Thursday, August 22, 2013

In which I need to get a grip

A couple weeks ago, Mathbabe posted some thoughts on survivorship bias that got me thinking about the anecdata in my life.

In case you do not want to look up the Wikipedia article, survivorship bias is a bias introduced into data when a studied population is compared to historical averages, ignoring the fact that the studied population has certain non-average characteristics that cause it to be observed/ in the sample.

It is a sort of selection bias introduced by assuming that the portion of the sample that does not complete the study is randomly distributed, when that is not the case.

I'm not going anywhere with this. I just need to air my thoughts.

  1. I know two African Americans in my field. Someone who knows my circle of colleagues should feel free to correct me. I went to graduate school with one of these scientists. Through a series of confounding and rather stupid events, I had a conversation with him about "growing up black in the US." It turned out that he did not consider himself black, but mixed race. Given the "one drop" policy that is still an unspoken truth in much of the US, I asked him what the difference was. His answer: he did not grow up immersed in black culture. I forget the details, but it involved a small college town, and hanging out with other children of academics. I am not arguing anyone's right to identify racially however he/she chooses. I am simply struck, that of all the African Americans either my partner or I know, the only one who identifies as mixed race is a successful academic.
  2. At one of the women in my field meetings I went to several years back, I found myself sitting next to a post-doc, very insistent on the fact that there was not difference in the treatment of women and men in her field. She was often the only female in her sub-field at conferences, but that was because her field was new, and women had not yet flocked to it. Considering the field as a whole, she thought that women just needed to learn to deal with the crap a bit more. Once we did that, we were just judged on our publication record. Naive as I was at the time, I tried to argue with her on just the arguments that she presented: that she claimed that men needed to be good scientists to succeed, while women needed to be good scientists and pachiderms to succeed. Ignoring all else, wasn't the extra pachidermal requirement itself a sign of inequality? I should have kept my mouth shut. I only succeeded in spoiling my lunch. I do not know if I offered any solace to any of the other attenders. I certainly did nothing to convince my intended audience. It still rankles me on bad days.
  3. For the second time in my career, I recently attended a two part conference where I was the most senior woman for the first part. Moments like this disgust me. This conference also had the added feature that there were no female speakers in either part. That is a first for me. I am immensely grateful to the older gentleman who also pointed out the lack of female speakers. I am saddened by the number of women a pointed out the gender distribution to who did not seem to notice or mind. (To be fair, it is not as if the men I pointed the gender distribution out to really seemed to care either.) I envy the women who can go through something like this and not notice. Life must be easier for them somehow, I imagine. If you do not feel the insults that are thrust at you, consciously or not, you cannot be hurt by them.
  4. Various people close to me are in very shitty situations right now. Compared to them, I live a pampered life. Class differences in my friend set should not surprise me, but it disturbs me greatly when the situation is put before me quite so clearly. They do not have PhDs, they do not have dual income households. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of financial or emotional survival for them. They live in situations that, I am fairly certain, given my emotional and physical shortcomings would leave me crippled or dead. But they survive. Given all the advantages I have in life, I wonder what exactly it is I am doing, pretending that I can speak for women. The circles I surround myself with on a day to day basis are those of such a tiny elite.
For those of you who know my moods: yes, I just submitted a job application.

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