Othered and excluded from the scientific academy

Oh look, we’re back on this corner again. Some drearily unthinking guy writes a patronizing “funny” article story about women for Nature, people say how drearily unthinking it is, and everybody says “oh lighten up, ladies.” It’s just a joke, huh huh huh. Jokes never do any harm, any fule kno that.

In a pig’s eye, says Christie Wilcox at SciAm blogs.

Reinforcing negative gender stereotypes is anything but harmless.

It was Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson who, in 1995, first coined the term stereotype threat. It refers to how the knowledge of a prejudicial stereotype can lead to enough anxiety that a person actually ends up confirming the image. Since that landmark paper, more than 300 studies have found evidence for the pervasive negative effects of societal stereotypes.

When it comes to women, studies have shown that stereotype threat is very real. Women are stereotyped to be worse at math than men due to lower test scores. But it turns out that women only score lower when they are reminded of their gender or take the test in the presence of men. In fact, the greater the number of men in the room with a female test taker, the worse she will do. The gender profile of the environment has no effect, however, on women’s verbal test scores, where no such inferiority stereotype exists.

So this kind of thing does matter. There is no “just a joke.”

Ed may not have meant to demoralize women scientists when he wrote Womanspace, but by reinforcing the stereotype of the domesticated woman as opposed to the scientific man, he did just that. But even worse, as Anne Jefferson said, by approving of such a piece, Nature has given this kind of sexist attitude their highly-valued stamp of approval.

Shame on you, Nature, for contributing to the kind of environment which leads to stereotype threat – the kind of environment that tells girls they shouldn’t bother becoming a scientist. Because while I can shrug off some bigoted humor, they can’t. They’re the ones harmed by such careless support of antiquated gender roles. I am mad at you for them. You have done wrong by little nerdy girls everywhere, Nature, and you need to acknowledge it. Anything less says that you simply don’t care.

Please don’t do it any more.


  1. Chris Lawson says

    Minor correction: it’s not an article, it’s fiction. Nature has been running short-short science fiction stories under the Futures banner for some time now. That doesn’t change anything about how wrong it was to publish.

  2. D. A. EhkciD says

    There is no reason for a “scientific” journal like Nature which is in the business of publishing attempts to get at the “truth” to publish such fiction fluff. Secondly Science (the field and not the journal) has no business having blatantly exclusional sections such as “Women”space.

    Hopefully efforts such as PLoS would would render Nature redundant soon. It is a scandal how taxpayer funded research is not freely accessible by the same taxpayers.

  3. JennieL says

    I’m glad there has been a pushback.

    Really, this is just another version of that tired sexist trope that has Hapless Male completely incapable of doing Woman-Thing even though he really tries, honest, whereas Woman has some mysterious unfathomable innate Woman-Thinging ability, amirite guys? Ha! So of course men should leave all the doing of Woman-Things to women, and women shouldn’t complain, because poor Hapless Male is so hapless.

    Really old-school version: church guy in my childhood who once insisted, to my mother, that he wasn’t sexist; he had the utmost respect for women and in fact was rather in awe of them. He couldn’t see how one could possibly get all of the different components of a dinner to be cooked, ready and hot all at the same time – and yet women do that every day! Incredible!

    Modern version: me (junior female faculty) is expected to take the minutes at every single department meeting. So why can’t we take turns and have the guys do it sometimes? Oh, goodness no, they have no idea how to take minutes! And besides, I’m so good at it! See, I forgot about that innate Secretarial Module in my little woman-brain.

    (Yes, really, that is what they said. When I refused to do it any more, they . . . brought in one of the secretarial staff to take minutes at department meetings.)

  4. JennieL says

    Oh look, the author defends himself in the comments under his little story:

    I suppose you expected the sorts of comments we got, because I didn’t: I thought the premise of the story – two rather hopeless middle-aged men finding reasons for not being able to find girls’ knickers (we really couldn’t, you know), would have shone through – and illuminated the fact that many men really are hopeless in this regard.

    Yes, those men, they really are so hopeless at finding things in stores. And it really is a pickle of a conundrum trying to think why that could possibly be

    And as a woman it’s not at all disheartening and demoralizing to hear one’s colleagues joke about being hopeless – with no intention of, you know, trying to be less hopeless. And it’s great that you’re supposed to accept that you’re just Different-In-A-Way-That-Means-You-Get-To-Do-All-The-Tedious-Scutwork, and that this isn’t sexism (because they’re just so hopeless at it and you’re not!) so they don’t have to admit that this makes your professional life harder and less rewarding.

    Also, his (professional) wife thought it was funny, because he really is hopeless at finding things! So there.

  5. Nentuaby says

    You know, this stupid story really encapsulates what it is that takes my feminism beyond something I do because it’s The Right Thing in a relatively abstract ethical sense, to something that’s absolutely personal to me as a man.

    Can we please, as a culture, move on to a point where men are allowed to fucking GROW UP? I loathe the patriarchal demand that I remain a six-foot, bearded child in order to validate the oppression of women.

    ‘What About Teh Menz,’ anti-feminists? What about us indeed!

  6. Kevin says


    Thanks for your perspective. Your comment is causing me to think very deeply about the fact that it just so happens that the member of my IT team most frequently asked to handle the documentation, because the person is so thorough, meticulous, dare I say “secretarial”, also happens to be a woman.

    My eyes are only still freshly opened to this thing called “male privilege” (starting with Elevator-Gate), the very nature of which makes it almost impossible to spot from my own perspective. Nevertheless, I’ve been doing my best to survey my life and I’d been kind of self-contradulatorily thinking that I have been very feminist-wary in how I lead my personal life, interact with my wife, and raise my children.

    But after reading what you posted here, you’ve got me seriously contemplating a lot of how I act professionally. I’m going to make it my goal in the coming week to take real stock of my interactions and try to see if I’m sub-conicously allowing stereotypes to color how I treat others I work with. I’m curious – do you think there is any non-weird way I could approach my woman colleagues to find out if, from their vantage point, I’ve been giving off any sexist vibes?

  7. JennieL says

    Hi Kevin,

    Firstly, good on you for thinking about it (she says tentatively, really hoping she doesn’t come across as a condescending arsehole).

    Secondly, I don’t think it’s necessary (or probably the best approach) to ask your female colleagues if you’ve been coming across sexist – it does seem like an odd thing to just ask out of the blue! (Though maybe other people here have other ideas).

    I’d suggest instead, perhaps, that the next time it comes to divide up all the work in your team, you say something like “Well, X, you’ve had to do a lot of documentation recently, so how about we give you something else this time?” Then, if it turns out that she really loves doing documentation and doesn’t really want to have a go at anything else, she can tell you. Otherwise, the boring task gets rotated to other people, who then also have a chance to get better at it.

    The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with allocating tasks according to people’s strengths, and according to what people enjoy. But in work, and in life, there are a lot of tasks that noone enjoys, and in these cases it’s very easy for some men to palm these off on women by rationalizing how they (the men) are just so bad at these tasks, and the women are so good at them, so it’s just more efficient that way.

    Of course it’s not just a gender thing, either; this can happen with class and status. (“Oh, I have no idea how to mop a floor, someone else had better be in charge of cleaning up”).

    I always go by the principle that, in any collaborative context, work that is regarded by everyone as crappy and tedious gets shared equally (or rotated), even if some people are ‘better at it’ than others.

  8. says

    O/T – is this the portal through which we get to Butterflies and Wheels plus comments? I get links slamming in my face when I go via the old website.

  9. sailor1031 says

    I read it as an unintentional paean to male cluelessness. The problem is that men have no right to be so fucking clueless that they can make a seeming virtue of it. Anyway whatever this Ed guy wrote doesn’t apply to real life which does not require the postulate of access to parallel universes.

    Perhaps if the men went shopping more often instead of always leaving it to the women, they’d know where stuff is in the store and be able to find it too!

  10. ischemgeek says

    The article reminds me of a sexist former supervisor and of my sexist father. Dad and the supervisor are both able to cover their sexism quite well when out in public, but when they’re comfortable and/or in male-dominated company, this sort of “ol’ boys club” humor comes out.

    And, as we’re seeing on Nature and several other places, when they’re called out on it, the people doing the calling out are somehow the bad guys. We’re over-reacting or being touchy or we have no sense of humor.

    No, it’s not a matter of having no sense of humor. It’s the fact that the sexist environment of science in general has led to five young women that I know of who are very capable, competent chemists leaving the field entirely and going into something more traditionally female like education because the constant uphill battle of fighting the sexism left them drained to the point that chemistry isn’t fun to them anymore. That’s the problem.

    And people wonder why I get so pissed off with this stuff sometimes.

  11. Godless Heathen says

    JennieL: I can’t believe that happened to you. GRRRRRR.

    Nentuaby: Yes, men need to grow the hell up and realize that there are certain things no one likes doing and that they can, in fact, learn to do those things. However, I think the attitude of men who are higher status (have more power or are higher in their fields) is that the work they doing is too important for them to take the time to learn these things and they should leave it to someone who has been taught from childhood to do that. Of course, this just reinforces inequality.

    Kevin: I agree with JennieL’s response: Don’t ask the women in your department if you are sexist. They may not feel comfortable asking honestly, since you’re their manager. I definitely agree that you should watch how you divvy up task, especially those that no one wants to do. Also, just watch how you interact with the women you supervise. Do you cut them off? Do you give them good assignments? Do you give them challenging work? etc.

  12. threeoutside says

    I appreciate Kevin’s interest, too. Here’s another way you could improve the atmosphere of your workplace, and you wouldn’t have to ask anyone *anything*: Just observe the staff in meetings. Does *everyone* get a chance to voice their views? Or do certain people interrupt certain other people ALL the damn time? If you start focusing on this, you might be appalled to learn that certain people NEVER get to complete a sentence, NEVER get to share their ideas or opinions – while the ones doing the interrupting magically come up with the VERY SAME IDEAS the interrupted people were trying to explain. It’s MAGIC!

    And if you find patterns like this occurring, THEN is the time to do something: As the leader, you can gently put a stop to the interruptions and turn your face, indeed your whole attention, to the person trying to participate, and say, “Please, X, I want to hear what you have to say.” And make sure no one else interrupts. If there needs to be debate about the idea afterwards, fine. But at least let the person be heard!

    Thing is, you have to do this at EVERY meeting because certain people have really thick skulls and it takes a lot of teaching to get them to realize they (and those like them) are NOT the only ones in the room.

  13. john says

    I am in total agreement. I have some female friends who think it is entirely appropriate to call me whenever their car is in need of minor repair. Changing the oil seems like such a guy thing to them. Also, whenever these gals need something moved around their house, guess who they call. And plumbing? You guessed it. They call me. Oh well, now and then they do repay me by cleaning my apartment or cooking me dinner.

  14. says

    Oh I really doubt that, “john.” You don’t sound like someone any friends would ask for favors. I bet all your friends know better than to ask you anything.

  15. A. Noyd says

    The precision ass-kicking Rybicki (the writer) and Gee (the editor) got in the comments section of the story makes me happy, at least.

  16. Pteryxx says

    I’ve found salutory in “oh-I-just-can’t-do-X” reactions, whether male or female, to offer to teach the person whatever the gender- or class-coded task may be. “Shall I show you how to do X / make some suggestions so you can do it yourself next time?” If they say “No, just do it for me, I don’t want to know” then at least it’s out in the open.

    Anecdata: in my experience, the response “I don’t want to do X” almost always comes from men, while the response “I’m just no good at X” almost always comes from women. It really infuriates me how often I hear “I’m just no good at math” from female classmates while I’m helping them.

  17. scenario says

    There’s a difference between me and women getting certain jobs because they like them vs they get certain jobs because it is expected of them.

    Sending men to hunt and women to gather in a hunter gatherer society makes sense because hunting is more dangerous and men are biologically more expendable. Having the women take care of children made sense for biological reasons that are for the most part eliminated today. Back when men worked outside the house and women stayed home to take care of the kids, traditional roles made some sense. Once you accepted the sexist idea that women shouldn’t work, the other roles tended to be as much practical as sexist. The core was clearly sexist but the results were only partially sexist based. 10,000 years ago automatic gender roles made sense up to a point, 100 years ago they made some sense but even then the roles were much more strict then necessary and now they make no sense at all. People still want women to live under rules set up in a society that hasn’t existed for most people for hundreds or thousands of years.

    Assigning roles strictly on the basis of gender makes absolutely no sense anymore in business or in personal relationships.

    I don’t like the story in question for two reasons.

    If the author had written a story based on stereotypes of other groups like Irish people, or Polish people or Jewish people or Black people, would Nature have accepted it? Probably not. Why then accept a story based on gender stereotypes?

    I also don’t like it because these type stories were done to death years ago and they weren’t very funny in the first place. I might have mildly laughed when I read my first one when I was 10 years old but they got old really quickly. Using gender stereotypes is a cheap laugh, like having a nun or little kid swear, you can see them coming from a mile away.

  18. says

    Nothing to do with pop psychology, john. You sound truculent and unpleasant. I simply don’t believe friends would ask you for big favors like fixing their cars or their plumbing or moving their furniture – I think they would ask different friends or get professionals.

    In short I think you’re telling a big old story. It isn’t plausible.

  19. john says


    You are not making any sense. I am truculent and unpleasant because I post that my female friends ask me for certain favors? And I must be lying. Why? Because I am not the kind of person who would be asked to do anything by anyone. And the proof of that, is that I posted that I do favors for my friends. Therefore, the only way I could show that I do favors for my friends is by not mentioning here.

  20. A. Noyd says

    john (#21)

    You are not making any sense. I am truculent and unpleasant because I post that my female friends ask me for certain favors?

    No, you sound truculent and unpleasant because when you talk about helping your “friends,” you come off as patronizing and resentful. If you use that same tone with friends asking you for a favor, it’s unlikely that they would keep coming back, much less make it up to you with cooking and cleaning. Though, I suppose it’s plausible if they’re all as short of self-esteem as you are of intellectual honesty.

  21. Pteryxx says

    cue offended innocent reasonablyness from john while eliding the sexism of his original comment. Do we have a word for dudetrolling yet?

  22. JennieL says

    Godless Heathen: Heh. In retrospect (and having moved on) I am somewhat amused at the idea of a bunch of senior, highly respected, highly paid men sent into an utter panic at the thought of having to take minutes at a meeting.

    And YES to this:

    I think the attitude of men who are higher status (have more power or are higher in their fields) is that the work they doing is too important for them to take the time to learn these things and they should leave it to someone who has been taught from childhood to do that.

    The ‘I’m hopeless at X’ stuff – where X is something very ordinary and something that people do every day – should really be interpreted as ‘I think I am above doing X and I have no intention of even trying to do it’.

    I mean, look at the original story. Poor Hapless Male insists that he really couldn’t manage the very basic task of buying underwear for his daughter.

    And yet, despite telling us that men-the-hunters, on a shopping trip, “go into a complex environment with a few clear objectives, achieve those, and leave,” he and his friend meander through an electronics store and a CD store, and get to the supermarket so late that they can’t get to the right part of the store before it closes.

    Now, if I was this guy’s wife, having sent my Manly Hunter off with a clear objective that he fails to achieve (because he is having more fun browsing through electronics and music stores), I would not be laughing indulgently about Oh, Men, How Hopeless They Are At Finding Things. I would be saying some very pointed and angry words about sexist shits who would be well advised to seriously rethink their passive-aggressive ‘hopeless’ act.

  23. john says

    Pteryxx & Ophelia

    I am not in the least offended. And now you sound like a tone troll complaining about the tone of my original post, labeling it patronizing, resentful and condescending. Why don’t you put it side by side to some of the posts above and see which ones are more resentful.

    I think you are both being a little racist here, dismissing me because I am of AfricN origin.

  24. Sili says

    Incidentally, how does one learn to take good minutes? I’ve always been horrible at taking notes, but it seems to come naturally to my (male) colleague.

    But come to think of it, it is women that take the minutes of our meetings on the board of our local tenants’ association.

  25. Carlie says

    JennieL – you could try a few times of taking notes wherein the most ‘important’ things the senior male faculty discuss somehow don’t make it into the minutes, or feign a wrist injury. Or stand your ground and say you really can’t take minutes today. I know someone who did just that and it was a good 5 minute or so showdown before one of the guys finally reluctantly volunteered (might want to wait until tenure for that one, though).

  26. JennieL says

    Sili: I don’t actually know if there’s some official method to take good minutes – I just, you know, kinda do it. I never thought of it as a particularly arcane or difficult kind of task. You just write down what people say, and what’s decided…

    Carlie: That was the interesting thing, you know? The supposed reason for asking me to take minutes was how good I was at it, so I did exactly what you suggested – I started doing a deliberately half-assed, really careless job. Surprise, surprise, every meeting they still decide that I’m the best person to do it…
    And yeah, after that I just refused. I straight out told them that I found it inappropriate that the junior female faculty was always told to take minutes. That was when they got an admin person in to do it. <snerk>

    (Oh, and I have – had – tenure. Gave it up to get out of that job – for various reasons, not just the collegiality aspect).

  27. john says

    I didn’t say I was black, I said I was of African origin. Only a racist would not know that not all people of African origin are black.

  28. julian says

    And now you sound like a tone troll complaining about the tone of my original post, labeling it patronizing, resentful and condescending.

    Patronizing, resentful and condescending to your friends.

    There aren’t many people who would befriend someone who is patronizing, resentful and condescending to them. That’s why some don’t believe your story and those that do see you as a jerk. People who are those things to their friends are generally of the unpleasant variety.

  29. julian says

    I didn’t say I was black, I said I was of African origin.

    I believe you may very well be the first king-sized asshole of met this week. Hello, there!

  30. says

    “john” – what on earth? What are you talking about?! What makes you think anybody here has the faintest idea what your “origin” is? I don’t know you from Adam, and neither does anyone else – you’re just some X. “john” is about the most empty unidentifiable nym you could have chosen, apart from “X” itself.

  31. john says


    I don’t believe I mentioned in my original post how I reponded or talked to any of my friends, so how can my saying nothing to them be construed as condescending, resentful or sexist. You are projecting what you imagine I may have said or behaved like to them.

    Ophelia, I don’t believe you. I can tell from your precious posts that you hold deeply racist attitudes.

  32. says

    Is “precious” a typo for “previous”?

    Anyway, proof that “john” is a waste of space and should return to oil-changing and furniture-moving.

  33. A. Noyd says

    Of course he knows we can’t tell what his origin is; he’s out for lulz and nothing else. Granted, it was a little hard to tell at first since trolls just looking for a reaction and earnest sexist idiots look alike until you let them go on for a while. Notice how he’s doing nothing but misinterpreting what people say and making stupid accusations. An earnest sexist would at least try to defend his position. This is a game that won’t end till john’s banned.

  34. says

    You don’t believe me about what, “john”? I didn’t say I don’t have racist attitudes – I said nobody here knows you from Adam. I guess I wasn’t clear enough – that means that nobody has the faintest idea what race you are or what continent you credit with your origin. You forgot to say you were “of African origin” before you accused us of racism.

    Your comments will now be going into moderation, so make them good if you want me to allow them to appear.

  35. Chris Lawson says

    There have been times in my life when I have done most of the shopping, and times when my wife has done most of the shopping. During a phase when I do the shopping, I can do a full weekly grocery shop in 30 mins or so. During a phase where I am not doing the shopping, it can take me 10 minutes to find a single item I’ve been asked to pick up. In other words, if you do tasks you get good at them. It’s hardly worth writing a story about, especially when it’s overlaid with the idea that women are magically good at domestic tasks.

    I wonder if I should submit a story to Nature called “Manspace” in which a scientist tries to understand why male scientists are better at getting grants, scholarships, and promotions even if their publication record is inferior to women competing for the same rewards.

  36. julian says

    You are projecting what you imagine I may have said or behaved like to them.

    No, no.

    Patronizing, resentful and condescending don’t require the person you are being patronizing, resentful or condescending towards to be in the same place or involved in a discussion with you. Those are simply attitudes you adopt or express of and towards certain people.

    Which is probably another reason some here believe you to be a jerk. You are resentful of friends (essentially) behind their backs making you duplicitous. Duplicitous is a trait many frown on and avoid.

  37. john says

    I don’t need to defend my sexist position since it was not sexist. Stating that some women have stereotyped versions of male gender roles is just stating the obvious. If anything, that is what I should have been criticised for. Because you didn’t want to hear that message you attacked the messenger, pure and simple.

  38. John D says

    It is really very strange that anyone would be offended by this silly piece of trivial fiction.

    Ophelia – can you sit through a modern movie, read a popular novel, or watch TV without finding some evidence of the vast patriarchy keeping you and your fellows down? I suspect not. The misogynist usurpers cover the media like an unseen ether… ever present… ever malicious.

  39. Jurjen S. says

    Nentuaby, yes, thank you! I find myself in the (comparatively) unusual position of being a stay-at-home dad for the past five years while my wife is the breadwinner, and I can go to the store and find stuff like formula, diapers and kids’ clothing and get them in the correct size. It’s not rocket science discovering radium or anything.

  40. BenM says

    I opened up this page thinking that I might comment about personal witnessing of casual stereotypes and that people should endeavor to not let them pass unchallenged, but reading the comments thread made me consider whether I want to be a continuing reader. I thought about just disappearing quietly, but I hope it will be more productive to post the reason.

    So, some guy posts a sarcastic comment, but one which is very obviously about “stereotyped versions of male gender roles.” I’m not aware of john’s previous contributions or non-contributions to this site, but it’s completely disingenuous to say it wasn’t. It may not be that productive, and men don’t have the same social expectations that could prevent them from pointing out the stereotypes at play, but instead of being met with some valid critique, you resort to character assassination. Why? There’s no reason for it, and it cheapens the environment that I thought was being fostered.

    His accusations of racism are obviously crap, but no more invalid than saying nobody likes him. It’s not a huge crime to insult someone on the internet, but if you really want to discuss issues instead of have the comments full of flame wars, why even engage with a troll much less insult one with a relevant point?

  41. julian says

    but reading the comments thread made me consider whether I want to be a continuing reader.


    So, some guy posts a sarcastic comment, but one which is very obviously about “stereotyped versions of male gender roles.”

    What it was was a very common trope. The ‘feminist only being feminist until she needs something from a man’ trope.

    He was also, by your own account, an obnoxious troll.

    There is nothing wrong with being snide or dismissive to a troll. It’s more than it deserves.

  42. says

    Ben M – what are you talking about? I didn’t resort to “character assassination” – I said “john’s” comment (and I’m not aware of any previous history either; that nym is so blank I have no clue who it is) made it obvious that no friends would ask him for favors. That’s not character assassination, it’s reading what’s on the screen. He simmers with resentment at the idea of women asking him to do putative “guy” things; is it likely that he comes across to his women friends as someone generous and affable with his help? I say no.

    I pointed that out because he was being fakey. It’s just fakey to barf out a lot of anti-feminist rage that rests on the claim that women are always asking him to do them favors. It’s self-defeating.

    Please note: I didn’t say nobody likes him. I wouldn’t dream of saying that. I’ve seen enough of that kind of shit in the past few months to last me a lifetime. I don’t make big sweeping claims about people I don’t know – that nobody likes them, that they’re too ugly to have any friends, that they’re losers, that they have nothing to do but mess around on the internet – because I know I don’t know that and because I don’t try to destroy people, even on the intertoobz. “john’s” comment was a strong clue that he would not be a guy that women would naturally ask favors, because they would know his views on the subject. That’s a small, limited inference.

    Why I engaged with “john” – because of the obvious absurdity of his claim. I wanted to point it out. I found it slightly interesting. There is something interesting about self-presenting as a misogynist jerk by way of a claim that women are always demanding favors.

  43. vicarofartonearth says

    Maybe now we can discuss the handicappest language and prejudice of the left, new atheists, and progressive movements.

  44. says

    Hm yeah – I tried googling “handicappest language” and got nothing. That’s not a term of art, Vicaro, it’s something you made up, so your meaning is far from obvious.

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