Monday, December 9, 2013

Gender, logic events, public transport

As is well known, the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy organizes a summer school on mathematical philosophy for female students. I deeply admire the work and organizational skills of the members of MCMP. Organizing a logic event for female students turned out to be somewhat controversial - so I just wanted to briefly comment on standard reactions I've encountered (I'll use some examples I've seen/heard).

On one hand, some people think that the implicature is that women are somehow worse in logic and therefore need extra tutoring. I don't think this criticism is viable. Logic needs to be promoted more among women not because they are worse in logic, but rather because there are not enough women in logic, despite them being perfectly capable of doing the research (I recall a logician saying that nowadays being a logician is like being in a barrel full of dicks. Wording aside, the person who made this comment did have a point.) There are also good methodological reasons to exclude males from the participation in the summer school - their presence tends to have detrimental impact on the performance of female students (see the summary here, or the relevant section of this survey paper).

On the other hand, some argue that when you organize a workshop, you have the right to select participants so that you think it's fun to hang out with them. I'll quote anonymously:
I just think that any logic related event is just fun. I like to learn it in any circumstances. It is like partying, I like to go out with my boyfriends and girlfriends, and I like ladies nights.

Now, I  don't think this is a viable strategy either. (I have already written about closed workshops, but I'll elaborate on this one.) Of course, you are more than welcome to hang out and have fun with anyone you prefer to have fun with, in your spare time and at your own expense. If you organize a scientific workshop, you are paid salary with public money to spend a bunch of public money to organize a scientific event - and therefore, your goals should be aligned with the academic goals of the institution you work for.

Now, this doesn't mean the sole criterion for participation should be research performance. For instance, excluding some jerks from the participation in a conference just because you know them to be jerks is rather okay, because their presence would hurt the academic quality of the conference (for instance, younger researchers could be afraid to disagree or to vote their concerns, or could be caused to give up on a line of research not because of good arguments they heard but because of hurtful comments by some (in?)competent asshole).

Yet, deciding on a ladies' night just because it sounds fun and you want to hang out with girls would be too much. Because then you would be excluding participants clearly for personal reasons that have nothing to do with the spirit of academia. If the summer school for female students was organized for this reason, I think it would be a pretty bad motivation.

But I don't think this is the reason. Rather, the ultimate goal is not for anyone to have fun at a ladies' night (albeit, this probably will be a nice side-effect), but to improve the situation in the field gender-wise, and it seems to me that at this point organizing this summer school will contribute to this academically desirable goal.

This doesn't mean that the ultimate ideal is to have separate logic events for women. I can't stop thinking that organizing such events is a bit like having separate train compartments for women only  in places where they don't feel safe or comfortable travelling with men. To some extent, this improves on the existing situation and is needed, but on the other hand, the very need of such compartments is a sign of  deeper problems that have to be handled.

Another observation that some people make is that the most of the instructors at the summer school are male. [Thanks Nicole for correcting me about the current list of speakers. It's 4 women, 3 men.] But [even if there were more men than women], I don't think that this is an objection. The very problem to be handled is how dominated by males logic is, and so it is no surprise that NOW there are more male instructors (as long as the ratio of women instructors at least corresponds to the ratio of women researchers in the field - which it clearly is in this case is something I didn't check for this event). And there is nothing wrong with male instructors trying to change the situation (and the ratio) by teaching at this summer school.


Nicole Wyatt said...

The 2014 School has four women lecturers and three men. So it is decidedly unrepresentative in that respect.

We can argue about the theoretical principles with regard to events like this for a long time. In the meantime, mathematics, which historically had poor representation has shifted it to the point where in the US 43% of PhD students in maths are female, in part through events like this, as well as measures to fight implicit bias, active recruitment, and increased professional intolerance for sexist and harassing behaviours. Empirically this looks like the way to go, and we know that once we get a substantive number of women working in logic then the numbers are self-sustaining and we will no longer need these sorts of events.

Rafal Urbaniak said...

Thanks for the correction about the speakers. As for the rest, I agree. My point is that the goal is a situation where such events are not needed.

As for whether arguing about the theoretical principles is worth our attention - yes, these are a bit less important, perhaps. But I do think it matters what arguments for or against such events you give. Even if you organize one, but do it for wrong reasons, you are likely to organize other closed events, or employ your principles in picking participants for some other academic events, which might not be desirable.

Roberto Cucinero said...

All of this is rather presumptuous. I've noticed that no one ever actually bothers to look for the basis of this modern egalitarian dogma (what I mean will become apparent below). Certainly, it is a divine command of sorts in much of modern Western academia and it would be heresy to even think of any departure from it (recall the scandal caused by the president of Harvard few years ago for suggesting that men and women may *gasp* be different! Unthinkable!).

First, allow me to entertain some of your assumptions for the sake of argument...

What's this urgent need to have more female students? What could a colleague who uses phrases such as "barrel of dicks" have had in mind? And why does he think adding women into the mix will improve the situation? Has it ever occurred to anyone that men and women may by their very natures (oh, I know, it isn't a fashionable belief these days) prefer different things, or statistically speaking, tend to prefer and thus gravitate toward certain things? I'm not even talking about competence or aptitude which is a whole different matter. I'm merely talking about a natural preference. Indeed, in Norway and other societies radically more egalitarian than the Western average, you will see a stronger gravitation of each sex towards the stereotypical fields associated with each. That's right: you see more male engineers and more female nurses in Norway than you do in the United States or any other less egalitarian society in Europe whereas just decades ago the numbers were closer to equal distribution. The reason is quite obvious: when women aren't compelled into fields they otherwise wouldn't prefer and when women aren't operating under the compulsion of having something to prove, they are more likely to follow their natural, individual inclinations. So perhaps we ought to stop and think instead of carrying on this blind paternalistic nonsense. Isn't it enough to "open doors"? Why force them through the ones that some ideologue deems to be best to satisfy his/her ideological quotas.

Now, the argument that male environments are too brutal for female sensibilities is not an argument for the mixing of males and females. Indeed, it is an argument for the opposite! It is an argument not against women practicing logic if they should choose to, but for the fact that certain sexual separation arises naturally. It is pure ignorance to presume that all that which doesn't conform to some arbitrary modern standard is somehow a "social problem" needing fixing. I could argue as much about gravity being inconvenient during injurious falls and thus requiring a reform of physical law to account for such cases. It never occurs to some that by forcing men to alter their otherwise natural behavior among men, it not only proves that women are of a different constitution (women are the biggest misogynists...) but it imposes on man the sensibilities of woman. He must cease to act in his natural way in the company of men because there is now a woman in the mix who may be offended. Now, this is exactly what I would expect in mixed company at a social gathering or something of that nature, but in male environments where masculine relations are natural (think car mechanics and the army if your imagination fails you) this is a ridiculous demand.

Of course, I find the view that male company is necessarily and categorically too brutal for women not to bit as universal as you might presume. My wife (who is an engineer, no less) has stated, as have many women I know, that she prefers to work with men. She finds their company more civilized and lacking the cattiness and viciousness that is quite common among women. So much for asshole males! Needless to say a variety of dynamics may occur between the sexes.

The relentless march for egalitarianism is often an unquestioned dogma dominant among the bored upper middle class (and thus classist!) and not egalitarian at all! Third wave feminism is an excellent example of what I mean.