Thursday, July 31st 2014

Jokes That Don’t Work

Genome Biology published a satirical piece by Neil Hall today, and since I’m American and he’s British I don’t find it funny. No wait, it’s that I’m female and he’s male. Or maybe that I’m junior and he’s senior. I’ve got it, it’s because he has a ton of publications (many times the number I have), and I have a ton of Twitter followers (many times the number he has). Meaning, my K-index knocks his out of the park.

Let me back up. You see, Hall created a joke metric he calls the Kardashian Index, which is one’s Twitter followers divided by one’s scientific citations. He writes:

“Hence a high K-index is a warning to the community that researcher X may have built their public profile on shaky foundations, while a very low K-index suggests that a scientist is being undervalued.”

Hall selected a non-random sample of 40 scientists, only 14 of whom were women. He never explains the methods of how he chose these 40. Hall himself says he “had intended to collect more data but it took a long time and I therefore decided 40 would be enough to make a point. Please don’t take this as representative of my normal research rigor.” Why be rigorous and recruit equally when it’s just social science research, amirite?

In the discussion, Hall observes that the 14 female scientists he sampled tended to have a low K-index, meaning they were underappreciated for their work. He rather nonchalantly throws this bone out there to show he’s on the side of the ladies. Strangely, many ladies have not taken up the bone and its rather meager gristle, a sign, Janet Stemwedel once pointed out, that the joke-teller isn’t as aware of his in-group as he might think.

I feel the need to draw the reader’s attention, again, to the question of how to make jokes work. As Emily Finke pointed out in a conversation with me recently, this joke punches down. How is this punching down? Consider the community. The people with power tend to be the ones who:

  • Are dubious of any time spent doing outreach, science communication, education, or social media.
  • Are scientists in fields considered more “hard,” like engineering and the physical and (some of the) life sciences.
  • Are older, white, and male.
  • Have a lot of publications.
  • Would have a K-index near or at zero.

That means that a joke intended to problematize how we quantify metrics in academic science should probably punch in that direction. Instead, Hall punches at people with less power, who tend to be:

  • Committed to social media outreach.
  • Are scientists in fields considered less “hard,” like (some of the) life and the social sciences.
  • Younger, less white, and less male.
  • Have fewer publications.
  • Have a higher K-index than you.

So yes, he’s punching down, and that makes it not funny. There is no dark corner of academic metrics to expose when the people you’re mocking are the ones least well positioned to respond. I would never have gotten that paper published – in a journal with an impact factor of 10.5, no less – because I am one of ones whose profile is built on “shaky foundations.”

All I can do… is blog about it.

Thursday, April 10th 2014

Stag Parties: Awareness and Elegant Solutions

Kiddo spills her milk. We lock eyes, and she dissolves in a puddle of sadness, crying about how it’s all her fault and she feels SO BAD.

“Kiddo, honey, it’s really okay. Let’s get a towel and wipe it up together.”

But she can’t stop crying. I comfort her for a while, being patient with her feelings and wanting her to process what’s going on. But at a certain point, the crying feels like a rehearsal of bigger things. So I say, “I notice you are crying a lot about the milk, but I’m not mad at you. Why are you still so upset do you think?”

“I’m just a sensitive child!” And back she goes to crying.

At this moment, I feel anger at myself for having too many conversations about kiddo in her presence while she listened and internalized grownups’ thinking about her. But there is a little part of me also feeling mad at kiddo. Anger that she accepts the label and, to me, seems to be using it to say something permanent and inflexible about herself.

So, I went to the person I know with the most insight into this issue: my daughter’s kindergarten teacher. I explained to her my predicament.

She thought for a moment. “Ah, see we grownups have all moved on to the next developmental step. We have awareness of kiddo’s sensitivity, and are already thinking of the ways she can grow and learn from it. But kiddo herself has only just hit the awareness stage.”

And suddenly it made sense. The couple of weeks of “But I’m SENSITIVE!” sounded, in retrospect, like a child figuring out something about herself for the first time, not an entrenched position. When someone is at the awareness stage, they don’t yet know what to do about it. They just know they’re there.

* * *

A dear colleague and friend, Dr. Pablo Nepomnaschy, contacted me to see if I would write a blog post informing our colleagues about his upcoming conference, “Evolutionary Aspects of Child Development and Health,” taking place this June at Simon Fraser University. A quick glance at who the email was from and the title of the conference, and of course I said yes.

Days later, when I looked up the materials for the conference to write my post, I saw the list of invited speakers. Only two of the fourteen were female, in a field that is absolutely dominated by senior and junior women. In fact, Pablo and I were in a special working group on evolutionary medicine and reproduction just a few years ago that was run by two women and had at least fifty percent female representation. While the invited speaker list was excellent, I could not comprehend how a list skewed in such a way could have happened. Balanced gender representation should have happened naturally.

When I brought this up with Pablo, he was horrified at his error and of course wanted to make this right (and gave me permission to write this post about it). Pablo, like many of us in the sciences, has just hit the awareness stage. It’s that moment when we get caught in our own biases and have to acknowledge that everyone has them, from the most sensitive ally to the most brazen bigot. Plenty of research bears this out. So for instance, while male-only leadership (as with this conference) has been shown to lead to gender disparities in symposia speakers (Isbell et al., 2012), there is work also demonstrating that both women and men carry stereotypes that lead to gender-biased hiring decisions (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012).

Getting to the awareness stage is revelatory, and hard, and kind of sticky too. Awareness can feel like a label or a permanent problem.

It’s exciting to think about the ways in which it is not. Pablo – and perhaps also the rest of the organizing committee, and the speaker lineup – have a chance to unstick here. There is always an elegant solution for people invested in creating an academic science environment that lifts up all of its excellent scholars, appreciates diverse perspectives and approaches to our common questions, and makes active, intentional progress towards parity.



Isbell LA, Young TP, Harcourt AH. 2012. Stag parties linger: continued gender bias in a female-rich scientific discipline. PloS one 7(11):e49682.

Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, Graham MJ, Handelsman J. 2012. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(41):16474-16479.