What feminism means to me

I have considered myself to be a feminist ever since I was about 6 years old. It probably has something to do with having three brothers and no sisters. The shape and form of it has changed over the years as I have grown (as well as the intensity of my ‘belief’ in it, for lack of a better term), but if asked if I consider myself to be a feminist, I will always have said “yes”.

More recently, mostly thanks to people I know from twitter, I have been giving a lot more thought to what type of feminist I am. Apparently there are a lot of different types, with distinct characteristics and aims. I did not know this until the denizens of the twittersphere educated me. I’m a physicist, so my education was focused on waves of sound and light, not waves of feminism.

Yesterday, keen to educate myself further on the topic of feminism (so I no longer have to either smile blandly or reveal my ignorance when a colleague mentions that roller derby has a third-wave feminist component), I headed to wikipedia. I probably shouldn’t have done that, because my reaction to some of the articles was much like what I imagine the reaction of  the non-mathematically inclined is to something like Stokes’ Law.

Despite my enthusiasm for learning about feminism, I have no idea where I sit on the spectrum of all things feminist. I’m a little embarrassed by this, because I consider feminism to be quite important to me. I don’t quite have the vocabulary to express my feelings as well as many others do, but I am going to have a go anyway.

My personal feminism has strong components of choice and freedom. Women should not attain different levels of respect depending on whether or not they have kids, or whether or not they have a career. There shouldn’t be rules such as you must/mustn’t wear makeup. Women should be able to embrace their inner sex kitten, but shouldn’t feel compelled to do so. There’s a whole bunch of other rules out there, but I always have trouble keeping track of them, so I’m just going to say this: women should feel free to be themselves.

My feminism also includes men. Men should have the same choices available that I think women should (one that springs to mind here is the choice to stay at home with children, and the choice to not have a high-powered career if that doesn’t appeal). Men should be allowed to be feminists if that’s how they feel.

My feminism also involves acknowledging that things are not yet equal. A while ago I read a book called “The Hidden Brain” by Shankar Vedantam. It includes a chapter called “The Invisible Current” which uses the analogy of swimming with or against the current to describe how many people experience sexism. From the book:

Most of us – men and women – will never consciously experience the undercurrent of sexism that runs through our world. Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers; those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine. We may have out suspicions, but we cannot know for sure, because most men will never experience life as a women and most women will never know what it is like to be a man.

I’ve previously written about some of my experiences with overt sexism, but sexism isn’t always so easy to identify. People may not realise they are being sexist, and it can be very hard to define. Yet for all the hidden sexism, there are some concrete measures – such as the inequality in pay, and differences in numbers of men and women in leadership positions (video).

For sure, I’m the beneficiary of the battles of generations before me, but I don’t think the battle is over yet. As I get even older, I am sure my experiences will shape my feelings on feminism even further. I’m also sure there’s plenty of stuff I missed (I consider myself to be on feminist ‘L’ plates), but since I am keen to learn, feel free to educate me (politely) either here or on twitter.

A final note: In all this, I’m aware of problems with the gender binary. I’m also aware that there are a multitude of forms of discrimination other than sex discrimination, and that these can affect the ways people experience sexism too. However, since I can barely find the words to write about what feminism feels to me, I’m trying to keep things as simple as I can.

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In defence of Western Australia (and its inhabitants)

Last night, I had the privilege of being in the audience for the first episode of Q&A to be broadcast live from Perth. Although I didn’t get to ask a question, I really enjoyed the show, despite agreeing with @ScientistMags that the episode did not do justice to Western Australian viewpoints.

When I came home, I decided to have a scan through my twitter feed, to see what people watching on TV had thought of the episode. What I discovered was that quite a few people think people in WA are arrogant, bigoted, backward whingers with a chip on our shoulder and a world-class persecution complex. I realise that a lot of the comments may well have been intended in a good-natured spirit, but to quote @Louiseontwitr,”Wow there is some serious WA bashing on twitter tonight #qanda #qandaperth why do you all hate us so much?”

One tweet which did a particularly good job of triggering my WA defensiveness was the following from @mikestuchbery:

FUN FACT: Einstein is the last scientist West Australia has heard of. In Perth, it’s 1954. #qanda

Now, I’ve followed Mike for a little while now on twitter, and he seems like a lovely guy who likes a bit of a laugh, so I’m pretty sure this was meant as a light-hearted comment and nothing more. However, I’m going to have to disagree with that tweet. In 2005, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to two Western Australian scientists: Barry Marshall and Robin Warren. They won the prize for “for their discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease,” which I think most people could agree is a fairly significant achievement. The 2005 Australian of the Year was the WA surgeon Fiona Wood, known for her work in burns research and the development of spray-on skin. Another WA scientist, Fiona Stanley, was named Australian of the Year in 2003.

WA is also one of the two final candidate sites for the location of the Square Kilometre Array, a radio telescope which will be the world’s largest ground-based telescope array, enabling scientists to study the origin of the universe. Although the final site is yet to be announced, supporting projects are already well underway, resulting in a thriving astronomy and astrophysics community in Western Australia.

As well as the large-scale, high-profile projects, many smaller groups work on diverse areas of research within WA. I have had the good fortune to work closely with, and be mentored by, Professor Tim St. Pierre. Earlier this year, Tim won the Clunies Ross Award for his work developing “a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-based method of measuring and imaging tissue-damaging iron deposits in the human liver caused by iron-overload diseases such as thalassaemia and hereditary haemochromatosis.” His MRI analysis service is now known as FerriScan, and is the core product of Resonance Health, a Perth-based healthcare company which “specialises in the development and commercialisation of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) related technology for the diagnosis and management of human disease.”

I could go on about science in WA, or even other non-mining stuff, such as our excellent wine, or the mega-diverse ecosystem of South-West Western Australia. However, I think it is more important to point out that although we may be most well-known over east for our mining industry, WA has a lot more to offer. Like any other state, we have a diverse range of people, and can’t by summarised by a single stereotype. Sure, we may have some general cultural differences, but that’s to be expected when Perth is one of the world’s most remote capital cities and WA is the second-largest subnational entity in the world (thanks, Wikipedia). I’m willing to accept that life in WA may not be your cup of tea, but please do not judge us solely on the basis of the questions on Q&A.

As an aside, WA also has been the home of some pretty good music, including bands such as The Triffids, Jebediah, Eskimo Joe, Tame Impala, Birds of Tokyo, Little Birdy, Gyroscope, and The Waifs (and that’s just what @dbydnevs could think of off the top of his head). I know that many people on twitter liked the Pendulum remix of the ABC theme – Pendulum is also from WA.

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I am not cool

I am not cool. I’ve always been peripherally aware of this, but it is something that was really brought to my attention with a jolt back in 2006 when I went to have coffee with a group of women I knew. At some point, one of these women declared that she was going to order a cappuccino, because she likes them, and since it’s “just us girls” it doesn’t matter that they aren’t cool. There were then several minutes of discussion on the relative cool merits of various types of coffee and coffee-drinkers. The cappuccino drinker then declared “I’m going to be one of those people who is so cool that they don’t care what is not cool.” It was not long after this statement that I realised I had hit peak confusion, and the level of emotional scarring is made pretty clear by the fact that I still remember this four years later.

My level of cool has not improved in the years since. I’ve been known to wear clothes with holes in them out in public (as far I’m concerned, if the hole doesn’t reveal too much the clothes are still wearable). I wear trakkydaks down to the local Coles. I’m completely incapable of recommending good bars or restaurants because I prefer to spend time at home. I’m still unaware of the correct protocol when it comes to ordering caffeinated beverages.

Here’s the thing about being uncool: I don’t care that I’m uncool. In many ways, it’s very liberating. I have an amazing group of friends (my Friday night ‘family’) who I can feel completely relaxed around, because there’s no expectation that I have to follow some set of arbitrary rules to be accepted. I like to think that my acceptance of all things “ridiculous and dorklike” (to quote the West Wing) has allowed me to attract like-minded souls. There are still times in my life where I pay attention to my appearance, but for me looking good is quite separate from being ‘cool’. My philosophy of cool is probably best summarised by something I said to @sunlightandsnow on twitter yesterday: “At some point, I just decided that the opinions of wanky people aren’t worth the attention I would need to pay to them.”

So there it is: my confession. I am uncool, and proud of it.

Update: the lovely @koosli has reminded me of a post she wrote a little while ago. It’s excellent and I recommend you read it.

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Climate Change: a pre-Q&A rant

Since tonight’s guests on Q&A include Tim Flannery and Jennifer Marohasy, I suspect there will at some point be questions about climate change. Since political discussions of climate change almost always bring out the scientist rage, I’ve decided to vent now rather than have to try and fit it all into 140 character bits once #qanda gets started later tonight. For the record, I would classify myself as an acceptor of the anthropogenic climate change hypothesis, but I don’t intend to discuss the specifics of climate change directly: I’m not a climate scientist, and climate science is discussed with great enthusiasm elsewhere anyhow.

The first thing I’d like to mention is that climate science is extremely complex. There’s no single observation or experiment that will confirm or deny the hypothesis that global warming is happening and is man-made. There are little bits of evidence that will support one side of the argument, and other bits of evidence that will support the opposing view. It is therefore necessary to examine the weight of evidence as a whole, which is where bodies such as the IPCC come in. I wrote the other day about Morton’s Demon, which is basically just an analogy for confirmation bias: paying attention to information that justifies your preexisting beliefs while ignoring information that doesn’t. In the case of a field as complex as climate science, being on the lookout for Morton’s demon is especially important. Repeating myself: there’s no single observation or experiment that will confirm or deny the hypothesis that global warming is happening and is man-made, and it is therefore necessary to examine the weight of evidence as a whole.

The second thing I’d like to mention is that science is not a democracy. Jason (@detly) has written about this before, but I feel it’s worth saying again. Even if 99% of the general population believe that climate change isn’t happening, this has no bearing on whether or not it actually happens. Obtaining the support of the voting public for the action necessary for climate change is a political problem, and quite separate from the science. Obviously, scientists can play a role in education here, but it must be accompanied by political leadership. Putting this another way: since the weight of scientific evidence is strongly behind climate change occurring, and CO2 reductions being necessary to prevent sea level rises and so on, I think it’s time our politicians moved on from debating the existence of climate change to the action needed to stop the problem getting worse.

That’ll do for now. There’s a fair chance I’ll have more to say post #qanda, since I can never remember everything at once.

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Questioning beliefs and Morton’s demon

Earlier today, @colvinius tweeted a link to this article, which asked “How can Americans talk to one another—let alone engage in political debate—when the Web allows every side to invent its own facts?” It explored the idea that as people increasingly get their news from online sources, there is a risk that misinformation can spread rapidly, and that “Once the meme is out there, it’s very hard to quash.” One paragraph really resonated with me:

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said (or is famously reputed to have said) that we may each be entitled to our own set of opinions, but we are not entitled to our own set of facts. In a time when mainstream news organizations have already ceded a substantial chunk of their opinion-shaping influence to Web-based partisans on the left and right, does each side now feel entitled to its own facts as well?

The entire article is well worth reading if you are yet to do so, but the reason I mention it here today is that it reminded me of the concept of Morton’s demon. I was first introduced to Morton’s demon by my friend Jason a little while ago. The idea of Morton’s demon was introduced by Glenn Morton, who (I gather) used to be a young earth creationist:

Maxwell suggested a famous demon which could violate the laws of thermodynamics. The demon, sitting between two rooms, controls a gate between the two rooms. When the demon sees a speedy molecule coming his way (from room A), he opens the gate and lets the speedy molecule leave the room and when he sees a slow molecule coming at the gate (from room A), he holds it closed. Oppositely, when he sees a speedy molecule coming at the gate from room B he closes the gate but when he sees a slow molecule from room B coming toward the gate he opens it. In this way, the demon segregates the fast moving molecules into one room from the slow ones in the other. Since temperature of a gas is related to the velocity of the molecules, the demon would increase the temperature of room B and cool room A without any expenditure of energy. And since a temperature difference can be used to create useful work, the demon would create a perpetual motion machine.

When I was a YEC, I had a demon that did similar things for me that Maxwell’s demon did for thermodynamics. Morton’s demon was a demon who sat at the gate of my sensory input apparatus and if and when he saw supportive evidence coming in, he opened the gate. But if he saw contradictory data coming in, he closed the gate. In this way, the demon allowed me to believe that I was right and to avoid any nasty contradictory data. Fortunately, I eventually realized that the demon was there and began to open the gate when he wasn’t looking.

Essentially, Morton’s demon is an analogy for confirmation bias, where people pay attention to information that justifies their preexisting beliefs, and either ignore or deny information that contradicts their beliefs. A striking example of this is the climate change debate. Climate science is a very complex field, and thus there is no single piece of evidence that that can confirm or deny anthropogenic climate change. Therefore, people can pick and choose which pieces of evidence they choose to pay attention to. The good folk over at Skeptical Science do a good job of bringing up common climate sceptic arguments and rebutting them, but if you only get your climate change news from Andrew Bolt (or the Oz, for that matter), you’re not going to be exposed to those arguments.

As a scientist, I like to think that my beliefs, where possible, are based on the best available evidence rather than something my favourite blogger told me, but I also think that I’m probably as susceptible to Morton’s demon as the next person. That’s why I enjoy arguing with people who disagree with me (as long as it is civil and rational). If you disagree with something I say, feel free to tell me so, just explain why. I can’t promise to change my mind, but I’m happy to seek and destroy Morton’s demon whenever I can.

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Why I don’t use my real name on twitter

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the outing of @GrogsGamut by James Massola of The Australian newspaper. Just in case, here’s a good summary from @tobiasziegler over at Pure Poison. This isn’t intended to be a post about Grog, other than to say that I don’t think it was necessary to publish his identity, and that I hope he comes out of this ok.

The outing of Grog reignited the periodic debate on twitter about whether people should be entitled to remain anonymous/use a pseudonym on the internet. It’s a complex debate, and I can understand the arguments from people on both sides, but I (obviously) come down on the side of the right to anonymity.

I’ve touched on it before (on twitter), but today I’ll discuss in more detail why I don’t use my real name on twitter. Part of it is the professional/personal divide (i.e. the argument used by Tobby and Grog), but for me it’s more about my own privacy.

Last year I had a student requesting to become my friend on facebook. I ignored the request, because while I am teaching them I prefer that my students know a minimal amount about my personal life. I thought that would be the end of it, but the next class this student asked why I didn’t accept his friend request. I politely explained my position on friending students, and he claimed to accept my explanation. Later that week, I received another friend request. This time the request was from a largely empty profile, with no picture, very few friends, and minimal “about” info. One thing stood out though: the birthdate on the profile coincided with the approximate age of my students. Hardly conclusive, but suspicious nonetheless (I ignored the request).

Mildly unnerved, I thought that would be the end of it, but later that semester, after their final test, the student approached me. This time, he asked me whether I would accept his friend request if he un-enrolled from the continuing unit the following semester. I told him that I thought that would be a rather extreme length to go to, and left it at that.

Since then, I haven’t heard anything from this student (apart from encounters related to my teaching duties), but I’d be lying if I said the incident didn’t leave me rattled. I’m pretty relaxed with my students, but this student’s determination to add me on facebook (and thus know things about me beyond what I choose to share in class) made me feel a bit anxious.

When I set up my twitter account, the primary reason I chose not to use my real name was that I didn’t want students (or others) to be able to find out lots of things about me without my permission. I didn’t want to turn up to class one day and have a student ask me “So, you think that Clive Palmer is not a shining example of human generosity and empathy?”

Anonymity is not necessarily about not wanting to be held accountable for your opinions. If you really want to know who I am, just ask me. I just don’t feel the need to broadcast my real name.

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The right to be offended

I’m only 26 years old, so I don’t really remember much about Paul Keating as PM.  However, from my memory, he became unpopular in part because he was perceived to be excessively politically correct. Since that point, I’ve always had some kind of awareness that political correctness is apparently bad, and that people should be able to say what they think without fear of offending some precious, arrogant ass (thanks to @dbydnevs for that term).

In the last two weeks, a couple of things have made me think about this whole debate again. One was the controversy about Stephanie Rice using the term “faggot” in a tweet, culminating in Rice offering a public apology. This promptly led to a debate between those who were offended, and those who thought that the people who were were offended were being too sensitive. One example that springs to mind is the response of the lovely @sunlightandsnow to this post on mumbrella, basically saying that just because you’re gen Y and you aren’t offended doesn’t mean that no-one from gen Y is offended (apologies to @sunlightandsnow if I’ve misrepresented your view).

Normally I would have accepted such debate as part of the usual vibrant discussion that contact with people on the internet brings and quickly moved on, but this time the debate about what is offensive stuck in my mind. The reason it stuck with me was the debate over the hashtag #feelthemupfriday. The hashtag was used by people participating in a spontanenous campaign started by @carolduncan and one or two others to get people to turn their twitter avatars pink to encourage women to check their breasts and raise breast cancer awareness.

The reason there was debate over the hashtag is that some people were offended by the use of the term feel them up, while others thought it was perfectly reasonable and that those who were offended were being a little too PC.  I’m reluctant to wade too deeply into this debate, because, well, people have already had their say, and it’s pretty clear to me that passions are running high on both sides. If you’d like to get some background, here are a few blog posts discussing the issue.

I’m just going to say here I think raising awareness is a great thing to do, and I am certainly pleased to hear that several women are now getting breast checks as a result. I respect the people who participated, and I know that they had nothing but good intentions in mind. What I have to say in the rest of this post is not meant as an attack on the people behind #feelthemupFriday, or even really the hashtag itself, but the debate surrounding #feelthemupFriday is context for something I have been feeling for a while.

Essentially, #feelthemupFriday did not sit well with me. I couldn’t quite place my finger on why, because I thought that encouraging people to examine their breasts was a great idea, but I also just felt a little uneasy for some unknown reason. I then came across this post by @ellymc, which led to one of those “ah-hah” moments of realisation. Although it doesn’t completely describe my own feelings, I could really understand where @ellymc was coming from. My strongest emotional reaction, however, was to some of the tweets where people were deriding her attitude as being too PC and accusing her of being oversensitive (to be fair, many others involved with #feelthemupFriday defended her or at least respected her opinion and agreed to disagree).

In general, I don’t think people choose to be offended, so I don’t think it is fair to attack them for it. I’m a female working in a male-dominated environment, and generally the people I work with are lovely and completely respectful. However, there are a small minority of my colleagues who aren’t, and after five years I have become worn down from trying to ignore the sexist comments I am periodically exposed to. I’m also worn out from the feeling I have to work twice as hard as my male colleagues to earn respect.  As an example: I needed a (fairly quick) fix to a piece of my experimental equipment before I could continue my lab work. A member of the workshop staff interrupted his job to fix it for me, so I went to thank him. As I was thanking him (he’s one of my lovely colleagues), another member of staff stood by, putting on a high pitched voice and repeating what I had to say in a mocking tone. At the time it made me feel a bit crap, but I tried to ignore it because, hey, I had experiments to do.

Several months later, I was helping unpack heavy boxes of equipment after a refurbishment of the labs. One of the guys involved with the refurbishment pushed a couple of the boxes along the corridor. Since these boxes were pretty heavy, I just make a relaxed, offhand mark, something like “Dude! I can barely move one of those boxes.” At this point, the same member of staff who had previously mocked me adopted the same mocking, high-pitched tone and started saying things like “Ooh, you’re sooo strong.” I made a brief retort along the lines of “It wasn’t like that”, but I then had to escape to my office to cry. I felt like complete rubbish, and even though I knew this guy was a sexist dickhead, he had managed to reduce my feeling of self-worth to zero. Luckily I have a good group of friends who told me his behaviour was completely inappropriate and that I am a woman who possesses good qualities other than my breasts.

Ever since that day, I’ve been a lot more sensitive to sexist comments, even those that other women shrug their shoulders about, saying they’re not bothered at all. I’m not bothered when women say they’re not offended: just because something doesn’t bother them doesn’t mean I am going to start a campaign where I demand that they be offended too and that they cease being relaxed (I often wish I could return to being so relaxed myself). That said, I would like others to extend the courtesy to me – respecting that my own personal history may have sensitized me to certain things, that I can’t help my emotional response, and that I am entitled to state why I feel uneasy.

In short (if you can’t be bothered with my rambling): we all have different histories and consequently different responses to the same event. You’re entitled to not be offended by something, but usually when people are offended by something they can’t help it and they are entitled to say why. It’s not necessarily a case of excessive political correctness.

(As a final aside, apologies for the rambliness and the length of my post. I haven’t written a blog post in a couple of years so I am out of practice).

Edit: One final thing: I’m not having a go at @carolduncan here: she is a lovely woman and I know that she did understand why people react differently.

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