Monday, January 9, 2012

Culture clash

I just accepted the position at University F. I got a warm "We're so glad" e-mail back with a question about how we resolved our 2-body problem, and an assumption that Epsilon would live with me. (I had spoken to them about my 2 body problem, during the decision phase.)

These two lines jumped out the the e-mail and punched me in the nose. My immediate reaction was that "I've made a decision, how and why I came to that decision is none of your business," even more so if you are going to assume that Epsilon is going to live with me.

In short, the questions rang my "possible sexism alert" alarm bells. Then I realized that I'm changing countries, and I no longer have the protections and benefits afforded me by a generation of anti-discrimination activists, lobbyists, policy makers, laws and best practices. I am lucky to be living in a country that realizes, at least on some level, that human beings have flaws, however conscious one tries to be of one's biases, they play a role in hiring decisions and in how we treat others. To avoid this problem of accidentally denying someone a job because of these biases, we as a society, or at least our HR overlords, have decided that we cannot ask certain questions. I think this self censoring has slipped in a little into how we interact with people beyond the hiring decision, and questions like these are less likely to be asked.

I am moving to a country that is not as open in its discussion about discrimination as the US, and will likely face more awkward moments like this in the months to come. (I had a similar experience when talking to a professor about advice applying to post-docs, and he asked me my age. These things are just not done in the US, but is common practice from his context.)

These questions were probably asked by someone attempting to be friendly and welcoming. But it was a wake-up call to the fact that I will be emigrating, and thus not only living in a completely different social culture, but a different work culture as well.


  1. Devil's Advocate: Universities are being told that they need to pay attention to 2-body problems, and work on addressing them. If an institution knows that you have a 2-body problem, and you tell them that you're accepting a job with them, a certain amount of curiosity about if/how the problem was resolved is understandable. There are better ways to address it, maybe an anonymous survey handled by HR or whatever, but if an institution is constantly being told to pay attention to something, they might actually pay attention to it.

  2. Antisocial ScientistJanuary 9, 2012 at 11:29 AM


    If the position is a postdoc, I think it is unlikely that they have much pressure to solve 2-body problems. For that matter, this may be a difference of where we have been, but I haven't seen much pressure from above on universities to pay attention to 2-body problems (where are you seeing this pressure coming from? Government? Large donors? Who else can exert real pressure on Universities?)

    As for curiosity, I think that is the point of the post. In the US, one would be much more careful about saying things which get near questions about protected categories while in other countries people who are curious might just ask.

  3. First of all: congratulations on making the decision!!! This is an important step and I hope you're celebrating!

    Yeah, you'll have to remind yourself of the cultural differences all the way. It's probably people who are personally concerned and mean no harm. It goes both ways: the fact that they take interest doesn't mean that they are going to help. They are just clueless and feel bad about the situation.

    There are some things that just work better in the US than in any other country... (this is coming from someone who is completely foreign with the US!)

  4. Wouldn't surprise me if this question had come from someone in the US either though. I mean, they're not allowed to make hiring decisions on certain things, but they are still allowed to legally ask the questions. I guess as someone in industry the gender assumptions are pretty blatant.

  5. FrauTech, I believe you. As far as I'm aware, and I think (correct me if I'm wrong) this is usually a university "best practises policy," but there are questions that cannot be asked without getting in trouble with university higher ups, at least in theory. Which is not to say that these questions don't get asked sometimes anyway.

    After hiring, they can ask anything they want.

    If you are saying that interviewers can ask anything they want at any time they want in industry, that thought makes me sad.

  6. Im curious, Barefoot. Has your "possible sexism alert" alarm bell ever produced what you later considered a false positive?

  7. Mocklion,

    It does on a regular basis. And I sincerely hope that this situation is as well. There is an emphasis on the word possible. In fact, the lines referred to above weren't particularly strong statements, and they do not lead me to expect any blatant sexism from my future colleagues. The phrase refers to a process in my head akin to a Bayesian update given a new weak signal.