Prepared remarks for 2017 CAP Congress equity panel

Note: I only got to use some of this material during the panel.

About me

Kia ora -- gidday! I hail from Aotearoa, later known as New Zealand. I grew up in Kai Tahu territory on Te Waipounamu, in the city of Christchurch and amongst the Southern Alps. Today as I stand here in Katarokwi, also known as Kingston, I acknowledge that I am a settler immigrant standing on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabeg peoples. (My apologies for my beginner pronunciation.) As we commemorate 150 years since the founding of the Anglo-Franco settler nation of Canada, I also acknowledge that reconciliation with Indigenous nations is going to require a lot more effort and money than a few slick press conferences featuring a photogenic Prime Minister.

So - why am I on this equity and inclusion panel? Three reasons. I have years of lived experience of

My given name is Amanda. In Latin, it is a feminine name and means beloved. In Sanskrit, another great world linguistic tradition, it is a masculine name and means bright, like the harvest moon. I really like both meanings.

Smashing binaries

I am a nonbinary transgender person. Being transgender means that my gender is different than the one guessed by my parents and the hospital where I was born. Being nonbinary means that I combine some aspects of femininity and some aspects of masculinity together into a coherent custom third gender. My government IDs like my Ontario driver's licence and NZ passport show X gender, which means unspecified/indeterminate, not F or M.

Did you know that the way we think about gender is not universal worldwide? The belief in an either-or male-female gender binary is most exaggerated in White cultures. Some world cultures actually honour and celebrate nonbinary gender identities - wow! :D Sometimes I feel envious of them, but cultural appropriation is wrong, so I don't use the term two-spirit for myself.

Humans love to binarize every damn thing in order to simplify it cognitively. Male or female? Friend or foe? Equity maven or dinosaur? Framing everything in such black-or-white terms pixelates the universe -- coarse grains it very bluntly -- when life is in fact more like a beautiful high-res Ansel Adams photo in glorious greyscale. Equity and inclusion are also not a binary. They aren't properties that you either possess or don't; they are processes.

You may despair at the thought of contributing to equity and inclusion on a long term basis. This fear probably originates in privilege, which is the word for when you don't have to do inclusion emotional labour just to survive. But take heart: being inclusive isn't a binary either! Like with any skill or good habit, we can improve with practice. We each have a professional duty to continually improve our batting average. We also have a duty to not be a bystander when minority groups report exclusion.

If you really want to know how gender and physics interact, you should raise funds to convene a workshop composed solely of trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming physicists and astronomers -- and make sure that a good fraction of us are racialized folks. We could probably brainstorm a great report on the subject. I dare you to advocate for this with any national or international forum in which you have influence.

Equity and inclusion

Academia is a business. Whether or not we like this system (and I don't), at a human resources level it is very clear that improving equity and inclusion is good for business. Students and employees who feel acknowledged and supported at work are more productive.

Most physicists at PhD level or above understand the HR value of internationalism. We can all think of universities in various industrialized countries that produce great physicists. But we should have a more ambitious goal for equity and inclusion: pluralism. Pluralism has three fundamental facets: (1) recognizing more than one set of fundamental principles, (2) fostering independent cultural traditions of minorities, and (3) sharing power with people who are different from us.

Discrimination is a multi-level beast -- it happens institutionally, ideologically, and interpersonally. Please don't make the rookie mistake of believing that the interpersonal kind is all there is. We need to be interrogating our institutions and our ideologies as well as our individual behaviours in the workplace.

Understanding equity and inclusion more broadly is about noticing that there are many dimensions of human identity. Aspects of our identity like gender, sexuality, race, disability, marital or family status, etc., can be thought of as axes in a multi-dimensional space. What makes human societies complicated is that different facets of our identity have enormous variation, and are inseparably coupled -- with couplings of order one. Perturbation theory is out of its element here. To try to decouple sexism from racism, in particular, is a serious theoretical error.

Here's a depressing related fact I heard from CEWIP members in recent days. The percentage of women in physics at various levels of seniority has not shifted all that much in the 17 years I have been a faculty member in Canada. To put it bluntly, progress on gender equity in physics in Canada has stalled. I suspect that this is happening because we are not thinking about gender in new ways -- we are using the same old framing, the same old set of worn-out assumptions about the nature of femininity and masculinity -- so it stands to reason that we end up getting the same disappointing results.

Most researchers studying gender and physics make two major analytical mistakes of narrowness: they assume that White masculinity is the default identity for a physicist, and they then rely on a binary gender deficit model to conceptualize what women don't have and to set about fixing their deficits compared to men. Doing more and more studies framed by the binary gender deficit model is likely to only reinforce the status quo. To break out of this rut, we need an external kick to our dynamical system. If you have served on a Gender Issues Committee or similar, have you ever read a book by a Black woman author? An Indigenous woman author? A trans woman author? A disabled woman author? Physics gender discussions need to go wider than White FeminismTM.

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.
-- Chinese proverb.

For a very long time in physics, certainly longer than my lifetime, physics has been dominated by wealthy, healthy White men who are cisgender and heterosexual. I am here to state emphatically that none of these identities is normal or the default in physics. Feminine and nonbinary folks and our priorities are just as normal as men are. Racialized folks and their priorities are just as normal as White folks are. And so forth. The only way to make systemic level change is to be willing to decenter masculinity and Whiteness in the culture of physics in 2017. Did you know, for example, that Snell's Law wasn't actually discovered by Snell? It was discovered centuries earlier by Persian scientist Ibn Sahl in 984 at the Baghdad court. So we should call it Sahl's Law, and do more in our university physics classrooms to highlight the contributions of Persian scholars.

Use your research skills to learn about inclusion. Google concepts like implicit bias, impostor syndrome, stereotype threat, academic kindness, and trauma informed teaching practices. What do we mean by trauma? It occurs in big lumps known as major traumas. It can also impact a person like a death of a thousand cuts, each of which is only of order ε. The thing about a problem of order ε is that, if you integrate for a time of order 1/ε, you get something of order one. This impact can be just as bone wearying and stressful on a human organism as one big trauma. There, that wasn't so painful, was it? You just learned about the theory of microaggressions!

Phenomena to be on alert for

Hiring token representatives of a minority group does not guarantee inclusion. Tokenism primarily benefits the organization by showing that it can hire the diverse person. Success of the individual, and the under-represented group they belong to, depends on tangibly supporting them after they arrive in a pluralistic way.

Watch out for who gets centred in a discussion. Political correctness is code that powerful people use when they're annoyed that a conversation isn't being centred on them. They like to dismiss inclusion discussions as identity politics. These are just two examples of how privileged people centre themselves relentlessly. They should learn to listen more: we have two ears and one mouth for a reason! When someone is proposing change -- or lack of it -- always ask: Who benefits?, Who decides the rules of the game?, and follow the money.

When human rights controversies flare on university campuses, also watch out for the dual rallying cries of the alt-right (a politer word for neo-Nazis) -- freedom of speech and academic freedom. Remember: laws protecting those freedoms exist primarily to prevent government interference in individual political or academic business. They were never intended to be used as general-purpose shields against accountability for your actions. When someone privileged gets called out for an -ism sin, it is critical to remember that this is not an accusation in a court of law, nor are there jail penalties at stake. Presumption of innocence is not appropriate -- that legal protection exists to prevent people from being falsely imprisoned by government, not as a way of avoiding adult accountability for your words and actions in personal interactions with other human beings. Don't be that privileged person exhibiting Privilege Fragility -- that loud wailing emitted when held accountable for being an asshole.

When loud voices claim that debate is the way forward in an inclusion controversy, be on alert for false balance. Usually, one side is proposing to openly dehumanize the other for fun and profit.

We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.
-- James Baldwin

Beware of any equity exercise that consists of temporarily rendering able-bodied people disabled for a day. The problem is that this centres the abled person in disability narratives. Afterwards, the abled person feels qualified to comment on the disabled experience. This is ass backwards. What needs to happen on disability issues is for abled people to shut up and listen to disabled voices. Even if you have overcome other obstacles, you cannot truly understand a form of oppression unless you have lived it. By analogy, it is not necessary for men to try on sexism for a short period to certify that sexism exists; it is enough that women say that it does.


The best known disabled physicist on Earth is Stephen Hawking. His disability is (currently) obvious at a glance. Some disabilities are invisible, which makes them trickier to negotiate socially. Many able-bodied folks make a snap judgment that the invisible disability must be invented in order to gain sympathy or other perceived advantages. But it is not up to onlookers to decide whether a person is disabled: health privacy law says that is a private matter between us and our doctor. Breaking down the stigma of disability, on the other hand, is a joint responsibility that everybody shares.

How do able-bodied folk generally react to disability in their midst? Usually with some degree of discomfort and avoidance. These behaviours are obvious even in small children. Among adults with more nuanced reactions, there are two common themes. One is pity. The other is to call us courageous or inspirational for struggling daily against the Sisyphean task of our everyday lives. In both cases, the person with the disability is looked down upon. This is unhelpful, because the person has already figured out many clever solutions to everyday challenges and is uninterested in being lionized for it. Disability may take as much time to manage as having a family, but it is part of life.

How about mental health ableism? This is still a really taboo topic on campus, but we need to talk about it in 2017. In the current economy, academia is increasingly an engine that runs on the fuel of anxiety. And mostly, this means the anxiety of the precariat. Undergrads worry about whether they will do well enough in their courses; grad students worry about whether their Ph.D. thesis will measure up; finishing Ph.D.s and postdocs worry about finding their next temporary contract; early career faculty drive their health into the ground working to earn tenure. This is probably not an emotionally sustainable ecosystem, and it certainly isn't what intergenerational justice looks like.

How can able-bodied folks help reduce ableism? Here is a concrete example to which we can all relate: an older family member or friend who is hard of hearing. We understand that they may not want to admit to a hearing impairment because of the stigma or because they worry that people will stop wanting to talk to them. We also know that the person after hearing loss is no less intelligent than before: it was their hearing that went, not their mind or personality. The environment clearly needs to change to accommodate this person in their everyday life. Using microphones and amplification is a suitably inclusive response, as is learning to enunciate better and move your lips clearly. A session chair in a meeting room can easily repeat an audience question into a microphone so that everyone can hear it along with the speaker's mic. Other examples are easy to brainstorm with a little imagination. Also, try downloading and reading this terrific pamphlet on disability inclusion.

I have also written about disability in academia here, here, and here.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects & enhances the freedom of others.
-- Nelson Mandela