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I fucking hate sexism in science

2012/09/06

This 2700+ word article was provoked by an off-the-cuff sexist remark made by a total stranger on Facebook, who probably doesn’t even believe what he said (though the real problem is not belief, but the attitutdes that these “jokes” perpetuate). From there, I go on to highlight some the problems facing women in science today, both in the real world and online. There is some swearing (there’s a note about that right at the end, too).  There are also some fabulous sciency nails.

With that said, on with the rage:

I fucking hate sexism in science.

Pardon my French… but the title of this article is not just an ineloquent expression of frustration at the “casual” misogyny which seems to permeate our society, including the supposedly enlightened field of science, even today. It is also appropriate to my topic.

Now, I don’t generally write very politically on this website**. By and large, I try to remain constructive, informative and – hopefully – entertaining from time to time.

However, I saw something online just now that has made me snap. There is a page on Facebook called “I fucking love science” (IFLS). In their own words, IFLS is

A community built for the posting and sharing of scientific updates, quotes, cartoons, jokes and photographs.

I really enjoy having my news feed broken up by what are usually beautiful pictures, insightful quotes, clever jokes and staggering discoveries about the natural world. It helps keep my jealousy of my friends’ travel photos in check, and dilutes the volume of slacktivism and armchair politics I otherwise have to deal with/ ignore.

I don’t usually need to click on the posts themselves, as they turn up in high-enough resolution on my news feed in the first place. However, I had to click to enlarge the picture below in order to see the detail in the nail painting. The beautiful artwork shows a right-angled triangle, along with Pythagoras’ theorem (on the index) and the basic “soh-cah-toa” rules of trigonometry (ways to calculate a triangle’s angles and sides). I was sad to see the comment made a couple of minutes beforehand. I have highlighted the comment and provided a helpful summary of my reaction.

Dedicates time and effort to express love of mathematics… gets sexist abuse.

This was by no means the only mysogynist comment in the thread, but it was the one I happened to come across at the time, and the worst in terms of being so explicit about women’s alleged stupidity. Others suggested the artist might be trying to cheat on a test – to which yet others responded by wondering why a cheat would go to the effort of drawing in lines. I think saying “ha, creative way to cheat” is an OK level of joke, which people pointing out the lines just didn’t get. That’s just my opinion though, and it can be very hard to tell in these environments.

(Still others scoffed at the apparently wasted effort, sniggering at the use of “sen” on the middle finger. Other commenters came to the rescue by pointing out that “sen” is the Spanish/Italian/Portuguese/probablyafewothers for “sin”, but let’s not get started on the linguistics of international science!)

All this, when the header photo of the IFLS page looks like this:

Rachel Carson, Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Cecilia Payne.
Image by Raven Garfield, via IFLS

With the accompanying post:

As you might have guessed from our new cover photo, this week we are having a ‘Women In Science’ feature. Every day, we’ll be giving you info, history and quotes on some amazing women throughout history who have had their work neglected, or perhaps not received the recognition they deserved.
If you don’t recognize any of the amazing women in our cover image – don’t worry, we fully plan on fixing that before this week this over!

I’m ashamed to admit I only reocgnised 2 of them (care to guess which?). At least the other two names rang a bell, although I couldn’t say what these women did, despite the background. There’s probably something to be said for knowing (not just female) scientists’ names because of their ideas, rather than what they looked like, but I’m not sure that quite holds here.

The irony is unfortunate, but even without IFLS’ focus on women in science this week, it would still be shamfeul for such a comment to be made, even as a joke. I’m not usually one to engage in Internet arguments with strangers, but it’s exactly that kind of attitude which enables sloppy thinking to go unchecked, further perpetuating the problem.

So, I felt compelled to write a response. This is what I wrote:

Click to enlarge and feel my diplomatic wrath.

If you can’t see that picture properly, my comment says:

@ Stephen Gilchrist (three comments above at the time of writing, might be more by the time I hit enter): that’s not particularly funny.

I would like to think that someone with the patience and dexterity to do something this intricate and dedicated for the love of mathematics would also be able to remember their trig for exams.

Meanwhile, your throwaway comment is sexist and perpetuates the myth that women are less clever than men, which helps no-one and has no place in modern society, let alone on a page about having passion for knowledge. One has to question the rationale behind such a comment – are you pleased that you think what you said? Or do you not actually think it? In which case, why say so? It’s not a joke, it’s just bullying.

I’m sick of this “casual” prejudice which goes unchecked so often.

Happily, this has had 9 “likes” at the time of writing (about an hour since I made the comment). I don’t expect that number to rise much more, however, as the comment gets buried in the thread over time – IFLS is a very busy page.

I could have left it there, but you know what? This stuff makes me mad.

Being a white European male, it’s not often that I am the victim of prejudice. When I am, it’s usually xenophobia. Indeed, I got called a putain de sale con d’étranger the other day by a grumpy local. However, the mild, immediate annoyance to me of being called that was more than compensated for when I replied in full-speed, accent-free, idiomatic, slang-ridden French that

I am deeply, truly sorry for having disturbed you and I will try very particularly hard not to do so again, but  perhaps my being foreign has rather little to do with my having bumped into you ever so slightly.

I stopped short of pointing out quite how much the international community attracted to CERN likely contributes to the local economy. Also, I don’t really consider myself terribly foreign in France, even outside of Alsace, so it was water off a duck’s back to me.

So, you could question why I am getting upset at sexism directed at women. Surely I have enough problems to deal with? Well, I think I can safely quote Martin Niemöller here, without risking Godwin’s Law kicking in too strongly:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

The fact is, sexism does affect me, because of its effects on both science and society***. If women (or, indeed, people) in STEM (or, indeed, anywhere) don’t feel accepted for who they are, they’re hardly going to want to stay, let alone be attracted there in the first place. Whether they like to paint their nails, have short hair, wear dresses, skip joyfully down the corridor, all or none of the above, should have no bearing on how their ideas are judged by the rest of the community. Indeed, if I feel like wearing a kilt, I don’t see why people should assume I eat deep-fried Mars bars, nor what that would have to do with anything. This is the level of ridiculousness we’re dealing with here.

There seems to be a particularly poor situation online, with prominent atheist/skeptic blogger Jen McCreight recently quitting the scene, citing sexist bullying on a terrifying scale.

I wake up every morning to abusive comments, tweets, and emails about how I’m a slut, prude, ugly, fat, feminazi, retard, bitch, and cunt (just to name a few).

This is not an isolated event. With critical thinking at the forefront of these groups’ minds, one would have thought there would be considerably less bulllying in these communities. But it turns out that where some people compartmentalise their minds to make their religion/delusion/conspiracy fit with their otherwise perfectly well-functioning intellects, some do so with their attitudes to women. To be frank, I’d prefer someone were a creationist who respects women (let’s not get into that particular Venn diagram here) than an evolutionist who hates them.

We can’t afford this kind of thing to go on.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects are notoriously bad at both recruiting and retaining women in their career structures. Take psychology for instance, where undergraduate intake is strongly dominated by women, but whose senior academic staff are almost all men. The situation is even worse in physics and maths. STEM advocates worldwide are scratching their heads over this stuff, but it’s hardly surprising given the prevalence of sexism generally.

It’s not all about Marie Curie. Click for the rest of the comic at xkcd.

Women being put off studying/careers in STEM is bad, for several reasons****. It’s bad for the women not getting into the careers, because these can be rewarding on many levels. It’s bad for STEM, because we lose diversity. Worst of all, I think, it’s bad for those women who go into STEM regardless, who have to put up with the sort of nonsense on display in the IFLS comments.

Those of you who are familiar with my blog (which is about 12 people, I’d guess) may have noticed that I’ve been including both men and women in my Science Shoeoff series, for example. In fact, as things stand, I’ve had more entries from men than women, which only serves to prove my point about there being more men than women in science. At least, that’s what could be said if that trend continues as I get more entries; my “sample size” (the part of the population that is being studied) is still quite small. (Hint, hint.)

A few weeks ago, I also wrote about the apparent gender stereotyping by the link-sharing website Stumbleupon, and the consequences the creation of such filter bubbles might have.

A still more notable example would be the reaction to a recent video published by the European Commission (no less), which sought to address the issue of motivating young girls to study science.

There was considerable backlash from many people who disagreed with the perceived message that women have to be stereotypically feminine in order to succeed in science. I’m told anecdotally that there is also tendency within science for even women who do fit that category not to be taken seriously by their male peers. It seems they just can’t win!

xkcd: annoyingly accurate again

There is some hope, however, in the form of projects such as “Science Grrl” in the UK, where a calendar is being created and will feature real women of science in research and similar situations. In the USA, there’s Science Cheerleaders, highlighting the careers of women who work in STEM and are also professional cheerleaders.

These are just a couple amongst a number of projects. No doubt, there must be several more, but these are the only ones that comes to mind. Do you see the problem here? I’m engaged and a borderline activist, and I can only think of a couple such positive projects right now. Admittedly I’ve now been writing this post for multiple consecutive hours, so others might come back to mind once I publish this, and I will add them. Feel free to suggest any others you know of, too.Surely there should be some kind of database or list of these things somwhere, right?

Outside of science, sexism against women also affects me****, not only through its impact on the women I know and love, but also all the other victims as well, who are part of the society to which I belong, and which is in part shaped by my own actions. I’ve recently become more aware of this problem through the “everyday sexism” project, which highlights innumerable accounts of verbal, psychological and physical abuse of women. I keep wanting to unfollow the account on Twitter because it’s so depressing, but I that wouldn’t sit well with my conscience. Pretending it isn’t there is not going to make it go away.

Rant over. For now.

Hat-tip to Sai Pathmathan for traking this picture down on Twitter.

Appendix 1: More Sciencey Nails

As a prize for either reading all this way, or being at least curious enough to scroll down to see if there was a pay-off, here is a  video about how to do “galaxy nails”, which I think are stunning.

Nails Carl Sagan would be proud of:

This video, and a collection of pictures of other science-inspired nails, are featured here.

I’ve got a post or two in mind about science and art, too, so watch this space if that’s your kind of thing.

Appendix 2: A note about swearing

I tend to avoid swearing on this website. Partly, this is because I consider it to be semi-professional, so it is not particularly appropriate. My own parents’ advice was that “there is a time and a place”, and that swearing too much diminishes its power when it is needed. Thus, I think the occasional f-bomb can serve to highlight just how strongly I feel about this.
Of course, it’s not necessary for me to swear. I could just say “I really, really mean this”. But I think that would be less elegant writing, and so does Stephen Fry:

Incidentally, there is also some fascinating research on the painkilling value of swearing, which confirms that swearing too much does diminish its usefulness, as illustrated by Brian Blessed and Stephen Fry (yes, him again).

Here’s what IFLS has to say on the subject:

Here you go. You all win.
Well, not really. We love our name – we really do. We don’t just love science, we FUCKING LOVE IT. Science is mindblowingly, head fuckingly amazing. People need to know this.
However, the constant wall posts are driving me mad. I understand that some of you have children, or grandparents, or you hold jobs where ‘fucking’ wouldn’t look appropriate on your newsfeed. We won’t change ourselves to suit you, but as I’m a lovely person I *will* do this for all of you.
This is our mirror page. Everything that is posted on here, will go on there. At the same time. So please don’t like both and then complain that the content is the same! We won’t share anything that isn’t child friendly on there, but other than that – here you go. Show your kids. Show your grandparents. Whatever. But please, please just enjoy your very own page and stop asking us to change ours!

Notes:

*Yes, other genders, I know. But that’s beyond the scope of this article. Don’t get me started on sub-minortiy-phobia, ignorance and prejudice within minority groups, such as biphobia in the monosexual gay/lesbian community.

** Give-or-take the occasional pop at alternative medicine and getting annoyed at the way floorball is run in the UK (the latter especially is a case where reasonable internal discourse and considerable effort at remediation have proved fruitless, and public-facing campaigning is the only option remaining – the former being a seemingly lost cause already).

*** For academic science communication types: see what I did there?

**** This should all be so obvious it hurts to have to write it down.

From → life, science

107 Comments
  1. sTeamTraen permalink

    I don’t see why the chances of you being born a man/woman are half of what was in that “calculation” (which, as others have pointed out, is invalid anyway, being post hoc). The calculation included the exact sperm which fertilised the exact egg. Once that sperm has been selected, so has your (chromosomal) gender. No need for further division by two.

    • Fair enough. I’m aware of the cirticism of the “calculation” – the point I’m trying to make is that being a man/woman, which people seem to take as a core part of their identity, is just as abritrary as anything else about them. They could “just as likely” have been the other (give-or-take determinism, which I’m not entirely comfortable with either, but then this is a thought experiment so we’ll allow it).

  2. Ina Ch. permalink

    I fully agree with your points but you have to think about the other side of sexism as well: did you notice that the percentage of girls in summer student group is much higher than is usual in postdocs/professors/math/HEP? I mean, I know supervisors who picked somebody from few equally qualified students just because she is a girl (and has pretty fb photo :D)
    Physics is at least nice in this, they judge your skills most of the time, there are still things like Freemasonry, where women cannot get at all and that’s pissing off.
    So just try to do something for promoting science for girls and ignore the fbook dumbs :)

    • Thanks for your comment Ina.
      As summer students tend to be fairly early-career, could it be that there is something similar to psychology going on? i.e. the proportion of women in physics/engineering/computer science decreasing as they go through the career ladder? Of course, any more recent upswing would take years to notice, but as far as I know early indicators are not good.

      “Affirmative action”, i.e. the act of picking the woman over an equally qualified man precisely because she is female, is another debate altogether. I don’t think STEM recruiters even have the privilege of being such a position as to have those tough choices to make in the first place.

      I’m glad your impression of physics has been a positive one, where you feel judged on merit, and I agree that the attitude at CERN is largely a positive one.

      As for “just ignore them”… these aren’t wasps. The vast majority of people making “casual” sexist comments are otherwise completely reasonable, and may not realise what they are doing (I’m not trying to be consdescending, it’s genuinely the situation I found myself in). I would also note that I have gone beyond just complaining, pointing out a couple of practical projects which are *actually doing soemthing*. Like I wrote above, it is the wrong attitude to have – sexism needs to be addressed and tackled head-on.

      • Another reason why this “the proportion of women in physics/engineering/computer science decreasing as they go through the career ladder” happens is related to how such career ladder is built. For example, here in Germany where I do research, it is very hard to compaginate having a family / children and having a career as a woman; most women have to either reduce their working hours or renounce to their careers altogether. To begin with, it is socially not well accepted to be a mother but still keep on working and be ambitious about career-related decisions (in german there is even a term coined to represent such a woman: Rabenmütter http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/study-german-efforts-to-increase-birthrate-a-failure-a-873635.html); also, it is incredibly hard to find options for children day care, and if you don’t count with relatives that can take care of your kid while you’re working (and we know that doing research at your hometown doesn’t always (not to say almost never) work), you are left with very few solutions then. Let’s sum to the equation that most men in Germany earn more than their partners (when these are women) even when doing the same job, and you can already infer who’s the one giving up their career. And I don’t think that the case of Germany is the only one out there with these kind of issues…

  3. sTeamTraen permalink

    BTW, is your criticism of sexism or misogyny? I tend to separate the two. The stupid FB comment that you highlighted at the start of the post seems to be an example of the latter. Sexism – including woman-on-woman sexism, as shown by some of the examples at @everydaysexism – is everywhere, and covers quite a wide scale, from “barely noticeable” to “come off it”, but I think it’s less Evul than misogyny. Compare also xenophobia (universal, but often passive and very mild) and racism (generally active, and more dangerous). I think that the standard “X is sexist and racist” criticism from the organised Left doesn’t help here, either: for me racism is a waaay bigger problem then sexism (but, probably, not waaay bigger than misogyny). At a trivial level, there are plenty of racist people who would love to see (all) members of other ethnic groups dead; I’m not aware of any form of sexism which preaches that women (or men) should all be killed.

    • I hadn’t properly thought about any differences between sexism and misogyny – the lines are probably blurry.

      I would agree that racism (in the “actually desiring extermination” sense) is a bigger problem than sexism, and confounding the two is indeed, unhelpful. People should stick to their biggest guns. On the other hand, I didn’t mention the “sexist AND racist” and I haven’t seen it crop up much in the corner of the “Organised Left” which I tend to visit (ha! if anything, my main critique of “the” Left is the lack of cohesion). So I won’t point out that just because sexim/mysogyny is worse in some parts of the world than others, we can’t complain about it “here”.

  4. Great post! Thank you for highlighting this issue. As a union rep, I have come across sexism, racism, and disable-ism in science.

    I love the galaxy nails, those are awesome. The maths nails are pretty cool too.

    Another project for highlighting women in STEM is Finding Ada, which commemorates Ada Lovelace Byron, inventor of computer programming. Every year, people blog about their favourite woman in STEM and send the blogposts to the Finding Ada project so there’s a collection of blogposts about women scientists, geeks, inventors etc.

    Here are my Finding Ada blogposts:
    Wendy Hall
    Lisa Barone
    Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin
    Hedy Lamarr: an unlikely geek
    Anita Borg

    • Thanks for you comment Yvonne. Indeed, let’s not lose sight of the nails.

      I’ve seen a couple of bits and pieces about Finding Ada – glad to learn more!

  5. I think the first part of the article is begging a famous quote from Feynman about licence plates.

    As for the rest, I sadly concur. However, I think my ideal world would be one where nobody at all cared about sexism – chiefly on account of the concept being outdated or irrelevant – rather than the opposite provoking a constant state of vigilance.

    I am confident that people collectively will drive this initiative forward as a side effect of a rational society (much in the same way that witches are no longer burned in England, if you like), and I would rather our efforts focused on the larger picture of bringing this about through education and opportunity, rather than the narrower view of specific affirmative action or its variants.

    I suppose I have faith in people. As opposed to, say, faith in faith.

    • I was trying to track down a vaguely half-remembered quote along those lines – I’ll get on it now, thanks for the tip-off about Feynman.

      Indeed, casual sexism/misogyny is often just a part of of a wider problem of sloppy thinking. If that can be addressed, then equality may well follow.

  6. Amyce permalink

    Well said again Alex :) As a female engineer I have had many experiences along these lines; positive and negative discriminations. I have struggled to be taken seriously (seemingly not helped by my love of make-up, heels and skirts), and have had male coursemates offer to do my coursework (probably helped by my love of the aforementioned ‘girly’ things). There does still seem to be an assumption that women aren’t as good as men at science; I have found that both men and women alike will offer a man a science project more than a woman. But I have also seen female engineers perpetuate this myth by playing up to it; playing the ‘oh I’m a girl it’s too complicated’ card in order to get an easy ride. Now a PHD student, I have found that I am more trusted; I have seemingly ‘proved my worth’ and am considered capable. To be honest though, the worst thing I have come across is positive discrimination (I can cope with negative, I know I’m good! kitchen/make me a sandwich jokes are a pain in the a** but I give as good as I get); when I have been offered jobs I have found myself questioning whether I have been given the position as a worthy engineer or because I am a female. That for me is far more upsetting than a chauvinist (M/F). Another great article that put an end to my morning productiveness :P

    • Thanks Amyce, it’s good (although, actually, bad) to get insight from the “front lines”, as it were. Interesting to note that even the suggestion of the possibility of “positive discrimination” fails to address merit and can instill a fear of favourable bias trumping capability.

  7. Given that atheism has been around for some decades now, and yet atheism plus is still necessary, I would say that just spreading rational thinking, without addressing the underlying irrationality of much of contemporary discourse, will not make sexism, racism, homophobia, etc go away.

    • Is “spreading rational thinking” not the same thing as “addressing the underlying irrationality” though?

      • No, it isn’t. The brain has two hemispheres, one generally rational, logical, linear; the other more mythical, poetic and symbolic. (OK so hemisphere specialisation is now regarded as old hat but the brain does do both these sets of things, whether or not the hemispheres actually specialise in them). In order to get the mythical, poetic and symbolic side to play nicely, you have to feed it better myths and stories, not just leave it in a vacuum.

  8. I have to admit, I do it too. I tell women they know how to handle that big thing – when driving a bus, or make “aww”-sounds when they say something that they think is intelligent but of course, really isn’t. I don’t even feel bad about it… Conversely, when I see a man driving a big van, I say “You sure know how to handle a big thing” with a wink, and when he says something that he thinks is intelligent but of course, really isn’t, I make an “aww”-sound. I see now the error of my ways.

    I don´t understand why some individuals need to distinguish between groups of people. Why would it matter wether you are black or white, man or woman, gay or straight, disabled or not? There will always be individual differences. Individual. Not pertaining to a group. Especially in science, where everything should be about the brightest idea and the best research, why discriminate? I think it is just sad that this article had the chance of being conceived because of recent events.

    Oh, and I´m sorry for not being very eloquent or consistent here. I´m writing this during work and as a man, I can´t do two things at the same time ;-)

    • Thanks for your honesty, Alex. There’s nothing wrong with sexual euphemisms, as long as they don’t devalue the person they are “targetting”.

  9. Thanks Alex, interesting post – and thanks for mentioning us, too!
    ScienceGrrl is a network of (predominantly) women scientists who are passionate about passing on our love of science, technology, engineering, and maths to the next generation. We were formed in the heat of the reaction to the EU ‘science: it’s a girl thing!’ teaser video (hence the ‘grr’!) – what frustrated us most was that there were no female scientists in that video and they weren’t doing any science. I think we need images of women scientists out there that actually correspond to what women scientists look like and what they really do. Hence why I started ScienceGrrl.
    Personally, I think women scientists are a very diverse bunch that defy many of the stereotypes – if anyone with a camera actually cares to look. Some of us are drop-dead gorgeous, some of us aren’t. It doesn’t matter. Science doesn’t care. Oh, how I love science for that.
    Our 2013 calendar shows women from a range of backgrounds doing a variety of fascinating science, in collaboration with our male colleagues. We want to show that science is for everyone, not just those who conform to the ‘unkempt, white, male, borderline-genius’ stereotype.

  10. You’re very welcome, Alex. Thanks for your support, and provoking discussion of these issues.

  11. Jen Phillips permalink

    One of the problems is that we are all subjected to gender stereotypes from birth – see the research that shows people say “beautiful” about a baby in pink and “strong” about one in blue. This has been brought home to me since I had a daughter and almost all ofthe cards and gifts were pink. She was being pigeonholed at days old. The toy aisles now are in striking contrast to what I recall from my own early childhood when I played with dolls and trains equally (there is an excellent smbc comic that illustrates this). You might be interested to look up the Pink Stinks and Achilles Effect pages on Facebook to see what they are doing about raising kids without the strong stereotypes that perpetuate the casual sexism that you see.

  12. Poster of Pictures permalink

    The comment in the FB-thumbnail is not readable and the link doesn’t show the comment in the picture. Women clearly don’t know how to post pictures!

    • Hi, thanks for pointing that out – I admit the thumbnail was unreadable, and making it link through to the original thread on Facebook was a mistake. I’ve now fixed it so people can see the offending comment more clearly.

      As for women not knowing how to post pictures… I’m a man.

  13. Gloria Sumner permalink

    What I love is that you, Alexander, are not able to let women defend themselves, as if we need a man to stand up for us. This is the invisible sexism of the left.

    As for science, gosh and golly … what’s a girl to do?

    • Does being a man myself automatically disqualify me from discussing negative attitudes, especially those displayed by men? I can see how a someone saying “look at this problem that I suddenly know everything about despite not being directly affected by” might seem a bit ironic. However, I don’t think I made any points suggesting women aren’t themselves capable of fighting sexism, as if they’re all frail and in need of protection from we few enlightened men who just happen to know better than our thuggish counterparts. Indeed, the projects I highlighted are run by women. I think it’s both men and women who need to be involved in the discussion.

    • Jeff Hayes permalink

      Gloria, why can’t men admonish sexism? Can’t straight people be for gay marriage? White people against apartheid? Conscripted soldiers against war? Posts like this show that the patriarchy is being dismantled. You don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist.

    • Oh I do get fed up with the “men can’t be feminists” discourse. Yes, we don’t NEED men to stand up for us, but I for one LIKE it when they do.

      Also, news flash: patriarchy affects men adversely too.

      And I agree wholeheartedly with what Alex and Jeff said. I am white but I oppose racism, and able-bodied but oppose prejudice against the disabled, neurotypical but oppose prejudice against Aspergers, autism, etc. None of those things mean that I think those groups are incapable of standing up for themselves.

      I am bisexual but I appreciate straight allies standing with LGBTs eho are struggling for our rights. Similarly I am a woman but I appreciate men who are feminists.

    • Note that Alex is not, for example, filling a faculty position in feminist studies, or writing a newspaper column about feminism. He is just commenting on a Facebook thread and writing on his *own* blog. He is in no way usurping women’s opportunities to speak out against sexism and misogyny and nowhere implying that they are helpless. He is purely adding to the chorus of people calling this crap out, and realistically speaking -things will not change until more and more people do so.

  14. Zoe@CERN permalink

    When I worked in tech consultancy this was a particular problem. Meetings with new clients (who were invariably all men) more often than not resulted in them assuming I was present for the purpose of serving tea or taking notes. Sometimes they would submit their refreshment ‘order’ to me without prompting. I always enjoyed the awkward smiles and furious backpedalling that occurred on exchange of business cards (where my PhD was visible)! What did really rile me though was that my male colleagues used to go along with and even encourage this, such that every day was a battle. Fortunately, I knew that I was better than them, otherwise it could have been extremely damaging to one’s confidence.

    • Amyce permalink

      I’m the same Zoe – it must be hell for any female scientists with low self confidence :(

    • LA Schmidt permalink

      I loved the time our male co-workers got ALL the females in the office flowers on Secretary’s Day despite the fact that many of us were their peers, not their secretaries. We collectively burned the flowers in protest. I posit that we don’t need a Secretary’s Day – it’s outdated and misogynistic.

  15. Nick permalink

    Or – you know – that initial comment on that post could have been a – I don’t know – JOKE!

    • Which comment are you referring to, Nick?

      • foxymcfox permalink

        “How most women got through their SAT’s”

        What I’m saying is: DO you defend the logic and rationale of chickens every time you hear of one crossing the road? Do you call people ‘colorists’ when you’re told that a blonde mistook a backpack for a parachute? Do you point out the logical fallacies present in Polish people choosing to build a submarine with a screen door, including a list of notable engineering accomplishments to come out of that country?

        More to the point: What do you do every time (And there are MANY times) that a joke is leveled at a male scientist for trying to “overcompensate for something” by building something large? (Rocket, LHC, etc) The implication there is there men are A. Stupid, B. Only interested in things that may get them sex, and C. Have small penises.

        I’m not saying the joke WASN’T offensive, what I’m saying is: it’s a joke, it shouldn’t be the source of your ire…otherwise, by your own logic, you have to go after all of the examples I listed above because otherwise “there will be no one left to speak for you.”

        Is there sexism in science? Sure. But we don’t get past that by chewing out someone telling a joke. Jokes are funny because there is a kernel of truth in them. The kernel here is that this stereotype exists. But anger does nothing to do away with stereotypes…because there are stereotypes to address that anger. (White Knighting, gay, buthurt, etc)

        The only way to move forward is through education. (á la the Curie XKCD comic)

        • Nick – I think it’s the “most women” part of the “joke” that got everyone’s backs up.

          • foxymcfox permalink

            A joke of this nature is rarely funny without a sweeping generalization.

            If you tried to tell a Polish joke, but qualified it by saying, “This is just the story of a single member of the Polish nation and should not be treated as a guide for how you view all Polish people,” the joke wouldn’t be funny. I’m not saying that this joke is funny, just that it definitely wouldn’t be if it didn’t paint in broad strokes.

            Above all else, it comes down to this: Nobody has the right NOT to be offended.

        • Simple. It’s about power. Jokes that rely on, and propagate damaging bigotry are simply in bad taste. No one get’s upset when you make a joke involving male U.S. presidents, but will turn away when you crack a joke about male homeless people. Racist jokes (like your polish one) are probably something you want to keep to your close group of “like-minded” friends.

  16. “No right not to be offended” comes from atheist discourse about their right to critique religion, using humour if necessary. People do have a right to criticise religion (and anything else that needs criticising).

    I don’t think you can apply that to an unfunny sexist joke, or indeed unfunny racist jokes.

    The best ethnic jokes are the ones originated by people who are inside the culture being joked about. And the best jokes about sexism are the ones that take the mickey out of sexism.

    “Jokes” that perpetuate inequality are very unhelpful and rarely funny.

    • Also note, these knuckle-draggers are fully within their rights to make such jokes. It’s just that when they do so on a page by people trying to promote more humanistic attitudes, they are rightfully called out and criticized (or even told to leave). These jokes should be ridiculed whenever they are brought out into the public sphere. That’s how things change.

  17. Jemoeder permalink

    Dear Alex,

    Well we ARE different. There is no denying that there are *fundamental* biological differences between men and women. There always are going to be things which women are better at, and there are always going to be things men are better at. We will *NEVER* be equal. We can pretend we are, and thats all fine and dandy, but we’re not. And we can debate whichever sex is ‘better’, but in my opinion, thats a useless discussion. It’s like saying: What’s better: An apple, or a banana?

    Somehow it’s fine to say women are shit at construction work, but when you say they’re bad mathemathicians, you’ll go too far. This insanity needs to stop.

    The truth is, engineering, math, physics etc, have all been fields full of men for CENTURIES.
    And you think its strange women have a hard time being accepted in these fields?

    I’ve heard my female roommates talk about men in the most objectifying, sexist way. Women do the same thing. They judge men for being men. Misogyny is not alone. It’s married to misandry.

    I’m all for being kinder to one another, but please, cut the bullshit.

    • Jemoeder, Thanks for your comment.

      > Well we ARE different. There is no denying that are *fundamental* biological differences between men and women.

      Correct.

      >There always are going to be things which women are better at, and there are always going to be things men are better at.

      On average, for some things, yes. But the differences are exceedingly minor. And it’s usualy not in those fields where there is a difference that some impossible version of “equality” is being sought.

      >We will *NEVER* be equal. We can pretend we are, and thats all fine and dandy, but we’re not.

      It’s more than fine and dandy, it’s the *right thing to do*.

      >And we can debate whichever sex is ‘better’, but in my opinion, thats a useless discussion.

      Agreed.

      >It’s like saying: What’s better: An apple, or a banana?

      I disagree. There is *a lot* more overlap between human men & women than between apples and bananas. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, there is more variation within either sex than there is between them.

      >Somehow it’s fine to say women are shit at construction work,

      No it isn’t.

      > but when you say they’re bad mathemathicians, you’ll go too far. This insanity needs to stop.

      Agreed.

      > The truth is, engineering, math, physics etc, have all been fields full of men for CENTURIES.

      Yes, but that’s not because women are less capable, but because of a wider problem of sexism and misogyny in society. That was kind of my point.

      > And you think its strange women have a hard time being accepted in these fields?

      Depends what you mean by “strange”. I’d say disappointing, but perhaps not surprising if i have my cynical hat on.

      > I’ve heard my female roommates talk about men in the most objectifying, sexist way. Women do the same thing. They judge men for being men. Misogyny is not alone. It’s married to misandry.

      That’s also bad, but less of a problem. Complaining about misandry is like the ultra-wealthy tax evaders complaining about small-time benefit cheats.

    • Lol. @Jemoeder totally ignorant of the difference between mean differences and absolute differences FTW. New idea: sexists are bad at math.

      • Clarification: also no good empirical reason to think that men are better at math than women either absolutely or on average (mean) anyway.

    • Xen permalink

      Can I just say that I loathe people like you? You don’t do anything to help the situation. If I want to be a mechanic (and I am female) I will. I don’t need people like you policing every freaking action I take because “culture tells you to”.

  18. Diego permalink

    Hi Alex,

    Very nice post. As a latin-american I wanted to take the chance to confirm that seno (abrev. “sen”) is spanish for “sin”.

    Aside from that I wanted to add my few cents on the topic. First and foremost, let me assure you I’d never make a distinction out of a person’s gender myself.

    I really really hope the following words will not be misinterpreted – they’re intended as real innocent question, maybe a reflection, and not a provocation.

    I often wonder at how much in this topic is about really sexism and how much is about perceived sexism, or even a bit about both. I realize there must be a lot of the former in the world, but I’ve seen some of the latter too. Ultimately the reason why my perception is different may be because I’ve never been the target of sexist comments, or not as often as other people.

    Does my question make sense? I would like to know what you think of this.

    Once again, very nice article.

    Best regards,
    Diego

    • Diego, thanks for your comment.
      It’s good to get confirmation on linguistic matters.
      I can see why you might think your words might be provocative, but it is an important question to ask. After all, if there is no real problem, then proposing myriad solutions is a waste of effort. As you rightly acknowledge, there definitely is real sexism out there. As for “perceived sexism” – it may well be the case that the guy who wrote the original comment loves many women dearly and treats them with respect and is not himself sexist in any way. As one commenter above suggested, he could be “just joking”. In that case, we would merely be perceiving his sexism – is this what you mean? If so, the problem lies not with him, but with the consequences of what he said – by airing the view that most women have to rely on cheating in a “girly” way to pass maths exams, even without necessarily meaning it, he contributes to an atmoshpere where the attitude (which may not even be his) becomes acceptable, leading to real sexism. Only in the case where he *knows* that his words are not going to lead to others adopting the behaviour in question, does it become OK for the idea to be presented.
      I hope this clears things up a bit.
      Alex

  19. LA Schmidt permalink

    A friend of mine posted this on his facebook and I wanted you to know that this kind of behavior chased me out of a career in physics. I could have been there in CERN with you right now if I hadn’t gone through the crap I did in college.

    I went to a very small engineering college right after high school. I was one of 9 women in the freshman class of over 300. I had two kinds of teachers. One kind thought that I needed “extra help” (wink, wink, I’ll help you over at my house kinda extra help). And what made me really sick is that they didn’t even try to hide their intentions.

    The other kind of teachers thought that I needed to be weeded out at all costs and set the bar for me much higher than anyone else. A few exams in and comparing partial credit on problems with my male neighbors showed me that the same amount of work on my part did not equal the same amount of work on a male’s part.

    Then there were my fellow classmates who were more interested in my chest than my brain. They also thought I needed “lots of help”. They never offered to help any of their fellow male classmates. Why would they? The modelling they received from the professors gave them all the cues they needed to treat us the same way the professors were treating us. One group refused to let me join their study group because it would be bad luck. What? Are we living on a 19th century sailing vessel? Seriously?

    Thanks for your post!

  20. Anne permalink

    I am a young-ish female postdoc in the U.S. Firstly, thank you for this post. Man, woman, whatever, you are an articulate person with a solid message about not only what sexism in science looks like but also about how it damages the science community as a whole. Even though I see this stuff often I can rarely put into words exactly what is happening or why it is so damaging.

    I didn’t see much sexism until I hit grad school but then it was front and center. Early on a classmate claimed that I got an A in quantum mechanics and passed my qualifying exam because “they’re always nice to girls”. Later I encountered a borderline hostile work environment on field projects where I either drank with the men and put up with inappropriate comments or I gave up socializing at the expense of professional collaborations.

    In my current position, my boss discouraged me from trying to hone my engineering skills because “men and women aren’t and don’t have to be good at the same things”. He would rather I focus on my “natural” communication abilities. This man is helpful and encouraging in every other respect and has three intelligent, successful daughters but we reached an impasse on this where he just thinks my brain is biologically different from his rather than a product of past experiences that is subject to change based on future experiences. There are also occasional leers and one instance of a comment on the size of my breasts but, oddly, those things are easier to deal with than the ingrained opinions lurking beneath the surface of otherwise reasonable people.

    On the other hand, recently I have had several male colleagues around my age bring up issues of sexism that they notice and are bothered by, which is greatly heartening. I am very hopeful that some of this will just age out of the community as people retire. The rest of it requires changes to the way we treat girls and boys very early in life. Half the battle is having women who are assertive, self-confident and thick-skinned and who believe that they deserve interesting and satisfying careers. Right now that’s just not the way we are raising our girls. Whenever I hang out with the children of friends I try to avoid calling the girls “cute” and instead try to engage them on ideas and activities just the way I would with a little boy but all of this is so ingrained that it’s really hard to tackle.

    Anyway, thanks again. I’ll be keeping an eye on your blog and twitter feed.

    • Thanks for your comment, Anne – there’s only so much people should have to take my word for this stuff, it’s good to get real stories and experiences out there, too.

      I’m glad you’re optimistic about the future!

    • Clementina Russo permalink

      I am also a youngish lady PhD physicist, and have oft lamented the insanity of the Good Ole Boys’ Club that is the realm of Physics, the last bastion of misogyny (I just sent in my shoeoff, btdubbs). For my undergrad, I went to a small, very liberal arts, Jesuit university in San Francisco; the physics department was small, and it represented the demographic of the whole university – women to men, 3:1. Unfortunately, the faculty of the physics department (and the rest of the university) did not. Female representation in academic faculty is another tirade, altogether; nonetheless, my take-home message is this: though there are more women in physics (in particular) now than there ever had before been, women in physics only seem to get ahead by purporting themselves, behaviorally and to some degree, physically, as men. I’ve had my fair share of contempt from men, no doubt; contempt from other women was less expected but equally out-poured. What I dislike the most about that “It’s a girl thing” campaign isn’t that it perpetuates the notion of “women need to be feminine to succeed”, because it actually doesn’t do that, it actually just makes science look like a wet dream, which it isn’t, but that it does a disservice to what I presume was the original intent: WOMEN DO NO HAVE TO BE MEN TO SUCCEED IN SCIENCE. We can wear heels (I DO!) and do science; we can wear flip flops and socks and do science, too. Maybe we like lipstick on some days, maybe we don’t on other days. WHO THE FUCK CARES? (I don’t.)

      When I meet new people, the first comment spoken when it’s learned that I studied physics is, “really? I wouldn’t peg you for that,” (immediately followed by, “what’re you gonna do with that?” muthafuckapleeeeeeease). I’ve had anonymous reviewers of my papers slander me for being a grad student, a fact that no one could know, less he/she googled my unfamiliar name (and my picture was on the department student website!) and thus determined that I was clearly an idiot (and a girl! and “completely inexperienced”! yes, that was a reviewer comment). Far too many stories have been told to me in confidence, from other female scientists from around the world, pertaining to egregious displays of sexism and harassment (drunk male peers at conferences! free-for-alls!). Not only does it exist, it’s expected and accepted.

      I am fairly male-identified, and I understand that what I look like will be processed far quicker than who I am, and really, these things are intertwined; I do my best to keep my palms open, my heart open more, and my head pretty clear. I don’t tolerate even the slightest bit of sexism/racism/persecution of freedom, generally, and if the perpetrator can’t be dissuaded with loving, countered-advice, then God have mercy on the poor bastard’s soul, because I don’t hold back the scorn. I am Sicilian, after all. I can’t say for certain that this issue is getting better, per se, but I am, as is the commentator above, contented by the pro-activity of other men who notice the problem. At any rate, I call both little girls and little boys “cute”, and I engage them both on ideas and activities; beauty is both inside and outside that circulates throughout therein, and a part of every one thing. Disengagement from the aesthetics of the physical world brings ugliness. Finding something to love in each every thing, no matter how difficult or seemingly impossible, is how we change the hate game; ignoring the possibility altogether only makes us more hateful. #vivalarevolution

  21. Is there sexism in science? Are there humans in science? Yes, to both. Science/research is a competitive field and some people will resort to any tactics to ‘weed out the competition’, men as well as women. Sexism is only one tactic. There are many others. “If I do get you to not believe in yourself or your work, you will be sidelined because you research only with half effort, and I will win” is the quintessential currency. Hey, even Einstein had to endure this.

    The only reasonable thing is to just be aware of these human follies, identify what is going on, and … move on. Do what you believe in, believe in what you do, be who you are, and don’t waste your valuable research time on these diversion tactics.

    • Thanks for your comment, Silvia. Admittedly research isa very competitive field, with limited funding available to support valuable work. Whilst gender-based discrimination is, as you say, only one “tactic” amonst many which can be used to select candidates, I think the thrust of the anti-sexism movement is to suggest that other such “tactics” are preferable, and even justifiable – such as awarding grants based on likely impact, for instance.

      • Well, in an ideal (research) world this competition and selection process for grants/accepted articles/academic positions would be fair and justified, free of personal grudges and envy, etc, but it is not really like that or let’s say not always like that. — I agree that sexism is not acceptable just as any kind of prejudice is not acceptable (or rather dumb). But what do you do in a situation confronted with sexism? I am just saying, it is up to you if you put on this shoe… or not. And thanks to you for publicly saying, hey, dude, that (sexism in science) sucks!

        • Oh, I think we agree that there is a difference between how the world *is* and how the world *should be*.

          However, where I think we differ is when you say it’s up to people to decide whether they were a certain shoe or not – I think you might be blaming victims, which is not a solution, pragmatic though it may be.
          It’s like saying “this is a known high-crime area, so you shouldn’t go there alone at night”. That may be good advice, but it doesn’t address the underlying problem.

  22. Matthew permalink

    I have another joke.

    Q. How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb.
    A. That’s not funny!

    Seriously tho, there are differences between the sexes. That we treat each other differently at times is a reflection of this basic fact. Or, do you consider it “sexist” that women are not expected to be conscripted to fight and possibly die in a war?

    We’re in this together; everything in its right place. Settle the fuck down already.

    • Frankly, yes, it is sexist not to expect women to fight for their country. Indeed, many armies already employ women, to good effect. I’m pretty sure that all of them would be more handy in a wartime situation that I would (training notwithstanding).

      Treating each other differently off the back of *actual* physical differences is fine where necessary (I’m struggling to think of an example for that though), but the point about the vast majority of sexist attitudes, especially in science, is that there is *no evidence* that women, when given the same opportunities as men, perform any less well.

    • “Everything in its right place?” That’s a fallacy right there — that if X number of people don’t have jobs, it’s because they deserve it, there are no other external factors.

  23. KarenSDR permalink

    Great rant! By the way, I would be willing to bet, without even seeing the SAT scores of the person who made the original offensive remark, that mine were higher (they were in the 99th percentile). And I don’t even own any nail polish. :-)

  24. Note that the background on those trig nail looks like notebook paper…cool touch!

  25. Hi! I’d like to thank you for this post. I’m the owner of those mathematical nails. I’ve seen that picture been shared on many websites and it always has the same type of comments. I’m an industrial engineering student and I know those formulas just as I know the alphabet.I do get that people might think it was a cheat sheet (but, who would go through all that trouble to cheat on a test?), but assuming it was done because I COULDN’T learn that it’s just sad. I just happen to love math. It was obiously done for fun.
    As a female engineering student, I live with that kind of “jokes” and comments every single day. Working in groups with male classmates is just a nightmare. “Are you sure you can do that? Are you sure you understood what the professor meant?” in a “I don’t think you can/do”-kind-of-tone. The funny part is, most of the times, they end up asking me how things are supposed to be done. In Latin America, that’s kind of part of our culture (I’m from El Salvador, hence the spelling of the sine function!). Men tend to think we belong in other kind of activities, activities that don’t require that much thinking. Isn’t that sad? I rarely listen to those kind of comments, but it’s frustrating that I’ve tried to change that and I can’t. They get the comebacks as “wow, you’re so delicate, you can’t take a joke”. They’re not jokes. They’re not funny.
    I found this article while I was reading those comments. I can’t tell you how glad I was when I read it. Not because – as someone said above- I need someone to stand up for me, but because it’s nice to know there are guys who think things should be different and stand up for THAT.

    • Alex Brown permalink

      Thanks for commenting Isa! It means a lot to me that my post made it back to you.

  26. Janeiro permalink

    Delicious irony that this is a post with science in the title, on a science blog, that doesn’t mention any science related to this issue, and has a whole bunch of assumptions on the cause and effect of things. I mean, emotion and anecdotes are terrible guides when it comes to identifying and fixing most serious problems, but with this serious problem that I find emotionally activating its completely different.

    Is there a reason you’re focussing your hate on the most ethereal, dare I say inconsequential facets of sexism in our society?

    Perhaps because its a relatively safe haven of outrage where there isn’t any pressing duty besides saying what bad people some people are and saying how people should act to make the world a better place. That way you don’t have to actually do much about it but feel righteous. A sense of moral rectitude without a corresponding burden of work!? Sign me up!

    If you focussed on one of the areas that have A) significant measurable and consequential effects on women and B) that have significant measurable and consequential solutions available, you wouldn’t be able to get fuzzies from being outraged about it on the internet. Or at least not as easily, because you’d actually have to do something about it other than rage about it, or feel bad for not doing anything.

    The problem you’ve identified (internet abuse) has A) no meaningful measurable effect on anyone’s lives (anecdotes don’t count as a measure) B) has no conceivable actionable/measurable solution, at least not one that wouldn’t be ineffective or decimate freedom of speech on the net.

    I can think of two issues off the top of my head that could be changed within a year (given sufficient political capital) that would have massive effect on the welfare of women. One is the (de)criminalization of prostitution (which puts a huge number of women at risk of violence, disease, and general low standard of living). I’ll let you do research to find what the other one is.

    Even if you would say “well women in STEM are my main concern”, A) An action that has a measurable effect is always more productive than one with none B) the effect of prostitution criminalization is so widespread that the subset of women in STEM would still be significantly effected both directly and indirectly.

    However, effecting public policy would take real work and money and not self-righteous posturing on the internet. The sexist abuse that occurs on facebook and twitter is a much more pressing issue. Plus I’m sure I can come up with some reason why focussing on that is actually really important and effects a bunch of other stuff. Something to do with culture or something. Just make sure it isn’t measurable or actionable so I don’t actually have to do anything to feel superior.

    There will always be angry and hateful comments on the internet so long as there is no real repercussion to it. If you’re fat then trolls will call you a fat fuck. If you are tall you’ll be called a gangly freak. It’s schoolyard bully pit, the reasons don’t matter, they’ll just pick whatever they think might hurt you the most, but thankfully you don’t actually have to pay attention to it. You’re focussing on a tiny symptom of a problem (i.e. what brand of language internet assholes use) instead of the problem itself.

    • LJS permalink

      So you would rather that Alex had focussed on an issue that has ‘significant measurable and consequential effects on women’? I think the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that online harassment, hate speech and misogyny *don’t* have ‘significant measurable and consequential effects on women’, given the overwhelming amount of scholarly research in this area that suggests that you’re wrong. A five-minute search gave me:

      http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/ajgsp4&div=21&id=&page=

      http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/yjfem19&div=13&id=&page=

      http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/10949310050191845

      http://irv.sagepub.com/content/17/1/69.short

      And a couple of links to work on the damaging effects of everyday sexism more broadly:

      http://vaw.sagepub.com/content/12/10/970.short

      http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11199-007-9329-7?LI=true#

      • Janeiro permalink

        Thanks for your reply.

        You’ll notice I mentioned two criteria in my post, measurable problems AND measurable solutions. Even if I’m being extremely generous and saying the studies you cited is definitive evidence of the great harms of online sexism, it’s still pissing in the wind when no one has any proven method to fix it, and while there is already extremely well evidenced solutions to a huge number of harms that are directed specifically at women that are not yet widely implemented for political reasons.

        Now to address the evidence you linked. While I can’t access most of it since they’re behind paywalls (so what I can say is limited), the vast majority of those studies appear to be measuring womens subjective experience of sexism NOT any objective measure of harm.

        Does this look like the start of an actual rigorous scientific study to you?

        http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/yjfem19&div=13&id=&page=

        Or is it in fact an opinion piece dressed as science because its published in a journal and cites sources (which are news paper articles, not actual scientific studies).

        One of the studies I don’t have full access to has a chapter called “The Feminist Viewpoint”. Do you think there is such a thing as feminist science and non-feminist science? Political theory is not science. Feminist Journals are not science Journals.

        The only halfway decent looking study you linked to is the one on the correlation between the (self reported) exposure to sexism and incidence of PTSD. However, I’m sure you know what they say about correlation and causation . It’s entirely possible that higher reported levels of sexism are a symptom, not a cause of PTSD. Or that those women live in poorer areas, where both sexism and violence is more common. Studies that don’t have controls and rely on correlations are not definitive because of a concept called confounding factors.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confounding

        If you find this to be “overwhelming evidence” that the things Alex Brown mentioned represent serious harm, I would suggest raising your standards of evidence.

        The harms I’m talking about are objective, measurable harms, like how likely it is for a women to be assaulted, raped or murdered, how likely they are to contract a serious illness, how likely they are to be imprisoned, how likely they are to fall into poverty etc

        If you think the “overwhelming scholarly research” on the issue of sexism on the internet presents a more serious number of harms than the criminalization of prostitution, I would seriously love to know what criteria you’re judging that on.

        • LJS permalink

          Thanks Janeiro. I think we do have fundamentally different views about the relative status of scientific knowledge and I think I’m probably ok with that as I don’t really understand this thing you think is science. Are you saying that ‘when no one has any proven method to fix it’ we’re ‘pissing in the wind’ investigating the issue, whatever ‘it’ is? That seems to me to be entirely bonkers. We’ve got no proven methods of fixing, for example, HIV/AIDS, cancer, global poverty or gender-based violence but I still think we should probably devote some time and energy to thinking about these things and perhaps some intellectual resources to seeing if we can, perhaps, make the lived experiences of people affected a little better even if we can’t ‘fix it’.

          Now to address your critique of the scholarly research I cited. At no point did I claim that what these investigations were based on was an ‘objective measure of harm’. I happen to think that ‘women’s subjective experience of sexism’ is important, because I think women’s lives are important, but that’s kind of irrelevant because you’re claiming that I didn’t do something that I never said I was doing: providing ‘objective’ evidence that abuse of women online is a harmful thing.You claimed that abuse of women online does not have ‘significant measurable and consequential effects on women’. I have provided you with evidence that this is not the case. Whether you now choose to disregard this evidence on the basis of its lack of ‘objectivity’ is another debate entirely about the philosophical foundation of scientific knowledge production. You’re welcome to suggest that I raise my standards of evidence. I suggest you read any of the critiques of positivism published in the last, say, hundred years?

          Finally, at no point did I state or imply that ‘sexism on the internet presents a more serious number of harms than the criminalization of prostitution’. I would seriously like to know on what basis you’re implying that I did.

  27. I j is you wrote this awhile ago, but I just found it (and you) today. Very well written and I agree whole heartedly. I haven’t read all the other comments, so I apologize if this is old news, but I feel it’s important to note that the brains behind IFLS are female brains. :)

    • Thanks for your comment – indeed, as far as I know it was just the one woman who created IFLS.

  28. Triantha permalink

    Hi Alex, I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed the article. I really appreciate the drive to get women to do jobs in science, but sitting in an office populated by 2 felmale PhD students (including myself), 2 male PhD students, and 2 female Postdocs (the field being Biochemistry), I think that the problem of sexism is not the only one that deters women from a scientific career. The individual offices on this corridoor contain 2 male professors, one male PI and one female PI, bearing up the stats of a drop of 50% women at PhD/Postdoc, and 20% or fewer at PI/Professor positions. There is a reason for this decline in women pushing to become senior in science as they reach the age of 30 – kids.

    I’m not saying that you have to eschew children to become a prof, there are several female profs and PIs at this university who have had kids, and are still doing great. But it is a daunting milestone in your life, and I think that it can shift focus away from your career (naturally). Personally, I haven’t experienced any sexism in my career, so I think that it continues to be a factor.

    The only problem I have with the Women in Science campaigns is that they make me feel bad that I will be leaving research after my PhD, not because of sexism or career constraints or that I don’t want to have kids and a scientific career, but because I don’t enjoy doing it. What I enjoy is the teaching sessions I’ve had with my Undergrad students, so I will be starting a Teaching course next September instead of the usual Postdoc. I mean, I’ll still be a Science teacher, but most people seem to find it more natural to equate “woman” and “teacher” than “woman” and “science”, which I guess brings us back to your original point.

    • Thanks very much for your comment Triantha. Kids and careers for women is a whole different can of worms, but you make a valid point. If all the other sexism were taken out of the equation, the way society and employers deal with new parents would still need sorting out. I don’t know what the stats are like for gender distributions within science teaching – it would be interesting to find out.

  29. Cynthia permalink

    I know it’s been some time since you wrote this, but I just got pointed to it today.

    I want to say thank you.

    In grade school, we had a statewide math test where I got the second highest score in my school, and the only one higher was from a kid a grade above me. My dad was a physics teacher. I got the math and physics from an early age, and my father said I was one of his best students (not just because I was his kid, but the two of us would do mechanics problems when I was in high school just for fun. Then again, I loved playing with Van De Graff generators and trying to figure out how to drop an egg from the top of a building without breaking it).

    When I was in high school, I actually had a teacher downgrade my career resource papers because “girls don’t do engineering”.

    In college, I had several classes where we would have group projects, and the guys would meet without saying anything to me in advance, then leave me to “write the report”. In one case, they flat out met outside of the school grounds (I had no car at the time) at one of the guy’s houses, and said “oh, we forgot. Here’s our final product and our notes, can you write up the report so that we can make sure you were part of the team?” I was not given even the opportunity to give input to it, and it was one of the projects I had been looking forward to the most (given a bag of trash and a motor, create a “car” that will go forward, do a right turn, then turn around and go the other way and repeat the process making a left turn). I had a bazillion ideas, and since I’d never worked with these guys before on a project it’s not like they could say “you don’t do that well” based on experience, they just completely left me out of the picture. When it was brought up by me to the professor, he said “You should have worked that out with your team. Do you want me to downgrade you for not doing the work?” It didn’t matter that I was willing and able to do the work, it was just assumed by them that I would do the report and they didn’t need to include me for the actual design work.

    When I was working for an aerospace firm at one point, I was the only woman in a room full of male engineers, and I got to be the lucky one who got to write the meeting minutes. My boss actually called me a “big girl” during one of those meetings (something that got him taken to HR, and got him a slap on the wrist, while it made my life progressively miserable until I finally left the company). In another engineering firm, I (and a few other ladies in the group) were treated as women who needed to be sheltered, rather than as women who could do the job. At one point I was asked to wear something different (it was a non-revealing business-y dress, but one that the cut flattered me), because I was “attracting too much attention from the men”. Apparently I had to resort to wearing flats and straight cut suits instead of tailored in order to be taken seriously.

    I have seen way too much of the “good old boys network” out there. I am actually no longer doing aerospace engineering, in part because I got tired of the sexism and misogyny. In the two aerospace firms I worked in, I either had men treating me like I was a delicate flower who needed to be protected from things (the reverse issue mentioned above), or I had them treating me like I was the admin assistant, despite the engineering degree. I went from there into web development, and from there into sales engineering. Sales engineering seems to get less of that kind of garbage, although it still gets it. Then again, sales engineering is more about communication and sales skills, something that women are seen as better at doing than the engineering aspect. I also do product support at this point, so still technical, but again, dealing more in communication.

    I know that to an extent, I stopped doing the “real engineering” aspect of things because I got tired of having it beaten into me that I was “just a girl”.

    As someone said above, it might be “just a joke”. However those jokes are symptomatic of the larger issues. Nine times out of ten, those “just a jokes” are only “just a joke” if someone gets pissed off at them, otherwise they mean it.

    Thank you for being one of those willing to stand up against it. It might be “just a joke”, but it just isn’t funny. It’s like when someone repeats the same “joke” at you a thousand times, after a while it’s no longer not just not funny, but you start to believe it.

    Thanks for speaking out against it.

    • Hi Cynthia,

      Thanks very much for sharing your story; I’m sure plents of people will be ken to read it.

      I’m truly sorry that you were put off aerospace engineering by men. Some of your experiences are truly disgusting and I can only sympathise.

      And it doesn’t matter that I wrote this a few months ago, the point is that so many more people still need to be made aware.

      Thanks again.

      Alex

  30. Oh wow, I LOVE this post. I come across casual sexism everyday and I can’t stand it! It has almost become normal now. Other types of prejudice are constantly being shot down with evolving cultural views but it seems that no one is shooting down sexism comments.
    I am a girl but I cannot stand other girls who catalyse sexist comments. I love how this post points out what I come across more and more in my everyday life, especially on the internet. It’s comments like these for example, that make me angry:

    “But nature is such that women, being the physically weaker sex, must rely on men for survival far more than vice versa (at least within the context of a single generation, and you can’t get to the next generation without surviving this one).”

    I just don’t understand how people can think this way. Each gender needs each other for survival. Men wouldn’t be born without women. For anyone to be alive today, it was a woman who tore her body apart to give a life and I can’t believe how some people can go around deteriorating the image of the female gender…. I know sexism occurs in the male gender also, but they were not an oppressed gender for centuries.

    Women still get paid less compared to men and in other parts of the world women don’t have basic rights and freedom. It just disgusts me how people can make jokes about it.

    I commend your article, Alex. Thank you

  31. Discriminated by women. permalink

    I just wonder why it is only a problem if it is done towards women and nobody sees an issue if it is done otherwise. For example during my studies on psychology there were 80% women students. Still all the free courses, addional scholarships and so were for women only. To equalize their chances of course… Why having less than 50% of women in physics is an issue and why having 10% of male students in linguistics is not? Can someone explain it to me? Do you think that males in such under represented studies do not get sexist remarks or abuse constantly? Like: “Are you gay? Why did you chose a studies for females, failed exams for IT”? etc. I wonder why people are not against sexism and discrimination in general but are only against discrimination of women. I assume that discriminating men is just fine isn’t it? At least that is the impression I get from reading all of this…

    • Flora permalink

      Totally agree. It’s all about stereotypes in the origin. The fact is how they all shape the way recruits are done. https://vimeo.com/63223466 its what our association is all about. We’re not specifically for women in science. We’re just here to try and change the way we see things. I’d be glad to exchange more.

      The last point is that the women in science community is incomparably huge compared to the men in psychology community. This is what makes the debate unbalanced.

    • Perhaps stop and think about why people make stupid ‘gay’ comments at men. Because men displaying feminine traits is looked down upon, because being a woman, or feminine, is sub-par. It’s misogyny. It’s the same dish in a different style.
      Misogyny is harmful to men as well – no one is denying that. But the root of it is an unequal footing; people placing men above women by default. Both men and women do this, because it’s the done thing in our culture, and that’s what speaking out is about – challenging this, and trying to make things equal for everyone.

      You cannot achieve equality without acknowledging and challenging injustices. Claiming men are hard done by (or rather, harder done by, or being ignored, or whatever it was you were trying to say exactly) only serves to derail the cause. You are ignoring history, cultural context and a hell of a lot of actual lived experiences by claiming that it is men who need help to solve these issues; it is misogyny that needs addressing, and you will likely find the problems you note, and ascribe to anti-male prejudice, disappear.

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