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More on #Womanspace: common suggestions and patient responses.


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.

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

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