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Two Words: An Open Letter To Ed Rybicki

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Dear Ed,

It seems you are upset at the torrent of outrage your Futures piece has caused. You're "dumbfounded" that anyone could read so much into your frivolous little tale, and honestly didn't mean for your short story to harm or offend anyone. After all, it was just supposed to be a joke.

That is totally understandable - I mean, come on, haven't we all been there? You're having this fun, friendly conversation with a colleague/friend/family member/whomever and you make some comment or joke. You giggle a little - because hey! It was a funny! - only to see that your companion clearly feels otherwise. You didn't mean to offend, but by the awkward silence and sudden look of confusion, anger, or even hurt on their face, you realize that you did. It was completely by accident.

Most people's instantaneous reaction to the above scenario is two simple words. Those words might be followed by an explanation of the joke to see if it changes the response ("See, it's funny because I said XYZ when, really, we all know ABC..."). Or, even, when that clearly doesn't improve things, defensive statements like "Wait - that didn't come off right" or "That's not what I meant" or even "What I meant to say was...", but the first thing, the first thing that comes out of their mouth, is this:

"I'm sorry."

Ed, you say that you totally didn't mean to offend anyone, and with the benefit of the doubt, I'll believe you. But you did offend people. A lot of people, especially women in science.

You say that the image painted by others of you isn't accurate, that Womanspace isn't a reflection of your views of women and gender, and that it was supposed to come off as a joke that, if anything, says women are superhuman while men are bumbling idiots.

But for what seems to be a large percentage of its readers, it didn't. And while you seem to be able to go on and on about how really good a person you are, and how you didn't mean any harm, and it was just a joke, you have to realize by now that to many people, it was offensive and anything but funny.

If Womanspace doesn't reflect your views of gender and women, it should bother you that so many of your colleagues and other scientists were offended. When someone points out that your story reinforces negative stereotypes and promotes the kind of environment that discourages women from STEM careers, you should feel badly that your joke came off so poorly. That is, like when you accidentally step on someone's toes, you should feel remorse that you caused harm to another when you really didn't mean to.

Yes, you're allowed to defend yourself. It's understandable that you wanted to make sure that people know you didn't mean to alienate women, or reinforce the notion that women should cook and clean while men ponder the intricacies of the universe. No one will fault you for quickly saying "Wait! I didn't mean for it to sound like that!"

There was just one problem: your response lacked the two little words that should have been your knee-jerk reaction to making so many people feel badly. You should have felt compelled to apologize for the unintentional harm you may have caused.

In short, you should have said you're sorry.

The fact that you didn't reveals more about you as a person than any terribly-written, stereotypical science fiction story ever could.

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

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