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More on #Womanspace: common suggestions and patient responses.

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


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A few things people have suggested in the discussion of “Womanspace” on multiple blogs and social networking platforms:

  1. That the story does not advance any gendered stereotypes (or, it it does, that these are not negative stereotypes, or that they reflect most poorly upon the hapless men in the story rather than upon the highly competent woman).
  2. That, if the story does rely on gendered stereotypes, these are surely not harmful to women because the author did not intend them to be harmful to women.
  3. That there is something untoward (or vicious, or slanderous) in pointing out that a story comes across to a number of readers (or just to oneself) as sexist — because, again, clearly that was not the intent of the author, and here you’ve gone and sullied his good name!
  4. That if one woman who reads a story does not find it sexist, no other women are within their rights to find it sexist. (A corollary to this is that those women who do find it sexist are actively looking for something to be angry about.)
  5. Peripherally, that a woman whose mode of dress is judged “provocative” will have her credibility to identify, or object to, gendered stereotypes questioned.
  6. That if there is any more pressing problem facing the planet or its denizens, someone will take you to task for “wasting time” pointing out gendered stereotypes and their potential negative effects
  7. That whether or not this particular attempt at humor in short fiction succeeded, the situation for women in scientific education, careers, and publishing is so much better than it used to be that there is no good reason for women to complain — verily, that they should show some appreciation for the golden age of gender equity in which we live.

It’s worth noting that many of these are familiar (so much so that there are bingo cards which collect them), and that many of us have tried patiently to respond to them many, many times (which may explain why we seem less-than-patient explaining the problem on the Nth time we hear these chestnuts, since N is by now a very large number). Indeed, one can’t help but wonder if the need to re-answer familiar objections over and over and over indicates a problem some have with listening to the answers.

But I’m sure that does not describe you, gentle reader. So, some responses:

  1. Here, let us turn to the source material:

    In any general shopping situation, men hunt: that is, they go into a complex environment with a few clear objectives, achieve those, and leave. Women, on the other hand, gather: such that any mission to buy just bread and milk could turn into an extended foraging expedition that also snares a to-die-for pair of discounted shoes; a useful new mop; three sorts of new cook-in sauces; and possibly a selection of frozen fish.

    And the interesting thing is — and this is what sparked the discovery — that any male would be very hard pressed to say where she got some of these things, even if he accompanied her.

    Is this not a generalization about gendered differences around shopping? Does it not play into stereotypes of women as shoppers — either always up for the next mall-crawl, or at least clearly in charge of spending the family’s money to procure necessary goods and services, including food, clothing, and cleaning supplies? Even if this is a stereotype that makes men, as a group, look less competent, that does not make it less of a stereotype. Sexist stereotypes hurt men, too.

  2. There is nothing magical about intent. If I accidentally step on your toe, it may hurt just as much as if I had intentionally stepped on it. Regardless of the intent of one’s actions, the effects of those actions may properly matter to the people affected by them. Pretending this is not so is magical thinking.
  3. Following upon #3, having the harmful effects of your actions pointed out to you and taking that as an attack on your character either reflects an inability to separate intent from effects, or an unwillingness to assume any responsibility for those effects (even if they were not intended), or an unwillingness to change in such a way as to avoid those effects in the future. The last of these options starts to look an awful lot like intent, or at least willful negligence — since if you’re listening, you have information that could help you avoid having the same harmful effects in the future.

    One might object that gendered stereotypes don’t actually have significant harmful effects — that at most they are annoying. Christie’s discussion of stereotype threat describes just one of the actual harms.

    If it makes you feel bad to have people point out the harmful effect of your action (even if that harmful effect is not intentional), think of how it must feel to actually experience the harmful effect that you feel bad having someone point out was caused by your action. If you feel bad being connected with sexist impacts, presumably it is because you recognize that sexist impacts are bad. Right?

    Here, the right thing to do is not to holler, “I didn’t mean it!” but rather to say, “I’m sorry I caused you harm; I’ll do my best to avoid doing it again.”

    For more assistance in distinguishing between the “what you did” and the “what you are”, see Jay Smooth.

  4. Women are not, as it turns out, a monolithic group. Among other things, this means some women will be more bothered by particular instances of sexism than others. This does not mean that the women who are bothered are wrong, or that they are not actually harmed. And, if you care about whether your piece of short fiction, or your workplace policy, or whatever, might have the specific effect of alienating women, you should probably take account of women who report actually being alienated rather than deciding that the existence of one woman who is not proves that no woman should be.

    Of course, if you don’t care whether your piece of short fiction, or your workplace policy, or whatever, might have the specific effect of alienating women, proceed accordingly.

  5. One sort of gendered stereotype that women have to deal with is the assumption that we choose our manner of dress to attract men — or, if we do not dress in a conventionally feminine manner, that we object to gendered stereotypes because we are unable to perform femininity (and thus cannot score the approval points available to those women who can). Let me suggest that the very fact that women’s appearance and “what it means” are taken to be relevant in evaluating substantive points those women may be trying to make is part of how women come to learn about sexism and its negative effects.
  6. “Surely being unfairly labeled a sexist is not nearly as bad a problem as children starving, so why are you wasting time complaining about this!” See how that works?

    More generally, caring about (and taking action to address) problem X does not necessitate not caring about (or not taking action to address) problem Y. People can tackle many problems simultaneously (and develop their own best strategies for successfully addressing all the injustices, even if they take them in a different order than you do).

  7. There is likely less overt sexism in scientific education, careers, and publishing than there one was. Research cited in a Nature news item suggests overt discrimination against women in scientific careers is “largely a thing of the past”. However, the same story notes that this research “contrasts with reports that suggest overt discrimination remains a significant problem”. And, the same study identified still-existing societal barriers to women’s success in science.

    Which is to say, things may be better for women in science than they once were, but women still have to grapple with gender-based impediments if they want to be scientists.

    If one thinks that success in science should not be subject to unfair impediments on the basis of gender, perhaps this means one has a responsibility not to introduce or reinforce such impediments, even unintentionally.

More generally, if you care about the situation for women in science, it may be useful to listen to women when they describe their experiences in science. These experiences may have given them some relevant insight.

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.





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Comments 18 Comments

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  1. 1. JDahiya 2:45 am 11/20/2011

    Yess! Well said, and most polite.

    Link to this
  2. 2. kclancy 2:38 pm 11/20/2011

    Thank you for this, Janet. This will be a useful post for many years to come, not just around thie womanspace ridiculousness.

    Link to this
  3. 3. sharayurkiewicz 2:48 pm 11/20/2011

    Agree. This needs a “refer to” sticky for future issues that will crop up.

    Link to this
  4. 4. BioTurboNick 3:28 pm 11/22/2011

    It isn’t that there is nothing to talk about based on the piece. It is the magnitude of the reaction to it which is a problem. You’d think that the author said flat out that women are horrible at science and need to stay in the kitchen.

    This full-bore outrage being expressed in response to a story whose intent and framing was humor and quite knowingly used stereotypes in its support (find me humor that does not use any stereotypes, please) is misplaced.

    Measured response, measured discussion about issues it raised for you. Leave the outrage for things that are actually horrifying.

    Link to this
  5. 5. BioTurboNick 3:58 pm 11/22/2011

    Though I agree that focalist in the last thread was overboard in the other direction.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Ed Rybicki 1:45 pm 11/23/2011

    @BioTurboNick: The nail, on the head. Thank you!
    “This full-bore outrage being expressed in response to a story whose intent and framing was humor and quite knowingly used stereotypes in its support … is misplaced”
    Beautifully put. The only thing I can add is http://edrybicki.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/tale-of-a-story/, which explains some of the background to the story – which either completely deflates the assumptions made about my intent, or doesn’t, depending on your bias.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Janet D. Stemwedel 2:29 pm 11/23/2011

    BioTurboNick @4 and Ed Rybicki @6, if you’re going to tell other people how to read a story (and how to feel about it having read it), I’m going to take the liberty of asking you to read my post for comprehension. Especially points 2 and 6.

    Link to this
  8. 8. EricMJohnson 5:19 pm 11/23/2011

    Ed Rybicki: Because my goal was X it therefore “completely deflates the assumptions made about my intent.”

    Because sexism (like racism) only counts when it was your intention to discriminate. When sexist jokes don’t go over well, it just means that “those people” must not have a sense of humor.

    Link to this
  9. 9. EricMJohnson 5:36 pm 11/23/2011

    But let’s be fair and quote Mr. Rybicki’s intent from the above link: “women access parallel universes while shopping; that they do this without even thinking about it, and have been doing so ever since grubs, roots and berries are what kept humanity alive, while men were out failing to kill edible animals.”

    That women are naturally better suited to domestic tasks while men are better designed for the hunt is what people objected to (among other things). It appears people understood your intent quite well, perhaps better than you did. As someone who has also spent a fair amount of time studying evolutionary anthropology, I’d say you didn’t only fail at humor, you failed at science.

    Link to this
  10. 10. BioTurboNick 9:48 pm 11/23/2011

    I will just leave with this compilation of Stephen Colbert videos doing a character “Ching Chong Ding Dong”

    It is a racial stereotype. It is funny because we know he isn’t seriously saying that Chinese (presumably) people are not actually like that. But with the superficial level of analysis going on here, you should find these extremely unfunny and offensive because, by your reasoning, he must actually be implying that Chinese people are like his portrayal, whether he means it or not.

    If that is your stance, then that is fine. And there is merit to the idea that playing off stereotypes reinforces the stereotypes. That would be an important point to make. But it does not make those who play off of stereotypes somehow evil racists/sexists.

    Link to this
  11. 11. BioTurboNick 9:48 pm 11/23/2011

    http://ccinsider.comedycentral.com/2008/11/21/stephen-colberts-7-best-ching-chong-ding-dong-moments/

    Link to this
  12. 12. Janet D. Stemwedel 9:55 pm 11/23/2011

    BioTurboNick @10,

    Again, reading for comprehension is your friend. Here, please review point 3 above, especially: “For more assistance in distinguishing between the ‘what you did’ and the ‘what you are’, see Jay Smooth.”

    Link to this
  13. 13. edyong209 3:38 am 11/24/2011

    In the responses of the “out-of-proportion” camp, I see a belief that always crops up in these debates: that “not-being-sexist” is somehow an easy, default position. Hence: it matters whether or not Rybicki intended to offend, because sexism would be an *active choice* over and above the baseline of not being sexist.

    Which is rubbish. Not being sexist is hard. You’re pushing against unconscious biases, cultural norms, historically ingrained turns of speech, and more. Not being sexist requires an act of listening to, and learning from, the reactions of those who speak out against it, even if that may make you uncomfortable. It requires introspection, care, and effort.

    There is no evidence of any of those in the original piece or in Rybicki’s responses.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Ed Rybicki 2:50 pm 11/24/2011

    You know, the amount of intensity that has gone into analysing our motives for coming up with an off-the-wall suggestion for why we couldn’t find knickers (we were in the wrong supermarket, incidentally) is now so out of hand, that I am sure someone could get a PhD out of it.
    SO I will leave it to you all to do just that. Goodnight, and goodbye.

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  15. 15. Janet D. Stemwedel 2:59 pm 11/24/2011

    Ed Rybicki @14,

    *Le sigh.*

    Please review points 2 and 3. Your motivations in devising your story are not the issue here. The issue is what effects that story has. It would not matter if you wrote a computer program that composed “Womanspace” and then had it accepted by a robotic editor — people are identifying harm it does, harm that is quite separable from whether you intended to cause harm.

    However, at this point, I think we could have an interesting conversation about what might be motivating you to deny that there could have been any harm, and to fight so hard to avoid saying “I’m sorry”.

    Link to this
  16. 16. David Kroll 5:33 pm 11/28/2011

    Indeed, Janet, I don’t understand why Dr Rybicki can’t just say, “I’m sorry that my writing caused unintended harm. I was wrong to think that anyone would find this funny. I’ve learned a great deal in having my sexist biases pointed out to me. I’ll work harder in the future to be more understanding of the impact of my words, particularly when I have an opportunity to write for Nature.”

    Really, Ed, (to channel my colleague, PhysioProf) your dick wouldn’t have fallen off.

    Link to this
  17. 17. BioTurboNick 3:32 am 11/29/2011

    @David Kroll:
    You state that Dr. Rybicki should reply that
    “I was wrong to think that anyone would find this funny.”

    But some people did find it funny. Even, yes, some women. Does only the opinion of those who are mortally offended count?

    Link to this
  18. 18. darioringach 3:20 pm 11/29/2011

    Susan Clavin will surely be upset …

    Link to this

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