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.
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.
Too pretty/distracting (27%)
Broad objectification (20%)
Mentions of ugly/not attractive
“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
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.