It just got harder to find female participants

Posted: November 28, 2015 by jennysaul in Uncategorized

I was invited to do a commentary on a paper for a high profile philosophy blog. It was on a topic that I published one paper on a few years ago, but since moved away from, so I suspected that I was the token female commentator rather than one of the first people to come to mind.
Nevertheless, I had done a lot of research on the topic before, and was happy to brush up on recent developments in order to do a decent job with the commentary. The paper was not very well written, so my main complaint was that it was difficult to tell what the main claim was (was it X or Y?), and what the motivations for that claim were (if it’s claim Y, then why are details A, B, C necessary?). I suggested a simpler logical formalism that as far as I could tell would do all the work required. I asked, genuinely hoping for clarification of points that were very confusingly elaborated in the paper, what the reasons were for needing a more complicated model, and what my simpler proposal missed. I posed my questions in technical language, and provided a clear alternative, so if he had wanted to engage with my comments, and he actually had an answer to my question, it would have been easy to reply constructively.
In retrospect I should have known that it might nevertheless be read as saying “I’m just a stupid girl and math is hard. Won’t you please explain it to me?” which is essentially how he interpreted it. The reply to my comments by the author didn’t engage with my commentary at all. In a reply that was less than half the length of his reply to any other commentary, he essentially waved his hand in the air in dismissal, and suggested that I should read his paper more carefully. Even though I knew that lack of care in reading was not the problem, I dutifully read it again, and still it was not at all clear.
I figured it would be useless to engage him any further, but for the sake of the audience’s impressions of the exchange, I decided to press the point once more in the online discussion forum, making it clear that my problem was not general lack of comprehension skills, but rather a detailed question about the content of the paper. Again he was utterly dismissive, but I hope that readers could at least see through his arrogance.
I drew two conclusions from this experience:
1) When an editor asks a token female to contribute to such a discussion, they have a responsibility to make sure that the other participants don’t act dismissively towards her, at least if they are genuinely concerned with representing diverse viewpoints. It would have been easy and entirely appropriate for the editor to tell the author that his response to my commentary was not fit to print, and to ask him to revise it.
2) Never again will I spend time that I could have been spending writing a paper of my own being a token female in such a discussion. It just got harder for well-meaning event organizers to find female participants.

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