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Womanspace

11/16/2011
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A short piece by Ed Rybicki, published in Nature, has been making the rounds online and has caused quite a storm.  People have been both vehemently opposing the article and also strongly defending it.  It’s called “Womanspace” and is an anecdotal story about the differences between men and women shopping.

The comments section of the article is certainly very popular, so check that out too.  Before I write down my thoughts, I wanted to give an opportunity for some folks to share their thoughts here.  I’ll add mine soon.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. 12/12/2011 8:29 pm

    this recent commercial I saw reminded me strongly of this article:

    (sorry for the fact that this is a taping of a TV screen, but it was the only one I could find)

  2. 11/22/2011 3:10 pm

    Looking forward to your comments. Meanwhile, in reaction to Womanspace, I give you Manspace.

  3. barefootscientist permalink*
    11/18/2011 1:22 am

    An interesting point that one of the commentors on the article makes:

    “As a writer myself, I can tell you that this isn’t a good story. It reads like a poor, 20-second stand up routine padded out with the tropes of fiction. As an editor, I wouldn’t have even bothered to edit it, I would have passed on it. As a publisher, this would never have seen the light of day, either on a printing press or on a website, and I would be wary of anything the writer submitted in future.

    Clearly this was published in order to be controversial. As a cynical attempt to drive traffic to your site, I hope this backfires spectacularly. Perhaps your advertisers may wish to consider if they want to continue being associated with this type of sexism? Perhaps your readers will wish to consider being customers of advertisers happy to be associated with sexism? Perhaps you won’t have many readers after this.”

    Upon rereading the comments, it seems embarrassingly obvious … why else would Henry Gee, the senior editor for Nature, have written, “I’m amazed we haven’t had any outraged comments about this story” after publishing this piece? His is the 4th comment down. And immediately thereafter, of course, the outraged comments start pouring in.

    If this really is an advertising ploy, I’m even more disgusted than I already was.

    By the way, here’s a great link to a collection of letters and posts responding to the article: http://contemplativemammoth.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/womanspace-responses-to-rybickis-display-of-male-privilege-on-npg/

    • barefootscientist permalink*
      11/18/2011 1:31 am

      By the way, that same comment also gives a rather clear analogy addressing why this “humorous” story is offensive — try any of these alternate options:

      • Gayspace (a hilarious tale of how gay people access parallel dimensions to look fabulous)
      • Blackspace (a hilarious tale of how black people access parallel dimensions to be to be fast sprinters)
      • Jewspace (a hilarious tale of how Jewish people access parallel dimensions to save money)

      Full comment here: http://www.paulanderson.org.uk/2011/11/an-open-letter-to-nature/

    • Julia permalink*
      11/18/2011 3:26 pm

      I saw that comment about the amazement over no outrage, but I had no idea that was from the editor! That’s really weird… I don’t understand the motivation (for publishing the piece or writing the comment) at all.

      Thanks for posting the links, there’s so much to read!

  4. Julia permalink*
    11/17/2011 10:54 am

    I wrote half of this last night and half this morning, and though I’m not entirely happy with it I thought I’d post it anyway. If I need to clear things up or I figure out a better way to put things, maybe I’ll comment again later.

    Some of my colleagues used the word “gross” to describe this article, and I would agree. I can’t claim outrage, because we live in a society where gender essentialism like this is par for the course (and you could definitely claim that you will find worse things in TV, magazines, advertisements, pretty much everywhere). So is this atypical for society and mass media at large? No. Do I have higher expectations of Nature and those firmly established in the scientific community? Yes. More importantly, I can recognize this as one individual aggression against women, among admittedly many, and call it out.

    I think others have addressed the worries of stereotypes and gender essentialism, so I wanted to talk about two other things: the author’s response to criticism, and why these stereotypes are also harmful to men.

    What struck me most was perhaps not the article itself, but Rybicki’s defensive comment after receiving criticism. It was basically “You clearly just didn’t get it, and my wife and some other women thought it was funny so you are wrong, and therefore my story still rocks!” Let’s break it down. The wife comment smacked of “I’m not homophobic – I have a gay friend!” or “I’m not racist – I have a black friend!” The fact that some women find it funny means that the reactions of those who disagree are invalid? To say “I don’t have to listen to you because my opinion was validated by some other people” is probably worse in my mind than writing a silly article in the first place.

    But overall, if we’re just to speak of the actual stereotypes in the article (and not the larger subtext like Emily described), I think it’s offensive to men. I know my male partner gets upset at commercials that portray men as completely incompetent in the home (search for “Target Women: Doofy Husbands”). I just don’t by it – you can solve the mysteries of nature, but you can’t navigate a store (or ask for help?) because of your gender? You can lead the free world, but not clean up a spill with a paper towel? You don’t often hear explicit “Women can’t do science” anymore, but it’s perfectly acceptable to say “Men can’t do laundry,” and let’s face it, one is a much simpler task than the other. I don’t think I’m holding too high of expectations to say that a grown adult, regardless of gender, is mentally capable of doing household tasks.

    I also think about how this plays into the continuing difficulties all career-minded people have with juggling work and home life. Studies have shown that even when men and women think they share household duties equally, the women are in fact doing more work around the home (I have that article at home, and could look up the citation if anyone wants it). This has become known as the “second shift.” I find it ironic how this article seeks to essentialize a completely socially constructed difference. “Oh honey, I would love to help out around the home, but I am just so incapable, isn’t it silly, tehehe let’s all have a good laugh, okay I go back to thinking about parallel universes now.” Yay funny joke and yet here’s why more women find it difficult to balance career and life when it should really be an issue that we’re all working on together.

    So yes, the tone is just meant to be funny, but I think it just supports the larger societal context that maybe is accepted by most people, but is still toxic to men and women.

    • Amandeep permalink
      11/17/2011 2:20 pm

      When I sent this to my husband, without any context of my opinions, his response was that it seemed like one guy was projecting his personal inadequancies onto his entire sex. Kirk thought it was ridiculous to characterize all men as inept in this particular way.

  5. Emily permalink
    11/16/2011 7:42 pm

    First of all, thanks Julia for creating a comments-style means of offering feedback! Second, to address some confusion that was expressed over why so many people think this meant-to-be-humorous article is objectionable:

    I think much of the anger stems from the article’s heavily reliance on “gender essentialism”, aka the belief that certain traits are strictly distributed along gender lines: “Men are absent-minded and hate to shop and invent theories of the universe. Women are the responsible task-masters and good at shopping.” While in this context the stereotypes are harmless (if somewhat archaic and definitely not appropriate for Nature!), it tends to upset people because the underlying philosophy is the same one that claims “women just aren’t as naturally good at math and science as men ( Larry Summers)” or “women are very emotional” or “men don’t cry”. So in short, the text of the article itself is harmless but the deeper attitude it’s based on is not.

    It’s also true that this is written by an older man meaning to be self-depracating, but I’d caution against letting someone’s age or sense of humor become an excuse. You sometimes hear people say “oh, he/she’s from a different time, he/she just thinks that way!” to explain away sexist (or racist) behavior, but remember that “older men” are the exact same people that will often be evaluating our scientific papers job/telescope/funding proposals. Imagine someone on a committee reading a proposal of yours – one where you’re hoping to convince them that “women (you) = awesome scientists” – when the paradigm in his head is more like “women = awesome shoppers”…

    • Julia permalink*
      11/17/2011 10:55 am

      Emily, I hadn’t thought about what you said in your last paragraph, but I agree a lot. And now the thought of it is making my pesky eye twitch come back… nrrggh….

  6. Amandeep permalink
    11/16/2011 7:35 pm

    In response to Bonnie:

    It’s the particular juxtaposition that he poses that is “gross.” His article is very much about how women have super domestic powers and men (who in this case do silly things like science) are hopeless at life-managment tasks like finding things in grocery stores.

    No one says women are bad scientists these days. Most sexism in science these days is probably a result of inappropriately applying stereotypes in assessing what skills different swaths of people tend to have. It is exactly this kind of sexism that he is displaying in this article. But since he doesn’t refer to females as anything other than super object finders, there is no opportunity for him to make any direct commentary on women’s abilities as scientists.

    And, you’re right, Nature is the wrong place for this type of article, comedic intent or no. Their publication of this article implies that the review board of a major science journal sees no problem with stereotyping the skillsets of the sexes this way.

    I can’t speak for others, but I wouldn’t classify my reaction as outrage. More like being peeved.

    • Emily permalink
      11/16/2011 7:44 pm

      (bah, Amandeep beat me to it! Thanks for putting it much more succinctly than I did!)

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