While I like jellybeans, I loathe the licorice ones. So if you hand me a bowl of mixed-flavour jellybeans to enjoy, I’ll do my best to clear away the ones sitting on the top. Unfortunately, the remainder are now buried under jellybeans that I do like, so I have to be more careful when grabbing from the bowl than I was initially. Worse, because these jellybeans are rarer and more obscure, it’s easy to believe they’re all gone and get careless when grabbing a handful. This doesn’t have to be a conscious process, either, which can make it very surprising when I hit that distinctive flavour.
Something similar occurs around social justice. So you’ve decided to let women into university? Great, but now that you’ve solved the obvious problem what about the less obvious ones, like unconscious exclusion in admission rates? Oh, you solved that too? Great, but what about less obvious problems like differential hiring or chilly climates?
Seeing your work and your name in the news is exciting. But seeing yourself identified with the wrong gender is demoralizing. Sloppy reporting to be sure, but why does it matter? The women who set the path before I came along had to deal with much more egregious social norms and behaviors. By comparison, these “small” things hardly seem noteworthy. However, even small things add up over time to create an environment that makes it clear when you’re an outsider. […]
If only these were isolated incidents, maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but many women in science still face the death of a thousand cuts.
This is the inevitable arc of justice: the obvious problems get solved first, then the less obvious ones, and eventually you’re left with small, systemic issues that are easy to ignore or dismiss, and difficult to handle even when you know what to look for. Everything tends towards a death by a thousand cuts.
Don’t dump the entire bowl out looking for those rare licorice jellybeans, but don’t be surprised if one pops up either. Likewise, if someone tells you of a problem that you can’t see, don’t dismiss it out of hand. That’s precisely what you’d expect if the obvious problems had been more-or-less dealt with. Don’t drop the necessity of evidence, either, but in this particular case that’s not an issue.