Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fantastic example of academia at its nastiest.

There was a mention of this over at FSP, so I looked up a link.

I did not know the text of the emails from Susumu Tonegawa to Alla Karpova was available on the web.

These are a great example of how, to an outsider, it might not be obvious just what is going on in academia on a regular basis.

Anyone who thinks women are on an equal playing field, I'm sorry but you need to think again.

It's important to keep in mind that, like cockroaches, by the time you see one, there are hundreds or thousands more where that came from.

I guess I think it's kind of funny that this Nobel Laureate was so threatened by a junior female potential hire as to tell her not to join MIT. What a spineless loser.

And oh, the emails I would post online if I could do it anonymously.

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At 12:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I suppose that's one way to look at it. Did you ever think there might be other ways to see that incident?

Oh, I fogot. You know all the answers.

At 2:15 PM, Blogger Drugmonkey said...

I'm not seeing the sexism angle here. Looks like garden variety institutional politics (competing "institutes" within MIT).

that business about tonegawa's lab refusing to collaborate with Karpova could either be the above politics pure and simple, pretty normal (if jerky) professional competition issues or both. this looks selfish, petty and unprofessional but sexist? Agreed MIT has some history in this regard but there's no specific evidence here. heck, even Zuska's posts from back then don't seem to have any specific accusations on the gender front- apart from the fact that this junior scientist caught in the senior scientist pissing contest happened to be female...

At 3:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Indeed this is a perfect example of academic nastiness: kind words followed by stabbing motions. But what is the evidence that it is sexist as opposed to merely ugly behavior?

I'm not arguing that it wasn't sexist, just saying that I did not pick up sexist vibes from this email exchange (I'm a professor and have certainly picked up sexist vibes in other situations). In fact at first I had the idea (no clue why) that the exchange was between two women.

Is Tonegawa known to be a sexist? Or are we supposed to assume that nasty behavior to a woman is automatically due to sexism? If so, this would seem to raise a lot of false positives -- I mean that I have seen plenty of unjustified attacks against men as well as women.

At 5:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah, but think about it this way. if she had gone there, despite his attempts to keep her away, he would have made her life that much more miserable. she's better off, really.

At 5:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read the emails and I think that you are delusional about the role of gender in the interaction. I think If Alla were Allan the response would have been the same. The two parties have competing research teams. They are funded by different people. It would be possible, but extremely akward to accommidate both teams. Stop looking for evil men who repress women in every aspect of your life. I think this is not very healthy for you. There are plenty of good mentors who happen to be men in science. Stop expanding your bad experience to the rest of the world. I am sorry that you are having a bad experience in your lab. You can find plenty of others who have problems...still ens more are having positive experiences...start seeing them!

At 8:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do you think this is a gender issue?

At 9:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ehh, I read the emails. what does it have to do with Alla being a woman? nothing. It's all about politics and the type of fierce competition that exists at the high power schools.

get that chip on your shoulder looked at.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

In response to all of you, I challenge you to give me ONE, just ONE, example of a similar exchange documented like this between a senior male institute director and a junior male faculty candidate.

Or, and this is really a laugh, between a senior FEMALE institute director and a junior male faculty candidate.

I don't think you'll find evidence for either.

One of the major issues is that there are very few women even in the types of positions that would allow them to do this kind of thing to junior faculty candidates. So the reverse is highly unlikely to occur just because of that.

I certainly don't think you'll find anything between two men with the tone of these emails.

Tonegawa's email tone is blatantly colored by his impression of Karpova as 'charming." NOBODY refers to young male faculty candidates by how charming they are! He goes on to comment on her 'maturity' and says he is 'fond' of her.

Have any of you ever been treated this way? I am presuming that you are all, or mostly, male anonymous commenters.

As someone who has been treated this way, I can tell you that it was sexist. Across the board, whenever I have experienced treatment like this, my female colleagues did too, but our male colleagues did not. There are enough data points to see a clear correlation.

At 1:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i would not have been able to gather myself so quickly to respond to that email. she replied after 3 hours! i guess that is why she was a candidate for a position at MIT and i am not ...

At 2:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

With arguments like those, I think you would be a fine addition to the scientific staff at the Discovery Institute.

To see sexisim in every negative interaction between a man and a women will ensure unhappiness for the rest of your time on this earth. Sometimes nasty academic politics is just nasty academic politics. I have the benefit of being in a department with good representation by women at all ranks. I see plenty of nasty sh*t happen between people of different ranks, including incidents where a senior female has attempted to undercut a junior male. And she didn't call him charming, either!!!

At 6:08 PM, Blogger chall said...

I must say that I got a little of the sexism vibe from the email, mostly because he wrote the things about "her being charmning and mature" although he didn't want to work with her. I have never encountered that to a younger man (more in terms as 'eager and hungry, maybe a little too hot headed and willing to cut corners').

However, I think you can find some few older female profs that could treat young female scientists the same though... but that doesn't mean this is bad, just that it can be bad in other places too.

I am however, quite shocked that he could write the second email to her and that she really tried (?) not to be blunt in her reply to him saying she liked the remarks...

Most of all, I don't really understand how he could argue that they could work together but not if they actually shared a building, ah well - I do kind of understand it but to me it just seems more of a "I am scared of your competition and I don't want to collaborate".

Good she got another position!

At 6:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In response to all of you, I challenge you to give me ONE, just ONE, example of a similar exchange documented like this between a senior male institute director and a junior male faculty candidate.

Or, and this is really a laugh, between a senior FEMALE institute director and a junior male faculty candidate."

You have absolutely got to be kidding here! Do you really think that female PIs (most of whom have a fair streak of bitch in them. And I'm not being sexist here, most male PIs are assholes) never mistreat their competitors, underlings, etc??? Come on Ms. PhD, don't oversimplify everything into Good (women) vs. Evil (men). As tempting as it is for you to believe this, it just isn't true.

At 7:35 PM, Blogger Matt said...

"In response to all of you, I challenge you to give me ONE, just ONE, example of a similar exchange documented like this between a senior male institute director and a junior male faculty candidate."

This is obviously an absurd request. It is likely impossible to find a similar exchange because these things are supposed to be CONFIDENTIAL as was noted in the emails. However, if all such dealings were made public record, then I'm sure this would be a trivial task because there are people like Tonegawa at every school. If you are in acedemia long enough you will anecdotally hear many stories like this.

"Tonegawa's email tone is blatantly colored by his impression of Karpova as 'charming." NOBODY refers to young male faculty candidates by how charming they are! He goes on to comment on her 'maturity' and says he is 'fond' of her."

There is nothing overtly sexist about the use of these complimentary words. You are only construing them that way as a result of your inherent prejudice. If that is your only evidence that Tonegawa discriminated against her because she is a woman, then try again please. I repeat my previous comments that this is all about politics and top tier scientific competition, not Alla being a woman.

I have never experienced sexism in acedemia, but I'll take your word for it that it exists. However, this exchange of emails is not a good example.

At 8:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Thats your response? An email conversation + your worldly experience = sexism. Maybe it was racism. Can you tell difference here? I hope your lab work is more stringent than your blog.

Good luck and I hope you can get yourself together, but I can't take anymore of this. Its becoming a train wreck fascination for me and that just isn't healthy.

At 9:02 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Words like 'charming' and 'mature' are not "complimentary", when used in a professional context. These are words used to describe well behaved children, rather than respected colleagues.

See this reference (I saw it mentioned on another blog, apologies that I don't remember which one):

Trix, Frances, and Carolyn Psenka. "Exploring the Color of Glass: Letters of Recommendation for Female and Male Medical Faculty." Discourse & Society 14, no. 2 (2003): 191-220.

You should be able to get it online through your university's library.

The gist of the article (and many others like it in the literature), is the very harmful tendency to refer to irrelevant personal characteristics when describing women scientists. This tendency undermines women as professionals and indicates disrespect. It can be used for intimidation and has been used successfully in many instances to block women's careers in fields like science.

In contrast, male scientists are discussed in terms of their achievements, skills, and success, all of which connote collegial respect and admiration.

Yes, this is sexism, but maybe it's too subtle for an instrument as blunt as yours.

Suffice it to say that, in the great words of Dave Barry, I'm not making this up.

At 9:28 PM, Blogger Breena Ronan said...

Ms phd isn't the first person to see sexism in those email, so claiming she is being "delusional" just reinforces her point. When a woman gets tough or insists on her fair share she gets labeled a bitch. Many men assume that they can get away with that type of crap with a woman because she will be 'nice.' It's the same with students, they try to pull grade grubbing crap on you because they assume that as a woman you will be a pushover.

At 9:31 PM, Blogger Drugmonkey said...

i thought all that compliment stuff was a ham handed attempt to appear nice while he knew he was really being a complete jackoff... kind of results from my assumption that what this was really about was the inter-institute politics rather than the gender issue. as if tonegawa knew perfectly well how it was going to look and was trying hard to create some posture that he thought would pass muster. I wouldn't be surprised if this was almost a direct quote of everything he was saying internally to the dean, search committee, etc. it has the tone of a carefully constructed story... "oh, I just LOVE the candidate, she's fantastic. it is just SO unfortunate, you see, ...."

At 9:51 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Drugmonkey, I'm sure you're right, and I'm sure there's a word to describe this gender schema-based type of anti-compliment, I just can't remember what it is right now.

I just got finished reading the report from MIT's committee (you can find it on the web in pdf format). While they claim that gender was not "the" issue, probably because so very many other embarrassingly horrible things were revealed about the politics at MIT, they did admit that this incident would seriously damage their ability to recruit - particularly women - candidates in the future.

This amused me. MIT certainly hasn't done enough to mitigate that problem! And I sincerely doubt they will anytime soon.

I also know that Tonegawa is no longer head of the Picower Institute.

Speaking of, did you hear about Watson?
Heh heh heh. The guy's been a raving misogynist for decades, but he's only forced to step down when he says something racist. Gotta love it.

At 11:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Words like 'charming' and 'mature' are not "complimentary", when used in a professional context"

Of course you're right and I'm embarrassed that I didn't pick up on this (I'm poster #3 above).

Blog on...

At 6:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Saying that it's "delusional" to suspect some level of sexism is wrong - but it's also wrong to assume this is anything more than an asshole senior faculty trying to pull a stunt to prevent competition within his own community. While it's unusual that these emails leaked, I don't think this type of communication is unusual, regardless of the genders involved. And the sad thing is, it worked in this case. The single best thing this woman could have done, given the circumstances (tons of active recruitment and support coming from the university, minus this one individual), would have been to accept the position and prove everyone wrong. In the end, if this guy stood in her way and made collaborations or professional relationships difficult, it would bring to the surface what a jerk he really is.

It's a mistake to read "sexism" into everything unfortunate that happens to women. It's too often used as an EXCUSE as to why we don't get the jobs, or the grants, or whatever. Time for that to start, and it starts with the (correct) assumption that we are just as qualified and will be treated that way, given that we see it in ourselves.

-FEMALE scientist

At 11:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I agree 100% that it's pure nastiness, I don't necessarily see the "sexist" component in the emails. don't get me wrong, I AM a female scientist, if nothing else, I went to school with plenty of super jocks and a-holes, in a field traditionally run by the good old boys' club; i have seen/experienced plenty of sexist behavior in the past. However, if I were to read the emails without knowing the gender of the sender/receiver, I could totally believe it being between 2 males/2 females or any combination. Perhaps I am naive and I don't usually read too much into things, I don't see the use of terms like "charming" or "mature" being sexist. I mean, what are you supposed to say otherwise? it's not like he said something like "the biol dept is considering you as a potential candidate because you are such a hot chick"...(and I am not joking, trust me, I have heard comments like these in real life). I think while we should be sensitive to the gender inequality issue, I do agree that it's not entirely healthy to go overboard with the "evil male" vs. "poor women" notion. I have also met plenty of evil women in my career, and sometimes I am shocked by how much nastier they can be towards other women than men are. Regarding the Karpova v. Tonegawa incident, however, i have to say it sounds to me more like nasty politics than anything else, maybe there's a sexist component to it but i certainly didn't pick up on that from the emails.

At 11:32 AM, Blogger Drugmonkey said...

um, yeah, I heard about Watson.

This is far from his first objectionable comment that could be characterized as racist. He's also an old hand on the look-ist front (genetics can cure fat and ugly!). so this has more to do with a weird confluence of events that leads to one exemplar of what he's been doing for years turning into a media wildfire. less to do with whatever he's said of specific offense this time.

I've come to the belief that it is fair game to pile on Watson for this. Not because it questions why "we" didn't pile on him for any particular prior comment. But because this has broader implications and it happens to have the mass attention at the moment. It is essential to create the image of universal disapproval, imo.

also why it was good to pile on Tonegawa, although apparently it was not originally enough if one such as yourself never picked up on the first media and bloggo storm....

At 1:14 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Dear FEMALE Scientist,

As someone who has taken jobs anyway to try to prove everyone wrong, I can tell you that it's a very hard way to go. People don't like admitting when they're wrong!

Unless you have enough other people defending you, you're going to find yourself backed alone into a corner when the lion attacks, and there you are with nothing but a toy plastic sword.

Karpova is in no position to take on somebody like Tonegawa right now, so I think she made the smart choice. People usually don't leap at the chance to defend the newbie, even if they all know exactly what is going on. They're too afraid for their own jobs.

I guess my point is, I don't know what level you're at or what kind of experience you have with this, but I was like you once. I'm guessing you don't have as much experience with this as some of us do.

I'm guessing this is not the first time Karpova has encountered someone like this, so she knew what it was when she saw it. Academic science is tough enough without that kind of crap, and if there is somewhere else you can go, more power to you.

But since we can't do the control experiment, we can't be sure that sexism (conscious or unconscious) played a role in Tonegawa's attitude towards Karpova. I guess I find it interesting that some people are so defensive about considering the possibility that it might have factored into Tonegawa's behavior.

At 4:32 PM, Anonymous JR said...

Sorry, but I don't see any of your issues in these emails. I don't even see anything nasty. He is being straight up honest with her. Going to MIT at this time is not a good idea for both of them. He is not holding her back. He recognizes that she will find another position elsewhere. If anything I see another example of an inefficient academic system that has no strategy in hiring faculty and has no consideration for alignment with the current faculty. Just hiring the best of what's available is not always a good idea.

I would have loved to have more honesty when I was in academics. Usually I experienced passive aggressive back biting.

At 5:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if anybody picked up on the fact that Susumu Tonegawa's English is not native. As I was reading the email, it became very obvious to me that he has interesting ways of saying things. I totally agree that using words like "charming" and "mature" are for complimenting kids, not colleagues, and Tonegawa should know this. But maybe no one ever told him? I know that sexist issues are still extremely common in Japanese societies, even in upper class, and I'll bet you that Tonegawa IS sexist. But I don't know if the nasty email has sexist motives. I think the way he wrote it was sexist though.

At 6:18 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Yeah, I think you can only hide behind the "it's my second language" and "in my culture it's different" for so long. Tonegawa's English is very fluent, although I don't know how long he's been in the US.

JR, you are so right on some things and so wrong on others.

I would say he's not being honest with her, he's being self-serving. He can't read the future. This is actually quite typical manipulative crap. He's displaying his own insecurity while trying to bully her. "it would be bad for me" = insecurity. "it would be bad for you" = I will go out of my way to make it bad for you.

And who's to say it would be bad for either of them, except for his personality malfunctions.

Nobody can predict what they'll actually end up working on, and nobody can work on everything. Even when two groups decide to study the same thing, usually the only way they're going to overlap is if one of them is stealing from the other.

At least, that's my opinion. There are usually enough different approaches, and different questions to ask, and there should be plenty for everybody. Even in the smallest fields, you'll find that everyone thinks differently, if they can think at all.

It's the ones who can't think for themselves, the research equivalent of cheating off of their neighbor's exam paper, who cause all the problems.

I agree with you that the academic approach to just hiring the best of what's available is a stupid way to go.

Usually departments discuss ahead of time what kinds of expertise they need, and try to recruit for those areas.

Sometimes this works, and sometimes they hire someone who works on something else because of politics. Usually the intention is good, it's the execution that fails due to temptation and power struggles.

In this case it was especially screwy because the McGovern Institute wanted Karpova, but they didn't do a good job of talking to the Biology department or the Picower (I'm getting all of this from the committee report, I don't know about MIT but I have seen things like this before).

At 7:57 PM, Blogger yajeev said...

Very interesting comments, all.

I must say that I have read the blog entry and 26 subsequent comments before I actually read the linked correspondence.

I was surprised in reading the emails that nowhere in the comments for this blog that in addition to labeling Alla as "mature" and "charming", Tonegawa also used a variety of other complimentary words:
* intelligence
* energy
* engaging demeanor
* talent
* interacting
* enthusiasm
* candid demeanor

It seems to me that Susumu may in fact be sexist, and perhaps the use of "charming" and "mature" are indicators of this (though I would be happy to have such labels applied to me-maybe I'm an outlier). However, it seems to me that to highlight these two words exclusively borders on irresponsible analysis.

I think the clearest thing is that this man feels threatened by the potential of competition, and is doing his best to undermine the process whereby Alla is being recruited to campus. It certainly seems unethical and cowardly on that front, though there is not enough evidence for me to accept (or deny) sexism as a factor.

At 9:47 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Dear Yajeev,

Let's play a game. Tell me how you think the analysis of a list of adjectives works. Let's use a test list:

*easy on the eyes
*great teacher

Now tell me, is the presence of one irrelevant, complimentary, sexist comment sufficient?

Sexism doesn't mean that the person is incapable of seeing any good qualities. Far from it.

Just because someone says some nice things about you doesn't mean they aren't also influenced by gender schemas, which lead them to categorize you by a stereotype.

Totaling up adjectives implies that each of these characteristics is independently assessed at a cognitive level, but they're not.

Nice try though. Very pseudo-scientific.

At 12:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If only the academic science community reacted like this...

At 6:59 AM, Blogger yajeev said...

Thank you for considering and egaging my comments...

Pseudoscience, eh? I'm saying there's not enough evidence to convict. I hope that I'm being scientific.

As for your list, clearly "easy on the eyes" would be inappropriate in this or any related situation, and I would feel demeaned if such a term was used to describe me in this context. But, "mature" and "charming" are not self-evidently in the same category as "easy on the eyes".

As I said, he may very well be sexist, and the fact that 11 female colleagues have made this possibility clear supports that possibility. All I'm saying is that the evidence from these letters were not conclusive, and the inclusion of "mature" and charming" in his list of adjectives would have had no distinct (at least concsious) effect on me.

I will repeat that I believe his actions do betray an unethical and warped attempt at self-preservation. His tactics are not praiseworthy.

At 11:51 AM, Blogger yajeev said...

Hey, Ms. PhD...

In an ironic (or coincidental?) turn of events, check out the first comment someone left on my most recent blog post!

I tried to decide whether I felt honored or insulted... I think I am pleased with the comment, but I am clearly now biased by my immersion in this charming and mature debate and am ineligible to make a fair judgment.

I later corresponded with the commenter, and he ensures me that it was meant to be complimentary, but one never can tell...

Take care.

At 10:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, it appears sexist to me since he mentions things like "fond" of her, and "charming". These comments would mean to me that he is "diminishing" her and being patronizing. This person is a jerk.


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