ADVERTISEMENT
  About the SA Blog Network













Doing Good Science

Doing Good Science


Building knowledge, training new scientists, sharing a world.
Doing Good Science Home

In which I form the suspicion that I am not Nature’s intended audience.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Email   PrintPrint



Without the benefit of lots of time for reflection or analysis, my off-the-cuff reactions to Ed Rybicki’s piece “Womanspace” in the “Futures” section of Nature:

  1. It suggests (incorrectly) that I, as a middle-aged woman, might not be so interested in electronic gadgets or classic rock.
  2. And that I, as a woman, have some innate (or socially conditioned) “gatherer” approach to shopping, which I don’t; I’m more of the “hunter” Rybicki describes, which I suppose makes me masculine.
  3. As well, being a “hunter”-style shopper does not get me out of primary responsibility for acquiring clothes for my children. (Indeed, while I have been lectured by a teacher about how worn-out knees and art-related stains on my child’s clothes might erode that child’s self esteem, no teacher has ever taken up this issue with the male parent of that child. It’s clear whose job the teachers think it is to clothe the children properly.)
  4. Also, “a to-die-for pair of discounted shoes” is so far off my shopping radar as to be in some other universe within the multiverse. Again, does this mean I’m not a proper member of the category “women”?
  5. With regards to Rybicki’s question, “Have you never had the experience of talking to your significant female other as you wend your way through the complexity of a supermarket — only to suddenly find her 20 metres away with her back to you?”, my mind is drawn not to gendered differences (whether innate or learned) in movement through space-time but rather to differences (likely learned, likely variable within members of genders) in how people engage (or don’t) with those with whom they are trying to have a conversation.
  6. Even given my fairly low level of shopping-fu, I would never expect to find underwear (“knickers”) in a supermarket. Perhaps this is because I have been responsible for buying my own clothing (and food) for my whole adult life, which has given me at least a passing familiarity with what items are stocked in a supermarket and what items are stocked in a clothing store.
  7. If presenting as male in society would mean that someone else would take on responsibility for buying my clothing, I would seriously consider it. Even though I can’t grow facial hair worth a damn.
  8. Demonstrating incompetence once again is demonstrated to be an excellent strategy to avoid being asked to take on a task a second time — unless, of course, it is a task that is deemed a “natural” area of competence for members of your gender, in which case you’re pretty much out of luck weaseling out of it. (This is why I have to buy my own damn clothes.)
  9. Once again, I am frustrated that science fiction seems focused mainly on rethinking our technologies and the physical structure of our reality, rather than on imagining new social structures, relations, and expectations about human diversity.

Maybe all this shows is that Rybicki, in his piece, was not talking to me. If so, I hope that Nature is consciously adopting the strategy of being a “lad mag” (albeit a geeky one), else they are unwittingly alienating a good portion of their potential audience accidentally, which seems foolish.

* * * * *

For a bigger-picture response, read Christie.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





Rights & Permissions

Comments 35 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. ogrecat 10:09 pm 11/16/2011

    I’ve been reading this crap for ~40 years.
    I must not be a woman.
    Do not like: shoes shopping
    Do like electronics

    Link to this
  2. 2. SarahDee 3:56 am 11/17/2011

    I fully intend to rectify your last point as an aspiring science fiction author. However I suspect finding a platform that will publish a character driven science fiction about social structures and human diversity may be tougher than finishing the novel.

    Link to this
  3. 3. focalist 9:02 am 11/17/2011

    Wow.. this is quite the emotional rant in response to what was clearly a humor article.

    Obviously, there is no editorial staff working at SciAm anymore, as any editor would send this nonsensical tantrum packing with the author, along with a suggestion that she not get her panties in such a bunch over comedy.

    Janet, to respond this way to what was very clearly at best mediocre humor shows little about the original authors… but it shows YOU to be completely irrational and willing to act out “in public”. To summarize, you are completely HYSTERICAL.

    If yours was written better I might conclude it was another attempt at humor, in response… but it’s not, and the response isn’t humor.. it’s an irrational rant. One could read your response and conclude the first article was actually valid fact rather than some tongue in cheek jesting.

    Link to this
  4. 4. focalist 9:07 am 11/17/2011

    Wow.. this is quite the emotional rant in response to what was clearly a humor article.

    Obviously, there is no editorial staff working at SciAm anymore, as any editor would send this nonsensical tantrum packing with the author, along with a suggestion that she not get her panties in such a bunch over comedy.

    Janet, to respond this way to what was very clearly at best mediocre humor shows little about the original authors… but it shows YOU to be completely irrational and willing to act out “in public”. To summarize, you are completely HYSTERICAL.

    If yours was written better I might conclude it was another attempt at humor, in response… but it’s not, and the response isn’t humor.. it’s an irrational rant. One could read your response and conclude the first article was actually valid fact rather than some tongue in cheek jesting.

    Until your response, the sexism was humor. Now, your foolishness makes it an actual issue. Who ACTUALLY harmed interpretation of women? You did, Janet.

    Skirts are in aisle six.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Janet D. Stemwedel 10:03 am 11/17/2011

    Focalist, @3 and @4, maybe it’s one of those eye-of-the-beholder things, but your comments come across as a bit more rant-y than my post.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Unstable_Isotope 10:22 am 11/17/2011

    Yay, someone’s here to mansplain how we’re all humorless feminists, and hysterical too. Thanks!

    Anyway, my husband I joke about a concept we call “learned helplessness” where we pretend to be clueless or incompetent at a task so we won’t have to do it.

    Thanks for writing this to explain once again why this type of humor is harmful to women (and men too). I know there’s a lot of people who don’t like to hear the message but perhaps if we repeat it enough it will break through.

    Link to this
  7. 7. matthartings 10:24 am 11/17/2011

    The first real sign that this article wasn’t “meant for women” … unless lesbians are as stunted in their mental development as some of us men-folk are.

    “Have you never had the experience of talking to your significant female other as you wend your way through the complexity of a supermarket”

    Link to this
  8. 8. SarahDee 9:37 am 11/17/2011

    To quote focalist, “Until your response, the sexism was humor. Now, your foolishness makes it an actual issue.”

    Oh look, the appeal to ridicule fallacy rears its ugly head, among many other fallacies in this irrational comment.

    Someone completely fails to get that the presence of sexist humor in a ‘respectable’ scientific journal, where it has no place, is what makes it an ‘actual issue.’ There is a time and a place for this kind of humor, and that time and place was back in the 50′s in a gents only cigar lounge.

    Link to this
  9. 9. kclancy 9:54 am 11/17/2011

    Wow, focalist called you hysterical Dr. Free-Ride! That is hee-larious. You get to join the ranks of me and Sci as somehow being “over-emotive” when we point out problems or inequities.

    I actually think writing with less distance between the author and subject, while making the author vulnerable, also gives the author power, because it forces the reader to confront the situation and topic in a more realistic, nuanced way. Of course, this is exactly why this writing leads to more attacks.

    Though the funniest thing about this whole situation is how you weren’t really that emotional in tone. You clearly and intelligently stated a number of observations and issues you had with the piece. It is simply because you identify as female that you got slapped with the hysterical label.

    In any case, thanks so much for writing this. I will try to add to your thoughts with a post over at my digs at some point today.

    Link to this
  10. 10. mmclean 12:29 pm 11/17/2011

    Re: science fiction – try reading Ursula K LeGuin.

    Link to this
  11. 11. focalist 12:45 pm 11/17/2011

    Janet, let me put it more simply then. Your angry response to what was nothing more than a harmless humor article makes both you and SciAm look bad.

    As a professor of philosophy, you should understand that finding humor in socialized memes is a critical bonding method for social groups.

    How odd for a professor of human behaviour to not understand that. Even more confusing is that as a philosophy professor, your rant holds the author and the publication responsible in a very negative light (“this magazine isn’t for me or any other woman”) for a bit of humor which actually mocks these memes.

    If you would settle down, you might see that screaming at the top of your lungs “Woman Hater!!!” might make people realize it’s okay to hate at least the one woman making the baseless screams….

    Link to this
  12. 12. Janet D. Stemwedel 1:01 pm 11/17/2011

    Focalist @11, we seem to disagree about many things, among them:

    (1) That I am screaming at the top of my lungs

    (2) That the article discussed here is humorous

    (3) That the article discussed here is harmless

    I might also note that such gendered tropes in “humor” have provided social groups (in science, among other realms) with ways to bond around the project of excluding women or marginalizing their contributions.

    Link to this
  13. 13. ejwillingham 1:22 pm 11/17/2011

    “clearly a humor article”
    Yeah, back in 1950. Bob Hope is probably laughing his ass off somewhere. In 2011, there’s nothing in that article that’s “clearly” humor…or really, even clear, for that matter. It was poorly executed as a “socialized meme,” as writing, as humor, as narrative, as social observation, and as the writer’s alleged goal of “tongue-in-cheek.” In fact, the only thing it did well was sexism–and it’s sexist about men and women.

    Nowhere did the writer manage to break out of the sexism, cast a wink at the reader, twist the narrative for a mutual, “Heh, yes, you got me there,” or any of the other ways that one takes a stereotype and plays it with wry insight and humor for laughs. That thing landed with a dull, sexist thud. It was not worthy of publication in a 1950s lad mag, much less in Nature in 2011. It simply lacked any sort of insight or genius. It bumbled and stumbled and tripped over itself to the point of forcing the reader to look away out of embarrassment for the writer.

    If you’re genuinely looking for an example of using stereotype successfully in humor, here’s one: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/compound-eye/2011/11/17/nature-publishing-groups-new-journal/

    The reaction to this isn’t only about the writer’s apparently unwitting sexism targeting both sexes. It’s also about the fact that Nature’s editors shared that obliviousness–have they no modernity meters?–and frankly about the fact that they would publish something so ineptly executed.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Paleoecologist 2:18 pm 11/17/2011

    Re: focalist

    BINGO! http://hoydenabouttown.com/20070414.431/anti-feminist-bingo-a-master-class-in-sexual-entitlement/

    Link to this
  15. 15. sciliz 2:50 pm 11/17/2011

    Actually I thought standard lad mags got better quality writers (e.g. Playboy publishing Asimov). Poor Nature, having to make due with this drivel.

    Link to this
  16. 16. Alex Wild 3:10 pm 11/17/2011

    Focalist wrote:

    “As a professor of philosophy, you should understand that finding humor in socialized memes is a critical bonding method for social groups.”

    That is true. Which is why it’s so bizarre that Nature as a for-profit company would push a piece so strongly illustrating that NPG editors belong to an exclusive social group that looks down on half their market.

    Link to this
  17. 17. focalist 3:54 pm 11/17/2011

    Well it’s clear that the intent of the Nature article was not to put down women. Maybe poorly executed humor.. but there was no intent to demean in any way. You are looking for any way to twist this into an attack.. and there wasn’t one. Without an attack, your “counter attack” is nothing short of unprovoked malice.. and a supposition and statement of bias based upon that.. is suspect at best.

    Your insistence that Nature is a sexist publication and it’s editors are sexist sociopaths say much more about you than it does about Nature.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Janet D. Stemwedel 4:43 pm 11/17/2011

    Focalist @17, you seem determined to put words in my mouth (or textbox).

    For instance, I did not assert any intent to attack or demean. (Indeed, in the closing of the post I suggest the opposite — that it is accidental.) Nor did I label anyone a sociopath (nor “hysterical” for that matter).

    Nonetheless, it should be clear that something may have a particular effect even in the absence of intent. If I step on your foot accidentally, it may hurt you despite my lack of intent to hurt you.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Paleoecologist 5:06 pm 11/17/2011

    On a positive note, there is a long tradition of feminist science fiction that does indeed re-imagine social structures, gender, etc. Books like Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, Ursula K. Leguin’s The Dispossessed, Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang…For those interested, I highly recommend Wiscon, the feminist science fiction convention, which is held every May in Madison, WI.

    Link to this
  20. 20. focalist 6:19 pm 11/17/2011

    I guess if you make a living out of building windmills to tilt at, anything makes sense.

    Link to this
  21. 21. JDahiya 7:46 am 11/18/2011

    Focalist, what’s with the closing remark: “Skirts are in aisle six.”

    Well, begorrah, sir, to quote the resident expert on the subject: “[Your post] shows little about the original authors… but it shows YOU to be completely irrational and willing to act out “in public”. To summarize, you are completely HYSTERICAL.”

    I ignore the pathetic subsequent attempts to gain a higher moral ground. You started too low.

    Link to this
  22. 22. focalist 7:57 am 11/18/2011

    Seriously? The terms were used as humor, or let’s say as a method of taking a potshot a very poorly written, biased, and nonsensical blog post.. look up the word “hysterical”, please. It’s an old term which refers to women being overly emotional due to hormones. What I was trying to do is get the author to consider that maybe she was misinterpreting the Nature article. Since sarcasm doesn’t have a font, take it that hyperbole is equivalent.

    The closing remark was an allusion to my feeling that it did more harm than good in removing bias against women.

    I don’t bias based upon sex.. but Janet certainly does and is quite militant about it. In my mind, that is the larger threat..

    As for the rest.. I’m just a reader posting a reaction to a bad article- and as a disabled person who faces REAL issues, it annoys me when people create boogeymen to save the rest of us from… especially since she does it for money.

    Link to this
  23. 23. focalist 8:08 am 11/18/2011

    By the way, I think Nature should be given an opportunity to respond to your baseless accusations.. and that response should be posted to this blog.

    I think the authors and publishers should be allowed to reply to your slanderous remarks, and I think you owe Nature a substantial apology.

    Bias and discrimination are things I’m familiar with.. I’m disabled. You do no good for your cause by being such an angry and mean-spirited person. When you suggest an entire magazine is biased against women, especially something like Nature, without any merit to your accusation- why are you surprised that negative feedback to your rant gets posted?

    You write for a magazine, unlike me who is just commenting on a story. You are the media, You are the Journalist- own what you wrote, and examine whether maybe you ought to be saying these types of things about innocent people.

    Link to this
  24. 24. focalist 8:49 am 11/18/2011

    That last point is critical, Janet. Writing with the helm of Scientific American on your head, you are a JOURNALIST, and in a way speak for the publication… which is why I commented that the editorial staff was out to lunch.

    You are not just commenting on an article you dislike, as I am. You are speaking as an author in one of the most respected magazines in the world.

    To be honest, I’m truly surprised that Nature hasn’t sent a rep to respond here.. but I suspect THAT is being done at the editorial level.

    In the meantime, try to consider that maybe there isn’t a monster in every closet and under every bed- and that innocent people don’t like being called monsters.

    Link to this
  25. 25. Janet D. Stemwedel 10:46 am 11/18/2011

    Focalist @22, 23, 24:

    It seems you are ascribing the least charitable reading of my post (angry, mean-spirited, etc.) while insisting that others make the most charitable reading of both the Rybicki piece and of your own comments here (“humor”). Which is … interesting. If you take my mild response to be militant, I would recommend against your reading the other responses around the blogosphere (written by men as well as women), since they are somewhat less restrained.

    As to the issue of editorial oversight, I should note that this is a blog. It is hosted by Scientific American, but SciAm trusts me (and its other bloggers) to write what we want to write in our own space here. Clearly, this means the opinions expressed here are my own, not necessarily Scientific American’s. (Indeed, I’m pretty sure you can find that disclaimer around here somewhere.)

    Rybicki and the Nature editors are certainly welcome to comment here, if they so choose. They are also welcome to share their views with the SciAm editorial team (although again, those editors do not micromanage our blog posts). They could even respond on the Nature site. An exchange of opinions and ideas is, in my estimation, a good thing.

    Since Nature Publishing Group has a legal team, I reckon if they were to find anything slanderous in my post, they could pursue legal remedy.

    Finally, as for negative feedback to my post, you seem to be the only one giving any (in 6 or 7 comments, depending whether we score #3 and #4 as separate comments or two attempts at the same comment). You’ve spilled more virtual ink on this than I. If there are “real problems” to which we might productively turn our attention, why are you still here?

    Link to this
  26. 26. focalist 11:03 am 11/18/2011

    So all you’ve said is that you are buying into what very well could be an over-reaction.. and your defense is that “everyone else is doing it”?

    3&4 were indeed double posts, the system choked and I thought 3 had not posted. As for the virtual ink I’ve spilled, it’s because I consider this to be far worse than any supposed slight in the original article..

    As for me, the posts are a way to pass time- I am currently flaring and have severe Crohns Disease. I spend hours a day in the bathroom attempting to distract myself from the ravages of an incurable disease.. where I keep an old beat-up laptop and read and sometimes comment upon things. I was unaware of the OTHER over-reactions, all of which are counter-productive.. but your defense of it as okay because others say it’s naughty is laughable.

    The author obviously never meant any harm, and you are capitalizing upon a lynch mob, seems to me.

    Link to this
  27. 27. Janet D. Stemwedel 11:10 am 11/18/2011

    Focalist @26, you’re clearly trolling (as was the editor of the Nature piece, which is clear from comment #4 on that piece). And, while others may find your troll-dance entertaining, I find it adds nothing substantive (or novel) to the conversation.

    Please spend your bathroom time commenting on other blogs.

    Link to this
  28. 28. Gaythia 11:43 am 11/18/2011

    @Janet Thanks for an excellent post. I think that @Alex Wild’s response, #16 succinctly sums up the problem with the objections of focalist.

    Crohn’s is a serious disease, and I believe we should all wish focalist well, and be very careful not create any unintended bias by lumping a person in with stereotypes of a disease. Where focalist’s laptop is located, or why focalist has time to comment on blogs is not that relevant. Maybe, when focalist is feeling better, focalist can extrapolate any feelings about stereotyping towards other groups as well.

    Link to this
  29. 29. kristindownie 4:06 pm 11/18/2011

    in response to point 6 of your arguement, i’m not certain about canberra, but in portugal one does buy clothes in a grocery store. i was discussing the other day with a visiting scientist, his coat came from a grocery store. apparently they sell food on 1 side and clothes on the other.

    Link to this
  30. 30. SarahDee 4:41 am 11/19/2011

    Focalist, by using the term “hysterical” (and yes, we are well aware of the historical connotations, and therefore how completely insulting it is in this context) you have turned YOUR remarks into sexist claptrap. You come across as a man trying to put an ‘uppity’ woman in her place for getting her pretty little nose out of joint.

    To compound this, your argument techniques make frequent use of logical fallacies, the most recent being, “But I have a disease!” as the Appeal to Emotion fallacy to try to illicit last minute sympathy because you have no other arguments left. Your medical condition has no bearing on this argument whatsoever.

    All in all, you have exhibited classic troll moves in every post. Go troll on a comedy website instead of acting any more of a fool here.

    Link to this
  31. 31. JDahiya 8:18 am 11/19/2011

    Focalist is suffering from cognitive dissonance. So many people have pointed out he is not funny and very sexist. But he KNOWS he is a good man, so the rest of the people MUST be wrong. We are a lynch mob, and he is eminently reasonable. Plus we are ganging up on a sick man. So mean.

    Link to this
  32. 32. ejwillingham 11:50 am 11/19/2011

    “The author obviously never meant any harm.” And if that is the case for the well-meaning fellow, having been advised that he has caused harm, he should apologize. It’s that simple.

    Link to this
  33. 33. EricMJohnson 1:39 pm 11/20/2011

    “The misogyny that shapes every aspect of our civilization is the institutionalized form of male fear and hatred of what they have denied and therefore cannot know, cannot share: that wild country, the being of women.” – Ursula K. Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World

    Link to this
  34. 34. nancymc 11:14 pm 11/25/2011

    BTW – Rybicki has posted a response to criticisms about his Womanspace piece today – he offers a host of evolutionary psychology arguments that modern shopping behaviors are evolved behaviors.

    http://edrybicki.wordpress.com/2011/11/25/sexually-dimorphic-behaviour-in-human-shopping/#comment-78

    In other words, he isn’t saying it’s so absurd that nobody could take it seriously – he’s saying it’s funny because it’s true.

    Link to this
  35. 35. SarahDee 1:25 pm 11/28/2011

    I’ve read similar terrible ‘science’ that tries to prove women are bad drivers. He fails to recognize how a gender biased society proving the bias with science doesn’t prove anything except that the bias exists. Trying to prove that “it’s natural” is where it becomes bad science, because most come to that conclusion based on a belief in biological determinism alone.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American Back To School

Back to School Sale!

12 Digital Issues + 4 Years of Archive Access just $19.99

Order Now >

X

Email this Article

X