The problem with “Unbelievable”

Posted By Pamela Gay on Jun 12, 2015 | 15 comments

Lately, I’ve heard a lot of people say, “Did you see? Isn’t that so unbelievable?” These words have usually been uttered in reference to media coverage of authority figures acting in sexist, bigoted, racist, or otherwise intolerant or amoral ways. Basically, when members of the establishment fuck up, people want to label it as unbelievable.

But, unfortunately, these things are really the norm.

The last time someone said this to me (in reference to the horrible Dear Alice column discussed here), it was a senior white male I like and respect and learn from and trust, and I finally said what I’ve been thinking every time I hear those words. I said, “No, actually, it’s not unbelievable. It’s kind of normal. I’ve seen this kind of behavior my whole life.”

This is a problematic exchange on both sides. When someone says, “That’s unbelievable,” what I hear is “This thing must either not actually be true or it is so rare that it’s statistically improbable.” This has a silencing effect. If examples of authority figures acting poorly is unbelievable, how can people without power step forward when they are harmed and how can they call out the abuse they deal with? On the other side, when I point out, “This horrible thing you just learned is happening – it’s actually kind of normal,” I am actually saying, “You know, you have been completely blind to the abuse people around you deal with daily, maybe you should work on that.” It takes a special person to not respond defensively or to not at least back away the from the situation and calmly go back to safe ignorance.

This is a no win situation.

This is also reality.

Let me take this moment to review the situations that have risen high enough on society’s radar to become main stream news in just the teeny tiny field of science. I could write a much longer list if I talked about the horror that is how blacks are treated in the US, or about reproductive health issues, or LGBTQ issues, or … or … Yeah… I’m going to restrict myself to just the big stories in science.

Now these are just examples – anecdotal evidence if you will – each one more unbelievable than the others.

There’s that word. What does it take for this to be believable, but wrong and reason for censure?

I’ll admit anecdotes aren’t a replacement for data. Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a lot of data documenting how often women are subjected to (dare I say) crap as extreme as the above (because it’s unbelievable, so why would you study it?) What there is research on is how gender plays a role in making it harder for women to succeed at every step in an academic science career.

So here are the data driven facts for women in science: the tests we take to get into grad school are gender and race biased (, APS); 26% of women (versus 6% of men) are sexually assaulted by colleagues while doing field work early in their career (; when it comes to hiring, men are preferentially selected (PNAS); papers are less likely to have female first authors (Chronicle of Higher Ed) and when the first author is female, they are less likely to be cited/respected (Science Daily); when teaching, students downgrade female professors (summary at Washington Post); in academia, where tenure defines success, women are less likely to “make it” (stats at; when it comes to invited conference speakers, women are underrepresented (stats for astronomy); and women are less likely to be awarded for their excellence (SAGE). There is more. I could keep going. It turns out I don’t hate myself enough to do that. Reading these papers is soul crushing.

The situation only gets worse when you look at issues faced by people of color, and for LGBTQ and disabled community members. In many ways, us “~able bodied, white women who are in relationships with men” have it easy.

Ok. Can we all agree, all this stuff is believable? Kind of normal even? And maybe in need of fixing?

I was inspired to write this because of a couple things I’ve seen on twitter lately. There was Katie Mack‘s tweet, of the David Morrison quote  “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept” and the naive tweet I received from @mortimezilch, stating “STEM careers arent being chosen by capable females: because of cultural influences. Fems r 2 complicit.” I could have walked past that comment, I could keep walking past all the times someone says “unbelievable” to something that I know is the norm. I could keep walking (and get more work done, while hating myself). Instead, I’m trying to figure out how to take a stand.

Women (and minorities, and the not able-bodied, and… anyone out of the stereotypical norm) are not choosing to leave science because we are being complicit and conforming to cultural influences. We are leaving science because we can’t always out perform at a sufficiently high-level to be competitive when our handicap is so high, and when we are competitive, we don’t always stay because we don’t all like being harassed and sometimes even molested. Not wanting to be abused is a pretty solid reason to leave.

And people leave. I see women leaving every semester.

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 11.44.55 PMIn a moment of thoughtlessly not checking my privilege as much as I should have, I piggybacked on a tweet by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein.  She’s right; if the horrifyingly small number of minorities in physics and astronomy left (the ones not named Neil deGrasse Tyson), it likely would actually go unnoticed. Women have it better. As Chanda correctly pointed out in a subsequent tweet, there are senior white women who would notice. But, as a study by Millie Dresselhaus at MIT pointed out in 1994, the women who left would probably hear the academic equivalent of “Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.” (see 1994 MIT study highlighted here). While this sucks, at least we’d be noticed.

Academic science shouldn’t be driving out all the faces that don’t fit the stereotype.

We need to do better.

The academic community is guilty of harboring people who actively act in ways that create hostile work environments for women and minorities of all kinds. Many of us pretend it doesn’t bother us and we laugh at the jokes to try and fit in (but this does harm to us). Women are advised to keep quiet (I know of one who was advised by HR at a Major University to not report), because they can’t win against senior men and if they “make trouble” it will just close doors for them (truth). Men are apologized for, and I’ve only ever seen one man face real consequences, and that one man (who did fairly unspeakable things, but “does excellent research”) was told, “We’re going to seal the record on this horrible thing and give you time to go find a new job, and not tell your new job about this horrible thing, and we’re going to make sure no one else is allowed to speak about it either.” There needs to be real consequences. If you are someone that every female student will be pulled aside and warned not to be alone with, maybe you shouldn’t have tenure as a teaching professor. If, for example, you make it clear students are expected to sleep with you (or at least let you grab some tit and ass) if they want their degree, maybe you should be outed and banned from the profession. These are real examples folks. This happens, but it shouldn’t. We need a professional academic community where we actually expect professionals to not just do good research, but to also act like the professionals HR manuals describe.

We can do better. But it means we need to stop walking.

My call to action is this: Do not keep walking when someone says or does something that isn’t a standard you can accept. Make your stand or at least find the person near you willing to be your advocate and make that stand for you. If you are a person in authority, make your stand have teeth and work to appropriately censure those who act out within our professional community. We need to stop punishing the abused, and instead make it clear we won’t accept “but s\he does good research” as an excuse to allow harassment any longer.


edit 1:44am 12 June: Sarah Tuttle has a brilliant response to Tim Hunt’s comments on Twitter. It has been storifyed here.

edit 1:50pm 12 June: Taka T pointed me to this summary of “The Most Boneheaded, Racist, and Sexist Comments From Nobel Laureates” over on Slate.


As an aside, while I was writing this post, this occurred on twitter. (If you don’t follow Gwen Pearson on Wired, you should)

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 11.16.30 PM



  1. Great article. Yes, it happens. Unfortunately.

    But there has been progress because people (men and women) are speaking out.

    My daughter just graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from what was an all-male college through the 1970s. She received the award for most deserving ME student. She says (and talking to her face-to-face and looking in her eyes I believe her) that she has not had any problems because she is female.

    I am not saying there aren’t problems, but it is getting better. Harassment wouldn’t be tolerated on her campus. She knew who to report to if something did happen. There are female faculty members. And there are male faculty members who understand that harassment should not be tolerated whether it comes from faculty or students.

    Call it out. Point it out. Note that it won’t be tolerated. Have consequences for inappropriate actions. You can’t fire a tenured professor, but you can have consequences for bad behavior. Shining light on them is a first step.

    We have to be wary of false accusations. But I am not aware of any in the academic and research setting. The women have so much to lose and won’t be believed.

    As an aside, more people should be aware of Jocelyn Bell Burnell and her discovery of pulsars. She didn’t receive the Nobel Prize; her advisor did. That’s the way things were in the 1960s and 1970s.

    But they aren’t that way today. We should not tolerate harassment. We should not tolerate close-mindedness. Shine a light on it. Call out the inappropriate behavior and comments. And let everyone know that you will be believed if you confide in someone and say, “This happened. Can you help?”

  2. I think there may be one other implication of calling something “unbelievable:” that that person is saying, “I don’t want to believe that this thing is true.” They don’t want it to be true because it challenges their view of the world. Sometimes I think it’s because people genuinely want to believe that the world is post-[whatever]ist, other times because pointing out the reality means that they will have to do something about it, still other times it’s because it shines a light on their own bad behavior. When someone says that these things are “unbelievable,” I hear a person who is trying desperately to be willfully ignorant of the facts.

    The other day, you wrote about how you’re belittled in the scientific world for having faith in God. Presumably, much of the so-called justification for this criticism (when more than just a knee-jerk shibboleth is cited) falls along the lines of believing in something without evidence or in spite of (supposed) evidence to the contrary. And yet, here we see “real scientists” doing exactly the same thing. When Tim Hunt says that women can’t do science with men, when Shrinivas Kulkarni says that astronomy is just for boys–or, on the flip side, when anyone claims that science and academia really are merit-based and these problems don’t exist–they’re deliberately ignoring the vast oceans of evidence to the contrary. The data you cited is just the tip of the iceberg, and even that should be enough for any rational person–especially one who calls themselves a scientist–to radically rethink just what is so “unbelievable.”

  3. (Apologies for the multiple comments–of course, right after I click the submit button, I think of one more thing to add.)

    Maybe I’m just overly Socratic, but the next time I hear someone shake their head and call something “unbelievable,” my response will simply be, “Why?” Because I think getting people to question their own assumptions is the best way to make change–and science–happen.

  4. As a white male when I say “That’s unbelievable” (and I do say this often) what I am saying is that it is unbelievable that these thing still happen in 2015. We can all cite 60-80 year old white males that say sexist/racist/ageist things – that is not unbelievable and should not surprise anyone. They are absolutely the worse examples for people to use to say “sexist is still rampant”. No matter what you or I say or do we will not change their minds. However, what really qualifies for “That is unbelievable” is when you see or hear something sexist from someone under 45. The feminist revolution was well underway and strongly impacting society by the late 70’s so there can be no excuses for anyone raised since then.

  5. Starting at a new college, one of the first things I do is try to figure out which professors are abusers and rapists. No exageration, they’re there. Statistically I’m a target. A go-getter top of her class STEM major is a target. If I were a C student who didn’t try to get into research programs or take small honors classes, maybe it would be different, maybe I could blend in, but not by much, except that trying to keep my head down like that would utterly end my career. Varying routes etc. help against other students, and I’m quite a fight in a corner, but professors and research advisors are another matter. The power dynamic there is disgusting to begin with, even before they start cornering someone.

    I’ve had to drop classes with even non-abusive profs in cases such as them insisting on repeated one-on-one meetings in tiny offices down windy corridors then looming badly enough to trigger PTSD flashbacks, then insisting they were doing this for my comfort after I told them repeatedly I’d strongly rather meet outside. But even just revealing that ‘weakens’ my above statements by humanizing me as not perfectly emotionless or infinitely strong. I only mention it to show how the little things spread. In a small department or a specialized field, there may only be a few professors to work with. When there’s high chance at least one of them is an abuser, and a low chance of feasibly avoiding them, and the blithe inconsideration of the better professors to consequences of abuse experiences compounds the damage… Yes, staying in STEM is hard.

    Knowing that when I get out I’ll be paid little enough that I probably ought to just start going by a male name and do online computer work because being uneducated and male would pay better? Icing on the cake. A rational person concerned with their own safety, especially one who had been raped before and abused on college campuses before, would probably back down. I got a campus tour from a friend; half of it was which departments to avoid because they have professors who won’t even speak to a female student, and where to go if I need someone to back me up with the administration about rape issues. The campus mailing list is at least progressive enough to have assault occurred / seeking suspect notifications, but they pop up about once a week.

    It’s bad out there, folks. Even in the best places, it’s bad. I agree that we need to start talking about it more, calling it out more. Not letting the privileged assumption of its rarity slide. When people can’t believe what happens, they also can’t believe the rationality behind judgements from the fine grained (no, I won’t come into your office at 10PM, lets meet tomorrow for lunch) to the lastingly painful (maybe another field would be less prone to getting me raped). Nor can they believe the courage it takes to walk back in every day, or to post on the internet, knowing death and rape threats are a strong possibility. Every little thing, down to insisting people use their ‘real’ names on their work online, speaks to the assumption that safety is a default condition. An assumption that for women, and especially women in STEM, is far from true.

    n.b. I cannot comment on this article using my proper email address because this website sources icons off gravatar which instantly reveals full identity even if the email address itself is withheld. I have no wish to cause friction with my current or past institutions, I only highlight them because that is the focus of my personal experience. The pervasiveness of the problem makes it a matter for systemic consideration rather than finger pointing, but I must begin where I have at least anecdotal detail.

  6. You say: “Women… are not choosing to leave science because we are being complicit and conforming to cultural influences.”

    But I said: “STEM careers aren’t being chosen by capable females: because of cultural influences. Fems r 2 complicit.”

    important difference between “choosing to enter” and “leaving after having entered for some years…” The two scenarios can have different causes, and I think to some degree they do, even if they BOTH have the same underlying cause of cultural chauvinism, sexist centrism, or whatever it is that MEN (amend that…WHITE MEN) are doing evil to everybody else because they are a bunch of deranged m….f’…ers – and don’t even realize it !

  7. I am pleasantly piqued to know I helped inspire this article…which is an important article and a useful contribution to the broad discussion now taking place about women in Science, and men in science, and whomever else you have in science – even if my part was thought and felt to be a negative impetus.

    I work every day as hard as I can to get EVERYBODY to appreciate astronomy, and to consider working in some capacity in it, or otherwise consider the contributions of scientists as admirable and valuable (when they are either or both).

    Don’t let your soul be crushed! Consider what you are doing here as the work of a “forensic pathologist” slicing through a corpse to find out what killed it. It’s not a pleasant task, but it’s got to be done.

    That being said, I address the author not just as a woman, but as a self-identified feminist scientist. All major movements contain errors that need corrected, whether it be Marxism, Feminism, Catholicism, Darwinism, etc., etc. I really think that Feminism has failed with respect to slapping a negative value on Pornography – (both hard core and particularly the soft-porn paraded as entertainment and offering “empowering” and/or “liberating” role models of women which have become pervasive in our culture) – as actually exploiting and objectifying and demeaning of women. In other words, the problem of “Sexism in Science” exists as a facet of a more submerged problem of human sexuality in general that is not being considered, but which begs to be broached too.

  8. I suppose that my gut reaction to M Redacted’s post of “that’s unbelievable” is precisely Pamela’s point.

    With almost 40 years in science academia at multiple schools, I can’t point to one rapist among the faculty. Statistically, they are probably there. But I do not believe abusers and rapists are as prevalent as is suggested.

    I do not agree that it is unsafe for female students to major in STEM fields.

    And I do not agree that most white males are supporting the abusers by remaining silent. I refuse to use that broad damning paint brush. It’s not true. I know far too many white males who very definitely are supportive of women’s aspirations and would not tolerate the women’s harassment or abuse.

  9. I promise to do my part to help change this horrible norm.

  10. Pamela,
    I am one of those who reads things that academics say and I think “unbelievable”! However I thought going after the family of that science careers lady was pretty “unbelievable.” I get the whole trial by Internet, but if you want to be better then the sexist pigs out there don’t stoop to their level. I do appreciate that you didn’t at least post pictures of her family like some did on twitter.

  11. Just a small footnote in unfortunate harmony with this whole post. Rosalind Franklin, not James Watson, did a lot of the unraveling of DNA structure. He took her work, and Crick’s, and ran with it. Crick, being male, got some public acknowledgement.

  12. If when someone says “X is unbelievable” you’re “hearing” that X is not a believable claim, maybe you’re simply hearing wrong? Along the lines of what Jason Ramboz and Jim Sanderson wrote, another option is simply that it’s a shorthand. For “X is true now, and remains true despite our desire for X to be false, and it’s difficult to believe that we’re apparently unable to muster the social capital required to make X false”. Words’ meanings aren’t defined by their etymology; especially in situations where people are upset / angry, they can take on figurative meanings, or be instances of hyperbole. It’s rare that I see “unbelievable” used literally the negation of “believable”.

  13. “… worship at the alter of Feynman. …”

    It’s true. Instead of facing the awful problems of the real Feynman, we are worshiping the altar of the altered Feynman …

  14. Há um rapaz muito engraçado que veio aqui insultar a malta do blogue. Apaguei-lhe o comentário, voltou cheio de indignações, que a democracia isto e aquilo. Esta gente não se manca mesmo.

  15. on the media and other things. A point that Burgess makes is that television's impact is to make people passive, regardless of the content being broadcast. In the old days, he notes, people would sit around the fire and tell stories and thus interact with each other. And you could even see better pictures in the fire!

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