Doing/Trying Diversity

The thing, or at least, one of the things about moving a movement or an organization towards greater diversity is that it involves tradeoffs, especially initially. You are changing your current way of doing things—this is not simple.

I mean, sometimes it is, right? You make it easier to find your maternity policy, or you use gender neutral language in your application, or you stop having all your off-work events in bars. But sometimes it means writing your maternity-leave policy, or changing your working hours schedule, or having really awkward conversations over and over and over with your current employees.

I think that it is sometimes okay to decide, yes, we want this change eventually, it is important to us, but right now the tradeoff seems so costly that we cannot do it.

But decisionmakers—sincere ones!—can lose the benefit of the doubt when their public calls about the need for diversity are paired with private decisions that the tradeoffs in this case (and this one and this one) are too high.

Wanting to have a diverse organization is easy. Actually doing it is hard.

Some examples:
1) Organization Alpha works with families near the poverty line. They would really like to hire more people on the frontlines who have been there—men and women who are living pay-check to pay-check, for instance. They frequently hold career fairs during working hours, because they don’t want their current employees to have to work overtime or arrange for extra childcare.

2) Non-profit Bravo works with a predominantly-male population. However, they’re seeing a disproportionately small number of women, even taking this into account. They’d like to have more employees who are women. They do not currently have a maternity leave policy—women must accrue sick days or leave.

3) Conference Charlie is concerned about the growth of [the field]—fewer and fewer young people are getting involved. They would like to increase involvement of students, by inviting them to a three day conference full of people who are enthusiastic and dynamic speakers. The conference takes place in a city that is small, but has many [field] enthusiasts. Student tickets are half price, at $300.


[Content note: rape, sexual assault exams, almost nothing else. ]
The organization I volunteer for is excellent and highly recommended. However, statements below should be taken as from me, not from them.

To the best of my knowledge, I’ve specified where I know that there is state-to-state variation and I’m speaking for Massachusetts

On the good days it looks like this:

I get a call from the woman supervising my shift. She’s on the same line as the SANE nurses who administer the rape kits. When they get paged to go to a hospital, we do too.
I pick up my bag (pamphlets, a binder of resources, phone chargers, fidgets, notebook, pen), head to whichever hospital called in.
The SANE and I arrive at nearly the same time—she isn’t tied up on another case.
The client is in a private room with a door that closes.
The nurses have been kind to the survivor.
Someone has told them what’s going on, who will be arriving.
We spend four hours or less going through the kit.
The client is alone or with someone who cares for them, who thinks this is worth doing and they are brave for doing it.
They have a place to go home to afterwards.
They have eaten that day.

Not all days are good days.

In Massachusetts, you do not need to have reported your rape/assault to the police to have evidence collected. This is not the case in all states, and not the case in adjoining states, necessitating that we ask survivors where their residence is located.

Some reasons I think the MA model is superior: it allows people in abusive situations to go into the hospital, document evidence of a rape, and then after leaving the abusive situation, involve the police. If you’re in fear for your life, or the lives of loved ones, this can be safer.

Rape kits, which are technically known as sexual assault evidence collection kits, are identical for everyone 12 and up—that is, they contain the same (in MA) sixteen steps of evidence collection.

Importantly, (in MA) anyone of any age can decline any step. A twelve year old can say they would prefer not to have any oral swabs taken and that’s that. Informed consent is gathered from the survivor, not the parent, in all cases over the age of 12. (I’m specifying there because I don’t interact with under-12s, and don’t know how it works).

I expected to find the children the hardest, but this has been surprisingly untrue. People—nurses, doctors, technicians have been around children. They often have children at home, or in their extended family. There are very few* circumstances in which these people can be persuaded that children deserved to be assaulted or aren’t interested in being helped.

This is not usually how people—nurses, doctors, technicians—feel about people who are homeless, or people who have abused drugs, especially if those people have been in the emergency room before.

The last time I walked home from a hospital after a case, I got catcalled. This happens maybe a third of the time—it’s usually late, I’m usually dressed up, the hospitals are downtown. This doesn’t make me feel better about the state of the world.

Home. I smell of hospital. All my clothes—no exceptions—go in the wash. Hot shower. Scrub. Soft clothes. I call in to the woman who sent my out, my supervisor. I talk her through the case—where I was, where the assault took place, how many assailants, what kind of assault, was the client safe, how did I feel, what staff were involved, how did they treat the client. I say the things, the details I don’t want my partner, my friends to have in their head. Sometimes I tell the same story twice, three times, repeating ’til the initial horror and revulsion has bled out.

I am pretty sure if you can’t forget the stories, you can’t live with this job. I do not remember the names, and this is a conscious choice. I call in the referrals (counseling, legal, case assistance) and put a penny in a jar and go back to my life: a party, a book, sleep, people who have never left bruises on my wrists, face, legs.

There are too many pennies.

This is a good summary of the steps of a rape kit.

*Sadly, exceptions in the case of teens who went to parties.


Source: Art of  Seamus Gallagher
Source: Art of
Seamus Gallagher

The bystander effect is really terrifying.

I got followed (loudly, publicly) today, by two men.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened, or the first time a large number of strangers in ear- and eyeshot declined to do anything. It was also very obvious: two men were shouting, making gestures, and pointing at me for an entire block in a crowded area.

I had headphones in, was not walking with them, and well, I don’t think most people’s conversational style with people they don’t know is “walk in front of them, at increasing speeds, while they shout and point”.

…I also don’t think most people know what to do when they see this happening. I hardly expect 15 or so people in the vicinity approved—several were women my age. To that end, here are some things that might have helped me either feel less trapped or bring the catcalling and following to end.

  1. Making eye contact at all. Highly recommended! I don’t live in NYC, and it’s not unusual for people in my part of town to make eye contact or smile as they walk by others. But as soon as there, ah, began to be a public discourse on my body and attitude, the people passing me wouldn’t make eye contact. This felt especially lonely and scary. A sympathy!face or eyeroll can make me feel as though there are people on my side. (This isn’t something I usually feel I can assume; I’ve also been lectured by strangers for being unfriendly when I told people catcalling me to leave me alone). When everyone goes to immediately pretending I don’t exist, it sends the signal that I’m doing something embarrassing or making a faux pas.
  2. Pretending as though you know me, and immediately starting a loud conversation. (Almost entirely directed at women/not-men, as it would take me a second longer to determine if another man was pretending to know me to be helpful, or part of the set of men catcalling me. I’m usually using a lot of my focus on staying calm.)
    “Hello Susie! Long time no see! How is work going for you?”
    [begins walking alongside the person]
    [chatter loudly until catcalling/unwanted conversation from catcaller stops. When I’ve done this it felt like it took about 30 seconds, but was probably more like 10 or less.]
    “Hey, sorry for being so strange, I just figured you wanted to not deal with the catcalling.”
  3. Depending on the level of escalation happening, loudly and obviously saying that you’re calling the police, etc.
    This instance wasn’t particularly severe (a previous one involved an enclosed space and someone yelling loudly and getting very, very close + giving signs that he might escalate to violence), but one available option is pulling out a phone and saying loudly “I AM CALLING THE POLICE NOW.”
    Downsides: you might not want to direct all attention towards yourself, which is a valid concern.

It seems possible there are things that people could say directly to the catcallers that wouldn’t escalate the situation, but I’ve never seen this happen, and I’m nervous to make suggestions that might backfire.

The Static-99 and Storytelling

[C.N. Rape, sexual assault, sex offenders, and almost nothing but that.]

The Static-99 is a ten question test intended to determine whether or not a sex offender will reoffend. I’m basically on board with the idea of trying to predict this better than we can get from our guessing/intuition. I did not, however, have high hopes for this Buzzfeed article on the Static-99.  I opened, the article expecting one of those anti-stats, people can do it better than any test, sorts of articles. Not so!

The Buzzfeed article tells a good story—man expectes to get out of prison, is committed to a psychiatric institution based on a predictive test (with the implication that the test is a betrayal of justice)—but I wanted more information:

The Static-99 helps decide which offenders are the riskiest, and looms large over civil commitment proceedings. It weighs a variety of facts about a sex offender’s past in order to predict the likelihood of future offenses.

More precisely, what the Static-99 predicts — with modest accuracy, at best — is the risk that men within a group of sex offenders will commit a new sex offense, compared to other members of that group. Experts agree that it’s a useful tool for managing sex offenders in prison — assessing which of them need higher levels of security, for example. But the way the test is used in civil commitment — to help make high-stakes decisions about offenders’ liberty after they have served their criminal sentences — is highly controversial. [emphasis mine]

You can’t just say it’s modest accuracy! What does that mean? Forgive me, Buzzfeed, but I cannot assume you are writing a statistically literate article. Cat pictures? Nobody compares. Statistical analysis? I’m gonna need some convincing. And—

The value of keeping monsters like Shriner locked away is clear. But few sex offenders are as obviously dangerous as he is. In general, rates of reconviction are low: Only about 5% of sex offenders are convicted of a new sex crime within five years of release.

Right, okay. But it’s also true that in general, it’s hard to prosecute rape and sexual assault. My city pursues criminal charges on roughly 1% of the sexual assault evidence collection kits which are filed. (That would be cases wherein the victim of sexual assault appears at a hospital within 1 or 5 days* of the assault, which is only a small subset of instances of rape.) Buzzfeed, you have so many articles on how hard it is to pursue conviction on rape cases. (Those articles from a fast skim of the last four months) Low re-conviction rates for sex offenders aren’t strong evidence that they’re safe! They might be, but this is not the evidence that will make me believe it. Low re-conviction is the expected outcome where it’s rare to convict at all.

But all of this is not to advocate for the Static-99. When I hear that the current test works like this:

Static-99 scores do not predict the severity of potential future offenses, however. Rapes involving extreme violence and the abuse of young children are lumped together with crimes like voyeurism and indecent exposure.

…I end up a little nervous and a little suspicious

My partner, Jesse, talks about the doing vs. trying distinction. If there’s an action which, when done perfectly, would improve the situation, it is important that in trying to implement it, you’re not screwing everything up. For instance: given the small number of people who can enforce the laws, it might make sense to use data to determine who is more likely to commit a crime, and to use those determinations. Except that it turns out that people are racist and have a lot of biases that are near-impossible to avoid! In attempting to implement a much better system, you could end up creating a new, harder to spot mess.

I support the idea of the Static-99-like test. My impression is that right now, parole hearings and probation decisions could be improved if we used a coin-toss method, and a test that had predictive power about future reoffenses and the severity of said offenses would be excellent. I’m wary of civil commitment, and especially wary of overconfidence given by feeling as though you’ve ‘proved’ that someone is dangerous.

Buzzfeed is telling a story, or a series of them, and I’ll admit, they’re stories that give me a visceral reaction. But the answers I’m drawing, and that I hope readers are drawing, is that this might be a failure of stats and trying.

A Fun or Maybe Terrifying Fact:

“In 1983, the United States Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Barefoot v. Estelle. In this case, the court decided behavioral scientists could competently predict that a specific criminal would engage in future violent behavior “with an acceptable degree of reliability.” What was that acceptable degree of reliability in 1983? About 33%.”



*In things which are shitty for male rape survivors, cis men will (usually) not be able to give physical evidence beyond 24 hours after a rape has occurred. If you are a cis man reading this, I would still suggest going in to a hospital for a kit because exceptions can occur.

Just Like Us

[Related: Empathy Isn’t Everything]

I have such mixed feelings about the “the homeless are just like us!” or “I am homeless but I have a law degree and speak 4 languages” (ie, this page) campaigns.

On the one hand, “people I normally ignore and resent are human like me*” is a fairly effective strategy. Expecting that the homeless guy you walk by has characteristics besides a ripe smell and modeling them as being like you—assigning them theory of mind—is probably going to mean you treat them better. You might be more inclined to think about them as a population in your city, consider them when forming opinions about public structures and funding, etc. If you see yourself, or people you value as being able to become homeless, you might be more concerned about social issues around homelessness.

But…the majority of people who are homeless are not like the picture at the link. They are not necessarily charming or have obvious high status components when you first meet them. And they still are homeless. I don’t think the system is suddenly fixed just because people who speak four languages are suddenly in houses. I anticipate that if people expect that behind everyone without a home is a story of brilliance or status with a plot arc that Hollywood would envy, they’ll be disappointed and uninterested when they find people who don’t have that. I worry that these campaigns are setting up a dichotomy between people who “deserve” to be homeless and people who are obviously homeless only because of a weird Princess Diaries style fluke.

A case I once worked on required filling out a lot of forms about smearing feces and urine with very little other known information. Whether or not that person also had a modelling career, they were going to be homeless and I would prefer they weren’t.

*see also: “women are our wives and sisters”

‘Foods Containing DNA’

There’s been a lot of hullaballoo about a GMO study recently. Specifically, this bit:

A recent survey by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics finds that over 80 percent of Americans support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA,” about the same number as support mandatory labeling of GMO foods “produced with genetic engineering.”

And it seems like everyone on my Facebook feed has paused to giggle about those stupid people who are so invested in how important labeling GMOs is, while being scientifically illiterate. So, in the interest of being focused on the less-fun details of the study, I leave room for that here.

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 11.12.01 AM



I pulled the details of the survey here.

Every month (!!) the FooDS survey opens and closes, asking people about what makes them pick certain foods (between December and January, the value of taste and price decreased). There are also ad hoc questions, which is where we get snarky.

The question was “Do you support or oppose the following government policies?” 

There’s one framing, where you see that 82% of the 1,000 participants said yes, they did support labeling when GMOs were present. And 80% of respondents then went on to the next question and said that yes, they supported labeling products with DNA present.

And sure, it’s fun to giggle at, and wow, does it make the labeling lobby look silly. But in that graphic that everyone’s passing around, let’s look at the other components of the question.

Do you support or oppose the following government policies?

A tax on sugared sodas.
A ban on the sale of marijuana
A ban on the sale of food products made with trans fat
A ban on the sale of raw, unpasteurized milk.
Calorie limits for school lunches
Mandatory calorie labels on restaurant menus
Mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.
Mandatory labels on foods produced with genetic engineering
A requirement that school lunches must contain two servings of fruits and vegetables
Mandatory country of origin labels for meat.

The full graph looks like this, actually:

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 11.12.01 AM

You’ll notice that every other government policy is actually a debated governmental policy.*

Tricking study participants is a time-honored tradition of psych methodology, but you have to trick them effectively, and I’m not convinced this is anything but a gotcha question. If you ask people to support or oppose a governmental policy and then bury one non-policy question in a bunch of actual policies they might have heard of, you are not actually doing excellent science. You are creating a popular Facebook graphic.

In fact, if you look at the chart, the number of people who support what could be called “general labeling of food” tracks closely, hovering between 69% and 86%. It seems more plausible that people, reading quickly through an online questionaire either got as far as “government policy which supports labeling—” and marked their support. They’re the sort of people who support availability of information to the people! (In fact, we do know that identity signaling impacts answering on survey questions, and that it takes strong incentives to get people to check answers that they know are correct but that support the ‘other side.’)

And say that, as the Facebook graphics seem to imply, that the high support for labeling food with DNA comes from scientific illiteracy, well, I’m still not convinced. (We are keeping in mind that if, as the study claims, the sample was representative in age of the population, ~12% of the respondents went to high school before DNA was taught, yes?) In a study where you, the participant, are assuming you’re supporting or opposing a governmental policy, and you see an acronym you don’t recall, do you support labeling foods that contain it, or no? Keeping in mind of course, that it’s likely you supported labeling in the questions that came before, I’d expect you to indicate your support.

* Citation: tax on sugared soda, ban on raw milk, ban on marijuana, ban on trans fats, max calories in school lunches, school lunches and quantity of fruits and vegetables (link is summary of current requirements, which is currently up for debate, as discussed in previous link), country of origin labels for meat, labeling of GMOs, calories on restaurant menus.



Bob, Alice, and Zero-Tolerance Policies

Related to: The Ambiguity Abyss.

There’s this failure mode that I think can hamstring organizers or leaders in a group that’s dominated by one demographic. Say you’re in a movement that’s dominated by men (I’m certain none of my readers have familiarity with this experience), and you are concerned about the potential for women to be made feel uncomfortable. In fact, you want to pre-empt this and signal that you don’t think it’s acceptable for harassment to occur. It won’t be tolerated, and you’d like both the women and men who get involved in your organization (or meetup group or conference) to know that you care.

So, you enact a zero-tolerance policy.

“[Organizers] has zero tolerance for harassing or inappropriate behavior towards attendees.  Behavior that makes our attendees uncomfortable will result in removal from the [conference, group, organization, meetup].”

And I think this is actually not the solution. It might be an anti-solution.

Let’s revisit Bob and Alice. (No actual relation to the Bob and Alice of the last story.)

You’lBob/Alice [standing too close version]l notice they’re standing a bit closer than the last time.

This is actually the whole problem.

1. Alice is new to Example Meetup Group*. It’s her first visit. Bob isn’t an established member of the group, but he’s been to a few meetups.

2. Bob is making Alice uncomfortable.  He keeps following her places and she’s not sure if it’s because he’s being intentionally overattentive or just doesn’t realize that she keeps turning her back on him because she doesn’t want to interact with him.

3. She’s tried some of the tricks like wandering off to the bathroom and making excuses to change position in seating arrangements. But, each time, it lasts for just a bit and then Bob’s back to joining any conversation she enters and standing right at her shoulder.

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 11.37.25 AM4. Alice finds it hard to pluck up the social confidence for meeting people or forming connections with Bob there. Each time she joins a group conversation she’s hyperaware that she’s being perceived as part of a pair: herself and Bob. Her one-on-one conversations are interrupted by Bob butting in to stand next to her. She worries that the other meetup attendees think they have some relationship, friendship or romantic, and that she will be judged not on her own merits, but on the fact that she’s choosing to associate with someone who keeps stepping into private conversations and ignoring social norms.

5. Alice wants the organizers to make it stop so she can make actual friends and not feel like she’s being babysat.

6. But Alice also thinks Bob is effectively harmless, if clingy and totally socially unaware. She doesn’t want him thrown out of the meetup, but she does want this to stop right now and leave her alone.

7. Nor does Alice want to be the girl who caused a fuss on her first day and got that other nice-if-awkward-guy tossed out. That seems a worse social penalty than being the girl who has a shadow.

8. So, Alice doesn’t tell the organizers. Instead, she spends the meetup tense and annoyed.

9. When Alice thinks back on the meetup, she remembers being ‘creeped’ on, and doesn’t know if it’ll happen the next time she attends.  The next Tuesday evening, she considers the inconvenience of driving ten miles to go to a group where she still hasn’t made close friends and might have the same Bob problem, and decides that it might just be easier to watch Netflix. Or maybe it’s not even quite so obvious: Alice just doesn’t feel very excited when she sees the meetup notification the next month. She doesn’t have a sense of this being a group of people who could like and appreciate her, because she never got a chance to connect to anyone directly.

So…the group loses Alice.

Okay, so what if Alice had gone to the organizers and explained what was going on?

As I see it, they’d be trapped between two bad options.

Option One: They throw out Bob. They don’t like doing it, but they did say zero-tolerance, and Bob was repeatedly making Alice uncomfortable. They’re pretty sure Bob wasn’t doing so intentionally, but their hand was forced. This might make others in the group deeply upset — they’ve been socially awkward! they didn’t think Bob was trying to make Alice feel bad! They didn’t notice anything wrong! Maybe the organizers lose respect or clout, and when they try to tackle a case of someone intentionally harassing others, they’re seen as having a propensity for being hypersensitive., and it’s that much harder to act. Maybe some of the disgruntled members split off and create their own group, and the original group dies.

Option Two: They hear Alice out, and talk amongst themselves. The organizers don’t want to be seen as hating on the socially awkward, and they have seen Bob at previous meetups, and he seems to be okay. In fact, they’re pretty sure that if they talk to him, things could be resolved. So, that’s what they do. However, they’ve also demonstrated that they’re willing to ignore their own stated rules of zero-tolerance. Maybe this is fine this time, but now the organizers have shown that they’ll ignore their own rules. This doesn’t set a good precedent if the organizers want other people to trust them to act, no matter how high-status the accused person in a complaint is.

Writing a longer, more nuanced policy is tricky, and I’d rather not sugarcoat that. I think pretending it’s easy to ‘just have a conduct policy’ only solidifies the idea that there are bunch of complicated rules you can’t see, and well-meaning people still won’t ever get it right. Here’s one I’ve assisted in writing and the ever-suggested Geek Feminism Wiki template.

*They meet up and talk through bad textbook examples.

Notes: a common response to stories like this (person is being over attentive and not taking hints, you don’t want them there) is to say “Well, what if you were direct?” I’ve done this. Almost every time, the ‘Bob’ in question has been apologetic or upset but amenable to leaving, because as it turns out, most people are wonderful and don’t want others to feel bad. However. More than once someone I thought was harmless-but-failing-to-leave-me-alone has reacted explosively, once putting me in physical danger, once following me while yelling. The second time was in front of a large group of bystanders, none of whom helped me. 

The lesson I got from this isn’t “all men can be dangerous” but it was that I can’t always expect being direct to result in a change I want. As a result, when I’m ‘Alice’ I find myself thinking not “I should be direct and hope this is a safe situation” but instead “hmmm, I wonder if he’ll take the next hint?” or “I bet if I went to the bathroom this time, he’ll be distracted when I get back.”