The Charismatic Misogynist

By Christie Wilcox | November 16, 2011 8:45 pm

If you skim the twitter hashtag #mencallmethings, it’s clear that there are plenty of blatant misogynists to go around. As a woman, it’s impossible to ignore this kind of clear and dangerous language. But, in my experience, these comments aren’t the norm. Only a small, vocal and problematic group of men belittle women so coarsely. Many more do so unintentionally, even charismatically, with a smile.

In a couple months, my network coblogger Janet and I are going to be moderating a session at Science Online about women in science blogging. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to say. I attended the session on this topic last year, which I posted about afterwards (I’ve included that post at the bottom of this post, as extra food for thought).

It seems like fate that now, while I’m tossing these issues around in my brain, Ed Rybicki‘s Womanspace is brought to my attention. As a blogger for Scientific American, I work for Nature Publishing. I am deeply disappointed that an article like this has been published by a company I am associated with in any way.

Rybicki doesn’t threaten rape or malign the general intelligence of women. But make no mistake – this article is misogynistic. As Pieter van Dokkum expressed in the comments section: “What this story highlights is the issue of unintentional, subconscious bias, which is something that our community has to come to grips with… the story places women and men in fundamentally different categories: women are well-organized and domestically-oriented whereas men are useless in everyday life but come up with theories about the universe.”

Emily, from The Biology Files, said it perfectly:

“After reducing women to a stereotyped shopping monolith, cheekily analogizing women’s behaviors as a parallel universe (can someone finally kill the astronomic analogies for men vs women, please? This book is almost 20 years old), and expressing fear over the empowerment of women, he now marginalizes women into superficiality, hazarding that given our newfound knowledge, we will exercise it to get rid of ugly men and select “better-looking” versions.”

I get what Ed was trying to do – he was trying to be funny. I might even be able to turn off my internal angry feminist for a moment and say that he didn’t mean to reinforce gender stereotypes, and instead was trying to tell a cute story about his wife. He wasn’t trying to be a complete jerk.

The thing is, a guy doesn’t have to be a complete jerk to be sexist. There are plenty of charismatic misogynists out there – guys who don’t notice how they say things that demean women, especially when they’re trying to be complimentary. They don’t even realize how their frivolous and yes, sometimes even funny, comments contribute to the derision of women in society and in STEM fields in particular.

A commenter here, for example, began a supportive comment on a post of mine with: “I think Christie is correct, and I’m not just saying that because according to her profile picture, she’s absolutely beautiful. [emphasis mine]“. I get it. He was trying to be flattering – but instead, he implied that my looks are the most important factor in whether or not something I write is correct. It’s hardly the first comment I’ve received like that.

I want to know is why on Earth a piece like Womanspace is being published by Nature in the first place. Therese is right: this article lacks any kind of scientific merit, and instead flippantly tosses around gender stereotypes in a poor attempt at humor. I stand beside Ylaine Gerardin and Tami Lieberman in saying it is disturbing that “the world’s leading scientific journal would choose to publish a piece – even a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ science fiction story – that promulgates such nonsensical Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus ideas” and that “Nature should be setting an example by not literally alienating women, but instead encouraging the dissolution of the last bastions of ‘manspace’”. It just adds insult to injury that this is published in a section called “Futures” – I sincerely hope this isn’t Nature‘s idea of looking ahead at the scientific community of the future.

On a side note, I encourage those of you going to Science Online 2012 to join Janet and I for our session. Clearly, there is still a lot to discuss.
 
 
 
Update: Nature has closed commenting reopened! on the article itself. But, you can tell Ed Rybicki or Henry Gee (the editor in charge of Futures) how you feel on twitter. Or, post on Futures’ wall on Facebook and share your opinions.

Some other responses to Womanspace (or just go see Jacquelyn’s awesome list here):

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 

____________________________________________________________________________________________
posted 1/25/2011

Observations | I’ve never been very good at hiding.

“I am not a pretty girl – that is not what I do.”

Ani DiFranco

A few weeks ago, I received a facebook message. It was from a male admirer of my blog (and his fiancée, coincidentally). In it, he said “You are GORGEOUS, and your tits look absolutely incredible.” I froze. I know it was meant as a compliment, but it made me really uncomfortable. It was a sentiment that was much more muted in other comments I’d gotten. You know, ones like “wow, you’re an amazing writer AND you’re hot?” or “who would have thought a pretty girl could be so good at science?”

Of course, if you point out to any of these people that their comments are sexist, they instantly defend themselves and say that’s not what they meant. They weren’t trying to imply women should be less good at science or writing, they just wanted to say that it’s cool that I’m pretty and nerdy. They think women in science are great.

shirtless blogger.jpg
Is this Brian Switek without the plaid?

But what they fail to realize is the fact that my looks are important enough to comment on is what makes their comments sexist.

Sure, maybe male bloggers get the occasional “you’re hot”. But can Ed Yong or Carl Zimmer say they’ve gotten comments about their packages? Has any fan approached them and heralded their tight abs or buttocks? I’m guessing the answer is no*. No one is amazed that a guy like Eric Johnson is good looking and a good writer, because no one thinks it strange that a good looking guy has other talents, too. Men can look however and do whatever – their intellectual pursuits and their physical appearance aren’t intrinsically linked. But for a woman, everything is linked to how she looks. Everything.

Sexism is a hard thing for me to talk about. My generation likes to think we’re past it. Our great-grandmothers and grandmothers fought to secure women equal pay and the right to vote, and our mothers continued to fight through the feminist movement in the 70s and 80s to ensure that we don’t feel as excluded or put down as they did. That was their fight, their struggle, their blood, sweat and tears. They suffered so I don’t have to.

Growing up I was a tomboy. I went to liberal private schools and was allowed to be as strong minded and bodied as I desired. In college, I had powerful female professors (with kids!) that served as my mentors and role models, and I never once felt like being a woman in science was frowned upon.

So why did I go the the session on women in science blogging? I wasn’t set on attending beforehand. But I was one of the many women who talked to Kate Clancy, and in my conversation with her and Anne and the rest of the women at that table, I realized that, more than ever, I needed to be in that room. I needed to hear the struggles of my fellow female bloggers, even if I haven’t experienced them, and I need to be a part of the conversation. Because even if I haven’t been attacked for my gender on my blog yet, I could, and probably will, be. The battle against inequality was not just my mother and my grandmother’s war; it’s my fight, too.

After all, if you look around at the current science blogosphere, you can’t help but think there’s something wrong. Despite the fact that over half of the attendees at Science Online were women, female bloggers make up a small portion of the high-profile blogging networks. As Jennifer Rohn noted last year, no major blogging network even comes close to a 50/50 male/female ratio. Perhaps it is in part the fault of female bloggers for being too meek, mannered and mild and not shamelessly self-promoting in every way they can – but I doubt it.

Why isn’t there a girl version of Ed Yong or Carl Zimmer? Why is there no woman in the elite list of the most well known science bloggers? The excuse that there aren’t enough high-quality female science writers just doesn’t cut it anymore. They’re out there, and they have been for years. Incredible women like Sheril Kirshenbaum have been standing up and taking the full brunt of the internet’s misogyny with the utmost grace. We have to be honest with ourselves as a community. The problem isn’t that the women aren’t there. It’s that they aren’t being taken as seriously.

Most women I know hate the idea that their gender is a factor in their professional life. A friend of mine and fellow graduate student, for example, recounts angrily how she found out she was referred to by one of the male professors her first year as “the pretty one.” She intentionally wears t-shirts, jeans, and little make up at work to downplay her femininity and be seen as just another graduate student. One of my blogging friends, similarly, has told me she blogs under a pseudonym simply because she wants to take her looks out of the equation.

I’m not so complacent. I shouldn’t have to hide the fact that I am a woman just to be seen as a brilliant scientist or a great writer. And I am young and bull-headed and perhaps just naive enough not to hide. You might notice my looks first, but I’ll be damned if you don’t hear my words, too.

I don’t have the same risk-aversion that other female scientists or science writers might because I haven’t been beaten down or held back. Nor am I timid. Trust me, no one has ever accused me of being too quiet. Call me ambitious, driven, or even a bitch – those words are all compliments in my book – but be certain that I will not allow my gender to prevent me from achieving success.

Clearly, we need to make a change in the science blogging community. I won’t stand up and say I have all the answers. I don’t know how to better encourage other female science bloggers other than to say I’ve got your back. I can’t assuage the fears of those who think if they put their name and face on a blog, they’ll lose credibility or get attacked, other than to lead by example. But maybe I don’t have to do more than that. Perhaps all it will take to tip the scales is a woman who is willing to say “bring it” and is still standing a year later.

Well, then. Bring it.

*I’d comment on whether or not the packages, abs or buttocks of the male bloggers are up to par, but I think I’ll let their wives be the judges instead.

UPDATE: Here is the video of the session:

Perils of Blogging as a Woman under a Real Name from Smartley-Dunn on Vimeo.

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About Christie Wilcox

Christie Wilcox is a science writer and PhD Student at the University of Hawaii, where she studies the protein toxins in venomous fish. She is renowned in the science blogosphere for her delicate balance of contemporary science and scientific perspective seasoned with just the right amount of wit. Her award-winning posts have been featured in The Open Laboratory: The Best Science Writing On Blogs four years running and landed on the pages of major media outlets including The New York Times and Scientific American. To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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