Tuesday, June 29, 2010

You Must Be Really Smart

(One of the other participants at the Women in Theory workshop brought up the following point during the question-and-answer session with Shirley Tilghman. It struck home.)

Before going to grad school, I taught middle school math for a year. Whenever I met someone new and they asked me what I did, I almost universally got the response "I hated middle school and I hate math." Encouraging, I know. I developed a standard response explaining how teaching middle school is not the same as actually being a middle school student again, and how middle schoolers are often nicer to their teachers (remember, we're not their parents) than they are to each other. I never did figure out how to address the second half of the response.

As a computer science Ph.D. student I get a very different response - "You must be really smart." It's been 5 years, but I still haven't figured out how to respond.

It never occurred to me, until pointed out last week, that male computer science Ph.D. students don't get this response. (You don't, right? I still find this shockingly hard to believe.) What's actually being said to me is, more honestly:

You do computer science? But that's a field that men do, and you're not a man so that doesn't make any sense! Men are just naturally better at computer science than women. And you're getting a Ph.D.? But that's something men do, and you're not a man! I guess the only explanation is that you must be really smart.

18 comments:

Peter said...

This male graduate student in CS got that response sometimes. I think it's a function of social networks (which is of course related to gender, but is related to many other things as well. If you happen to know people who feel intimidated by grad school and higher ed in general, then you will hear this.

A classic male nerd thing is to only know other male nerds, which might account for their perspective.

amazon roadtrip said...

That response has always bothered me. Why must I be really smart to do a PhD in Computer Science, but my female friend doing an English PhD could just be of totally average intelligence? I think you hit the nail on the head with your analysis.

GASARCH said...

I (a guy) also often get the
``you must be really smart''
response. It comes mostly from people who do not know any math wh think it must be really hard.
Math actually IS really hard, but I don't do the hard parts. That distinction is of course lost on them.

SO, the question really is, Do women get this response more? Hard to tell,
hard to measure. But if the response comes along with sexist comments (`I thought only guys did...') then YES that is a problem.

My aunt says
``My nephew Bill writes papers that only six people in the world can read.'' It would be more accurate to say
``My nephew Bill writes papers that only six people in the world want to read.''

David said...

That's an interesting point. I'm a male CS PhD and I never get this response, except from people who are BOTH 1. not in / accustomed to academia and 2. from my parents' generation. (From people who satisfy both of those, though, it's pretty common.) And I do know a good number of non-male-nerds, so it's not just that...

Anonymous said...

It never occurred to me, until pointed out last week, that male computer science Ph.D. students don't get this response.

Who pointed this out? It is false; I (a male) get this response all the time and I have seen male CS Ph.D. friends of mine get this response. Maybe some that you know don't, but some of us do. Similarly, maybe amazon roadtrip knows a female English Ph.D. who does not get this comment, but that does not imply that none of them do. My guess is that lots of male CS Ph.D.'s and lots of female English Ph.D.'s get this comment.

I think people are just trying to pay us a compliment, although I understand first-hand that it is an awkward compliment without an easy response. Maybe they just feel insecure and don't know what else to say because they don't meet many Ph.D.'s. And although we all know that the implication "X is a CS Ph.D. ==> X is really smart" is not always true, there is nothing sinister about non-academic friends and family assuming that it is true. In fact, science would be much better off if it were true that "the only explanation [for you being a CS Ph.D.] is that you must be really smart."

There's a lot of legitimate sexism in the world. It always bothers me to see such a serious issue cheapened when someone takes an innocent, if awkward, comment and lobs an accusation of sexism at it, despite the presence of legitimate and obvious alternative explanations.

Regehr said...

I've gotten "you must be really smart," but I don't think ever from a man.

Suresh said...

I don't get the 'you must be really smart' response. I get people who look knowingly at my brown skin as if to say, 'well what else could you do' ;)

Anonymous said...

I think its more of the mysticism of a phd than male/female issue. The average person has no clue what phd in CS is all about. As somebody that was under the impression that doing a phd does indicate high intelligence (till I got one and realized what a sham it was, and how I am the counter example to this claim), I can relate to this attitude.

And I still get "you must be smart" every once in a while.

John Moeller said...

I get this response frequently, and I still don't know how to handle it except to say "thanks" and change the subject quickly.

For what it's worth, however, I also get what you're saying. I probably just have the luxury of not noticing the discrepancy, but I'm disappointed to say that I'm sure it's there.

Jack said...

I get this comment frequently in social situations when I have to say a little about what I do. (Esp. if I talk about geometric application in areas they may use at a black box, like a GPS navigator.) My response is usually how I enjoy it the puzzle-solving or opportunities to create.

Guilherme said...

I also get this response quite often, so I don't think it's related to sex. I believe PhDs in other areas may hear it less often just because people respond with the first thing that comes to mind. When you say you are a Math Phd, that's "I hate math". When you say you are a CS PhD it's either "you must be really smart" or "you must really like computers" or "can you help me with my computer?". :)

Anonymous said...

I'm a male PhD student in CS and have also gotten that comment, and I know other male PhD students in CS who have gotten that comment. In fact, my general experience has been that many people who pursue a PhD get this comment -- whether or not it's in CS/math/social sciences/humanities.

With all due respect, your interpretation that people are making a sexist insult when they're actually complimenting you is bordering on delusional. I suspect that you would also decry having a door held open for you or a smile from a male colleague as examples of patriarchal oppression.

John Moeller said...

Wow. Exploiting anonymity to be a jerk! Surprise!

sorelle said...

I must admit, I'm rather thrilled to hear that men get this response too, though sad about the lack of understanding of both academia and computer science it might imply in the general public...

Thanks all for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I wasn't trying to be a jerk. I was simply expressing an unpopular opinion that could hurt me professionally, and thought it would be prudent to post anonymously.

Perhaps the tone in my previous comment was more acrid than necessary, and I apologize for that. I simply found the original post offensive and was reacting to it.

There are plenty of egregious cases of sexism in this world on which a light needs to be shined. I remember hearing a story second-hand back when I was an undergrad about how a professor yelled at a female student after she asked a question during an engineering exam. The professor apparently launched into a diatribe about how females shouldn't be admitted to engineering programs, and that the student's question demonstrated that fact. This is an example of sexism, not to mention an offensive and archaic attitude that needs to be eliminated from our culture.

However, when we become willing to accept that a person is a victim simply because he/she "feels" like a victim and can rationalize his/her victimhood through a convoluted line of reasoning -- that to me is offensive. Why? Because it justifies the fabrication of victimizers -- perpetrators who are responsible for the other person's victimhood. Who will be the unlucky person, or group that gets to play this role? This mode of thinking reeks of McCarthyism-style logic, and has no place in rational discourse.

T.T. said...

Dear Anonymous:

There's plenty of subtle, unconscious sexism, in addition to the ridiculous overt kind; see, e.g., Valian's Why So Slow?. Trying to impose a high bar—presumably one that screaming-at-women-for-being-allowed-to-learn just barely clears (you wouldn't have chosen that example because it's ten times worse than what you consider the Least Noticeable Unit of sexism, I'm guessing)—for evidence of sexism is misguided. In fact, in the long term, subtle sexism is going to matter a lot more (if it doesn't already): most of the outright sexists are likely to die off in the next couple of decades.

More generally, it's grossly arrogant for a member of a privileged group (in this case, men) to try to act as the gatekeeper for what counts as evidence of bias against people not in that group.

John Moeller said...

T.T.: More generally, it's grossly arrogant for a member of a privileged group (in this case, men) to try to act as the gatekeeper for what counts as evidence of bias against people not in that group.

Well put.

Anonymous said...

I'm a male Ph.D. in CS, and also get "you must be really smart".