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Handsome devil! and small acts of activism

07/06/2012

The June issue of Physics Today included the letter “Sexism may be in the eye of the beholder,” in which Richard Wolfson explains why he chose not to use Leon Lederman and Christopher Hill’s book Quantum Physics for Poets in the classroom:

Much as I liked the book, in the end I chose not to adopt it. My reason was the very example the reviewer touts as an instance of Lederman’s engaging writing: the image of a reader peering in the window of Victoria’s Secret while Lederman and Hill enlighten him—and it is clearly a him—about wave–particle duality. Read the cited passage in all its detail and it isn’t hard to draw several conclusions about how the authors, perhaps subconsciously, view their readers as male; as drawn, in a slightly voyeuristic way, to Victoria’s Secret; and as thinking highly of their own sexual allure.
How would a female student react to Lederman and Hill’s example? Would it make her feel included among those interested in physics? Would it make her comfortable in the presence of male physicists or her fellow physics students? I think not. Had this example occurred just once, I might have let it go and adopted the book. But Victoria’s Secret is mentioned every time the wave–particle duality comes up—which is frequently in this book on quantum physics.
Lederman and Hill had a response in the the same issue, saying that there is no problem with the book because Victoria’s Secret is a common store nationwide and that both men and women look in the windows.  They conclude with:
We are inclined to disagree, however, with Mr. Wolfson’s conclusion about the effect of the Victoria’s Secret windows metaphor on our female readers: We have done the experiment of taking the risk, and we have not received a single complaint thus far from anyone else that our book is sexist.

(I should also note, since it’s such a pet peeve, that they begin their letter by pointing out that in a previous book they utilized the story of a great female mathematician, Emmy Noether.  As though that makes one immune to all future criticism?)

According to a blog post by Ed Bertschinger, after this first letter another reader did complain, and was told by Hill that the example would be changed in future versions.  Says Bertschinger, “Is it possible to eliminate the implicit bias that fails to see how one’s cultural metaphors exclude others? Sometimes I think that solving this problem is much harder than solving the many-body Schrodinger equation. Astronomers and physicists like intellectual challenges. This one is worthy of our sustained effort.”

I agree that this is worth our effort, but I can also see how those casually reading the letters might misinterpret the intentions.  I can hear the moans and groans already… “All this attention over one little example?  What are you advocating here, a boycott, a book-burning party?”  No, nothing so extreme.  I’ll first clarify what the example was, and then why I liked Wolfson’s response.

After reading the two letters, I was curious for myself if the example really assumed a male reader or not.  Simply mentioning Victoria’s Secret is not necessarily problematic in itself.  So, I checked out a copy of the book.  The example is first mentioned in an introductory section (in my 2011 copy, on page 26), and in my view, it definitely assumes a male reader.  The nail in the coffin was the description of how most of the photons “reflect off your face and pass right through the store window, providing a clear image of you (handsome devil!) to anyone who happens to be on the other side of the window (the window mannequin dresser?).”  The phrase “handsome devil” definitely describes a guy.  Sure, technically the word “handsome” could describe a woman, but that’s not typically how the word is used in our culture.

“Oh no, heaven forbid, freak out, one phrase in a three hundred page book!” someone out there over the Internet is sarcastically gasping.  Yeah, I get that.  It is not at all shockingly offensive.  As with plenty of other “controversies” about women in science, it’s not that offensive, more like eye-roll inducing.  And as Wolfson points out, the rest of the book is great, though this example keeps popping up.  The point is this: given the choice between two books for your course, why choose the one that you know will exclude some of your students?  And this is assuming you only have a choice of two books, in reality there are many more.  Wolfson made his choice, and made known why.  Though the authors originally denied any problem, it sounds like they will now be changing it.  Hey, that sounds to me like… progress!

This is the kind of activism that I like to see.  Sometimes as an advocate for women in science, I encounter some knee-jerk reactions to my (perceived) goals, like I’m the PC police here to ruin everyone’s fun.  This kind of activism called out a problem, and now it’s being fixed.  Little steps here and there get us farther towards a goal of helping everyone feel included.  It doesn’t happen over night, and there will be problems along the way, so we sort them out as we encounter them.  I think an important distinction in this process is to separate out “you are sexist/racist/ableist/whateverist” from “that statement was sexist/racist/ableist/whateverist.”  It’s not that this book or these authors are sexist, and obviously I can see why an accusation of that would be hurtful and cause a defensive reaction.  Wolfson didn’t do that, he pointed out that this example was written assuming a male reader, which could make a female reader feel excluded.  Given all the other positives with this book, he chose a different book to avoid that negative.  We should all be responsible for the things we say and do and have the ability to say “you’re right, that was my bad.”  I would expect others to be able to call me out for language that illustrates an implicit bias (and people do), that doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.  We all have implicit biases, so we should all be prepared to own up when they come out unexpectedly.

This reminds me of my process for our end-of-semester course evaluations (though it’s been a while since I filled one out).  We are asked to evaluate our instructor’s respect for all students regardless of a long list of categories (e.g. race, sex, age, religion) on a scale of 1-6.  If you say or do absolutely nothing offensive or eyebrow-raising throughout the entire course, you get a 5 from me.  That’s the default.  To earn that 6, you’d need to do one “small act of activism” throughout the entire course.  Use the pronoun “she” instead of “he” when talking about an example one time in the semester, you’ve got a 6.  One.  Time.  Any one statement or action that recognizes a non-traditional group will make the cut.

We should all be striving for that 6.  Pointing out a perceived bias does not have to make you the fun police, and owning up to a bias does not make you a horrible person.  It just means we’re all slowly making progress towards the same goal.

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