You’re enjoying your morning tea, browsing through the daily digest of your main society’s list-serv. Let’s say you’re an ecologist, like me, and so that society is the Ecological Society of America*, and the list-serv is Ecolog-L. Let’s also say that, like me, you’re an early career scientist, a recent graduate student, and your eye is caught by a discussion about advice for graduate students. And then you read this:
“too many young, especially, female, applicants don’t bring much to the table that others don’t already know or that cannot be readily duplicated or that is mostly generalist-oriented.”
I’m not interested in unpacking Clara Jones’ (yes, a woman’s) statement beyond saying that “don’t bring much to the table that others don’t already know” is basically a sexist way of saying that female applicants “are on par with or even slightly exceed others,” which is rather telling in and of itself. There is abundant evidence that perception, not ability, influences gender inequality in the sciences– it’s even been tested empirically.
What I am interested in is why other people in my community don’t think those kinds of comments are harmful and aren’t willing to say something about it if they do.
When someone makes a sexist (or racist, etc.) statement on a society list-serv or a blog, how do you respond? Do you ignore it? Do you call the person out privately? Do you call them out in a response on the list-serv? After the sexist comments were made in Ecolog-L, some members did in fact call them out. This was immediately followed up with various responses that fell into two camps: 1) “Saying female graduate students are inferior isn’t sexist” (this has later morphed into “she was really just pointing out poor mentoring!”), and 2) “Calling someone out for a sexist statement on a list-serv is inappropriate.” Some have called for “tolerance” on Ecolog-L; arguably, more real estate in this discussion has gone into chastising the people who called out Jones’ comments. These people are almost universally male. I would like to ask them this question:
Why is it more wrong to call someone out for saying something sexist than it was to have said the sexist thing in the first place?
This isn’t the first time there’s been a gender-based kerfuffle on Ecolog-L; last April, a discussion erupted when a female asked for advice about taking a baby in the field, which devolved into various rants about how women academics were selfish and bad mothers. ProfLikeSubstance has a nice overview of that discussion on his blog and, as he points out in in a post yesterday, Jones was behind many of the sexist comments then, too. Back then, I responded to some of the folks during that discussion, and was flooded with supportive emails off-list. A number of them were from young female graduate students who felt alienated and hurt, and even doubted whether or not they should stay in science– not because they doubted their abilities, but because they felt as though the climate of academic science was hostile.
So, readers, which camp do you fall in?
1) Do you think that it’s okay for you to make off-the-cuff or even deliberate statements about women being inferior, or guilting women for not being good enough at science, parenting, or life in general? Your words are harmful. They contribute to a hostile culture that drives women out of science. We have empirical data on this. Even if being sexist was not your intent, the damage is still done.
2) Have you been called out for saying something sexist? You probably feel uncomfortable. Stop for a moment. Sit with that discomfort. Do not belittle, dismiss, or lash out at the person who called you out. Apologize. Acknowledge that you have heard the person and will think about their words and your actions. Realize that by calling you out, the person is taking a huge personal risk– women especially get bullied for making these kinds of statements all the time. Also know that being a woman, having female friends, and being married to a woman do not in any way exempt you from having said something sexist.
3) Have you seen a sexist statement and stayed silent? Remember that silence is often read as your being complicit with what was said. Even if you think the statement is beneath you, your speaking out matters, especially if you’re male. Being a good ally sometimes means standing up to sexism publicly, because the risks are much lower and the payoff greater, in part because men are perceived as having less of a stake in the argument (as opposed to being made by “yet another angry female”). It’s okay if you don’t know how to respond; sometimes a simple, “hey, that’s not cool” is all it takes to let others know you’re listening, and you’re an ally.
4) Have you told someone not to complain about a sexist statement? You are silencing them, which can be just as harmful as the original sexist statement. You’re creating a space where it’s more okay to say something sexist than it is to call it out. You’re marginalizing people, especially when you bring up concerns about censorship and not wanting people to push their “values” on others. Free speech does not entitle you to speech without consequences, and equality is a value that, last I checked, was central to the ESA’s mission.
5) Have you told someone to “just ignore the trolls” when they’re upset about sexism? Especially if you’re male, saying “just ignore it” is an act of privilege; that is, the very fact that you can ignore it means that you’re not as affected by the statements or the culture they represent. Not everyone has the luxury of walking away. When I as a woman see sexist statements, they are reminders to me that the environment I work in may be hostile to me and to people I care about. That isn’t easy to ignore, especially when we still have a leaky pipeline problem (and a society that focuses on telling women how not to be raped, rather than telling men not to rape, and etc.).
6) Have you called out sexism, publicly or privately? Thank you. Your work matters, even if you don’t end up convincing the person you called out. You’re pushing back against a broader culture of discrimination, making others feel as though they have allies, and even educating people who are watching silently from the wings.
Why are these conversations so prevalent in Ecolog-L? It’s not exactly a fringe community; the list-serv has more than 16,000 subscribers. Is it because (ironically) ecology tends to have more women than other sciences, and therefore people feel more comfortable engaging in discussions about gender? On Twitter, ecologist @Duffy_Ma rightly asked, “I mean, do other society listservs periodically debate whether women are qualified to do science?!” In the ensuing discussion on Twitter, many people have expressed the fact that the negative responses to gender discussions are why they have left or are considering leaving Ecolog-L (though I would add that no one has an obligation to remain in a space they feel is hostile to them). This makes me sad, in part because it means we’re bleeding out potential allies, leaving a space for troglodytes making sexist comments that are observed by early career folks with no real push-back (and then they see what happens when someone does take the time to respond). While I love the Earth Science Women’s Network and think safe spaces are important, I don’t think that women should all have to jump ship and find our own little clubs, because we all do science together. We review one another’s grant proposals and papers. We invite one another to symposia. We’re departmental colleagues. We’re friends.
Sexist statements like this matter. They matter because there is pervasive gender bias in science and science education. So, what’s next? I’d argue that the first step is not to filter out problematic statements with better moderating (within reason), but rather to create a culture where the anti-sexism take-down is so swift and overwhelming that it sends a clear message that sexism is wrong and not to be tolerated. If you find yourself– intentionally or not– on the receiving end of a take-down, take responsibility for your statements. All of us, regardless of gender, need to take responsibility for the culture of our academic communities. Yes; I mean you.
*I would like to state for the record that this post is not an indictment of ESA (and Ecolog-L is not officially tied to ESA). ESA has done really excellent work to broaden the diversity of the ecological community, and has to my knowledge only been supportive of gender and other diversity initiatives.