Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Guest Post: Sometimes being good isn’t enough

Today's guest blogger is Dr. Stephen Rinehart.  Dr. Rinehart is the Associate Chief of the Laboratory for Observational Cosmology at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.  He was awarded his Ph.D. in Physics from Cornell University in 1999, and came to Goddard as a post-doc in 2001, becoming a civil servant in 2004.  He is married to another astronomer, and the proud father of a 2-year old girl.


This is for all the men out there.  Ok, for the women too. 

Are you a good person?  In particular, are you a good person when it comes to supporting equitable treatment for everyone?  I like to believe that, at least since reaching adulthood, I’ve been a good person (at least in this context).  That’s not to say that I have been without fault, but I have certainly tried to be a good person.  Of course, the question is, “what does it mean to be a good person?”

So, how was I good?  I didn’t make sexist (racist, homophobic) jokes.  I didn’t consciously discriminate against anyone.  Really, if you boil it down, I wasn’t an ass.  I defined “good” as the absence of “bad”.  Over the years, I realized that this was a bad definition of good, so I strove to be better.  To actually be good, not just not bad.  And I think I’ve done that.   

Now, in addition to not being an ass, I actively recruit students from underrepresented groups.  I try hard to make sure that everyone in the room has the space to present their thoughts and ideas.  So, now I’m good, right?  I’ve expanded myself beyond the poor definition of “not bad”.  I actively do things to make life in astronomy better for women (and other underrepresented groups, and by extension, all of us), and it is this that makes me good.  So, there you have it.  I’m a good guy.  I am.  Are you convinced?

Sadly, I’m not.  Or, perhaps more accurately, I’ve come to realize that being good is still not enough. 

Imagine this scenario:  You’re in a room with 20-30 other scientists.  You hear a colleague, someone of whom you have a generally favorable opinion, crack a joke that’s vaguely sexist.  I’m not talking about the over-the-top kind of sexist joke that makes you wonder if he (or she) actually has significantly more Neanderthal DNA than average, but rather, that little joke that just makes you squirm the tiniest amount.  What do you do?  Here’s what I do.  I squirm.  I have an inner monologue:  “Boy, that guys is a jerk, and he doesn’t even realize it.  I’m glad he doesn’t have any female grad students.  If Soandso were here, she would rip him a new one.”  And I judge.  My esteem for him is diminished.   What would you do?

So, what’s the problem?  I’m not the sensitivity police.  I didn’t do anything wrong, did I?  I’m still a good guy.  You and I both know it.  But, it turns out, being good is not enough.  So, what’s wrong?

Well, first off, everyone sits there and lets him get away with it.  Ok, ok, ok, he’s not “getting away with” anything.  He probably doesn’t even realize that he’s being an ass.  But everyone just sits there, saying nothing.  How the hell is he supposed to realize that he’s just done something bad if no one says anything? Let us give this person the benefit of the doubt and assume that he wants to be good.  How can we be good if we don’t know when we’re being bad?  He needs that education.

Second, why (as is implicit in my inner monologue) is it the duty of the women in the room to stand up and defend their gender?  Ok that joke wasn’t about me, so maybe it’s not my place to “defend the honor of women everywhere”.  But, wait.  It’s not about “defending the honor…”  It’s about having an environment where everyone can do their job without having to put up with the crap.  And sure, maybe, as a white male, I don’t get a lot of crap.  But my female students might (and my spouse might, and my daughter might).  And, I don’t want my female students to have to deal with the crap. Why?  Because it’s not right, for starters.  And, from a completely selfish perspective, because they have enough work to do without also having the additional burden of feeling marginalized. 

Third, when we sit there quietly, we become complicit.  Because we allow it, we are guilty.  Our “goodness” becomes suspect. And that young person in the room thinks it’s ok.  For some in the room, they may (correctly) say, “this is an unfriendly environment for some people.”  For others, they may (incorrectly) say, “it’s ok for me to say things like that because he did.”  And so the cycle continues. 

So, what’s to do about?  The answer is simple, for those of us who want to make change happen.  Stand up.  When something inappropriate is said, or done (that odd pat on the back, cutting someone off mid-sentence, the crude joke), say something.  Publicly.  You don’t have to say “that was sexist.”   You don’t have to humiliate anyone.  Just say “that was inappropriate.”  The message is out.  And people will hear it.

The minimum we should ask of everyone is that they not be an ass.  Beyond that, we should all strive to be good.  But if we really want to improve the field, and the environment in which we all work, we need to reach farther than that.  We need to be more than good.  I only hope that I can live up to this standard.