Via Dana’s open letter to Nature amiably titled “There is a Crucial Difference Between Being Contentious and Being a Misogynistic Asshole,” we read Anne Jefferson’s open letter to Nature amiably titled “You got a sexist story, but when you published it, you gave it your stamp of approval and became sexist too.”
“Womanspace” by Ed Rybicki is the most appalling thing I have ever read in a scientific journal. When I read the Futures (science fiction) piece you published on 29 September 2011, about how the hero and a man friend were unable to cope with a simple errand and how that led them to discover the existence of parallel universe inhabited by women that naturally endowed women with their domestic prowess, but which women were too dumb to observe until the great men of science made their discovery, I checked to make make sure I was still on nature.com. To my dismay, I was.
The story hearkens back to the “good old” sexist days when men did important things (like write books about virology) and women did unimportant things (like keep their families fed and clothed); when men couldn’t be bothered to be useful around the house and even when women did manage to get science degrees they were better employed as cooks and errand runners. The writer makes the explicit assumption that all of his (and, thus Nature’s) readers are male and have a “significant female other” who helps with their shopping. The story uses a cliched trope that women have an alternate reality, but then adds the extra punch that we aren’t even smart or observant enough to know it. As a woman scientist reading this article, it seems in every way designed to make me feel othered and excluded from the scientific academy.
That’s how to tell them.
I particularly loved the bit about the explicit assumption, because I often think that apart from my friends Claire and Mary Ellen, no one else notices those assumptions when they appear. Here’s how this one appeared, in Rybicki’s story:
At this point I must digress, and mention, for those who are not aware, the profound differences in strategy between Men Going Shopping and Women Going Shopping. In any general shopping situation, men hunt: that is, they go into a complex environment with a few clear objectives, achieve those, and leave. Women, on the other hand, gather: such that any mission to buy just bread and milk could turn into an extended foraging expedition that also snares a to-die-for pair of discounted shoes; a useful new mop; three sorts of new cook-in sauces; and possibly a selection of frozen fish.
And the interesting thing is — and this is what sparked the discovery — that any male would be very hard pressed to say where she got some of these things, even if he accompanied her.
Have you never had the experience of talking to your significant female other as you wend your way through the complexity of a supermarket — only to suddenly find her 20 metres away with her back to you? And then she comes back with something you’ve never seen before, and tosses it in the trolley as if nothing has happened?
See? He’s assuming that the reader is male (and straight). He’s assuming that women are too busy foraging for shoes to read science magazines, or perhaps anything at all.
It’s a good thing we have all these waves of feminism (what is it now? 23? 37?), because the first two or three certainly didn’t finish the job.