Category Archives: science and society

Raising New Scientists: Kelsey Johnson and the Dark Skies, Bright Kids! Program

At my recent conference experience, I had the distinct privilege of meeting Kelsey Johnson, an associate professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia. Apart from her natural sense of humor and deep knowledge of astronomy and the early universe, Dr. Johnson is a writer in her spare time. She writes both fiction and non-fiction, and mentioned a current project of writing a non-fiction book to teach parents how to raise scientifically-literate, inquisitive children. We spent a fair amount of time one evening discussing the topic, and later I discovered that she has also started a non-profit program in Virginia to help bring more astronomy into children’s lives.

Dark Skies, Bright Kids! is a volunteer-run program founded to try to add to children’s existing science education in a way that both highlights astronomical concepts, and teaches them that learning science is fun. Dr. Johnson says it best in her interview with University of Virginia radio station WTJU’s Soundboard program: she hopes Dark Skies, Bright Kids! can teach kids that science isn’t about memorizing the textbook or taking tests; it’s about play. She touches on a really important phenomenon in science education, namely that kids start out in life curious, exploring their worlds, but later on often learn that science is boring, dry, or even scary.

This is something that I’ve mentioned before on this space and thought about on my own beyond that. So much of science outreach is aimed at “making science fun” for the target audience, but what if we could find a way to help developing minds maintain a mental association between their natural curiosity and scientific exploration? We wouldn’t need to correct the idea that science is boring because we wouldn’t let that idea take hold in the first place. To that end, Dark Skies, Bright Kids! offers after school programs, a summer camp, and even a website of resources for parents to create lesson plans or projects to do with their kids outside of school.

I’ve written before about how my first lesson on quantum mechanics came from a 10-year-old boy that I met as a counselor at a drama camp when I was in high school. Children are absolutely interested in science and want to explore, and having programs outside of classroom formalism is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to nurture this natural curiosity. And maybe by raising kids who don’t think science is scary or boring, we could find ourselves living in a world in the future where more people wanted to learn and understand scientific ideas from a multitude of disciplines.

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On Politics, Women in Science, and Being a White Woman in Science

There is a group who has gained some recognition recently, called 500 Women Scientists, which has published a pledge for all supporters of science and equality in the scientists to sign to show their support. I’ve signed it, along with over five thousand other people. And I recommend anyone else who supports science (woman or otherwise) sign the pledge.

But that is not what I’m here to talk about today. Because a new movement of equality founded and perpetuated largely by privileged white women has reminded me of another piece I read recently, one that has stayed with me longer, and one that I think deserves a larger voice. This piece, written by a black woman who has been through the trenches of graduate school, not just as a racial minority or as a woman, but as both, serves as a reminder that white feminism is not the only feminism and that white women are not just fighting for their representation in graduate school.

The author writes about her experience as the only woman of color in her mechanical engineering PhD program. The problem of not being able to find a woman to be your mentor? Well, you’re much less likely to find a woman of color. In fact, in my own graduate experience, I can’t remember one black student in my graduate class, and very few Latino students, plus a few South Asian. In fact, there was a black professor in our group who sent his white graduate student to a conference for Black and Hispanic Researchers as his representative because most of his students were white.

And while I would never want to minimize the struggles that face any minority group in STEM, it bears remembering that while my women colleagues may get together and think that things are getting better or not really notice that there’s any gender inequity in their research group, this is not the case for other minorities. The work still exists to be done and it needs to be inclusive. We need to commit ourselves to all diversity in STEM and not get lost in our specific struggle. I mean, if my undergraduate class thought I didn’t look like a physics grad student (and would say that to me face while I’m up there telling them how I’m going to be grading them), what would they have the nerve to say to someone who looks even more different than I do?

This is a bit of a short post for such an important subject. But that’s because it’s not really my topic to write about. Instead, I would welcome comments from those whose topic it is. Please educate me, and educate my readers, about what STEM is really like for all those who pursue it.

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Jenn’s Journal Club: Quantifying Scientific Impact

So since my current job involves a lot of reading of various journals, I come across a wide range of interesting papers on a regular basis. I thought I’d start sharing my thoughts occasionally if one really jumped out at me and today I think I have a perfect inaugural subject for this series: the study of scientific impact [1]. Impact in scientific publishing is a fascinating topic, to scientists and publishers alike. But for me, questions of impact speak to a deeper sense of self as a scientist. We constantly ask ourselves how we are doing professionally. We don’t necessarily get raises, promotions, or new titles often, but our work is constantly moving and changing. We can look at how well each paper does, but how can we tell if we’re poised for greatness, past our prime, or just plain missed the boat?

There is a feeling in Western society, at least, that people who are going to be great tend to show greatness from a young age. We look up to hear stories about Mozart, Pascal, and Gauss showing remarkable talent at a young age and we feel inadequate by the time we’re in high school. We hear about Bill Gates becoming a technology pioneer after dropping out of college and we feel inadequate by the time we graduate college and haven’t had our big break. And yet, the truth is that most scientists don’t have that one big break. This paper looked at the ones who did have a big break: Nobel Laureates.

For years, it’s been accepted that any most-significant output of a creative or scientific mind will come earlier in the career rather than later. And if you create a plot of the probability of a highly-significant (i.e., cited) paper from a scientist versus the time since that scientist’s first publication, you will find that this holds true. However, this plot is skewed by two things: one is that most scientists have a dropoff in publication frequency after an initial early-career rush, and the second is that papers published early have a longer time to gain citations. In order to remove these from the calculation, the authors plotted a different probability.

The authors of this study looked at over 200,000 authors who had been publishing in Physical Review journals for at least 20 years. They looked at a random paper in a given sequence of papers and plotted the probability that a paper will be significant versus its relative position in a history. So basically, how likely a paper is to be significant based on where it is in line. And with this change, they found that the probability distribution flattened, suggesting that the probability of a significant paper over time is actually random. They go on to fully develop and support this random-impact model, as they call it.

And this is major. This means that no matter when in your career you publish a paper, there is a chance it could be your most significant paper, over time. Sure, the paper that’s been out for 20 years is more likely to have more citations than the paper that’s been out for five years, but over time, this will flatten. Significant papers are random events, like cosmic ray bursts of genius. Which means that we don’t need to spend our youth frantically trying to make our mark and our middle years bemoaning that it never came.

1. Barabasi, et al, Science354, aaf5239 (2016).

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How to Be Like Me: My seminar on alternative science careers

Last month, I was invited to Northwestern University to give a seminar at the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Each semester, they invite one speaker who talks on a topic that is “outside of the box,” as my host put it. I was invited to share my experience moving from a research position into a non-research position as a scientist. As some of you may know, about a year ago, I left my second postdoc position to take a job at a scientific journal. It was an interesting experience to speak to a room full of young scientists about my career path, how I got there, and what I wish I’d known, and I thought I’d give some highlights.

First of all, I had a slight leg up on the average postdoctoral researcher, but only because I’d done enough government interviews to have an outfit that was appropriate for an interview situation. I could dress myself, at least. Apart from that, I was entering new territory.

But let’s back up a bit. As I told the audience, my journey to a publishing job really started years ago when I was trying to decide on a college major and what I wanted to do with my degree. I very briefly considered becoming a high school science teacher because the idea of teaching science appealed to me more than the idea of working in a lab. Now, while I currently realize that I do not want to stand up in front of a high school class every day for the next thirty years and teach them about force and reactions and how to blow things up and call it a “classroom demonstration,” I think I might have been onto something. I find current research fascinating. But I don’t want to sit in a lab and perform it. And working in science publishing gives me the opportunity to do just that.

So I guess the point is, you need to first know yourself and know why you’re looking at a job outside of research. Are you frustrated with the low rate of pay that tends to come with pursuing an academic career? Don’t go into publishing. There are plenty of non-academic and non-research jobs that will provide a higher starting salary to recent PhDs or former postdocs, but publishing doesn’t really seem to be one of them. But are you interested in learning about a lot of different new research without having to turn knobs in the lab? Publishing is where a lot of that research goes.

I suppose the biggest thing I wish I’d known before starting my job search was about the blog The Scholarly Kitchen. This is a blog that covers topics about science publishing and from which my boss sends me posts relating to my work regularly. I also wish I’d took a bit of time to learn more about the more advance capabilities of MS Word. And I had a brief section in my presentation about science writing credentials. While I don’t currently

What I did find useful were blogs about corporate life. I started reading Ask A Manager to get advice about navigating a more corporate interview process, but I stayed for the stories about crazy coworkers and bosses. I also referred to corporate style blogs like Capitol Hill Style (now The Work Edit, which is not quite what it was when I found it useful) and Corporette. As a woman, it can be hard to figure out what to wear to an interview, particularly since your choices are not limited to the color of suit, tie, and Oxford shirt to choose.

I definitely don’t regret leaving research, and I highly encourage anyone who’s considering it to at least check out their options. And organizing my thoughts about my career path has not only helped me organize my resources, but also reminded me just why I’m where I am. If anyone has questions about alternative science careers, I’d be happy to discuss in the comments.

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Women in Science Movie Club: Ghostbusters

A couple weeks ago, D and I had a nice day-off date. Among other things, we went to go see the new Ghostbusters movie. Of course, plenty of my friends have asked what I think of it, and the short answer is “Awesome,” but I thought I’d give a little more detailed review of the movie, particularly from a women-in-science perspective.

First of all, anyone who didn’t already know: they’ve gender-flipped the main characters of the movie. And in the process, they upset a lot of people on the internet. But in addition to responding in the movie itself to those who objected to women as Ghostbusters, they’ve also hit on some of the subtle ways in which women are marginalized in both science and stories about science. From the very beginning, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is a professor trying to get tenure at a highly-respected university. She’s pretty obsessed with her image, although that’s not really her fault, since her dean even makes an offhand comment “about her clothes.” While he doesn’t finish the comment, it’s definitely indicative of the things that male scientists don’t really worry about as much as the women.

From there, Gilbert reconnects with her old friend Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and her colleague Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), who are both much more at home with themselves and less concerned about what others think of them. Interestingly, they are still subject to the whims of a male college head, and end up kicked out of their labs as well. You just can’t win. From here, they set up their Ghostbusters agency and acquire a hot blond secretary (Chris Hemsworth), as well as a historically-brilliant former transit worker named Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones). Interestingly enough, despite her lack of formal scientific training, Tolan not only keeps the group informed about the historical significance of landmarks in the city, which proves vital to investigations, but also makes a scientific suggestion that turns out to impress the rest of the group.

I would say the best part about the movie is the way that the women are their own characters and only fall into stereotypes when they are calling out those stereotypes (such as Gilbert being uptight about her appearance). Holtz, in particular, was a masterful representation of an alternative science grrl — so much so that I wondered if the filmmakers gleaned more than just scientific knowledge and equipment from the labs of the science advisers they consulted. I’ve certainly known plenty of women like her in the lab, and love that they put her ambiguous self in this movie. That said, the other two scientist characters were excellent in their own ways, with Gilbert showing the neurosis of a woman obsessed with pleasing men in science, and Yates showing a woman so comfortable with herself that she doesn’t need to be anything more than herself. I found her a very calming influence in the cast.

But the most illuminating character would be Tolan, who plays the outside. The Penny to their Sheldons and Leonards. She’s the one that calls them on their rambling and exclusionary attitudes. She’s the one that points out the things that they didn’t see because they forgot that they don’t actually know everything. And that’s an important role in a movie about scientist. I’m glad she didn’t have to be a “hot blonde” to do it. I also found the complete gender flip, with the casting of a man in the role of the ditzy secretary, to be so faithful to the concept of the movie, and was impressed with how much fun Hemsworth seemed to be having playing the role.

While there are many more things I’d love to gush about this movie (like the fact that the bad guy was literally male privilege), I wouldn’t want to get into spoiler territory. Just know that it’s a great addition to the list of movies with strong positive representations of women in science. And that’s not a long list.

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Outreach Fun: Volunteering at the Innovation Festival

So it’s been a while since I’ve written one of these posts, but this weekend, I definitely had something worth posting about! Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen my photo of an astronaut next to the getup he wore while climbing Mt. Everest. This was just one of the fascinating people I got to meet and exciting projects about which I learned on Sunday.

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The Innovation Festival is a joint venture between the US Patent and Trademark Office and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The NMAH recently opened its Innovation Wing, where they showcase inventions and inventors that changed the world. The permanent collection features things like the bicycle and ready-to-wear clothing alongside the telephone and computer. It’s a really neat exhibit, even when there isn’t a festival going on.

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But add in a wing full of inventors sharing their new patented inventions and you have a recipe for a very fun day. Among the inventors I met were USDA scientists showing off ornamental pepper plants. This guy was really interesting. Apparently he came up with his first patented plant at the age of 10, and now works for the USDA playing with peppers. He was a natural at outreach, and even had a fun analogy for describing how genetic modification works. He said it was like Mr. Potato Head: you can choose which parts you want to add or change. And he brought along a few types of pepper plants to show what he meant. Probably the coolest thing I learned from them is that there is one gene site that controls whether or not a pepper is spicy, and then a bunch of other ones that describe how spicy it is. So you can flip on the spicy gene in a regular bell pepper, which kind of confuses people. One of the other guys there said that he’s been “burned” more than once taking peppers home from work!

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I also met some guys developing workout clothing with built-in resistance bands, scientists who developed a new kind of gel for biological sciences, scientists who created an adaptive algorithm for finding interesting articles for people, and engineers who came up with a more intuitive way to back up a truck trailer, among many others. The most interesting thing was that not everyone was developing a thing or a device, and not everyone was an engineer. There were biologists, astrophysicists, chemists, and skateboarders! The only thing they had in common was that they had an idea.

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Then, I also spent my afternoon at the education and outreach booth, where we shared projects with the younger visitors that taught them about different inventors and inventions. The coolest thing there (besides the inventor trading cards!) was the paper-folding project using a 100-year-old patent held by Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts. Apparently, Low came up with a way of folding a flat piece of paper into a receptacle for holding garbage, including liquids. Even though I was a Girl Scout, I never knew our founder was an inventor!

All in all, this was such a fun event. I’d definitely go back as a guest, and certainly volunteer again. It was an event that showed the wide variety of science and invention and really got everyone excited about it!

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Great News, Guys: Sexism in Science is Over!

Okay, maybe not.

A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims that they found that their hiring experiment shows that professors consider women twice as desirable as men when choosing candidates to hire from a stack of applications. Their conclusion is that the current lack of women in STEM fields is therefore not due to inherent bias, but due to women self-selecting out of the field.

Except their study bears no resemblance to an actual faculty search.

Scientists have responded to this study with a mixture of skepticism and outright anger, and they’re justified in doing so. By claiming that there’s no bias against women in technical fields, the researchers are placing the blame for the underrepresentation of women in the sciences squarely on the shoulders of women. They’re basically telling women to “stop underrepresenting yourself.” And yet, almost any woman could tell you some anecdote about being assumed to have less knowledge than a male at a field in which she is just as qualified as the guys. My own anecdotes are well-documented.

This article, written by a friend of mine, outlines in exactly which ways the PNAS study gets it wrong when they claim to study actual hiring practices. And in-person interviews are hard to study because there is no real way to make up for biases. Without being able to see the candidate, there’s no evaluation of body language that makes in-person interviewing useful. The closest examples that take into account a holistic view of bias might come from anecdotal evidence of scientists who have transitioned genders at a midpoint in their careers, although bias against transgender individuals is a whole different level of bias.

This article about the study also raises another important point: is it really the perception of gender bias that keeps women from pursuing higher education jobs in STEM fields? I would argue, no, that if a woman chooses to leave a STEM field, it is generally because there is little accommodation for the disproportionate role a woman is supposed to take in raising a family, or else because of some personal negative experience. I mean, I knew that it was “weird” to be a woman in physics, but that didn’t make the field less attractive. It just gave me a bit of advanced warning so I wasn’t surprised the first time I got patronizing comments from a professor.

And that’s the biggest problem I have with this study. If you tell women that this bias doesn’t really exist, then what does that say when they actually experience it for themselves? Without knowledge of bias as an existing issue, women in science who then experience bias might just chalk it up to one bad apple or, worse yet, their own oversensitivity. And that, I think, is even more likely to cause women to leave a field that they would otherwise enjoy. If you can take sexist comments, recognize them for what they are, and say “Eh, haters gonna hate,” it’s easier to go on with your career. Without a perception of ingrained bias, each negative experience becomes personal, which is actually worse.

So rather than declaring bias over based on one poorly-designed study, perhaps we should be addressing the causes of the very real biases in the sciences, not just against women, but against anyone who doesn’t fit the traditional perception of the nerdy, white, cis-male scientist.

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On Casual Prejudice and Remembering People’s Names

My colleague recently sent an email to the wrong person because they had a similar south Asian name to the person to whom he meant to send the email. He asked me, “Is that racist?” And, honestly, the answer is yes, a little bit. No, it’s not the kind of racist that causes people bodily harm, but it is an example of the little annoyances of standing out in a primarily white, male environment.

For another example: I used to be assumed to be a secretary by people I contacted from my old job, and now that I work for a female scientist, I’m often assumed to be her before I have a chance to introduce myself. As in, people say “Oh, you must be [boss’ name]” before I even open my mouth to actually tell them who I am. It’s not a problem with which most of my male colleagues have to deal. And, yeah, it’s kind of annoying to have it pointed out that, hey, what are the odds there are two of you in a single physics group?!

The really sad part is that I have a really common female name, and my boss has a very uncommon name. I mean, also we’re totally different people and look different.

Seriously, stop.

Because that’s the crux of the problem: it points out a person’s otherness. Yes, people with non-Western names are used to people mispronouncing their names. They’re used to being asked if they’re from the same country or city as another person who looks vaguely similar. It just highlights to them that you are judging them first and foremost by what you see, and that you don’t have the ability to distinguish between different people who aren’t the same race (or gender?!) as you.

Yes, I’m being hyperbolic. But it’s a real problem. Every time it happens, it’s an alarm going off, “you’re different, you’re different, you’re different,” in your head. It grates. As with the concept of “lighten up” in response to off-color jokes, it builds up. I promise you, your slip is not the first time this person has had to deal with this, even if you think it’s the first time you’ve made such a mistake. We notice the people who treat us like individuals, rather than a demographic group. But we’re going to be gracious and polite about it, because what else can we do?

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A Bone to Pick with Bones

So it’s no secret to anyone who knows me that one of my favorite genres of TV is the crime drama. Criminal Minds, Bones, and even good old Law and Order. I watch them in hotel rooms and at home, and I’ve recently discovered them on Netflix. Bones is actually one of my favorites. Despite the caricature-like portrayal of Dr. Brennan at times, I find it a great representation of diversity in science. But the episode I watched the other night gave me pause. I apologize for writing about an episode that’s a year and a half old, but it’s new to me.

In “The Lady on the List,” the intern Dr. Wells returns. Now, I have a problem with him in general because he’s a perfect representation of the idea on TV that all science-y people know all science. I guess it’s good that they at least try to make it apparent that his expertise in multiple scientific fields is unusual, but it still galls me that this perception exists. But that’s not the problem.

The problem is that he’s a belittling jerk. And he is pretty exclusively a belittling jerk to Brennan, Cam, and Angela. That is to say, the women. And they don’t really ever call him on it. Brennan seems to buy his “I’m smarter than you” attitude and tries harder to impress him. At one point, she almost puts him in his place by bristling at him complimenting her for figuring something out and then asking her on a date, but it was just that she doesn’t like him. Not that he’s belittling her as a scientist with way more experience in this field than he has. Angela is the best at dealing with him, quietly showing him that he’s misjudged her, but doesn’t press it when he attributes her skill to luck. Cam tries to get him to behave with “respect” but makes it more about rank.

And everyone makes it about him being “likeable,” not about that fact that, even given the chance, he doesn’t pull any of this crap on Hodgins. Kind of fishy, that.

I was the most disappointed with the portrayal of Cam’s character in this situation because she’s been outspoken about insidious prejudices before. In fact, earlier that same season, she gets indignant about her boyfriend getting pulled over for “driving while brown.” Good for her for calling that out. But when she’s faced with an intern who is profoundly rude, condescending, and interrupts his superiors (yes, people who are your boss are your superiors), she can only come up with lame comebacks about how he’s not likeable.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have the likeability burden foisted on a male character for once. But the punchline of the whole episode is that Dr. Wells ends up making friends with a computer program because it’s the only mind in the lab whose intelligence he respects. Apart from being a really lazy and stereotyping way of dealing with this character, this isn’t really a situation that demands humor.

This is a situation another entitled brat of a scientist who looks down on his female colleagues needs to be taught that that’s not okay, and it has nothing to do with whether or not someone wants to have a drink with you after work. It has to do with discounting the expertise of your colleagues, particularly those who actually have more expertise than you do. While this is a lesson that anyone, regardless of gender, must learn, it is particularly damaging in situations like this, where the male colleagues don’t get the kind of condescending attitude that the females see. Because we’re dealing with that sort of crap daily and don’t need yet another example of it. Particularly when it’s someone with whom we need to work to get things done.

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Why Gender Still Matters

Yesterday, I heard a news piece about how Marissa Mayer doesn’t think gender matters in the tech industry. Now, the pull quote in the segment didn’t really make it clear what she meant by that, but the news source where I heard it was presenting it as Mayer saying she didn’t think gender was an issue in the advancement of people in the tech industry. It called to mind this question sent to “Dear Prudence” a few weeks ago, where a woman was complaining about feminists in her workplace getting all upset when she said she didn’t experience any different treatment based on her gender. It might have been heartwarming except that the young woman asking the question titled her question “Excessive Feminists” and seemed to think that because she was too young to get passed over for senior positions and hadn’t had anyone make sexual overtures towards her that that meant she wasn’t treated differently because of her gender.

There was also a generally dismissive tone, as if she felt like these “excessive feminists” were making a big deal out of nothing to foster a false sense of camaraderie. Don’t even get me started on Prudence’s reply. The idea that a 20-something who hasn’t experienced what fits into her narrow definition of gender discrimination should not invalidate the other women as “obsessive grievance-mongering” feminists. And it’s almost funny how naively the writer brings up that there just happens to be “too few [female] candidates” without really reflecting on why that is. It’s like just because we’ve made progress in the treatment of women in the workplace, people think it’s fixed. It’s not like it’s the 60s anymore, right? You should be happy your boss doesn’t pinch your ass and call you a hot tomato, darling. And that’s the problem.

The problem is that women are constantly being told to lighten up when they experience something that leaves them with a bad taste in their mouths, professionally. I’ve found that, particularly in experimental science, people tend to being a little looser with the rules of professionalism. People will make off-color jokes in a lab that you wouldn’t make in an office setting, perhaps because the fact that we’re wearing jeans and a polo shirt makes this less of a professional setting than those suits in their corner offices. It’s not sexual advances, or even flirting, but it’s not appropriate.

But we are professionals. And it matters that what a male colleague might find hilarious a female colleague will file away in her mental file with a note that you find something deeply disturbing to her to be funny and maybe she wants to avoid being in a private, vulnerable situation with you. Or it matters that when you call your younger female colleague “sweetie,” you’re telling her you think of her as below you, in part because of her gender. Or when you say you’re “always happy to help out a pretty young girl,” you’re implying she’s less than capable or that you’re giving her special treatment that has nothing to do with the job you’re both hired to do.

Because the thing is that we’re getting this all the time. And it really hurts to get it from the people we respect and work with well. When someone I like makes a sexist comment without even knowing it, it just reminds me how far we have to go. It reminds me that even though I have a PhD in physics, if the people who know me make gendered assumptions about me, how am I ever going to get to a point where I’m not assumed to be the secretary by the sales rep at the company I’m contacting? Or how is that engineer who mansplains my own project’s requirements back to me (incorrectly) ever going to learn that that’s just not okay? And it grates.

The Real Katie is right: it’s a million barbs. It’s like nettles or crumbs in the bed. Not always dangerous, but damned annoying. And cumulative. It gets to the point where you end up snapping at the person who you like and respect because they happened to be the most recent in a string of offenses. And, yes, you know they were “only joking,” but, no, you’re not going to “lighten up.” Sorry, not sorry.

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