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Jacquelyn Gill has a good question

From Jacquelyn’s fine blog The Contemplative Mammoth, a bit of context:

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 that statement beyond saying that “don’t bring much to the table that others don’t already know” is basically a really sexist way of saying that they female applicants “are on par with or even slightly exceed others.” 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.

And then the question:

After the sexist comments were made, some 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. To those people, I ask:

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? 

That is a really good question.

[Updated to add:] Apologies to Jacquelyn for misspelling her name at first. Need moar coffee.

Comments

  1. carlie says

    Amazingly simple problem to deal with:
    Don’t say anything sexist on the listserv, and nobody will call it out, and decorum is maintained.

    There! Solved!

  2. glodson says

    Why? Because it is impolite to point out when someone says something stupid because they tripped up over their own privilege.

    Which is more a problem with being polite in the first place. Or, you know, people could just examine their own attitudes a bit more closely and try not to be sexist in the first place.

  3. Alverant says

    Because it’s rude. Like when someone sneezes in a quiet area and someone a few rows over shouts, “Excuse you!” /snark

    Seriously, I think it’s because people don’t like it when bad behavior is pointed out.

  4. jaranath says

    Also, you’re “making it an issue”. Besides the people who don’t like having their bad behavior pointed out, other people don’t like the general social discomfort that results. They would prefer you keep it bottled up–never mind the consequences–and rationalize it by arguing you should be focusing on “more important” things and not “drag the tent” over your preferred issues.

  5. AlanMac says

    Sorry cat jumped on my keyboard

    2) “Calling someone out for a sexist statement on a list-serv is inappropriate.”

    I believe the proper response to statements like that or any other time when one is asked to show tolerance for the intolerable , to quote Hitchens , is ” Fuck You!!

  6. hexidecima says

    hmmm, so writing on the list serv “if you want to make such generalities, then put up the data to support your claims about “female applicants. Since I know you can’t, you are a sexist twit” wouldn’t be appropriate to these people who want “tolerance”.

    Sorry, being tolerant to sexist twits is not being tolerant at all. It’s encouraging the same pitiful old nonsense that nothing but lies told by the maliciously ignorant and lazy. It is never wrong to call someone out on their untruths, not unless you are protecting someone from the bad guys.

  7. Rob says

    Frankly, a scientist/researcher who is too thin skinned to have their own thought processes, precepts and communications challenged (in an appropriate manner) is not worth the photons emitted by this screen. I have no sympathy for them or their defenders. On face value it was a dumb thing to say, especially without supporting good quality data and probably much more qualified. In any case I suspect there is no good quality supporting data…

  8. Chuck says

    is basically a really sexist way of saying that they female applicants “are on par with or even slightly exceed others.”

    My brain is short-circuiting here.

  9. jose says

    People are hardwired to punish those who disturb the peace. That’s how monkeys keep the social order within their troops. It’s just evolution. Besides, males prefer quiet, submissive females because they’re more likely to mate and deliver offspring, so male disgust at your unnatural attitude is only logical and determined by natural selection. Don’t believe me? I polled seventy students last month and they all said they don’t like uppity females. So there you have it. If I may venture a guess, I’d say your waist-hip ratio probably isn’t top of the line, either.

    You just want to deny science and biological reality with your irrational emotions.


    Just kidding evo psych folks, don’t be mad. :)

  10. johnwolforth says

    Because making a sexist statement is too easy to spot as just plain wrong, but attacking how someone responds to it allows for all sorts of twists, turns, tone policing and comments on the “how” but not the “what”. That way, you can continue to suppress women and minorities but sound like you are actually making valid points.

  11. mythbri says

    Because applying skepticism to sexist or other bigoted statements is…..wrong, somehow?

    It’s like “talking about racism makes you the real racist!”

  12. says

    Because the person who approvingly reproduced the sexist stereotypes about women was just opening a valid discussion, you see, and doing so in a civil manner, therefore any response beyond, “I find your ideas interesting but am skeptical of their provenance; can you provide a citation showing that female students are more likely to be generalists with little to contribute?” would be rude and destructive of the common good. Whereas calling into question the abilities of 50% of the population is just an idea which should be Seriously Debated and Discussed by Serious People.

    /still annoyed by Dan Fincke

  13. David Marjanović says

    My brain is short-circuiting here.

    “[T]oo many [...] 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” means “they’re not all super-geniuses”. That “they don’t bring much to the table that others don’t already know” means they do bring some, meaning they are, in fact, above average.

    Took me a while to notice, too.

  14. eric says

    Replace “especially female” with “especially asian” or “especially jewish,” and who wants to bet that Dr. Gill’s complaint would have been roundly supported and applauded by both listerv controllers and participants? This is pure sexism. Dollars to donuts that their calls for “tolerance” only extends to bigoted comments about women; equally bigoted comments about other groups would not be tolerated.

  15. philboidstudge says

    @glodson

    Why? Because it is impolite to point out when someone says something stupid because they tripped up over their own privilege.

    The sexist comment was made by a woman. (or a dude named “Clara”). If privilege enters into it, it is a very confused privilege.

  16. skaduskitai says

    Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. It’s besides a sexist an elitist statement also calling into attention something that everybody knows: Most people, in any field of human enterprise anywhere, aren’t going to be brilliant and original new-thinkers that will make a significant contribution to their field.

    The evidence for the statement cannot be duplicated since there is no evidence presented for it and it’s extremely general. It’s exactly what it condemns except presumably from someone that is not a student and not a woman and not young.

  17. carlie says

    How about instead of calling the statements sexist, they get called out as “you are either unknowingly incorrect or lying, which is it?” every time. That sounds civil to me.

  18. Matt Penfold says

    How about instead of calling the statements sexist, they get called out as “you are either unknowingly incorrect or lying, which is it?” every time. That sounds civil to me.

    I really am not getting this how to be civil stuff. I would have thought that making such an obvious sexist comment would be uncivil to the extent I would question whether the person making should continue to allowed to comment. When in fact, I am totally wrong, and what really bad is pointing out that the comment was sexist.

    Nope. I’ve tried. I guess I just do not get it.

  19. leoofno says

    I don’t see how the statement is not an out-and-out insult. If you “do not bring much to the table” then the implication is that you bring less than others. Everyone has something to contribute (ie, stuff they know that others don’t). The statement says to me that young applicants have less of that to offer (no argument there I suppose, experience generally increases your knowledge), and women especially have less to offer. How is that supposed to mean they are “above average”?

  20. carlie says

    leoofno – I think it’s because the statement was do not bring much to the table that others don’t already know. Using “not much” implies that it’s still an amount greater than zero, so more than others already know (just not much more), making them a little above the average of what everyone else already knows.

    It’s sort of a “but what have the Romans ever done for us?” argument.

  21. Rip Steakface says

    @23

    It *is* an out-and-out insult, but not in that manner. Its more along the lines of “women aren’t bringing gigantic, over-the-top benefits over men, therefore they’re useless because women suck.”

  22. lclane2 says

    Up until a couple of years into grad school (1960s) I felt that women weren’t good scientists because they lacked analytical skills. I remember explicitly what changed my outlook. It was a seminar by Maxine Singer who clearly possessed the skills that I presumed women to lack. The larger sample that I’ve encountered since has included many Maxine Singers. My initial prejudice arose, as I imagine most prejudices arise, from exposure to a small sample. With modern interconnectedness readers can counter prejudices by offering counterexamples from larger samples.

  23. carlie says

    That was an unintelligible fever brain comment I made there. To clarify:

    “They don’t bring much to the table that others don’t already know.”

    “So you’re saying they DO bring something to the table that other people don’t know.”

    “Yes, just not much.”

    “But still, more than the others already know.”

  24. robro says

    I had a similar thought to @eric. It might be difficult, but perhaps examples could be found of similar biased remarks about other groups, and then see what the comments are like. Perhaps the remarks were called out, or perhaps they passed unnoticed.

  25. Chuck says

    “They don’t bring much to the table that others don’t already know.”

    “So you’re saying they DO bring something to the table that other people don’t know.”

    “Yes, just not much.”

    “But still, more than the others already know.”

    Thanks. That sorted it out for me.

  26. golkarian says

    I think it’s a really good comment. I think people phrase things too often as questions to avoid criticism (why are you criticizing me if there’s no such thing as a dumb question?), which is unfortunate because I think one can easily defend the comment that a sexist comment is worse than calling one out. It’s a nitpick in this instance but I think it’s useful when dealing with Christians to recognize that if someone doesn’t want an answer to a question, then it’s just a comment in disguise.

  27. glodson says

    philboidstudge: I missed that.

    Then I need amend my statement: It is impolite to point out privileged positions accepted as a norm.

  28. frog says

    @26

    The problem there is that the examples get called “exceptions,” some sort of deviation from the norm of inferiority. The critical number of “exceptions” one must find before convincing –ists that their prejudice is irrational is shockingly high.

    And even then, the bigots start looking for explanations again. Once it became clear that African Americans could play baseball and football as well as the white boys, people started hypothesizing that it was because all those years of slavery “bred” stronger men. (Google “Jimmy the Greek racist comment” for an example of this.)

    Obviously some individuals can reach a point where they say, “Wait a tic…I think I might be wrong.” But most people will cling to their delusions with claws and fangs.

  29. jnorris says

    Because you are overtly calling attention to the person who made the stupid remark and covertly to all those who nodded in agreement and we can’t have the inbreed leadership of a science mocked in public for their 19th century attitudes about non-males.

  30. says

    Aw come on, everybody knows, bringing much to the table that others don’t already know or that cannot be readily duplicated or that is mostly generalist-oriented is more of a guy thing. What’s sexist about that?

  31. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle says

    The sexist comment was made by a woman. (or a dude named “Clara”). If privilege enters into it, it is a very confused privilege.

    I’m not entirely sure about this. Clara, being on line and all (and assuming that this person is female) has only one way to curry favor: agree with the privileged. This will make her stand up from those uppity problem-causing feminists who might compete with her for the scraps from the masters’ table.

    She’s siphoning privilege.

    Sucking up to the privileged for head pats and currying favor is acknowledging their privileged status (subconsciously or not) and trying to get some benefit from them. This is something all people do, to some degree, to survive in our society. Play the fucked up game to make your life easier. Wear those heels, convincingly feign amusement at your boss’s racist jokes, etc.

    But, the degree to which one is successful at siphoning privilege is, I think, dependent on one’s own privilege status.

    I.e. the “hot chick” who sucks up is going to get further doing so than the “ugly chick”. The “white chick” is going to get further doing so than the “not white chick”, etc.

    Being on line is sort of an equalizer, since others won’t know your privilege status unless you tell them. This was Clara’s way of telling them.

    . . . . Am I making sense? Getting to tired to tell.

  32. leoofno says

    Hmmm. l don’t think I was very clear. While it is true that the statement says that women bring things to the table that are not known by the others, and hence they know some things that the others do not, it implies that men bring more things to the table that are not known by the others. Therefore it is a slam on women, not a compliment.

    Look at it like this (say that each letter represents some unique bit of knowledge):
    Experienced Person: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRS
    Young Male Applicant: AEGINQVW
    Young Female Applicant:AEGINQW
    Now who would you want to hire? The female brings something new to the table (W), but the male brings more (VW).

    Read it again: “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.” That is exactly the situation I outlined above where the “especially female” part means that the female applicant brings even less to the table (W) than the male (VW).

    Thats not even a hint of a compliment.

  33. vaiyt says

    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.

    Why add the “especially female”? Why the unnecessary jab towards women in general? The advice would be perfect without those two words.

  34. grouperfish says

    I think what’s missing to the analysis here is that desperate people will use desperate tactics. The academic world is certainly desperate:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/02/the-phd-bust-americas-awful-market-for-young-scientists-in-7-charts/273339/

    People will try to use any advantage they have – including using inappropriate stereotypes – to exclude their competitors from the game, as long as it increases their chances by even a small bit. Of course people online agree, they want to eliminate competition too.

  35. robpowell says

    @Leoofno 37: This is generally my first impression of this comment; essentially “Grad students, especially female grad students, are useless. Why do we pay them again? Why do we even accept female grad students?” It comes off as straight slap to the face, with a follow-up gendered backhand to people without penises/identifying male/etc.

  36. chrislawson says

    I guess it’s possible to call out sexism in a terribly inappropriate, overly aggressive manner. We’ve seen examples on this list before (necessitating requests from PZ not to make, say, prison rape jokes about rapists). But, you know, I’ve yet to see a calling out of sexism, no matter how civil and well-reasoned, that has not been slammed for being “divisive” or “confrontational” by someone in the affected community while the original comment, no matter how sexist, remains unevaluated on the divisive/confrontational score.

  37. says

    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?

    Worse than that, by saying things like:

    Calling someone out for a sexist statement on a list-serv is inappropriate.

    They are implicitely arguing that it is appropriate to call someone out for “calling someone out for a sexist statement” on a list-serv.

    So not only have then no problem with the sexism but they have no problem with defending sexism even though they have a big problem with objecting to said sexism.

    They don’t mind having sexist discussions or discussions about sexism on the listserv, they just don’t want the side they disagree with to have a say.

  38. chrisdevries says

    re: #37 – leoofno

    If we take the word “much” to mean that young male candidates bring MORE to the table and the females are therefore under-performing, then yes, your interpretation is sound. But to me, there is nothing in the comment that suggests that she is comparing female candidates to their male counterparts and finding them less competent (I think she’s saying they are slightly more competent on average). She never says that males bring more, just that females bring less than they need to to get hired. I believe she is merely commenting that females are not doing enough to distinguish themselves from the default average male, that while females are still above average, people in her faculty hiring new post-docs and assistant professors still prefer to hire men.

    So I think that she is alerting everyone to the reality of discrimination in her department. But if her next sentence is not “this is a deplorable reality and our department is working hard to ensure that males and females are on a level playing field during hiring”, she is either passively accepting this as the status quo and telling others to accept it as well, or saying that this is all as it should be, that only the best female candidates should be chosen over males. It’s still a sexist comment to me; any comment telling women that they need to be significantly better than men to compete with them is sexist. But we do need to also talk about the point she raises: in academia (and especially the sciences), women are under-represented in post-docs and professorships, and part of that is due to the fact that they are often required to meet qualification levels well above what would be required for a man.