Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dear writers of the Cornell Critical Thinking Test*;

*Specifically, Robert H. Ennis and Jason Millman, authors of Cornell Critical Thinking Test, Level Z, 5th edition, (c)2005.

My name is Morgan and I'm going to try really hard to be diplomatic in this letter. It's hard, since I wrote most of it while I was still so angry I was shaking, after your "critical thinking test" left me feeling sick and invisible.

I am a first year engineering student at a Canadian university known for having a high percentage of female engineering students. It's one of the main reasons I chose to study here - to not be alone, and in the hopes of avoiding sexism.

Today we all wrote a critical thinking test - yours, to be precise. At first, it was kind of fun. I did notice that the first two names sounded rather old time British, but only in passing.

But by the time I was halfway through, the feeling that something was dreadfully wrong had taken root, and as I started to examine the test more closely, my confusion and anger only grew.

Where was I in this test?

It hurt when I realized what the problem was, like someone was ripping a part of me out, telling me I didn't belong where I want to go. And I know that sounds dramatic, but that's what it feels like to be invisible in your chosen field, so don't you dare dismiss my concerns as an overemotional reaction.

In case you were tempted to, I have the data to prove my point. Let's start with the gender breakdown of unique characters.

Male: 8      
Women: 5     
(+2 doctors, sex unknown - but likely presumed male by nearly everyone)

Doesn't sound too bad, does it? Let's dig a little deeper.

1A & 1B
2 men debate politics (ie. immigration)
Mr. Wilstings, Mr. Pinder
2 men argue public policy (ie. water chlorination)
Dobert, Algan
Discussion of an experiment run by 2 doctors, as well as a further experiment done by a male researcher
E.E. Brown, M.R. Kolter
Various short and colloquial conversation about definitions
Bill, Joan, Mary, Jim (also ‘his mother’ and ‘her father’)
2 married couples discuss discipline in childrearing
Mr. Dobert, Mr. Algan, Mrs. Dobert, Mrs. Algan

What may jump out at you, before any gender issues, is the rather white Christian bent to the names. Here's a graph to give you a better sense of the gender imbalance:

Women appear in only 2 sections
I really hope that you can see what's wrong with this, but maybe you'll be too busy pointing to the final two sections, which contain most of the characters, and crowing gleefully that women are fairly represented.

To which I can only say: bullshit.

First, to include women 'fairly' in only two of seven sections is not fair at all. And second, while sections 6 and 7 do have 50% female characters, the way these women are presented is nearly as bad as not having any women at all. In the case of section 7, it may even be worse.

Why? Gender norming.

Women have spent a long, long time fighting to be seen as people, to not be defined by their gender, and to stop the harmful policing of so-called typical gender roles. Sections 6 and 7 are a slap in the face to those ideals.

To begin with, these two sections are the ones with the least 'worldly power', for lack of a better term. They are colloquial conversations: no politics, no science. Clearly women can only exist in the home with kids, or when talking about kids. Now, I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that you didn't intend to say this when you wrote the test, but regardless of intent, that's what you're saying. 

In section 6 we have a mom who is clueless about cars, a generic girl named Joan, and a girl baking. It's so stereotypical it makes me cringe. The men are no better: a dad who is clueless about baking, a boy talking about cars and a generic boy named Tim. Can't we move past those rigid gendered prisons?

I didn't think it was possible, but section 7 was worse. It consists of four people discussing discipline in child-rearing. The male characters Dobert and Algan reappear - and now they magically have wives: Mrs. Dobert and Mrs. Algan. 

Maybe this was convenient for you, but it was heartbreaking for me. It was a dismissal of the last 100 years of history of the fight for birth names and the right to independence from men.

So in section 7, you may see two women, but I see two faceless Mrs. versions of previously presented men who are only permitted to chime in on a quasi social policy issue because it has to do with children's behaviour.

Those were my options if I wanted to see myself in this test: a mom, a girl who bakes, a girl named Joan with a single line, or two women defined by their husbands.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these characters - but when they are the only options for women in a test filled with politicians, scientists and debaters, there is a problem.

Was I angry? I was livid; I was trembling. I scribbled down all the information I could, knowing I would need facts to back up my feelings when I wrote this. I barely managed to finish the test. To claim that your test is a fair measure of critical thinking when it makes it near impossible for me to think at all is laughable.

If this test hadn't been presented to me in my first year engineering course and clearly copyright 2005... well, let's just say I would have believed my English teacher last year if she had brought this out as an example of bygone casual sexism when we studied The Handmaid's Tale. It was that bad.

An important note: the portrayal of women in your test is far from the only issues. As someone who is straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied and neurotypical, I won't claim to speak for other underrepresented groups. But I can talk to you with confidence about women, and I can certainly SEE the rest of the issues better by comparing them to my own feelings about being invisible as a woman.

I'm not here to tell you that every test has to show examples of every power minority. I doubt trying to legislate or enforce that would do anything but generate backlash against "political correctness". But when the test is basically all straight white men, YOUR BIAS IS SHOWING. And you should want to change that. (It might help if you weren't both - as far as I can tell from your names - white men.)

In my high school, a lot of teachers would use names of people from the class on tests. They couldn't make the names represent the world, but they could make sure they represented the test takers.

As writers of a test with a far larger audience, you have a responsibility to ensure a better representation of that audience. I don't care if it upsets some people - doing the right thing doesn't have to be popular!

Writing this, thinking back on the test... I just want to cry. In our first few days at university, we saw a series of skits to help us during orientation. One skit was just a "how people break stereotypes" and I laughed when they did "Just because I'm an engineer doesn't mean I'm stuck in the 1950s."

I laughed, thinking yeah, things have gotten better. OF COURSE we're not stuck in the 50s. I'm here, aren't I? But a whole lot of what I've seen since then has made me doubt that we're truly so enlightened as the men in charge claim.

I don't know how to eliminate sexism from the world, but fixing the gender imbalance in your critical thinking test would be a step in the right direction.

Morgan Hyde


Sorry readers if you wanted a writing post. I needed to get this out of my system, and I could also really use some advice. What do I do from here?

I'm going to contact the course administrator about this, I've decided that much. But I don't know what to say, nor how to say it so I have the best chance of making him get it.

And should I send it to anyone else? Should I edit it (more) first?

All I know is that I can't say nothing, especially in light of recent findings (opinion piece here) that show not just a lack of equal outcomes for women in the sciences (which could be due to any number of factors) but a lack of equal opportunity.

That's the key thing: if women don't have the same chance to excel in STEM fields, how can people look at gender differences in excellence in STEM fields and claim that discrimination plays no part?

Anyways, thanks for listening, and please let me know if you have ANY advice. Or supportive comments for when I talk to the prof. All much appreciated!


  1. You go girl. The only advice I'd say is let this letter sit for a day or two then go back over it. There's a lot of raw emotion, and it leaves it a little unorganized. that could work against you. Taking a mini-break might help you refine it so it's not so raw, but cool, calm, and collected. Cool, calm and collected doesn't exclude passion. I just don't want you to be written off as an angry student.

  2. This is awesome. Good on you for speaking up! It's never easy but always necessary. I had a very awkward debate with one of my instructors in my master's program because he included so few books or stories authored by women in his syllabus. It wasn't fun, but despite being initially defensive, the instructor DID make the course more inclusive after our meeting.

    This is so great. I agree with Secretly_Samus about going over the content later to refine it a bit into something more collected--more "objective" sounding, so that the professor/administrators don't dismiss it. But I think the overall flow of your points and the data you bring in is great.

    Keep it up! You rock.

  3. I think the letter looks great. I think you've done a great analysis here to show that it's a problem.

    Personally, I think you'd want to keep some of that emotion in the letter to show that you are upset by it, but I guess how much would be subjective, and you just have to balance the Upsetting Issue with Rational Argument, with You Can Work On This.

  4. You ABSOLUTELY have to send this in! And very well put. I say keep in the emotion. What are we? Automata that don't have feelings any more? Passion speaks.

    And if you think that's bad, try being non-white on top of all that, running your very own (very successful) IT consultancy (after/while completing 3 University degrees) and then being told by several people that you're "just lucky". Sigh.

  5. Argh, that is frustrating! I say keep the emotion in. When will people understand that women make up half the population and so they should be included more often?

  6. Hi! I've nominated you for a blogging award! http://musingsfromnevillesnavel.wordpress.com/2012/10/19/the-very-inspiring-blogger-award/

  7. Hi all, thank you so much for the supportive comments and advice... it meant the world at the time and still does.

    I've put a more detailed update here (http://onelifeglory.blogspot.ca/2012/11/open-letter-update-and-exciting-news.html) about what I decided to (finally) do with the letter, but to make a long story short I sent it to my prof, and now anxiously await his response.


    @Secretly_Samus: A day or two or a month maybe? :) I definietely took this advice into consideration, and pulled a lot of the snark out. As much fun & as cathartic as that was to write, it didn't meet the "professional request" tone likely to get me results.

    @G.B. Skye: I was so glad to hear a successful story about educating a teacher - helps calm the nerves so much. And thanks for thinking I rock :D

    @Jen: Thanks for liking the analysis - I spent quite a bit of time taking and organizing the data. I totally agree with making sure to have enough "you can work on this". I put a lot of that into the email I finally sent my prof, and saved the accusations for the attached letter.

    @Kaz: Thanks for the support! As for your story... I can't even imagine how tough that must be, and how hurtful those stupid comments are.

    @neville: To answer your question... probably sometime after we get half the power! Also, thanks for the award... I don't have the time to accept, but it was very kind of you.

  8. Great stuff; you tackled this really effectively I think.

    Cordelia Fine's book "Delusions of Gender" is FULL of citations and neurological study info that could further help bolster your letter. I might pick it up and see if something there can help broaden the base of your argument -- the skulls this needs to penetrate are remarkably thick!

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I've read Delusions of Gender, and loved it. I do agree that having some studies really helps make some people listen.