?
Seriously. Watch the whole thing. It is so inspiring. And while you watch you get a sense of just what a beautiful person Neil DeGrasse Tyson is, most especially at elevating those around him (check out the 18 minute mark and just watch). Oh to have been able to sit in that room and absorb all of that brilliance!
The panel ran long and they had time for only one question. At which point an older white man came to the mic and said, “Mumble mumble, What’s up with chicks and science?”
At this point I just had rage. That said, I realized he said something before the question that I just couldn’t hear. I replayed it eight times before I was able to figure out that he said, “Um the “Larry Summers” question: What’s up with chicks and science?”
Now I had to hit up google to get the context of his statement “the Larry Summers question” so here’s the deal on that via Wikipedia (that said, more than 75% of wikipedia contributors/writers are men):
In January 2005, at a Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Summers sparked controversy with his discussion of why women may have been underrepresented “in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions”.
Summers had prefaced his talk, saying he was adopting an “entirely positive, rather than normative approach” and that his remarks were intended to be an “attempt at provocation.”
Summers then began by identifying three hypotheses for the higher proportion of men in high-end science and engineering positions:
1. The high-powered job hypothesis
2. Different availability of aptitude at the high end
3. Different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search
The second hypothesis, the generally greater variability among men (compared to women) in tests of cognitive abilities,leading to proportionally more males than females at both the lower and upper tails of the test score distributions, caused the most controversy.
In his discussion of this hypothesis, Summers said that “even small differences in the standard deviation [between genders] will translate into very large differences in the available pool substantially out [from the mean]”. Summers referenced research that implied differences between the standard deviations of males and females in the top 5% of twelfth graders under various tests. He then went on to argue that, if this research were to be accepted, then “whatever the set of attributes… that are precisely defined to correlate with being an aeronautical engineer at MIT or being a chemist at Berkeley… are probably different in their standard deviations as well”.
Summers then concluded his discussion of the three hypotheses by saying:
So my best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.
This lunch-time talk drew accusations of sexism and careless scholarship, and an intense negative response followed, both nationally and at Harvard. Summers apologized repeatedly. Nevertheless, the controversy is speculated to have contributed to his resigning his position as president of Harvard University the following year, as well as costing Summers the job of Treasury Secretary in Obama’s administration.
So let’s be clear here, while Larry Summers may have posed some provocative questions he never phrased the question as “What’s the deal with chicks and science?” That was just this middle aged white guys way of wrapping his sexism in a “joke” which, I submit, was done so that later when he gets called out for his sexism he can say something like “Why are you getting so emotional? It was just a joke.” … like “they” do.
Clearly the moderator didn’t have to hit wikipedia to understand what the ‘Larry Summers’ bit meant because he took the question and re-phrased it as, “Does anyone want to field maybe if there are genetic differences between men and women that might explain why there are more men in science than women? Anyone?”
At which point, Neil DeGrasse Tyson grabs his microphone and begins by saying, “I have never been female but I have been black my whole life.” The audience is laughing.
I still had rage so I immediately thought, “Geez Neil WHY wouldn’t you let the one woman on the panel speak? Because male privilege.” Then I checked myself. I can’t even imagine how the one woman on that panel felt in that moment (although something tells me this is not a new experience for her). I would have been so angry and disappointed that after so much profound, intelligent, interesting conversation among panelists that the ONE question there was time for was that piece of shit question.
I know from experience that constantly being expected to “be the voice” of all women or all gay people simply because I’m the ONLY one of “those” in a room is fucking exhausting. So after a few seconds of watching Neil (can I call you Neil, Neil?) take ownership of that response brought me to such a happy place.
What I love best is that he clearly acknowledged that his experience, while similar in many ways, was not exact to the experience of women. He pointed out the shared inequalities of access and expectations between being a person of color in the sciences to that of women.
He infused his response with humor, sharing a personal story that illustrated his experiences with racism and yet did it in such a way as to keep the audience open minded to the implications of the story.
He got to a place, at the end, that any real scientist would have to accept and consider when he says, “When you don’t find blacks in the sciences, when you don’t find women in the sciences, I know that these forces are real and I had to survive them to get where I am today. So BEFORE we start talking about genetic differences, you have got to come up with a system where there is equal opportunity. Then we can have that conversation.”
He challenges that room full of people to do something about the system they are a part of. Additionally, he does NOT shut down the possibility of eventually having a conversation around the hypothesis of genetic differences being a factor. He simply clarifies that that hypothesis cannot be tested until the confounding factors are addressed.
As his response ends the room erupts into applause and I found myself clapping right along with them. I hope that someday I can be as thoughtful and eloquent an ally for someone in the moment when they need it most.
I therefore name, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the first Seriously Badass Ally and invite him to be part of this blog so he choose.