Amy Triumphs* at the Shtetl

It was not until the 144th comment by a participants named Amy on Scott’s Aaronson recent Shtetl-optimized** post devoted to a certain case of sexual harassment at M. I. T. that the discussion turned into something quite special. Amy’s great comment respectfully disagreeing with the original post and most of the 100+ earlier comments gave a wide while personal feminist perspective on women in STEM (STEM stands for science, technology,  engineering, mathematics). This followed by a moving comment  #171 by Scott describing a decade of suffering from his early teens. Scott, while largely sympathetic with the feminist cause, sees certain aspects of modern feminism as  major contributors to his ordeal.

Then came a few hundred comments by quite a few participants on a large number of issues including romantic/sexual relations in universities, rape, prostitution, poverty, gaps between individuals’ morality and actions, and much more. Many of the comments argued with Amy and a few even attacked her.  Some comments supported Amy and some proposed their own views. Many of the comments were good and thoughtful and many gave interesting food for thought. Some people described interesting personal matters. As both Scott and Amy left school early to study in the university, I also contributed my own personal story about it (and Scott even criticized my teenage approach to life! 🙂 ). Amy, over 80+ thoughtful comments, responded in detail, and her (moderate) feminist attitude (as well as Amy herself) stood out as realistic, humane, and terribly smart.

* The word triumph is used here in a soft (non-macho) way characteristic to the successes of feminism. Voting rights for women did not exclude voting rights for men, and Amy’s triumph does not mean a defeat for  any others; on the contrary.

** “Shtetl-optimized” is the name of Scott Aaronson’s blog.

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23 Responses to Amy Triumphs* at the Shtetl

  1. Strange choice of YT clip Gil, how does a female self-loathing lyric correlate with your comments?

    • Gil Kalai says:

      Dear Phillip, well, I like the performer Amy Winehouse and I like especially the sound of this specific song. The lyrics of the song (I am not sure it is self-loathing) is simply not related to the post. It is just a great performance by a great artist. (But I am open to any idea for a different song.)

      • Think you’ve pretty much nailed the canon of musical ‘Amy’ exemplars right there Gil! As for fem-affirmative anthems, not much progress in that field the past thirty odd years…
        S’cuse the drive-by comment.

      • Gil Kalai says:

        I was taken my the music and as Hebrew speaker I paid less attention to the words. But before I posted I did look at the actual lyrics. (I was surprised to see that it is “like I was Tanqueray” and not “like I was takeaway” as I thought before 🙂 .) Anyway, the song is about men/women relations by a great woman performer (named Amy) so it has some relation to the marathon thread.

      • It’s not ‘takeaway’? 😮
        Thanks for disabusing me of that Timulim-Mondegreen!
        Tanqueray, eh…

  2. John Smith says:

    I’m surprised given your admission on Scott’s blog recognizing your own tendency to contrariness that you would feel it necessary and/or appropriate to create this blog post. Do you really feel that Amy’s consistent misreading and distorting of Scott’s words constitutes a triumph? I was aghast at some of her interpretations, many of which were objectively mean / cruel / nasty, and completely unnecessarily so.

  3. Gil Kalai says:

    Hi John, In intensive Internet discussions, misreading and misunderstanding is quite common. In this specific discussion this was much less characteristic to Amy’s compared to others. Others, including Scott, misread, brought to absurd irrelevant logical conclusions, and at time distorted her point of view and attacked her much more. Thus, I had a completely different reading than yours and you are welcome to drop me an email with details of comments you refer to and I will be happy to consider it. Let me add that, overall, the discussion between Amy and Scott and between Amy and a few other participants was a good discussion between people that simply have different views.

    As I said, Amy’s triumph in presenting a very humane, sane and reasonable feminist point of view was outstanding, but it did not mean “defeat” for others. Scott’s description of his suffering as a teenage and his ideas on taking lessons from his experience were also good food for thought, and we even agreed at the very end that “mathcamps” and similar activities can make a big difference for nerdy kids.

    • Gil: Yes, I admit, I do have the moral philosopher’s (or for that matter, the mathematician’s) habit of trying to take stated principles to their logical conclusions, even if many people would regard those conclusions as “irrelevant” or “absurd.” (To take a different example: “People should have the right to own whatever weapon they want, since merely owning it doesn’t harm anyone.” “OK then, what about nuclear missiles?” “That’s irrelevant and absurd! I was talking about guns.”) Is this habit something I should apologize for?

      if you read my early comments, you’ll see many places where I went out of my way to praise Amy’s contributions to the discussion. Yes, maybe my tone did change did a bit through the discussion, but only *after* (what I perceived as) a bunch olive branches from my side that were met with thrown cutlery! 😀 In any case, talking about tone is of course less interesting than talking about rightness or wrongness of the ideas themselves. And I completely agree that Amy made a huge contribution; the discussion wouldn’t have been what it was without her.

      • Gil Kalai says:

        Dear Scott, thanks for the comment! Certainly there is no need to apologize for the habit of pushing stated principles (or what is perceived as revealed principles) to their logical conclusion, although, as Amy already said (#555), it might not be a great idea in social matters, (and we have to be careful about it also in scientific matters).

        I will double check that, but I think that what you perceived as thrown cutlery were not thrown at you but at some of your ideas and proposals (which is welcome, no?). Even the olive brunch metaphor, as to a former enemy, refers to an idea that was never disputed as your subjective feeling, but should not be accepted without better examination. The overall good discussion and the willingness of you, Amy, and others to discuss personal matters and experiences, which must have been painful (especially to you signing with your full name), is very appreciated. (I found it a little painful even to go back to memories which I was not going to share.)

        But most importantly, this is your first comment over my blog! We will find a way to celebrate that. 🙂

  4. Devos Kerry says:

    I second John. I left the discussion pretty early on, but reading Amy’s comments after your post I find them nasty, and politically dishonest to a certain extent. Feminism is a legitimate political movement about power structures. And as such, it is also legitimate to be against feminism. Radicals like Amy seems to assume anything except full embrace of the feminist ideology is a blasphemy. I obviously disagree.

  5. anon says:

    Has anyone found out what exactly Walter Lewin said to the underage girls? Do people know that word among women was to avoid Lewin? The people supporting him might shy away from him if they found out what exactly happened. By publicizing this case but nor saying exactly what Lewin did wrong, MIT and their lawyers are creating more problems than solutions.

    GK: Anon, we will certainly not going to discuss this question or any other aspect of the case over here.

    • anon says:

      The point of my comment was not to start a discussion of Lewin’s behavior but to call attention to how people are supporting him without knowing what exactly happened. The reasons that MIT cited for severing ties with Lewin have nothing to do be feminism. MIT says he acted inappropriately with an underage girl.

  6. Paul Beame says:

    Thanks for pointing out this discussion! I had read Scott’s original post but it was great to go back and get the insight from Amy’s (as well as Scott’s and your) points of view – I think that the disagreements on interpretations of what Amy and Scott had said in some comments were perfectly natural and I don’t think there is reason for either to be upset at each other – I had similar concerns on some of the wording. I found Amy’s argument about the normative value of MIT ceasing to host the Lewin lectures utterly convincing, independent of the issue of MIT avoiding bad PR for itself. (With more information it seemed that Scott’s position also moderated on the original issue.) Obviously, though, the discussion was so much more than that.

    I mostly read Amy’s and Scott’s and your posts but the overall sense of the others that I did read/skim was disturbing. If one were to take the posts as evidence, would it be any wonder that our field (broadly speaking) is not seen as welcoming to women? Maybe this would be a consequence of any honest discussion involving fear of relating to the opposite sex in which the vast majority of posters are male, but it seemed more than that. Maybe some were more vitriolic in tone because they believed that they were defending Scott from attack. I would say that the overall point of view that Amy espoused is not far from the mainstream of people I interact with and yet it was described as “extreme feminism” or “radical” by a number of posters. (Her position was nothing like what I associate with radical feminism, such as finding male bias in the intellectual basis of male-dominated fields of study.)

    We have a problem with gender balance in TCS and it isn’t getting better! We lag far behind Math, which has moved well beyond the 1970’s era discrimination described so accurately in Gioia De Cari’s “Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp Through M.I.T.’s Male Math Maze”. (Though I wasn’t at MIT then, as an undergrad Math major at Toronto in the late 1970’s, only 2 of my 20 classmates were women, and the attitudes described in the play were ones I heard about, though they were somewhat more extreme than what I saw.)

    The # of women attending major TCS conferences recently has been ridiculously low – 10-15% of all students and 6-10% of all non-students. The senior women in the field who graduated in the late 1980’s through the mid-1990’s seem to represent a disproportionately large portion of all women in TCS – which suggests a worsening trend in participation. (The Women In Theory workshop brought many more, mostly younger women researchers to STOC this year, which is a positive development. I hope that this will continue in 2015 at FCRC.) I suspect that some of the loss has been due to competition with other areas of CS, but I think that a lot is that we do a poor job in encouraging promising women – particularly those who are entering math at much higher rates – to study TCS. I also think that we have gotten complacent about being welcoming to women.
    You raised one specific issue early on in the discussion about university codes of behavior in the US and there were some follow-up comments but none that I saw got the heart of the matter. In the US at the undergraduate level, universities play the role of “in loco parentis”; and this is a big part of their selling point. This differentiates universities from the typical workplace, Parents who are paying the freight expect codes of behavior designed for the safety of their children. (As my father, who was an historian, would point out, this “in loco parentis” role goes back to the origins of universities and the terms of contracts between parents and faculty.)

    At my own institution, in addition to the usual Title IX rules on sexual harassment, the code does not explicitly rule out relationships but applies the following rule, which applies at all levels, not just to faculty.

    “No faculty member, teaching assistant, research assistant, department chair, dean, or other administrative officer should vote, make recommendations, or in any other way participate in the decision of any matter which may directly affect the employment, promotion, academic status, or evaluation of a student with whom he or she has or has had a familial, sexual, or romantic relationship.”

    • Gil Kalai says:

      Dear Paul, many thanks for your comment. I was also surprised by some hostility towards women in various Internet discussions in recent years as in this specific thread. Earlier I thought that bias against women in academia is mainly indirect, largely caused by members of majority groups preferring each other, but it is also possible that there is also some direct bias.

  7. dmoskovich says:

    A related important point (related certainly to Scott’s comment), which I don’t think anyone discussed, is that academics marry very late (perhaps there are statistics to back this up), and marriage and children are badly supported by the academic community for somebody who isn’t a tenured professor. If someone got married in high-school (or, for the sake of discussion, earlier- think Rabbi Yisroel Salanter), and “kal vachomer” if they had children, they would be unsupported for undergrad, grad school, etc… all support structures are for singles. This is one major factor which, I feel, discriminates against Haredim in education. I personally know a number of very intelligent and capable people held-back for such reasons, as I’m sure we all do.
    I have not seen any awareness of these issues in any university anywhere, nor any willingness to address them.

    • Gil Kalai says:

      Dear Daniel, The US university tuition are extremely high (even if you take scholarships into account) so this “cost of knowledge” by itself is very damaging to the cause of education, science, and their fruits to society and economics, and it also has a discriminatory effect. One thing that we mostly agreed in the discussion (both Scott, Amy and me, I think) is that the pressure, especially on women, in academia and in companies to bring children late is wrong. Specifically, I am not sure how the scholarship system in the US treats students who are also parents, and specifically what is the situation for Haredim. Of course, marriages of minors is legally forbidden now for very good moral reasons.

    • Orr Shalit says:

      Shalom Daniel,
      I just wanted to say that I agree that it is an important point, and deserves consideration.
      I also want to add that I think that if this is a hold back for young fathers, it is even more of a holdback for young mothers (“kal vachomer” Harediot, I guess).

  8. John Doe says:

    Really? You found her to be humane? I found her to be extremely obnoxious. How you can praise Amy is beyond me, and how Aaron can call himself 97% feminists baffles me. The only thing feminism has done is create more misogyny in the world. Feminists are chipping away at the presumption of innocence in the courts, they are actively censoring dissent and opposing anything that could potentially help men.

  9. Paul, there has been a Programming Language Mentoring Workshop organised in conjunction with the Principles of Programming Languages conference (2013, 2014, and the upcoming 2015 editions). The workshop is aimed at young researchers, typically senior undergraduate and starting PhD students. I was not aware of it till I attended POPL 2013 and saw the large group of young people, representing demographics I would rarely see in conference (more women, different ethnicities, etc.).

    My experience was that having such an event works both ways. Being accustomed to the standard gender ratios in programming language and applied logic conferences, seeing the workshop attendees at the main conference was a good reminder of what we will need to work towards and also helped me break from the feeling that the standard conference demographic was “business as usual”.

  10. Pingback: Scott Triumphs* at the Shtetl | Combinatorics and more

  11. kt says:

    Thank G-d for Amy! And thanks for this post. I enjoyed your comments, too, Gil, which is how I found this blog.

    Comments were closed on Scott’s blog, so I do feel moved to comment here. I found Amy’s contributions to be refreshing, honest, and reflective of some of my own experiences. Now I understand a bit more why many men in mathematics seem to react poorly when I start talking about these experiences. I still don’t understand *why*, quite, but found observing the reactions illuminating. (Gents, this is why many women avoid or don’t enjoy talking about women in STEM with just anyone; it can make a working relationship deteriorate quickly and mysteriously.)

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