A major reason for starting femails.org is that I was having so many important, relevant, thought-provoking and necessary conversations over email, particularly with my brilliant female counterparts, and I knew I needed to share the wisdom with a wider audience than myself. Here’s a great example of one such email turned femail on diversity and higher education. We all represent institutions that fit Marie’s impeccable description of the fundamental truth behind it all—be sure to read through to that hard-hitting part.
From: Julia L. Gonski <—@g.harvard.edu>
Sent: Friday, September 8, 2017 5:26 PM
Subject: Thoughts on (white) women in sciences?
To: Marie Cole <—@jhu.edu>, Johanna Gusman <—@mansfield.ox.au.uk>
I’ve had a bunch of thoughts churning around in my head for the past month or so about diversity efforts in physics. I went to two back-to-back conferences both of which had specific events/sessions devoted to the status of underrepresented minorities in physics. I had a funny feeling about these when they were happening, and I’ve been letting those feelings simmer in the hopes that I would have some better understanding of why it all felt disingenuous or flawed in some fundamental way. Since you guys are my best sounding board for this, I wanted to write all this out, organize my thoughts and share it with y’all also.
These diversity sessions at physics conferences tend to be pretty straightforward and predictable. Speakers will show statistics of how non-old-white-male groups are underrepresented, spend half of their talk convincing the old-white-males in the audience that this is an actual problem worth discussing, and the rest of the talk showing how their particular project has helped this representation issue. Usually they resort to the age-old tactic of Percentages (because sheer numbers will always give you a perfectly accurate assessment of diversity, of course!) and they’ll show the fraction of women in physics at different stages of their careers and applaud the fact that yay, there are more women now! (check out the graph below).
But, here is my grind with this pretty little portrait of successful diversity efforts. It is SO. NOT. INCLUSIVE. Let’s probe a little farther– all those women you clever diversity strategists got into the field are white. Basically every single one. In fact, the percentages of black and Native American students earning degrees in physics have gone down in the past 10 years.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you guys how fast you lose your allies when you start talking like this. It’s very discouraging to suspect that all of the people that are on your so-called side aren’t doing it because they give a fuck about systemic oppression and injustice, they don’t really consider how these oppressed people feel or think. They’re just checking off the box and not even questioning who made that box and why.
I figure you guys of all people have some feels for how this works in non-physics sciences, so if you have any revelations, lay em on me.
Lots and lots of love!!
From: Marie Cole
Sent: Monday, September 11, 2017 11:04 PM
Subject: Re: Thoughts on (white) women in sciences?
Oh, my darlings.
It’s funny that the three of us have been writing to each other on separate, but related or similarly-themed, topics. Unfortunate, but not unexpected, that it has to be on a topic such as this one. I echo Jo though, honored to be on your soundboard committee.
Julia, as you mentioned at the end of your email, the problem you’re grappling with in physics is not unique to it or science at large. And while I wholeheartedly understand your discontent and the simmering rage, one of my questions to you is: are you surprised by this? Or perhaps, what about this is surprising to you?
As minority groups (and I use “minority” intentionally since we’re talking about underrepresentation in physics, etc.) we’ve worked our asses off to get to where they’ve been automatically allowed by virtue of their whiteness and their maleness and their inheritance of this land from their ancestors who stole it. When in fact, the inclusion of more groups in those spaces is a privilege bestowed upon those men! And increasingly the white women they are slowly allowing in to the club, albeit on an outer circle to begin. And probably to end. For the white men, though, white women are different enough from them for the obvious attributes, but still auxiliary players. Women can’t be as intelligent as men because we’re lesser, but at least white women are relatable and palatable enough because of their similar skin tones!
This is the blight on the coalition that should exist between and among black women and other women of color, and their white counterparts. No doubt women as a whole have been repressed and excluded and discriminated against and continue to be marginalized in myriad ways, but when the baton was tossed to white women, they ran and continue to run for themselves. It is the same in all sectors.
The fundamental truth of the matter though, and we shouldn’t beat around the bush about it, is this is a systemic, structural problem through and through. Because we were not all created equal according to the white European mythos of humanity. None of the systems at play in the western world, in the Great White North, were created for people of color. Nor women, although white women have been accorded more opportunities in our recent herstory. Our institutions were not built for or to ever include people of color, and particularly the less than full-human black person. They were all built to continue to invalidate our humanity, and silence and displace us, and the fact that we’re still fighting to get a foot into the door of most of our institutions continues to stress those certainties. People of color were not to ever thrive in this place.
So what you’re seeing in the realm of physics is another long-existing manifestation of this prohibition. This is not going to change any time soon for any groups of color, especially not in this reinvigorated and emboldened social climate of implacable hatred. And for better or for worse, white women are our best chance of promoting and uplifting these diversity efforts. We see how they failed all of us with our most recent election. Which is another reason why we need to shout from the rooftops when we can – right?
So grateful you two are who you are.
Miss you more than my icy heart can bear to express.
On Mon, Sep 11, 2017 at 4:44 PM, Johanna Gusman wrote:
I love how the thoughts churning in all of our heads are always so similar and epic. #FriendshipsMeantToBe
Jules, I say write about this more. Talk about this more when you are in your circles of privilege. It’s one way to use our privilege for the better. It’s one way to steer the discussion in the direction that it needs to go. Let me know if you’d consider a femail on this…
Miss you two SO FREAKING MUCH.
Keep up the good fight,