Guest post: The day I broke some twitter feeds: insights into sexism in academia, Part 1

Intro from Meghan: This is a guest post from my colleague Gina Baucom about her experience asking on twitter about sexist comments made about women in academia. It got quite a discussion going on twitter! This is the first of two posts on the topic. In this post, she summarizes (and categorizes) the variety of sexist comments that occur regularly in academia. Next week, she’ll follow up with a post with thoughts and tips related to how to respond to these comments when they occur. (Update: here’s the follow up post. Please read it, too!)

“You broke my twitter feed!” –my friend Kelly, pretty much the first thing she said to me at the recent SSE meeting

I often think about things that bother me while out for long slow runs. The repetition of one foot forward at a time allows me a focus that I can’t manage otherwise, and I think the endorphins that usually kick in around mile 3 make me happy enough to start developing solutions to the problem at hand. In early spring, right as I was finishing teaching for the semester, I was on a weekend jog in a not-super-rural but definitely agricultural area of Michigan. I was watching the frost on the spring ephemerals while running and concomitantly working through an issue that I had very little control over – a recent line-up of plenary speakers for the International Botanical Congress was released, and out of 10 or so plenary speakers, there wasn’t a single woman listed. Two were added to the docket after a round of twitter outrage followed by some polite emails to the organizers.

That it happened at all was an issue for me: plant sciences broadly is a field known for having a wealth of female scientists (at least during my lifetime as a scientist) and I know PLENTY of kick-ass senior female plant scientists. Why so few listed? Why didn’t any of the talented men who had accepted a plenary position protest the lack of women, or ask that the organizers ensure an equal ratio of male:female speakers?

I wondered if at the root of the problem there is an unrecognized lack of empathy. Stay with me on this one. It is difficult to understand something, really, unless one experiences it on their own, and we are all susceptible to this. Ask anyone who has been through a divorce or has lost a significant family member. They will tell you that the people who ghost you following such an event are those who can’t relate. Following this line of thought, it’s easy to imagine that most men cannot truly understand what it is like to exist as a woman. Maybe I am naive, but on average, I do not think men mean to exclude women from these opportunities. I think it is a problem of awareness, and self-awareness.

With that in mind, I decided I would make a short and sweet presentation on effective ways to be an ally – a nice bit of summer work that I could release on the DiversifyEEB initiative that Meg and I maintain. My goal going in was to create something that others could use either at their institutions or however they saw fit – at seminars while traveling, whatever. To start this presentation, I thought it would be useful to provide some of the unsavory and even shocking comments that women in science sometimes experience as a mechanism for increasing awareness. I had certainly heard offensive, ridiculous, and cutting commentary about women I admired, and I figured others may have similar stories. I sent out the below tweet, with the full expectation I may get 20-50 responses back:

I was really, really wrong on this guestimation. It kind of took off, and after the 200th response I realized I had hit a nerve. After 400 responses my twitter friends were feeling the stress as well.

I spent the majority of the day like this.

(Source for gif)

In total, there were 866 direct responses to me, and many responses within separate threads – e.g. >22K engagements. I read all the responses as they came in. They were terrible. Some were more on the annoying scale. Most were terrible though. I RT’d many of them, but not the ones I worried might set some triggers off for people. I think it triggered people anyway.

I repeatedly offered to buy all of twitter a drink.

Then I decided that this was taking a life of its own and I needed to somehow summarize the tweets. I quickly characterized a random draw of 500 responses. This was not easy as the insults ranged from the micro-aggression-y side to flat out aggressive and even (certainly!) illegal and threatening. Another difficulty was that the statements would often fit multiple categories, so characterizing the responses was fairly subjective. From this, however, I identified eight major categories of horribleness, with the first two broad enough to break into multiple subcategories.

By categorizing the responses, you can see, I hope, what I saw – most are variations on a handful of underlying themes. It strikes me that reducing that data in this way may help provide immediate responses if you happen to find yourself (whether a woman or an ally) in an uncomfortable situation and are at a loss for words. Thus, in a second post, I will supply a table of the categories and some potential responses. More on this very soon.

A couple of important prefaces: (1) it is clear that negative, shitty statements are said by both men and women, i.e. women are socialized right along with men when it comes to gender expectations, and (2) In my original tweet, I specified ‘women,’ but negatives are also said about people of color and other minorities – whether LGBTQ, disabled, etc – and these people likely experience multiple forms of insult. This was not a controlled experiment, so I can’t tease out the variation associated with the two above factors. However, before diving in, it’s important to have awareness on these axes.

So, below is a summary of the collated horrid, along with some examples. Each category is followed by their overall % of the subsample of 500, and an example of the type of comment, taken from a response.

Questioning presence or right of a woman to be in workplace 35%

This category included statements that questioned a woman’s right to be in the workplace, whether by questioning her ability/intelligence, ‘othering’ her, outright saying not to hire women, or questioning age, status, or how she managed to attain a status. Specifically:

Ability/knowledge/intelligence (32% of this category)*

General ‘othering’ (28%)

Women should be home with children (~9%)

Don’t hire women

Questioning age, status or motives

Stating she used sexual favors to advance career

Pointing out she is a spousal hire

Body objectification 32%

This category included responses about the attractiveness of women, sexualizing women, broad objectification, more specific comments about boobs/ass/periods, and comments about their bodies specific to pregnancy. Below is a breakdown of the relative % of each within this category.

Sexualizing (29%)

Too pretty/distracting (27%)

Broad objectification (20%)


Mentions of ugly/not attractive

On period

“Prof to class of undergrads: “I can tell when a student comes in to my office if she’s got her period or not.”

Specific to pregnancy/ovulation

Pregnancy-negative 12%

There were many reported comments about how a woman surely ended her career because she had chosen to procreate, or that her research was good until she had kids and the like.

I don’t know exactly what to say here, since I feel like we keep regurgitating the same shite over and over again when it comes to producing babies. It’s a common theme in science and in other fields in the US that children are a threat to productivity. Babiez babiez babiez. Here’s the deal. Babies are good. Babies are hard. People have children; it’s a basic human right. GTFOI, and let’s move on in earnest. Seriously, I’m sick of this one. Because I am personally burnt out on this topic, I will leave you with a positive: I had my first kid while in grad school. I was chatting about new baby with a member of my committee who is known for being tough (but fair). He said the kindest thing to me: “I’ve always liked the trees that reproduce the most and have highest fitness.” Perhaps you have to know him to understand that this was a compliment, but the point is that this simple statement of support is something I have never forgotten. It is so easy as a mentor or person of authority to say a kind thing; we should always default to kind.

Awarded/offered only because <blank> 7.5%

“Dept head to WOC postdoc: ‘you’ll probably get a job easily because everybody is hiring for diversity these days.’ In faculty meeting.”

You know the drill. “You got this NSF fellowship because you’re a woman/African American/Latino/Indigenous” etc etc. A lot of women have experienced this microaggression. Why is it a microaggression? When this pops out of someone’s mouth, it stems from the assumption that the woman/African American/Latino etc is not good enough to have warranted it on their own merit or ability or ingenuity. One could argue this fits under the first category, above; I chose to make it separate because I suspect this is one that people internalize A LOT without quite realizing it.

For example, have you ever heard a women say “I don’t want this award or recognition because I am female, I want it for the quality of my work”? Yeah, I suspect many of us have heard it or have said it. This category is *exactly why* we say and think such things. I will be happy the day a man says “Whoa, that award is given to men 90% of the time. No thanks, I really only want it if I know everyone had a fair shot and I’m not simply one of the awardees because I’m a dude.” That level of awareness will signify that we have finally moved in the right direction.

Emotional state 6.3%

“Male PD repeatedly referring to his female labmate as “batshit crazy”, for years. I recently got to know her and she is a lovely person”

These were responses wherein women were called ‘bitchy’ or ‘crazy.’ There were a lot of mentions of crazy. She’s a diva (I’m not convinced that’s a negative). There were a few examples in which people were told not to work with a female PI because she was either bitchy or nutty. I take exception to these statements particularly – an aunt I was very close to was both bipolar and an alcoholic. She was a painter and a professor at a small liberal arts university. She wasn’t in the realm of what one would call ‘normal’ in behavior, but she was a lovely person who students continued to visit years after she couldn’t work anymore. I would meet them on my visits to take care of her while I was an undergraduate. They loved her because she was real, and a bit terrifying. When a female professor is negated by being called a bitch, or crazy, I think of my aunt and how she died way before I was ready. That’s heavy, right? You probably had no idea you were dredging that up. Think of how your off-hand statements and use of the words ‘crazy’ and ‘bitchy’ to reference a woman might impact others before you use them. And then just maybe don’t use them.

Likening to a girlfriend/wife or prostitute 3.4%

In these responses, a man referenced a woman, usually a trainee, as either girlfriend or wife-like, others had joked with colleagues their students weren’t/were their prostitutes in various situations. Um, yeah. Ok. Gross.

Sexually explicit and threats 2.4%

I’m so glad there were relatively few of these out of the overall, but saddened that they were there.

“Male superior about a PhD student ‘have her come in for a meeting and I will come 30 minutes after’”

Toxic masculinity ~1.4%

Few of these, but interesting to me nonetheless.

So there they are – a sample of the negative things people have said about women in the scientific workplace. All of these are from recollection and open-response format, so I doubt any real analysis can come from the examples. The first-person narratives are quite crucial regardless. How many of you saw a friend or a colleague tweet a horrible thing that had been said about them? How many of you were shocked by this? I was not shocked by the statements themselves, but I was shocked by how many people had experienced them. Figuring out how to handle negative and hurtful statements/jokes/etc when they happen is exceedingly difficult – you may like the person who said it, perhaps look up to them, and/or may be nervous about the career ramifications of responding to or redirecting the conversation. In the next blog post, I will provide some distilled options for responding, with the hope that they will give us either a mental path to a faster response, or the awareness that something similar annoyed or angered another person before you. Instead of being deflated by this new awareness of shitty things people say about women, I hope you can find my summary and plan of future action useful.


*Relative percentage of the top three subcategories within the overall category.

98 thoughts on “Guest post: The day I broke some twitter feeds: insights into sexism in academia, Part 1

  1. Will we be discussing white privilege in academia next week? Or perhaps sexism from the other perspective?

    • Thanks for adding to the post’s list of examples.

      Also, this is the second time you’ve commented to say or imply that you think this blog shouldn’t post on this topic. If you don’t want to read posts on this topic, don’t. Further comments on any post that say or imply we shouldn’t have posted on the topic will be blocked.

      • I agree with you Jeremy. However, I don’t think blocking is worth it. Better to air it as a real-time example. Or at least, that’s my take on how to handle this type of “logic”.

  2. I have ‘liked’ this post but wish there was a button for shocked and horrified. Some of the comments that you and your Tweeps report from male academics are just so gross. I sincerely hope that I have never said anything even half as bad and if I have I apologise unreservedly.

  3. The author reveals her hand when she uses “toxic masculinity”, which is an inherently sexist term. Just imagine if there were a term like “toxic femininity”, which meant inability to do maths or similar.

    • No, the term “toxic masculinity” is not used to refer to inability or intelligence in men. I will let you investigate the topic since there is a large academic literature on what is meant by the phrase, and it is used commonly. Further, if by ‘reveals her hand’ you mean I’m revealing myself as a feminist, then, well, I’m not really sure anyone reading this is gonna be really shocked. I’m a feminist. My cat is a frickin feminist. If I had a goat, it would be a feminist. So yeah, and?

      • @Gina, I wanted to be disappointed that those unfortunate comments came from men that are seemingly capable of rational thoughts. But then I realized that we all start from ignorance. I hope they’ll have the chance to evolve.

        “I’m not really sure anyone reading this is gonna be really shocked. I’m a feminist. My cat is a frickin feminist. If I had a goat, it would be a feminist. So yeah, and?”

        This statement is profound and I’m hoping we can have fun with it. Perhaps it would help folks like Bortwell understand something about your outlook and expectations. I have a lot of women in my life and I have heard some of them declared that they are not feminists. At the same, I have had guys described themselves as feminists. I used to think I understood what these declarations meant. What does it mean to be a feminist?

    • @Bortwell: Well done adding another illustrative example to the list in the post.

      In case it’s not obvious (and I’m appalled to learn that apparently it’s not), there is no analogy at all between using the term “toxic masculinity” to refer to remarks like “Are you going to let yourself be beaten by a girl?” and using “toxic femininity” to refer to inability to do math. There’s not even a twisted logic to the analogy you’re making.

    • You must be John from twitter, who complains about the term “mansplaining”, saying we don’t have an analogous term for women who make math errors.

      People who use the term “mansplaining” believe that men tend to patronize women more than women patronize men. Are you saying that women tend to make math errors more often than men?

      Similarly, the term “toxic masculinity” here refers to men who view men as better than women (“don’t be beaten by a girl.”) What does this have to do with women and math errors? Again, do you believe that women are more likely to make math errors?

      Are you one of the people who believes men are better than women?

  4. Wow, what appalling comments. I can only imagine how I’d feel if anyone ever said anything like this to me or about me.

    As far as I can recall I’ve never been in the room when somebody has said something like this. I hope that if I ever am I’ll speak up; looking forward to the follow-up post on that.

    • I don’t think this will make you feel better but it is probably people you know saying these things. Like street harassment, guys are somewhat aware it’s not okay and don’t (always/necessarily) do it around other men. Also, there can be ‘test comments’ to see how willing people are to let things slide. If you’re okay with those, they’ll get grosser. So definitely say something!

      The best/worst thing is that multiple things mentioned have been said to me. I can only imagine how I’d feel if no one ever said anything like this to/about me.

    • One thing that I think is worth highlighting is that, while many of these examples above are really glaring, subtler versions of might not necessarily be labeled as sexist. One reason why Gina’s post is so important is that, by highlighting the bigger problem, I hope it makes people more likely to notice (and call out!) the subtler incidents.

      One example I thought of when I saw Gina’s original tweet was a comment I heard someone senior make once about an applicant who had a very strong letter from a prominent ecologist. The comment was something like “Well, sure, it’s a strong letter, but he writes letters like this for all young, attractive women”. I would hope that many people would call out that sort of comment, but I think a lot of people would take it as a factual statement and not a sexist one. (For multiple reasons, no one would ever say that about a strong letter written for a male applicant!)

      • It’s also unfortunately true that some faculty show a strong preference for attractive young women.

      • Oh, for sure. The subtler stuff is often even harder to fight and push back on than the blatant stuff, because it’s harder to recognize in the moment and you often get even more pushback for bringing it up. That makes it so much easier to internalize, and I think it winds up confusing a lot of women so much that they aren’t able to defend against it as easily as more obviously unacceptable, blatant comments. But it’s all part of the same dynamic.

    • Believe me, you have been in the room, because this stuff happens all the time. I don’t know a woman who hasn’t experienced it. Full stop.
      My 22-year-old daughter is in a graduate program at a large UK bank, and recently she ran a conference session in front of 100 people. At the end, as she was leaving, one of the senior managers (with whom she has had previous problems) stopped her as she passed. In front of two male directors, he said, “You did a great job up there.” She almost thought he was complimenting her until he said, “It was like watching the bikini girls who hold up the cards at a boxing match.”
      Neither male director said anything to this 45-year-old guy, some comment about how demeaning, insulting, unprofessional, dickish and actionable that comment was. My kid is 22, and a trainee, and wrote down the comment in case anything else, anything worse, happens in the future.
      A few minutes later, she talked to some of her fellow trainees, both men, at the conference wrap-up session. They said it was weird how people always said banking is such a sexist environment, but they just didn’t every hear or see anything like that. My daughter gestured to the conference room, which held over 100 people. She noted that she was the only woman there besides serving staff. “Yeah, but that’s just ’cause women don’t like banking or finance, not because their being excluded.”
      This isn’t to blame, or to point a finger, but trust me, you’ve been in the room. Because it’s happening in most rooms.

      • In my initial comment, I realize now that I didn’t think about the full range of “rooms” that I’ve been in. So on further reflection: I have once been in the room when a guy made the sort of really appalling comment that Gina worked so hard to compile. It was my classroom. In an undergraduate class I teach, a male student once came up to me after class to ask a question about the labs. To answer the question, I needed to know who his lab TA was, so I asked him who his TA was. He replied “I don’t remember her name, but she’s smokin’ hot.” I pulled him aside and explained to him firmly why that comment was inappropriate.

        Following up on Meghan’s comment above, I should also add that I’m sure I’ve been rooms in which more subtle things were said or done. And quite possibly also said or done some subtler things myself (to my regret).

      • First, thank you for the time you are taking to comment, to consider this issue, and to take action.
        Second, don’t waste time in regret. You’re working on being an ally, and that’s great.

      • Oh yes. I recall one particularly frustrating incident where a male undergraduate wanted to attend a panel I was organizing with the Association of Women in Science for undergraduate members to ask a panel of female integrative biologists about their experience of biology, grad school, and so forth. We talked about sexism, but that wasn’t the only thing we talked about, and he wanted access to the professional tips.

        I was uncomfortable with this and said so. He made some kind of comment during that conversation to the effect of “but female faculty are so scary!” and I wound up spending two hours trying to explain why that kind of sentiment is problematic, alongside another female student. At the end, when I thought he finally might grasp the problem of sexism in this context, he asked me “Does it help if I think [the scariness] is super hot?” I’m married, dude, to a woman; I don’t give half a shit what you think is hot! At this point I threw my head into my hands and wailed out loud in frustration.

        The point I wanted to bring up here is that my male advisor, who is well intentioned and committed to improving diversity in the lab and runs one of the most diverse labs in my department…. well, he was in the room the whole time, and he never said a thing. I think he was probably too intimidated to chime in or figured I could handle it, but I would have appreciated his authority, and it still stings years later that he never said anything to back us up. I can handle myself fine, to be clear… but when authority figures stay silent when these discussions happen or refuse to ‘take sides’, that makes a clear statement about priorities.

        Sometimes it’s the inactions that speak loudest in those rooms, because speaking up is scary and conflict is, for many people, terrifying. I have a lot of empathy and compassion for the intimidation many men tell me they feel about stepping up and saying something when they notice something that’s problematic about women. I do. It’s a hard thing to do, and you are never going to please every woman by stepping up, and it’s never going to be perfect.

        But I notice that men who actually say “I see this problem, and I try to intervene” are so, so rare. I see men say “I’m trying”, or “I don’t want this to be an issue in my spaces,” but I rarely see men say “Here’s what I am going to do about it” or “here’s the behavior I see that contributes to this kind of thing, and here’s how to identify problems and help.” I’ve seen well meaning men cheerfully announce that we don’t have a problem with this in their spaces because of course the official channels exist, and why wouldn’t anyone use them? ….when, of course, previous incidents with other people had resulted in attempts to use those channels, and the affected people had totally lost faith in their efficacy or even their intent as a result.

        You guys, collectively, *are in the room* with me. I can see you in the room when these kinds of microaggressions go down. I can see the actions you collectively choose to take, too, including the frozen choice to ignore the shit that just got dropped in the middle room. And those go into my mental calculations about how safe that space really is.

  5. As a non-native speaker, “crazy” is the same “league” as bitchy? I would have thought is equally used for male and female as e.g. assh***.

    • You are right that in its definition crazy, is gender neutral. However, I think in the example given, crazy was used as a code word for irrational or emotional which definitely is mostly used in a sexist fashion. The word batshit was a tipoff – it means absolutely over the top, extremely crazy (no idea of the origin of that). Some men are much more likely to call a woman who disagrees with them or is stubborn crazy than a man who disagrees with them or is stubborn. Which is offensive. As a native English speaker, that is how I read the comment.

  6. Gina, I imagine it has taken a lot out of you to compile this. It took a fair amount out of me just to read the original twitter stream (I was crying by the end). But it is really, really important. I wouldn’t have been shocked to see this coming out of the male-dominated computer industry I used to be in. But it was a real eye opener to me to see such extremely unacceptable junk (wordpress filter-friendly word for what I really think) going on in in what I assumed was a more gender-balanced and enlightened academic environment (and fairly recently judging by the apparent age of many of the people reporting it). I think the analyticalness with which you dissected it in this post is also very powerful.

    Thank you.

    • Thanks Brian, that’s a very nice comment and I appreciate it! I definitely felt like I needed to do something given the enormity of the responses. In the next post, I try to tackle themes of acknowledgement and a path forward, so stay tuned!

  7. I really appreciate you all talking about these topics in an open forum. It helps us guys understand the realities of our female colleagues. Listening and reading these types of threads ultimately makes us better colleagues, mentors, and for some of us dads. Its also not lost on me that it opens you all up to more comments/harassment such as these, and it shows bravery that you put yourselves out there for the greater good/change. So, thank you!

    These comments are appalling and hurtful, but also not that surprising coming from sexist asshats. Men that are allies or consider themselves feminists are unlikely to say things this appalling. But what we are guilty of, often and hopefully by accident, are microagressions and nuanced sexism that we may not realize because we have grown up in a patriarchy. While women and URM should not be tasked with teaching us dudes how to act, I do think a valuable topic in this sort of “series” would be (accidental, for lack of a better term) sexism from allies. I actually wish conferences would hold workshops on such topics. This topic could clearly be extended to racism/inclusiveness/bias/etc.

    Thanks again for putting yourselves out there, and please take care of your well-being. This sort of stuff would crush my male fragility.

  8. After reading this I tried to think of a time when I heard sexist comments within a professional research environment. I can’t think of but a few though I have heard of such incidents from others and I am sure that such comments must have been made fairly often in my presence. And I think this may be a widespread experience among males which directly leads to that lack of awareness or self-awareness that Gina referred to at the beginning of the post. It also leads to the apparent willful ignorance evident in a couple of the responses to this post.

    As a male I am not the target of sexist comments and so I would have heard them less. When I was younger I was not aware of this issue at all and so sexist comments would not have registered for me, they would have been ignored/filtered out. And even now, though I find such behavior to be entirely wrong and though I try to actively work against it, I have reason to wonder if I am as aware as I would like to think I am.

    From my own experience I know that there is a difference in perception when you are the target of such behavior rather than just a bystander. Of course, this is no excuse. But it is a potential common ground for men to relate to the experiences of women because a substantial proportion of men have been the target (in an academic environment) for one reason or another.

    Such posts help to shake complacency.

  9. It seems worth studying this in a more systematic manner (across countries and disciplines) and publishing the results (and explicitly including other forms of discrimination, (racism, ableism etc).

    It always seemed odd to me, that scientists as a group seem passionate about studying everything, but the characteristics and behaviours of scientists themselves.

    • I agree – this ought to be a formal study – from this post I can see what sort of comments are being made, but I would like to understand why. Knowing “Why” does not excuse the behavior, but might help to respond to it effectively, and also might indicate what training is missing to prevent its growth – act as weed killer.
      My guess on “why” is that people who need to say these things are either:
      1) insecure in their own abilities, I.e. they feel threatened by the abilities and/or success and/or standing within the group, of their target, or
      2) they are seeking to “align” themselves with other males who are in the audience, along the lines of “by putting someone else done, surely I improve my own standing”, or
      3) they are a nasty piece of work that was never taihhht the value of respect for others, women included.

  10. Excellent topic, and just the kind of debate I’d of expected. I believe it is challenging for many men to envision what women experience when they are a minority in any group, from the workplace to the campsite. Once you hit that critical mass of testosterone, things tend to slide downhill pretty quickly and often without the men acknowledging it. I did not appreciate the effect until I worked in a department that had 127 employees (mostly faculty), among which there were three- yes, 3, men.

    Try that once and you will never again question the perceptions of women in a man-dominated environment. There are many real biological, sociological and psychological differences between men and women. So, whether you are one or the other, or something entirely different, try to have a little empathy for the underdog.

  11. Really interesting and important topic — thanks for highlighting it. I think it’s also important to note that, in my experience, these behaviors generally increase with increasing distance from the main lab/campus. Field camps, research cruises, etc are incubators for macho, misogynist conduct. As such, we need to work particularly hard in those areas to improve living and working conditions for everyone.

  12. @Gina, I wanted to be disappointed that those unfortunate comments came from men that are seemingly capable of rational thoughts. But then I realized that we all start from ignorance. I hope they’ll have the chance to evolve.

    “I’m not really sure anyone reading this is gonna be really shocked. I’m a feminist. My cat is a frickin feminist. If I had a goat, it would be a feminist. So yeah, and?”

    This statement is profound and I’m hoping we can have fun with it. Perhaps it would help folks like Bortwell understand something about your outlook and expectations. I have a lot of women in my life and I have heard some of them declared that they are not feminists. At the same, I have had guys described themselves as feminists. I used to think I understood what these declarations meant. What does it mean to you to be a feminist?

    • I go by the simple Webster’s definition of feminism: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. Therefore, a feminist would be someone that believes this theory. I personally think a lot of people would consider themselves feminist if they actually read the definition.

      • @Travis, equality is something that I can understand but membership should be irrelevant. Feminism is still an elusive term if you consider it from women’s camps—those that are and those are not. Hope we can be educated about it by those who understands the nuance.

      • I would add, especially in lieu of some of the more objectionable comments voiced here today, that feminism is not solely a political movement owned by one of two political parties in the US. I think that point is very often lost to the detriment of feminism. I just did a quick google search with the term “famous feminists”… and yikes, out of the 15 articles I scanned, every single woman portrayed was/is a liberal Democrat…

        Obviously there are a GREAT many conservative women over the past several centuries have made significant contributions to the movement. Being female is not a predisposition to being a liberal, and I believe all women want equality. So I would say let’s do a much better job of including ALL women in the discussion.

    • @Tobi, could you elaborate on “an elusive term if you consider it from women’s camps”? Pure curiosity not argumentative. @Gina looking forward to it!

      • @Travis, the definition that you provided from Webster’s dictionary describes a rationally thinking person and its gender neutral. So “by elusive term” I meant that if a group of women declares that they are not feminist, it doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in equality. So, when we talk about feminism, what exactly are we talking about? It is superficial when we describe it from gender point of view because as your rightly mentioned, many people fall into the category described by the Webster’s dictionary.

    • Hi Tobi – I am very curious to hear Gina’s thoughts on this next week, but to keep ideas within this thread too…

      To give you my own answer to question of why some men would say they are feminists and some women wouldn’t … I don’t know what part of the world you are from, but in the US it is not so complicated.

      In the US there has been a group of men (and women) who have intensely resisted the social changes demanded by the notion of equal treatment of men and women. Being unable to produce rational arguments, they have resorted to nasty rhetoric of attacking the people on the other side. Thus feminists have been painted as strident and angry (FemiNazis is the phrase of one obnoxious radio host) and unfeminine (e.g. don’t shave their armpits as if that actually mattered). Thus many people who believe in equal rights but have absorbed this toxic view of feminism don’t take the label on because of the baggage opponents have hung on the label.

      On a much more subtle level, I think there is also a question of how central the issue of equality of gender is to one’s identity. As Elliot noted, if you look up a list of feminists in an encyclopedia or google search, you will get a list of people who devoted their primary life’s energy to improving equality of the genders (from the suffragettes protesting for the right to vote to women like Gloria Steinem fighting for the right to not be conceptually locked up at home as a housemaker). I think many women today look at the world and still see inequality (pay, the kind of verbal crap on display above and worse physical crap) and disagree with it, but choose to “get on with their life” and not making fighting this injustice as the center of their lives and thus don’t necessarily identify with the feminist icons. But they would still say quite emphatically that they believe in equal rights.

      But I think these are unfortunate side effects of a battle over the idea. It is important to reclaim the word feminist as nothing more or less than the idea that men and women should be treated equally (and perhaps also the idea that there is still work to do on this front). It is important not to let the other side define the term. And once one strips away all of the emotional baggage from 100 years of opponents objecting to equal treatment of women by attacking feminist women because they couldn’t really attack the idea, one is left with a simple, unobjectionable notion that probably >90% of people (of both political persuasions) agree with.

      Thus I actually think it is important for us all (perhaps especially men) to own the label of feminism.

      • Great answer Brian! I agree the term feminist has baggage associated with it, primarily due, at least in my memory, to ridicule from Rush Limbaugh. The term is ridiculed because some men do not wish for equality for groups that are not the majority in power, and the negative connotation has trickled over into popular thought. I’ve had many discussions with women who do not consider themselves feminist or are unwilling to use the term. In fact, my family is conservative-moderate-ish southern republican (for the most part); I doubt many of the women would call themselves feminist, and yet strongly support equal pay and other topics that historical feminism has made real movement on. It’s a great example of internalized sexism. In the next post, I drop some great thinkers and places to start reading.

      • Brian, thanks for the explanation. I’m sort of aware of the baggage associated with the term feminism. You made an important point, which is “not to let the other side define the term” and more importantly, not to help them. Not to diminish the concerns here, most of the remarks that were compiled is more like evidence that “smart men” can be horrible people too. The real discriminations (e.g. pay gap) are institutionalized. But people are also the institution, which means that we can be more effective in how we engage with people on these issues especially those that might disagree with us.

        Take the exchange between Gina and Bortwell for example. Bortwell’s unfortunate analogy aside, there’s nothing in that exchange that shows that Bortwell and Gina are not on the same team. At least in principle. However, they both assumed something about each other. The compilation could have been made by Meghan, you (Brian) or Jeremy, I would just see it as someone creating an awareness about the ugliness in seemingly perfect places and not from the lens of feminism. At least there were similar posts in the past. I probed Gina’s declaration specifically to elicit a clarification that feminism means nothing more than advocacy for equality because her mode of response (about her cat etc) plays to the alternative view of feminism. This is one of the cases where we all lose if don’t seek to understand.

      • You’ve made many excellent points, Brian! For certain, El Rushbo has done his best to bastardize the term “feminism,” but I think that kind of talk only appeals to those with preconceived notions about women. However, I would also assert the left is partly, although unintentionally, to blame for the polarization around the issue. Beginning in the early 60s and then gaining steam in the 70s, the left formed strong linkages between gay/lesbian rights and women’s rights, often asserting lesbianism as a key dimension of the feminist movement.

        Personally I understand the argument and also support it, but I think the mass-media campaigning of the two-pronged approach turned many conservatives against feminism. I think for many of them, feminism became a difficult choice because it gave the appearance of being in support of gay rights (which I am not saying is a bad thing). So when faced with that choice, many conservatives rejected feminism because of their moral objections to same-sex relationships.

        I am by no means an expert on the topic, but it seems to me that feminist advocates could gain some cultural momentum by distinguishing themselves from the gay rights movement, per se, while also supporting it as a separate cause were they so motivated.

      • @Tobi, I have no idea how stating that my cat is feminist, and that if I had a goat, it would be feminist, tells you anything about my particular brand of feminism. Nor do I need to explain to you my every thought or belief on the subject; if I did, it would not help you understand the feminist movement overall. I will drop some interesting places for one who is interested in the topic of feminism next week, and you can use that information to continue your education, or not, it is your choice. Another good place to continue your query is in a women’s studies class and by reading well-known feminist works.

      • @Gina, 

        “I have no idea how stating that my cat is feminist, and that if I had a goat, it would be feminist, tells you anything about my particular brand of feminism”

        No, it doesn’t, it just came across that you are not willing to have a real conversion, which is your right. I wish you good luck in your quest.

  13. Absolutely appalling. Kudos for you for putting this together and helping the rest of us understand better.

  14. Academia is composed of people and many members of our species are horrible. We need to discuss sexism and all kinds of prejudice, xenophobia included. Scientists working abroad experience large overlap in those categories of bloody comments, especially when they come from an underdeveloped country. The similarities between prejudices are striking and tell us a lot about the dark side of human nature. And I agree that in many cases the root of all prejudice is lack of awareness, although pure evil also plays a role.

  15. Thanks for the interesting and sad and frustrating post. Such a survey reveals the different kinds of shite women have experienced, but at this point, and understandably, not how commonly these experiences have happened to any one person. Oh if only to have had only a single one of these experiences in my career. It would still be one too many.

    I think there’s a lot to said for the “empathy gap” and what that means for trying to change the system and people’s perceptions. I recall one conversation with a group of women grad students, who were sharing various stories of inappropriate behavior by men towards them, and a male faculty who overheard our discussion responded “why don’t these things ever happen when I’ve been around?”. Only by witnessing with his own eyes was he willing to believe – why weren’t our collective voices enough? That response has stayed with me for 20+ years and I think of it often when any group tells the story of their struggles. I believe them when told of terrible experiences, but clearly that’s not enough for so many people. Why not? Any thoughts?

    • I’m not sure. Perhaps women don’t talk about these things often enough; maybe men and women are socialized to not believe one woman’s experience (in comparison, how many people still think Bill Cosby is innocent?). But I don’t know, great question.

      • My experience is that when women try to talk about these things, men immediately minimize and dismiss them because the topic makes them uncomfortable and they’d rather not engage with that discomfort. It’s a very human response, and also one that means that women tend not to talk about these experiences when men are in the metaphorical room, because why would you want to bother when you’re only going to get shut down?

    • Hi Sharon,

      The *only* surprising thing about any of this to me is how many men are surprised by it or seemingly unaware. And I’m sorry to say that the comments recorded here are on the mid-low end of what I’ve seen and heard.

      In grad school I dated an undergraduate woman a few times who was considered very attractive by my male colleagues. WOW, the comments and questions I got from them about her afterward were astounding. I mean, I’ve been around some low company and I would expect that kind of talk there but I didn’t expect it from educated people. WRONG!!

      I’m just really surprised that so many men don’t notice it

  16. A quick question — I was pondering putting together all of the responses in a Storify. I think that would preserve the impact of the huge number of replies. Has that already been done?

      • I can try! I was curious if one existed already, and where I might find it. But upon reflection, do not want that to seem like I’m asking for your raw data 🙂 I read the replies and they are so overwhelming and despair inducing. Especially some of the trolling –ARG.

  17. Gina-thank you for this post and enduring the pain it must have taken to relive and categorize all of those responses. I look forward to the follow-up and will definitely be having my students read this in lab. One of my female undergraduates who just graduated had her first misogynistic field experience and detailed it in an email to me today. It’s so painful to know I can’t protect these strong scientists I help shape from this behavior directly. But I take solace knowing that I can make sure we talk about it explicitly and come up with ways to combat it as they experience it in their careers. Thanks so much for your work on this. It helps make so much of others’ work a bit easier.

  18. Some things said to me by senior male scientists that I really respect:
    After I’d been explaining my research for a few minutes, “What? Huh? Oh, sorry I have a wife and a daughter at home so there is just a certain frequency I tune out.”
    “You need to account for your time of the month in your data collection…it may bias your results.”
    “That’s just because you are a woman.” many, many times from one male scientist on a variety of topics (maybe it’s a joke??)

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  20. Gina – as one of the women who added a few tweets to your burden, THANK YOU for bring this to light in such an effective way. I had a similar experience when I first started exploring harassment at scientific meetings and conferences, and I learned it can be a short journey from shock to horror to despair at the size of the problem. I used to teach women’s self-defense, and I once asked one of my self-defense instructors – a woman who has worked to end violence against women for 20+ years – how she keeps going without despairing. Her response was “I acknowledge the problem and dwell in the solution.” I now use what I learned from her and others to do workshops on harassment resistance, active bystander intervention, and how to be an ally in professional settings. I’m confident you’ll find a place to dwell in the solution, too.

  21. Thank you for writing this piece. I look forward to your next blog on how to tackle it. People can say horrible sexist things, but sometimes it is more subtle. For example, the speaker at a scientific society banquet dinner last night shared slides of fully naked women holding fish. The talk was about fish populations. How do we deal with this other than saying WTF? I hope that you can help start a conversation about the different tactics we can use to combat the many ways in which women are objectified and denigrated.

    • Is a picture of a naked woman in a scientific talk that is not about a medical or anthropological topic subtle?!? I have been in a talk like this before and it was both embarrassing and shocking (embarrassing bc I had put the speaker list together!). The body objectification in slide presentations needs to stop, and I wonder what it will take crowd-wise to make this happen.

    • Use a naked man in your next talk – perhaps one that will remind your presumably middle-aged-and-up audience of their declining physical reality – and put the shoe on the other foot. Its kind of shitty to have to go that route – it’ll surely be controversial if a woman does it – but my guess is that’s the way you’re most likely to reach your target audience.

      • @Jim, while I was attending the recent SSE meeting, someone tweeted their annoyance with a speaker who said something to the effect of ‘It’s so simple even your mom could understand!’ (I wasn’t clear if this comment came from a speaker at the meeting, or if it was from another meeting). I thought for ~5 mins of saying ‘It’s so clear that even your dad, or better yet, your granddad, could understand!’ when I showed one particularly obvious slide during my talk. But I decided against it because I would offend men and women in the crowd who it would never occur to make the mom comment, and, the frame of reference wouldn’t have made it into the talk and people would just think I was an asshole. I feel like this may be a similar situation!

  22. I’m in the “sad but not shocked” camp with you, I’ve been working in a predominately white/male field for a while and I’ve heard variations of the themes. I’ve known women who were deliberately driven out of the field, and I’ve helped train a few who were excluded from opportunities usually granted. I’m furious about these things and want them to stop, but I’m not used to the jargon of feminism and I respond badly to it. I get deeply uncomfortable when I see words like “ally” in this context, and I can’t explain precisely why. If I hadn’t been looking forward to your synthesis since I first saw the Twitter thread, I would have quit reading when I hit that word (I actually did stop reading, and came back to it later in the day). I wanted to let you know I responded that way, as someone completely in favor of what you’re trying to do. When this starts getting to the people who are used to saying these horrible things, the jargon might be a barrier. My two cents, thank you for doing this, I wish you every success.

  23. I’m an academic physician. During Mentoring event, a female junior resident admitted that she was “disadvantaged” because she had a baby at home and may not be able to meet work expectations as her non-parent colleagues. I had to reassure that being a mom is not a disadvantage, but an advantage. Most of the more successful medical students and physicians I’ve met are mothers. They have phenomenal time management and organizational skills, prioritize and multitask like a CEO, demonstrate compassion and empathy and are grem team leaders and team players.

    Part of the danger of the overall patriarchal-sexist system, and particularly in academia, is the internalization of the inferiority complex by women which can leads to a sel-fulfilling prophecy that can perpetuate the stereotype or force her to over-compensate leading to burn out, depression, anxiety, life imbalance, etc.

    The necessity of other women to unabashedly and loudly support each other directly and indirectly is crucial. Recognizing and boldly calling out sexist attitudes and behavior when we see or hear it, is critical. Gone are the days to fear backlash – one post on social media, and that institution will find itself on the receiving end of mass cyber-stoning. It is not cool anymore to be so “overtly” sexist/racist/any other-ist.

    Our male allies play a critical role al well. Being intentional in the way we raise our boys is also very important.

    • THIS: “The necessity of other women to unabashedly and loudly support each other directly and indirectly is crucial.”

      That is so key, as are all of your points, thank you for making them.

  24. An academic question occurred to me as I thought about your post last night. If (and hopefully soon) we achieve equal pay for women, should we then allow men to retire earlier than women? I ask, because as of 2014, women on average lived 4.8 years longer than men. It would seem sexist to me, anyway, to allow that inequality to persist once salaries were equal. With an earlier retirement, men would then on average receive the same range and extent of benefits as women during their golden years. Shucks, I’d work for less than women if it meant I could retire with full benefits at 60…

    • Perhaps before we start thinking about *possible* forms of inequality men *might face* in the future, we should think more about the inequalities that women, persons of color, and other minorities are currently challenged with.

      • I did not intend to take anything away from the very real struggles women confront in the workplace, nor to detract from efforts to correct these grave injustices. To me, time has always been my greatest asset. Even though at times I am paid a salary or hourly wage to make that time available to others, I’ve always felt my time- your time- anyone’s time- is priceless. Our lives are short to begin with. So, kindly, I would assert that the retirement gap relative to life expectancy is not a *possible* form of inequality, but in fact a very current and *real* one. Notice though I did not insist upon any immediate remedy, meaning that at my current age of 55, I am not asking for any relief. In order to effectuate any change along these lines, it would take years and years of lobbying, and even then, it would be phased in over decades to come.

        I have always believed in and applied a color- and gender-blind approach in the professional world… and I did so even when the good ole boys ran the show decades ago… when it was not popular. Inequities are inequities, so let’s fix them all, I say.

      • Respectfully, in response to Elliot Rosenthal’s comment:
        I have learned that colour and gender blindness, as I used to purport to manifest, just make us blind to the real inequities/lived experiences of those who are not like us. Or, as the author put it, “…at the root of the problem there is an unrecognized lack of empathy.” Unrecognized is the key word here.
        Also, not all inequities are created equal, so we need work first (or harder) to fix the more egregious among them. Care ought be taken to not conflate biology and privilege of (I presume white) maleness with real inequities – those that women still face in academia, women being under represented as subjects in medical research, POC and LGBTQ+ even more so in academia and as research subjects, …

      • I appreciate your views on my comments. I would however disagree with you on this issue of “color- and gender-blindness”. Because I do not take into consideration ones race or gender concerning any and all professional interactions, it does not (and has not) blinded me to their struggles. My door is, and always has been open to everyone. I treat white heterosexual males with the same level of respect as I do, for example, gay latino females. Everyone gets a fair shake, and I think that is important. I favor nor disfavor no one based upon ethnicity or gender.

        My blindness does not preclude my empathy. It just happens to be the case that when you or anyone else walks through my door, they are greeted with the same generosity and kindness as anyone else. I am not saving the scotch and cigars for anyone in particular. Tis true as you have indicated that not all inequities are equal to one another. But if we assume the average lifespan for a woman is 81, and a man 76 (2014 data, USA), and each retire at 65, then the woman, on average, receives 31% more retirement and related benefits than the man.

        31%. A Washington Post article reported in 2016 two figures for pay disparity between men and women in the US: Women earned 8% or 21% less than men, depending on how it was calculated. (link: But let’s assume for argument’s sake it is 21%. Now, I realize that to some degree comparing retirement years and benefits to salaries is an apples v. oranges kind of thing. But come on already… women, on average, receive THIRTY-ONE PERCENT MORE RETIREMENT YEARS AND RELATED BENEFITS THAN DO MEN.

        So yes, respectfully, I agree that not all inequities are created equal…

      • For my own clarity, are you saying that it’s okay that women are paid less than men because women live longer?

    • I hate to break it to you Elliot, but your “academic” insight is both flawed and a standard MRA trope.

      Why is it flawed? Surely as an academic that’s obvious to you.

      What’s MRA? “Men’s rights activists.” It’s this self-proclaimed movement where guys lament how women… Well, really, where guys lament women.

      And, just an fyi, “colorblind” is right there with “My -So-and-So- friends…” on the “things people say because they think it obviates their terrible beliefs” front. I’m just warning you because I’d hate to see a thoughtful academic accidentally classified as a typical internet troll.

      • Goodness, well, by all means, have your cake and eat it too. Far be it from me to suggest a possible way forward… But, you know, imagine where the feminist movement would be today had it endeavored to be more inclusive. Imagine garnering, oh, I don’t know, 20% of white conservative males for a comprehensive piece of equal pay legislation. Likely you would get more than that by addressing ALL issues of inequality. So I thoughtfully provided an example of how to do that.

        If you want to classify me as one thing or another, quite frankly I could care less. My record speaks for itself.

  25. Thank you for this.
    I grew up in an academic era where sexist comments were, perhaps, considered relatively benign compared to the various evils we faced. In the 70s and 80s it was way certainly better than what my grandmother endured. But I was raised to ignore, and I believe that resulted in an ignorance for what continued (and continues) to be a problem. Comments were certainly internalized, but were never taken too seriously. It was, perhaps, a learned and well practiced protective response.
    I like to think that things have improved somewhat since my young years, but general societal awareness of inequities makes what remains seem far worse. Far worse than my most recent personal experience … the kind where something was “not said”. My name was the only one in a program that did not have a title prefix printed. Even the *only* non-MD had “Mr.” in front of his name, but my (hard earned) “Dr.” was glaringly missing among the other award recipients – (mostly men). It was akin to the study described here:
    Sexist? I think so. Trivial compared to others’ experiences, but emblematic just the same.
    I look forward to your part two.

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