Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dawkins and Down Syndrome - He's trolling us. Don't feed him.

Today, the disability social webs are packed with irate tweets, posts, essays, and diatribes against Richard Dawkins. I'm not linking to his twitter account or the reports, but he said that the only moral decision was to abort foetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome, that such wasn't eugenics, and otherwise ranted on for hours.

I'm glad you all are on the case and pushing back. There's nothing with that. I am not criticizing anyone for tweeting, writing, or posting about him. I'm just not going to engage with the content of his tweets, because basically, he's trolling us.

I don't want to talk about it. What I want you to do is to read this Amanda Marcotte essay on Dawkins' recent comments on rape. Dawkins is saying, "I'm just explaining a principle," and the interweb goes crazy. Here's what she wrote [my emphasis]:
This is bad writing, if Dawkins was setting out to create clear-cut examples of the principle he’s trying to illustrate. When explaining a principle, it’s unwise to go straight for examples that the public is legitimately confused about because other people are trying to muddy the waters. A concise, clear writer would do what I did, which is use clear examples to illuminate, instead of clawing at something that is actually contentious in our culture.
Of course, Dawkins is not actually a bad writer. This was not a mistake. Dawkins picked rape and pedophilia not because he’s trying to clarify a principle, but because he is needling his feminist critics who were angry with him for statements where he seemed to imply that there’s a “correct” amount of hurt to suffer from a specific incident of sexual abuse, which could easily be read as the suggestion that people who had serious trauma reactions to what he considers “mild” incidents are somehow wrong to feel how they feel.
This is the analogy that I think is useful to understand Dawkins. He takes an idea and promotes in the way that will generate the most noise. He is fully aware that by saying these comments about Down syndrome, he will spark mass controversy. Parents, self-advocates, disability writers will go nuts, pitch op-eds, post pictures of their beautiful kids, and say, "this life is worth living!." And damn right, it is.

But we don't need to engage someone who is basically trolling us. Block, mute, ignore and make the argument about life with disability for its own sake, not in the context of Dawkins. This is not a troll that I, at any rate, want to feed.

And now, a picture of my happy son, ready to head off to school.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Stakes: Parents need Police

At about 9:30 AM yesterday I got a series of texts from my babysitter. She had been tidying toys with my daughter in one of the rooms, and suddenly Nico, my son, was gone. She and Ellie searched the house, looked outside, and gradually panicked. They called the cops. They ran around. They shouted. They found Nico sitting inside the back door with dirty feet. The police showed up and everything was fine.

I did three things. I reassured my babysitter that it was ok, that it had happened to me, and that I would take steps. I called a handyman to install door chains so we can better secure our home .

Later, I called the police to talk about registering my son with them. I need to send them a picture, some ideas about where he might go if he were lost, ways of interacting with him, and so forth. I felt re-assured.

There's some irony here. I've been writing for a year about police violence and disability, usually in tones highly critical of police actions. In the meantime, I'm relying on the police to help take care of my son in case he wanders.

And that's the point. I write about police violence and disability BECAUSE my son is vulnerable to all kinds of dangers, and I need them to be there for him. 

Those are the stakes.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cult of Compliance - St. Louis Police Shoot and Kill Black Man With Mental Disability

Today St. Louis police shot a man with a knife. He had been acting erratically, police showed up, he raised the knife and said shoot me now, so they did. Read more about it here.
The officers ordered the man to get down, according to Dotson. The man, 23, became more agitated and walked toward them, reaching for his waistband. Witnesses told police the man was yelling "Shoot me, kill me now," during the encounter.

The officers drew their weapons and ordered the man to stop. He did stop, but then pulled out a knife and came at the officers with it held up high, Dotson said. They ordered him to stop and drop the knife. When he got within two or three feet of the officers, they fired, killing the man.
“This is a lethal range for a knife,” Dotson said.
Several in the crowd asked why police did not use tasers to bring down the subject. Dotson said police officers have the right to defend themselves when an agitated man is coming at them with a knife. Said the chief, “Officers have a reasonable expectation to go home at the end of their shift.”
Here are some early thoughts. This is another case of police shooting a black man in St. Louis. The intersection with disability, though, is where I want to focus now.

Could a real journalist on the ground ask Dotson about Crisis Intervention Team training (CIT) in St. Louis. Did these officers have it? Do any officers in the area have it. Do the officers understand that there are techniques for addressing mental illness-related situations that do not involve shooting. I wrote about some of them with Lawrence Carter-Long here.

A man at close range with a knife justifies the use of lethal force. These officers will quickly get off paid leave and go back to work. But note the situation. The officers say, "Stop." Man with psychatric disability hoping to get killed by police does not stop. So the officers say, "Stop." The only way out is death. The only path to life is not to draw your weapons and advance.

I don't know all the details, yet, but I'd very much like to know about the disability aspects here. Because here's a tweet from a USAToday journalist:

The officers have the right not to be stabbed and to use lethal force. What they also have the right to do, if no one else was in jeopardy, is to take a different approach to a known mental health situation.

NATO "Riots" vs Ferguson

I am on a deadline but I don't want to let the morning slip away without these images.

During the recent NATO meeting in Chicago, there was plenty of violence. Google NATO POLICE CHICAGO and you will see truncheons, blood, arrests, and angry statements about police states. Here's a typical picture.

There are no semi-automatic rifles pointed at protestors. It's not nearly as terrifying as what we're seeing in Ferguson, MO.

Once these rifles are out, everything changes. 

That's not an excuse for the Chicago PD, which has certainly had its problems dealing with peaceful protests (as well as its own history of police brutality). But I'm struck by the ways in which this is a suburban 

Watch these 60 seconds or so from Jake Tapper @CNN. He looks at the protestors, peaceful, calm. He looks at the massive police presence. "It doesn't make any sense!" he says. And that's right, it doesn't ... unless you understand that the goal here is about enforcing compliance. Then it makes lots of sense.

CNN's Jake Tapper Going In by 3030fm

I just want to show you this, Don. I just want to show you this, okay? This is just give you an idea of what's going on. The protesters—here's this main intersection—the protesters have moved all the way down there. They're about half a block down. Here, Don, watch with me. They're all the way down there. Okay? Nobodies threatening anything, nobodies doing anything, none of the stores here that I can see are being looted. There's no violence. Now I want you to look at what is going on in Ferguson, Missouri, in downtown America. Okay? These are armed police. With machine, not machine guns, with semi-automatic rifles, with batons, with shields, many of them dressed for combat. Now why they're doing this, I don't know because there is no threat going on here, none [pointing to protesters] that merits this [pointing to police line]. There is none. Okay? Absolutely there has been looters, absolutely over the last nine days there has been violence, but there is nothing going on, on this street right now, that merits this scene out of Bagram. Nothing. So if people wonder why the people of Ferguson, Missouri, are so upset, this is part of the reason. What is this? [gesturing to police line] This doesn't make any sense. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rethinking Trigger Warnings - David Sedaris and This American Life

[Content Note: Ableist Speech including use of the "r-word." Later, I quote a passage from Huckleberry Finn that contains the n-word.]

This post works with a 1996 piece from David Sedaris and This American Life that contains terrible depictions of the intellectually disabled. It was re-broadcast in 2013. I'd like to see content notes on this episode. Here are my questions.

Can the trigger warning open up conversation, preserve texts that contain prejudicial language, and be a pathway to communication? When something from the past contains speech that now is widely deemed offensive, what do we do? I argue that the content note or trigger warning is a pathway towards preserving dialogue, preserving material, as it offers a middle ground between banning and shrugging.

The post is long, but you can just go read the storify of about 12 tweets that summarized the whole thing, with my conversation partner David quoted with permission.

For those just joining me ...

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for CNN about an episode of This American Life featuring Wyatt Cenac. He compared a drug episode to having adult-onset Down syndrome, which I didn't like for reasons I explain. To my surprise, we connected over Twitter, then talked for a long time on the phone (summarized at link). I came away thinking that he's an enormously thoughtful person about comedy, discourse, prejudice, and representation. He's now, actually, a guy I hope I could go to first to ask for smart thoughts about the complexities of humor. I hope he still takes my emails when this kind of thing comes up again (as it will).

One of the things I argued in the piece is that perhaps we, in the disability community, focus too much on the r-word over the issues of representation that such language reflects. I'm calling for a broader engagement on such questions beyond the single word. So, naturally, here's a piece about the r-word.

The next day, another father wrote me about his experience in 2013 hearing a re-broadcast of the 1996 "The Santaland Diaries," the enormously successful radio adaption of David Sedaris' tale of being an elf at Santa-land. It's a story of loathing for others and self, and includes this section:
At noon, a large group of retarded people came to visit Santa and passed me on my little island. These people were profoundly retarded. They were rolling their eyes and wagging their tongues and staggering towards Santa. It was a large group of retarded people and, after seeing them for 15 minutes, I could not begin to guess where the retarded people ended and the regular New Yorkers began. Everyone looks retarded once you've set your mind to it.
Here are a few opening points.

First: this is MUCH WORSE than Cenac's joke. Cenac knew his story required explanation, tried to provide it in a way that explained he knew there was no such thing as adult-onset Down syndrome. He wanted to be true to his experience with pot, the actual words he thought at the time, without offending ... well ... me and those like me. What was interesting to me was that, as a listener and parent of a child with Down syndrome, the explanation failed to change the meaning of the bit. I wrote about it because I think these gray areas, these complexities, are exactly where we need to explore. If he had just made a lot of r-word jokes, there would have been no story there other than: Comedian offends to try and get a laugh. And that's not a story.

My question for the CNN piece was how Gervais' "it's not about disability" or Cenac's "I know this is not how Down syndrome works" play into the world of disability and representation. Although I regret that Cenac got a lot of grief on twitter over it (and called for it to stop), and I wish we had been able to speak before hand, I stand by my experience as a listener to the bit. I also accept Cenac's articulation of his intentions and find them reasonable. I think just a shade more context, a few more minutes of time, something, might have really changed the nature of that story.

But in Santaland, Sedaris is deliberately using this kind of language in order to say, ultimately, that New Yorkers at Santaland all seem retarded to him. He is using the most stereotypical descriptions possible in order to get that laugh. Rolling eyes. Wagging tongues.

Second: This was recorded in 1996 and written some time before. The word "retard" was already objectionable then, but had not achieved the kind of wide-spread cultural rejection as it had by 2013. We have made progress. In 1996, it was not reasonable for a parent to expect to avoid the r-word altogether. Here, though, I don't expect to hear someone saying it directly at my son, but rather as the casual self-or-other insult that teens use. And even that is fading generationally. So far, I have only heard it used to describe people with intellectual disabilities directly when voiced by an older person who learned to say "mentally retarded" as the correct, polite, non-insulting language. I rarely correct such cases.

So Sedaris was, to my reading, deliberately mocking the disabled in order to mock New Yorkers. He used a term that had not become a universal pejorative at the time, but I think he recognized the cruelty of the humor because his comedy depends on loathing. Principally, he claims the rhetoric of self-loathing; given that, he can loathe all others with impunity. It's obviously worked very well for him as a writing strategy.

But let's give him and Ira Glass the full benefit of the doubt and say that in 1996, no reasonable media personality would have thought this was objectionable. Maybe a little mean, but totally fair game. I hope everyone will agree that in 2013 (or now), no reasonable person would NOT think this is objectionable and offensive. The offense is now evident.

Third: As I recounted in my blog, here's what the father who heard the re-broadcast in 2013 wrote:
I cannot explain my reaction to hearing this in any other way than to say that I felt like I was punched in the gut. I suddenly could not breathe, I had to pull over the side of the road, I turned off the radio, and then I cried. I cried so hard because I have been waiting for this moment for 6 years. I have been waiting for someone to overtly make a discriminatory comment that shook me to my core.

Moreover, that someone would be triggered like this was predictable. I'm glad I didn't hear it without warning.

What I asked Ira Glass, in an email that was not answered (I'm a nobody; and since he wouldn't comment for the CNN piece, he's certainly not going to spend any time on me for my blog. Busy man, I know), was what obligations the radio host had when presenting material from the past. I wanted to know what kinds of conversations and decisions they made. Whether they would just broadcast a show like this forever, or would it expire someday? How do they make those decisions?

I went back and looked at other issues in the This American Life catalog, which is of course both vast and available online. I just did a search for the word "warning." I do not claim this is

Here are some interesting sentences:
  • Episode 458 - "Play the Part" - "A warning to listeners that this is a story that's partly about race, and a racial slur gets used."
  • Episode 341 - "How to Talk to Kids" - "A warning to listeners, we don't get very explicit in this discussion, but we do acknowledge that people, and teenagers, have sex."
  • Episode 404 - "Enemy Camp 2010" - "A quick warning for listeners before we begin. This story acknowledges the existence of sex."
  • Episode 457 - "What I did for Love" - "A warning, I should say, before we go any further in this story. We're going to acknowledge the existence of sex between adults. Nothing explicit."
  • From a Facebook post of theirs last August 11, on pedophilia: "Warning: the article includes some graphic descriptions of abuse."
  • Episode 119 - "Lockup" -  "A warning before we start. This reading contains material that may not be appropriate for some younger listeners. There is no explicit language or graphic depictions of anything, but it does acknowledge the existence of certain sex acts."
  • And most interestingly, Episode 531, from just last July (a few weeks ago). First, this intro from Glass on the website:
Hey there, podcast listeners, Ira here. So there's some cursing in this week's show, and we're not going to beep it here on the podcast and internet version of the show. If you prefer a beeped version of our program, like we do on the radio, that's great. Go to our website,, and you can download it from there.
This thing about not beeping the words is something we've tried a few times here on the internet. And we're not sure how often we should do it, or if we should keep doing it. We would love to hear what you think. If you have an opinion about this, email us at, and it would help us a lot to sort these emails out if you put in the subject header, Beep Yes, or Beep No, in the subject line. OK, Beep Yes or Beep No. I think that's pretty simple. I think you understand which one goes with which one you feel. I'm not going to say anything more about that. OK. Here is today's show.
Then Glass says [my emphasis]:
A quick trigger warning, for anybody who needs a trigger warning, that this story does include descriptions of incidents of violence against women. 
That's a fascinating aside, right? At least if you've been apart of the whole trigger warning debate (too many links to even start. Just go google it. Here's something I wrote in which I am opposed to TW policies but say that good teaching requires informing students about content.), this kind of aside shows that the folks at This American Life are, right now, trying to figure out what to do about the triggering material of their show.

Let me go on record again to say, basically, that I am a fan of the show. I don't listen to all of every episode. But when they get a great story, they do it right - funny, sad, thoughtful, etc. They can be great.

There is no trigger warning on The Santaland Diaries. I'd like to hear from Ira Glass and the other producers whether that might change. What is the process for deciding these things?

One argument against trigger warnings, one I've in fact made, is that trauma is so specific that you never can tell what might trigger one person or another. Content notes, therefore, are a better model. You say - here is the content, as best you can, and let people decide as they might. I think, though, that in 2013 it is impossible to listen to that David Sedaris passage and not think - whoa, something is wrong here, maybe we need to warn people.

This is not a new problem. Here's Huckleberry Finn, chapter 6, the voice of "Pap."
Here was a free nigger there from Ohio—a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain't a man in that town that's got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane—the awful- est old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was 'lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn't too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they'd let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I'll never vote agin. (6.11)
So that's pretty complicated to read. But it's in a great work of literature, it reflects a voice of the time, and anyone who argues that Huck Finn should be banned is, well, wrong. But no one should just have it handed to them without some contextualization, right?

The Santaland Diaries is not Huck Finn. It's also not a minstrel show, though, in which the premise of the material relies on racism. We don't broadcast "Little Black Sambo." We don't show Disney's "Song of the South." We don't show overtly racist material - material that is about projecting racism - without very good reason in highly specific contexts. We do read Mark Twain.

So where does this leave us?

I do not believe that in 2013 you can broadcast a show with Sedaris' brand of speech there without a content warning. The trigger was predictable. The problem with such speech is widely known across American culture (and of course beyond). I don't think you have to cut it - though I would, as the joke is fundamentally, rather than incidentally, demeaning to the disabled.

The trigger warning, therefore, emerges as a pathway towards preserving content, preserving material as its language ages our of the mainstream into the widely and wildly offensive. Because without the trigger warning, well, then I have to advocate that this never be aired again.

Surely more on this to come.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Roundup - Ferguson and the Cult of Compliance

I published my first piece with Al Jazeera America this Friday on the Cult of Compliance and #Ferguson. I also published a blog post about the phrase, "cult of compliance," why I use it, what effect I hope it has, and most of all some stories I couldn't fit into the AJAM piece. I did a radio piece on the article as well, which you can listen to here.

Thank you so much to everyone who read and shared my work, as I think this is a vital lens going forward.

In the wake of Ferguson, it's been hard to follow other stories, although I wrote various essays that mostly didn't get published or picked up thanks to the dominance of this one, crucial, story (and its thousands of related stories). I'll hope to bring some back up soon.

Today I read the language version of #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, in which the Huffington Post compared the headlines for black vs white killers. Then I read, of all people, Ross Douthat being smart about SWAT in the suburbs. And, from Grantland, an extraordinary piece of writing, 48 Hours in Ferguson. And then from the Washington Post, perhaps the best account of the shooting and its context, "three minutes in Ferguson."

And that's just in the past 20 minutes.

Keep reading, keep tweeting, keep sharing, keep the conversation going. 

And folks in Ferguson, not that you're reading my blog, I wish you strength and safety. 

My other posts: 

An important fundraising effort to provide babysitting for the daughter of a single-mom who has just had brain surgery (on Friday). Her daughter, Maybelle, has Down syndrome. Please give if you can.

How many slaves work for you? An app/survey you can take and see how your life is shaped by global slavery. Grim stuff. 

Women and science - how they get harassed and ignored into dropping out.

Finally, some resources on the firing of Steven Salaita from Illinois. This is the one story from the week that I want to elevate into a national conversation about academic freedom and blacklisting. I'll try again next week. It's not about the content of his tweets, is that no one should be fired for tweeting like this, especially not without due process. The university matters and we have to protect its freedoms.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Cult of Compliance - #Ferguson and the Department of Justice

My first piece for Al Jazeera America is a big one: The Cult of Compliance.

As regular readers know, I have been talking this for a long time and thinking about police violence in various ways for even longer. I used the phrase for the first time on this post from August 17, 2013. The post cites Digby and Bruce Schneier, two great writers on different aspects of privacy and civil liberty, but emerged from my frustration  I was frustrated by my inability to land the story with a major publication. I wrote:
I've been trying to write about non-compliance and police violence to no avail, so far. I'm not sure what's not catching editors' eyes about my various essays (and soon I'll just start posting them here), as I think there's a very big story happening before us, but we get distracted by tasers, by drones, by tanks, by SWAT, by racial profiling, by guns, by all the VERY REAL and very troubling symptoms of deep problems in American police culture. I call it the Cult of Compliance, in which police demand instant compliance or feel free (and unaccountable) to respond with force.
Little did I know that it would take another year and police takeover of Ferguson, MO, to get the story out there. I hope the piece does it justice and that it influences the discourse. I think it's so important to acknowledge the specifics of each case - racism, sexism, ableism, classism, whatever factors create a violent incident - but also to see the patterns. 

Here's some of the thinking behind the "cult" language. I could have said a culture of compliance, or a culture that doesn't accept non-compliance, or any number of other ways of framing the problem. Cult, though, implies an unthinking adherence to an idea, principle, group, prophet or deity that you must venerate at all costs. To me, in our police culture but also our American culture more broadly, we venerate compliance.  It's not just the police to blame, but all of us who accept the "he/she didn't comply" rationale in any given case. 

Here are some of the stories I didn't reference in the "AJAM" article.

The stories include a boy attacked for a "dehumanizing stare." I wrote about a mentally ill man shot at in Times Square because he was endangering himself by running in traffic. Later, the police charged him as responsible for the people the police themselves shot.  Then there was Jonathan Ferrell who was hurt in a car crash and ran towards police looking for help, addled from the crash. They said stop. He didn't, so they shot and killed him.

In Connecticut, a deaf boy was escaping from abusive custody. Police crept up behind him and tased him, not even risking non-compliance. He sued and that's the last I've been able to find about the story.

Schools, like the one in CT, are a major site for the cult of compliance. Here's a boy with Down syndrome dragged across the floor for being "defiant." I haven't even written about the horrors of the Judge Rothenberg Center and their electric shocks for non-compliant kids with autism, though it's been sitting in my draft folder for months.

Andy Lopez - murdered while holding a toy gun.

Gilberto Powell, a man with Down syndrome, given "multiple commands" and then beaten when he didn't comply.

A couple of college girls buying bottled water in Virginia. The cops thought it was beer and, without ID, charged. The girls panicked. Later, a spokesman said, "This whole unfortunate incident could have been avoided had the occupants complied with law enforcement requests."

An Arab man with intellectual disabilities daring to ride a bicycle.

There are so many more, and I'm not even attempting to document all incidents that might fit. That's not the goal of the blog., for example, documents more. 

My goal is to provide the conceptual links that pull these incidents together. We can only treat the problem when we identify it and call it out. The solution - laws, regulations, and trainings that do not focus on one class of people or another, but that offer simple rules: 

1. Non-compliance does not justify violence. 
2. Inconvenience or impatience does not justify violence.
3. All use of all types of weapons or hands constitutes violence.
4. In a few well-defined circumstances, non-compliance may justify a citation, a ticket, a warning, even an arrest. But it does not justify violence.

As I discuss in the Al-Jazeera piece, the Department of Justice is now looking into police culture with the broadest scope in decades. We need to watch this and make sure that they reach conclusions and make recommendations that will treat the disease, that will fight the cult of compliance, not just work on symptoms.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Rally for Maybelle - Crowdfunding Babysitting Funds for A Girl With Down Syndrome

Alison Piepmeier is a pretty awesome person, by all reports. I don't know her personally, but someday I hope to change that. Here are some things that I do know.
  • She is the director of the Women's and Gender Studies at the College of Charleston, the awesome place that had every Freshman read "Fun Home," by Alison Bechdel, much to the dismay of homophobic lawmakers in the state. You can read about the controversy here (by Piepmeier).
  • She is the mother of a daughter with Down syndrome, named Maybelle.
  • She writes about parenting for outlets such as Motherlode. This essay, in particular, embodies the pro-information approach that I also write about
  • She has a brain tumor (her blog post about the diagnosis).
She is going into surgery soon.

A friend has set up a site raising money for babysitting for her daughter. I have donated and I would like you to do so as well.

Alison and Maybelle in matching outfits
I don't really know what else to say to get you to donate, if you can, and to get you to share this story across your social media feeds. You can read Alison's blog here in which she offers her thoughts, her gratitude, her embarrassment, her worries, her loves. It's quite something and worth your time.

If you have the means, please help a little. 

Every time I write a post, anywhere from 100-4000 of people read it. If 100 of you donated 10$, it would go a long way. And if you can't, please consider sharing the message.

Thank you. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Women and Science: Harassment and Dropping Out

A few weeks ago, I wrote a well-read blog post about girls and science. Apparently, we're still debating whether it's nuture or nature that drives women to choose professions other than science.

Two recent pieces in the national media provide more evidence for the ways that women get driven out of the scientific profession, as well as the continued questions of the meaning of that evidence.

First, from the New York Times, a piece on harassment in science. It begins with the author relating her experience (a senior prof booking a hotel room with only one bed for the two of them), then continues:
I’d forgotten about this experience from two decades ago until I read a report published July 16 in the journal PLOS One. Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and three colleagues used email and social media to invite scientists to fill out an online questionnaire about their experiences with harassment and assault at field sites; they received 666 responses, three quarters of them from women, from 32 disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, biology and geology.

Almost two-thirds of the respondents said they had been sexually harassed in the field. More than 20 percent reported being sexually assaulted. Students or postdoctoral scholars, and women were most likely to report being victimized by superiors. Very few respondents said their field site had a code of conduct or sexual harassment policy, and of the 78 who had dared to report incidents, fewer than 20 percent were satisfied with the outcome.
Fieldwork, it is clear, is a dangerous place to be a woman. It's also where you make your break your career and take your first steps. The piece ends with a powerful call for clear standards, pre-emptive anti-harassment policies, and most of all, people to be willing to call out their friends and colleagues. We cannot rely on the victim of harassment to challenge the system herself.

And yet, I suspect many people will not heed the call. NPR has a new piece on women in engineering.
Over the course of three years Nadya Fouad, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, surveyed 5,300 women who earned engineering degrees within the past six decades in order to figure out why so few stayed in engineering. Fouad reported that only 62 percent of respondents were currently working in engineering. Those who left the field provided their reasons for doing so in the survey.

"It's the climate, stupid!" she said during her presentation, referring to the "old-boys club" workplaces that she says still exist in many engineering organizations.
Respondents in her study reflected her sentiments, with many calling the engineering workplace unfriendly and even hostile to women. They also said that they felt many of these companies did not provide opportunities for women like them to advance and develop.
"Women's departure from engineering is not just an issue of 'leaning in.' " said Fouad, lead researcher of the study. "It's about changing the work environment."
Changing the work environment, not just individual women taking action. What I thought was especially important, if depressing, was this response to her work:
Not everyone agrees with Fouad's findings.
"Women aren't leaving engineering to go and hide in a corner. They are leaving for many reasons which a study like this may not find," said Elizabeth Bierman, president of the Society of Women Engineers and an aerospace engineer for 20 years. "The work environment may be one reason but for the majority it is not the case."
Her organization recently conducted its own retention study and found that although women do leave the engineering workplace faster than men, they do so for a variety of reasons. Many of those reasons, such as lack of a work/life balance, also resonate with men, Bierman said.
The bigger problem facing women and engineering, she said, is getting more women into the engineering pipeline. Bierman says companies looking to retain both women and men should improve their work/life balance policies.
"We've found that women stay in engineering because they want to make sure they are making a difference," she says. "If women feel they are making that difference, retention levels will be higher."
Yes, make a difference. And how do they make a difference?

Well, first we have to change the climate so that women's work is valued, women are protected from harassment (oh, the stories I have heard from a few aerospace engineer friends, now all working in other fields), and we change the culture.

Choice is fine. Choice is stressed by everyone defending the lack of women in sciences. But when the pressure is coming at women through harassment, through bias, through diminishing women's work, through all the factors we know that run rampant in our patriarchal society, there is no real choice. You either go with the flow and find something else to do, or spend your life spitting into the wind (warning, mixing metaphors!). It's no surprise so many women drop out.

To end on a good note, for the first time in 80 years, the winner of the Fields Medal in mathematics, the "Nobel prize" for the discipline, is a woman! May there be so many more that it's no longer news.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

How Many Slaves Work For You?

I've been thinking a lot about medieval slavery, lately, especially in Venice (the place I study). I'm interested in commodity and the movement of objects, but unfree people are mostly invisible in my texts. I know they are there, because I know something about the medieval Mediterranean economy, but they aren't appearing in my sources (which are mostly religious, not economic. Other forms of commodity appear though). Venice, over time, will become a major player in the Mediterranean slave trade and I'm interested in seeing how that emerges in the culture.

Yesterday, via this piece on slavery today, I began thinking about the invisible nature of slavery for so many people in the western world. The piece opens:
The average price of a slave has decreased during the past 200 years, according to Kevin Bales, a leading abolitionist who has written several books about modern-day slavery.
In 1809, the average price of a slave was $40,000 when adjusted to today’s money. In 2009, the average price of a slave was $90, Bales says.
The pieces leads to, which includes an app allowing you to go through your life and figure out about how much slave labor is involved in your life. For my family of four, the answer was 60.

I don't how their app works, how accurate they are, but as they say:
So, how many slaves work for you? “If you took 100 smartphones and lined them up, we could tell you with near 100 percent probability that on average, each one of those phones had at least 3.2 people exploited in the making of the phone,” said Dillon. “Mine might have had zero, yours might have had ten, but that’s not the point.”
So yeah, it might not really be 60, it might be 30, or 90. But it's not zero. And I don't know their definition of "slave," but as a historian, I also know that doesn't matter. Degrees of unfree can vary, and do, over time.

We are all complicit in modern slave labor and there's no real way to live in the globalized world and not benefit from it. The only solution, as far as I can tell, is to push companies to be aware of their supply chains and to demand more equitable labor practices.

Do the survey. Think about what you might change.