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The Joke Isn't Funny - It's Harmful


I am one of the people who reacted strongly to a science fiction story sexist piece of crap published by Nature in their Futures section titled Womanspace. In it, the Draper-esque protagonist discovers that his wife's apparently miraculous shopping aptitude is due to her remarkable ability to transit into parallel universes, an extension of her evolutionary success as a 'gatherer' as opposed to his innate role as the 'hunter'.

There was plenty of outrage, but not everyone had the same reaction that I did. Comments supporting (or at least not outright condemning) the author, Ed Rybicki, and the editor who approved the story, Henry Gee, all sound about the same: lighten up, ladies. There's no call to be angry - it's just a joke, even if it's a bad one.

For example, Michele Busby wrote in her defense of Womanspace that we should "cut Ed a break" because, after all, it's not "worth getting upset about." A commenter on Janet Stemwedel's post was more defensive: "Until your response, the sexism was humor. Now, your foolishness makes it an actual issue. Who ACTUALLY harmed interpretation of women?" Meanwhile, though he doesn't condone the work, Hank Campbell feels that "the "Womanspace" thing was just goofing around, pretty harmless."

That's the thing, though. Reinforcing negative gender stereotypes is anything but harmless.

It was Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson who, in 1995, first coined the term stereotype threat. It refers to how the knowledge of a prejudicial stereotype can lead to enough anxiety that a person actually ends up confirming the image. Since that landmark paper, more than 300 studies have found evidence for the pervasive negative effects of societal stereotypes.

When it comes to women, studies have shown that stereotype threat is very real. Women are stereotyped to be worse at math than men due to lower test scores. But it turns out that women only score lower when they are reminded of their gender or take the test in the presence of men. In fact, the greater the number of men in the room with a female test taker, the worse she will do. The gender profile of the environment has no effect, however, on women's verbal test scores, where no such inferiority stereotype exists.

While Nature was happy to report that "overt sexism is no longer the norm" in STEM careers, they failed to recognize that women don't have to be blatantly discriminated against for the gender gap to persist. There are long-term career consequences to gender stereotypes. Female undergraduates in male dominated fields report higher levels of sex discrimination, and are more likely to report thoughts of changing majors compared to those in fields that aren't dominated by men. Furthermore, when women's sense of belonging in STEM fields is reduced by perceptions of a stereotypical environment, they earn lower course grades and are less likely to express interest in pursuing careers in those subjects.

The worst part, though, is that these negative effects start at a very young age. Simply reminding girls that they are girls is enough to drive down their math test scores. Even at the age of five, girls will score 15% lower on a math skills test when they perform a gender-reinforcing activity first.

So, yes, I was outraged to see something which comes off as overtly sexist and reinforces gender stereotypes published under Nature's name, whether it was intended to be humorous or not. The result of Womanspace is that women in science feel alienated. It is exactly the kind of environment that contributes to the STEM gender gap. Just listen to how women reacted:

Kate Clancy: "I felt completely alienated and abandoned by a journal that is supposed to publish science".

Anne Jefferson: "it seems in every way designed to make me feel othered and excluded from the scientific academy"

Ali Kerwein: "I am so disappointed. I admired this publication so much, and now I feel completely disgusted."

Ed may not have meant to demoralize women scientists when he wrote Womanspace, but by reinforcing the stereotype of the domesticated woman as opposed to the scientific man, he did just that. But even worse, as Anne Jefferson said, by approving of such a piece, Nature has given this kind of sexist attitude their highly-valued stamp of approval.

Shame on you, Nature, for contributing to the kind of environment which leads to stereotype threat - the kind of environment that tells girls they shouldn't bother becoming a scientist. Because while I can shrug off some bigoted humor, they can't. They're the ones harmed by such careless support of antiquated gender roles. I am mad at you for them. You have done wrong by little nerdy girls everywhere, Nature, and you need to acknowledge it. Anything less says that you simply don't care.

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

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