"But you are doing fine, what are you complaining about?"

I've been seeing a few Twitter discussions that deal with a person wondering if their struggles in the academy are because of themselves (i.e., their personal merit/demerit axis) or because of their category (read: discrimination). This touches on the areas of established discrimination that we talk about around these parts, including recently the NIH grant fate of ESI applicants, women applicants and POC applicants.

In any of these cases, or the less grant-specific situations of adverse outcome in academia, it is impossible to determine on a case by case basis if the person is suffering from discrimination related to their category. I mean sure, if someone makes a very direct comment that they are marking down a specific manuscript, grant or recommendation only because the person is a woman, or of color or young then we can draw some conclusions. This never* happens. And we do all vary in our treatments/outcomes and in our merits that are intrinsic to ourselves. Sometimes outcomes are deserved, sometimes they vary by simple statistical chance and sometimes they are even better than deserved. So it is an unanswerable question, even if the chances are high that sometimes one is going to be treated poorly due to one's membership in one of the categories against which discrimination has been proven.

These questions become something other than unanswerable when the person pondering them is doing "fine".

"You are doing fine! Why would you complain about mistreatment, never mind wonder if it is some sort of discrimination you are suffering?"

I was also recently struck by a Tweeter comment about suffering a very current discrimination of some sort that came from a scientist who is by many measures "doing fine".

Once, quite some time ago, I was on a seminar committee charged with selecting a year's worth of speakers. We operated under a number of constraints, financial and topic-wise; I'm sure many of you have been on similar committees. I immediately noticed we weren't selecting a gender balanced slate and started pushing explicitly for us to include more women. Everyone sort of ruefully agreed with me and admitted we need to do better. Including a nonzero number of female faculty on this panel, btw. We did try to do better. One of the people we invited one year was a not-super-senior person (one our supposed constraints was seniority) at the time with a less than huge reputation. We had her visit for seminar and it was good if perhaps not as broad as some of the ones from more-senior people. But it all seemed appropriate and fine. The post-seminar kvetching was instructive to me. Many folks liked it just fine but a few people complained about how it wasn't up to snuff and we shouldn't have invited her. I chalked it up to the lack of seniority, maybe a touch of sexism and let it go. I really didn't even think twice about the fact that she's also a person of color.

Many years later this woman is doing fine. Very well respected member of the field, with a strong history of contributions. Sustained funding track record. Trainee successes. A couple of job changes, society memberships, awards and whatnot that one might view as testimony to an establishment type of career. A person of substance.

This person went on to have the type of career and record of accomplishment that would have any casual outsider wondering how she could possibly complain about anything given that she's done just fine and is doing just fine. Maybe even a little too fine, assuming she has critics of her science (which everyone does).

Well, clearly this person does complain, given the recent Twitt from her about some recent type of discrimination. She feels this discrimination. Should she? Is it really discrimination? After all, she's doing fine.

Looping back up to the other conversations mentioned at the top, I'll note that people bring this analysis into their self-doubt musings as well. A person who suffers some sort of adverse outcome might ask themselves why they are getting so angry. "Isn't it me?", they think, "Maybe I merited this outcome". Why are they so angered about statistics or other established cases of discrimination against other women or POC? After all, they are doing fine.

And of course even more reliable than their internal dialog we hear the question from white men. Or whomever doesn't happen to share the characteristics under discussion at the moment. There are going to be a lot of these folks that are of lesser status. Maybe they didn't get that plum job at that plum university. Or had a more checkered funding history. Fewer highly productive collaborations, etc. They aren't doing as "fine". And so anyone who is doing better, and accomplishing more, clearly could not have ever suffered any discrimination personally. Even those people who admit that there is a bias against the class will look at this person who is doing fine and say "well, surely not you. You had a cushy ride and have nothing to complain about".

I mused about the seminar anecdote because it is a fairly specific reminder to me that this person probably faced a lot of implicit discrimination through her career. Bias. Opposition. Neglect.

And this subtle antagonism surely did make it harder for her.

It surely did limit her accomplishments.

And now we have arrived. This is what is so hard to understand in these cases. Both in the self-reflection of self-doubt (imposter syndrome is a bear) and in the assessment of another person who is apparently doing fine.

They should be doing even better. Doing more, or doing what they have done more easily.

It took me a long while to really appreciate this**.

No matter how accomplished the woman or person of color might be at a given point of their career, they would have accomplished more if it were not for the headwind against which they always had to contend.

So no, they are not "doing fine". And they do have a right to complain about discrimination.

*it does. but it is vanishingly rare in the context of all cases where someone might wonder if they were victim of some sort of discrimination.
**I think it is probably my thinking about how Generation X has been stifled in their careers relative to the generations above us that made this clearest to me. It's not quite the same but it is related.

9 responses so far

  • eeke says:

    In my experience, you're not really aware of the discrimination as it's happening in real time. Only looking back, which can be over years, you realize that you were wronged and maybe things would have been easier for you had you been offered an opportunity, not dismissed, or whatever the case might be. One example for me is that after having done all the experiments for a project, wrote the manuscript to be submitted, I was removed as first author in favor of dude post-doc, who "needed this for his career". At the time, I let it go. Thinking no biggie, I'm in a different lab now, I'll publish other papers. That same PI later did the same thing to another female lab member who didn't let it go so lightly. I felt bad thinking had I not let it go, she would not have suffered. But how could I have known that it would happen again?

    I think you're right, that despite that person's success, it's possible she may have achieved far more without all the obstacles in her way. And I'm glad you thought to invite her as a speaker early on. That may have helped her when it came to a promotion decision. So thanks.

  • randoprof says:

    All so true. Thank you for writing this.

    ICYMI: https://abetterscientist.wordpress.com/2018/07/27/my-experience-with-sexism-on-the-academic-job-market/

    Those are almost litigious comments... but not quite, because of stupid n=1 problems and the absence of *explicit* misogyny. But they remind me of reviews I've received on manuscripts, the patronizing, overreaching, and unsubstantiated criticisms that the editor somehow found professionally acceptable to communicate.

  • Skeptic says:

    Dear god! Drug Monkey is back on his social justice crusade. Perhaps DM's anonymous victim should ask herself, as a person of color, how well/fine would she be doing in her native POC country/continent compared to the West? Perhaps she should ask herself, as a female, can she think of any civilization, besides Western civilization, where women are treated more equally/have more opportunities compared to men?

  • Mclneuro says:

    Never read the comments. I was doing so well until I read the fucking comments.

    I loathe the ‘be thankful for what you have’ culture. As if partial equality is better than (insert a threat of total oppression).

    I’m thankful daily for the people in my life. I am not going to be grateful for being paid and treated as less than.

  • bacillus says:

    @skeptic. I'd assume that most black people requesting NIH funding are Americans. Many of them likely descendants of slaves. Out of interest, what were conditions like in the country of your ancestors when they fled for America?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Gratitude is an interesting part of this that I wasn’t thinking about, Mclneuro. It is probably something that those in power feel owed when they do a little something positive for a woman, young investigator or POC in the academy.

    People can be grateful for a solid, while still recognizing the broader biases *and* the fact that majoritarian types still get even more solids done them. But I suspect the benevolent grantees may sometimes think “Why are you complaining? I just gave you this tangible thing to improve your personal situation.”

  • Skeptic says:

    "I'd assume that most black people requesting NIH funding are Americans. Many of them likely descendants of slaves. "

    I would agree. What's your point?

    Out of interest, what were conditions like in the country of your ancestors when they fled for America?

    They lived through the great depression and WWII in a central European country, then came to America and started farming? What's your point?

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