Let’s Make Cookies For the Boys!

Wow. I know I’ve harped on Nature a few times in this blog. I swear I don’t have a specific grudge against them, they just seem to be doing things that don’t sit well with me lately. Take for instance, this recent entry in their online “Futures” section for science fiction short stories.

Womanspace was published two months ago, but I only recently became aware of it through the blogosphere at Science Sushi and FemaleScienceProfessor. And I gotta say, this “story” got under my skin too – not just because it’s a self-important, wordy, piece of crap, but because it is actually sexist. Furthermore, I find it offensive that Nature would see fit to publish this under their name.

In Womanspace, Ed Rybicki outlines his ridiculous theory as to why women are apparently inherently better at shopping than men. It seems that this ability is deeply ingrained and stems from the days when men hunted and women gathered (though according to Ed, these are still the days that men hunt and women gather). But more than that, Ed theorizes that women have the capacity for trans-dimensional travel in these gathering excursions allowing them to enter alternate universes to locate sought after items. Yeah. I know. Gripping fiction right?

But it is not just the sheer idiocy of the story that bothers me. It offends me in three specific ways;
1) It perpetuates the “Doofy Husbands” stereotype that excuses men for their supposed ineptitude for household tasks
2) It perpetuates gender stereotypes (science is for men, shopping is for women)
3) That Nature published it at all

1. Doofy Husbands.
The overall tone of Womanspace reminds me of a Target: Women video that a friend showed me a while back. (Note to Ed and the editors at Nature: this is what tongue-in-cheek actually looks like)

As Sarah Haskins shows in the Target: Women video, the idea that there are certain mundane household tasks to which women are more suited than men, permeates pop culture. This type of thing drives me CRAZY!!!! It basically excuses men from participating in traditionally female responsibilities like household chores because hey, they’re just no good at it. The women in these commercials always look at their Doofy Husband with a sigh and give him a little smile as she completes his task for him. As someone who was raised by a father who prepared my meals, braided my hair, and yes, found “knickers” in the store, I simply can’t accept that men are just bad at household chores and truly resent how widespread this attitude is in media. Basically, this type of thinking tells women that we should hold men to a lower standard and accept less in our partners.

2. Gender Stereotypes.
It would seem that Ed lives in a parallel universe of his own, one that never moved forward from the 1950s. He paints an “idyllic” picture of his wife cooking dinner while the men talk about manly concerns. Like science. To get her grown man-children out from underfoot she sends them on a chore so they can go talk their nonsense (how could a woman ever make sense of  all that science they were talking?) elsewhere. It is, afterall, up to the men to be concerned with these higher matters while it is up to the women to nag men and bother them with boring tasks to distract them from these higher matters.

In reading the article I thought that some of the comments were extremely on point and summed up some feelings that I was having trouble putting into words. For instance, Pieter van Dokkum wrote:

What this story highlights is the issue of unintentional, subconscious bias, which is something that our community has to come to grips with. As is clear from his comment the author sees himself as supportive of women scientists, and merely intended to illustrate his own helplessness in the face of everyday obstacles. However, 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. It is this subconscious categorization which hurts women when they are climbing the academic ladder.

Well said! Ed tries to laugh off the story claiming that it was tongue-in-cheek and that it couldn’t possibly be offensive because his wife and daughter thought it was funny. Well then, I guess every other person who commented on the story must be confused. He even went so far as to point out that his wife is the colleague of a Nobel laureate! Because women can do that now. Be the colleagues of Nobel laureates. And we can use these relationships to help validate our professional lives.

Adding to the concept of subconscious bias and alienation, Christie Wilcox made an excellent point about its potential harm in her blog post about Womanspace when she wrote:

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

The intent of the author is irrelevant. I also believe him when he states in the comments that he truly was not expecting any backlash from the article and intended it to be a joke. Unfortunately, intent is not what determines whether something is sexist or not. It is the resulting feeling of marginalization that makes it sexist. As commenter Tam Frager stated, “It doesn’t matter whether I’m particularly domestic or good at shopping, what matters is that this takes half the population and puts them into an “other” category”

3. Nature should have known better.
Which brings me to my final point. Why the hell did Nature see fit to publish this in the first place?

Nature describes the mission statement of the Futures section as “a forum for the best new science-fiction writing, exploring some of the themes that might challenge us as the future unfolds. Prepare to be amused, stimulated, even outraged, but know this: the future is sooner than you think.” I shudder to think of a future that is as backwards as this. But before I touch upon that, I would like to point out that regardless of outrage, this story fails to comply with the first statement – “a forum for the best new science-fiction writing”. It is simply a story about a man who can’t find things in big department stores and has the silly idea that women can enter a parallel universe. The man doesn’t enter the parallel universe, this other dimension is never described. This is an anecdote, not a work of science fiction.

Which leads me to believe that this story was accepted to fulfill the latter half of the mission statement – “Prepare to be amused, stimulated, even outraged…“.

One of the elements that makes this story seem offensive rather than silly is the audience that the author is addressing. Rybicki writes;

Have you never had the experience of talking to your significant female other as you wend your way through the complexity of a supermarket — only to suddenly find her 20 metres away with her back to you? And then she comes back with something you’ve never seen before, and tosses it in the trolley as if nothing has happened?

Well, Ed. No, I’ve never had that experience. Because, despite your apparent assumption that all Nature readers are men, I am a woman. The tone with which this is written picks up on the “Old Boys Club” attitude that still rears its ugly head now and then, and the editors of Nature should have picked up on that.

Oh, but wait. They did. See, the editor that accepted this story writes in the comments section in perhaps a goading manner, “I’m amazed we haven’t had any outraged comments about this story” (this was, of course, written before the onslaught of outraged comments). This tells us that the editor picked up on the undertones of the story and knew exactly what he was accepting: a story that would drum up lots of comments and drive traffic through the Futures section of Nature online.

Tsk, tsk. Shame on Nature for accepting an overtly sexist piece of “science fiction” in a cheap attempt to drum up some controversy. While I normally have a sense of humour about most things and often see the humour in non-PC jokes my friends make (eg. “Nice rack” as I’m holding a rack of test tubes is a favourite of my friends’), the problem here is that this isn’t a joke my friends are making. This is a story published in a leading international scientific journal that marginalizes and trivializes women in a way that is simply unacceptable.

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