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Blatant sexism sells.

05/24/2009

When my male colleagues get interested in my crusading for the women-in-science cause, the first thing I’m usually asked is “So what are you women actually up against? What is it that’s going on that you’re currently fighting?”

I’ve found that my typical response is usually an anecdote:
As an undergrad physics major, I got involved in research early. During my first three years I spent much of my time in the lab and in machine shops, constructing components of whichever research project I was currently working on — and this was common knowledge among the classmates I often worked beside. So I was stunned the day that, during my senior year, a male classmate looked me straight in the eye and informed me calmly that “women are no more capable of doing physics than they are of using power tools.”

Recounting this story always makes me livid, and tends to have the same effect on the people I tell it to — hence, I expect, why it’s usually the first thing I use to try to explain what women are up against. Most of the time, this is what the people who ask me about these things want to hear. They’re hoping to be told about the big stuff. They want the stories of huge and straightforward sexism, the tallies of women who have been passed over for tenure or denied positions in obviously unfair ways, the startlingly chauvinistic direct quotes.

And who could blame them? Blatant sexism sells. It’s so simple to paint everything nicely black and white. It’s so convenient to take the issue and construct obvious antagonists: old white male professors, perhaps, who come from a generation where it’s only natural to expect the women to cook and clean and stay at home, barefoot and pregnant. It’s so easy to get people up in arms at the thought of sexism being alive today, somewhere else.

Because that’s the thing. So long as everything is black and white, and the image of this antagonist exists, it’s also easy for people to look around and convince themselves that he’s not there. It’s comforting for them to be able to examine themselves, their friends, and their department, and discover this overdone caricature of an antagonist is nowhere in sight. Then they can tell themselves, “Sexism in science is indeed a terrible problem. It’s a good thing it’s not occurring here where I am.”

But that’s not how it works. And I’m worried that, as a result, I’m doing my cause a disservice by answering the question of “What are women in science currently up against?” with what the questioner wants to hear. Because for every big story of blatant sexism that I tell, there are dozens of far more subtle ones that I could be relating.

Stories of women being ignored in scientific meetings. Little instances of double-standards that go unnoticed to most eyes. Lists of undermining, patronizing, and insulting comments that are insinuated into everyday conversation in such a way that even the speaker of the comment usually doesn’t realize that anything wrong has been said. Unintentional ostracizing. Opinions being devalued.

Beyond these are even more subtle and complicated aspects, such as the perpetual feeling of being trapped into having to choose between either conforming to the stereotype of being a woman, or conforming to the stereotype of being a woman who doesn’t want to conform to the stereotype of being a woman.

These are not comfortable ideas for people. Thinking about the many layers of subtle nuance in the women-in-science issue allows it to wander closer to home by forcing people to reexamine whether sexism exists around them after all. Taking up arms against a distant, common outside threat is far more comfortable than considering just how far the threat has pervaded within one’s own ranks.

But this is what needs to be done, in order for us to make progress. These are the things that people need to hear about, when they want to know what’s going on with women in science. Simply put, stories of blatant sexism may sell the cause, but they won’t necessarily help it move forward.

—barefootscientist

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