Calling out

Janet Stemwedel has a sharp and to the point post on sexism among scientists, The point of calling out bad behavior.

There’s a blog discussion of a particular guy and his particular sexism, with lashings of sexism-denial Bingo. Free speech! Whassa big deal?! Give the guy a chance to grow!

It’s almost like people have something invested in denying the existence of gender bias among scientists, the phenomenon of a chilly climate in scientific professions, or even the possibility that Dario Maestripieri’s Facebook post was maybe not the first observable piece of sexism a working scientist put out there for the world to see.

The thing is, that denial is also the denial of the actual lived experience of a hell of a lot of women in science (and in other fields — I’ve been sexually harassed in both of the disciplines to which I’ve belonged).

And the denial itself is part of the lived experience. So is the rage and sexist name-calling that goes with much of the denial.

I can’t pretend to speak for everyone who calls out sexism like Maestripieri’s, so I’ll speak for myself.

I saw a tweet earlier today – by a denialist – saying

Can we please just stop using this expression “calling out”? If you use it, you sound like a self-righteous, ideologically driven loon.

Really? That’s a strange claim. What’s wrong with the expression? Atheists call out theists talking nonsense. Lawyers call out people who talk uninformed nonsense about the law. Lots of kinds of people call out journalists on bad reporting. And so on. I wonder if the denialist was talking about Stemwedel’s article, or something else.

Stemwedel says what she wants.

  1. I want to shine a bright light on all the sexist behaviors, big or small, so the folks who have managed not to notice them so far start noticing them, and so that they stop assuming their colleagues who point them out and complain about them are making a big deal out of nothing.
  2. I want the exposure of the sexist behaviors to push others in the community to take a stand on whether they’re cool with these behaviors or would rather these behaviors stop.  If you know about it and you don’t think it’s worth talking about, I want to know that about you — it tells me something about you that might be useful for me to know as I choose my interactions.
  3. I want the people whose sexist behaviors are being called out to feel deeply uncomfortable — at least as uncomfortable as their colleagues (and students) who are women have felt in the presence of these behaviors.
  4. I want people who voice their objections to sexist behaviors to have their exercise of free speech (in calling out the behaviors) be just as vigorously defended as the free speech rights of the people spouting sexist nonsense.
  5. I want the sexist behavior to stop so scientists who happen to be women can concentrate on the business of doing science (rather than responding to sexist behavior, swallowing their rage, etc.)

2 is where we are mostly stuck right now. There are a hell of a lot of others in this particular community (to use that word for the sake of argument) who are refusing to take that stand, and in fact supporting people who engage in the behaviors.

And, I’ll level with you: while, in an ideal world, one would want the perpetrator of sexist behavior to Learn and Grow and Repent and make Sincere Apologies, I don’t especially care if someone is still sexist in his heart as long as his behavior changes.  It’s the interactions with other people that make the climate that other people have to deal with.  Once that part is fixed, we can talk strategy for saving souls.

Absolutely. Ditto. Same here. The first order of business is getting people to stop the fucking behavior. The improved attitude can come later, or we can leave that for the next generation. Repression is a good thing.


  1. says

    I personally don’t care for the phrase “call out”, but it has nothing to do with ideology. It has to do with the fact that it refers to dueling, which makes it a matter between individuals instead of being issues and behavior that affect large swaths of us. It lends credence to those “These are just personal differences/squabbles” claims that are rather silly.

  2. says

    I suspect a lot of people don’t and for exactly the same reason. That’s why I don’t talk much about the fact that it bugs me. It’s a bit pedantic. 🙂

  3. says

    Actually to me it sounds more fighty. It sounds personal and up in someone’s face. Calling out to me suggests a more impersonal, reportorial thing, making it public as opposed to challenging someone personally.

    But now I know the origin, I’ll probably avoid it!

  4. says

    You know, it’s an odd thing. The major scientific organizations are all anti-sexism: I was at an HHMI meeting (which also had representatives from NSF and NIH in attendance), and they were all over this stuff, and were crystal clear in setting the goal of getting increasing participation and leadership from women and minorities. It’s what the meeting was all about, making sure their recent crop of grant awardees were thoroughly aware of the importance of changing the culture of science (they said it, too: the goal of educational programs through the major national granting organizations is “changing the face of the American professoriate“.)

    Most of the major atheist/skeptic organization leadership is the same way, at least nominally prioritizing equal participation by women and minorities.

    And then we get down to the rock face of reality, with the people on the ground doing science or advancing godlessness, and there are all these fucking clueless idiots who haven’t gotten the word that they are the past, they are the deadwood, they are carriers of archaic sexist values. We’re doing them a favor by letting them know that casual misogyny and racism are obsolete, and there’s a great big truck labeled “The Future” barreling down on them…and it’s not going to show them much sympathy.

    I’m trying to imagine anyone making the kinds of arguments a Thunderf00t or a generic slymepitter routinely make at any of these science administration events I’ve attended, and I just can’t — it’s easier to imagine one of them taking a shit on the conference table, and the reception would be about the same.

  5. says

    That’s good to know. They think we’re the ones who are obsolete. I was beginning to think the backlash had lashed back so far that they were actually right about that.

  6. Tom Phoenix says

    If someone doesn’t already see feminism (or whatever) as an important goal of society, that person will consider “calling out” to be more objectionable than the behavior it condemns.

    There’s a Catch-22: If you complain, you’re being disruptive; if you don’t complain, it didn’t happen.

  7. says

    I don’t especially care if someone is still sexist in his heart as long as his behavior changes.

    This is why I don’t particularly care for the FreeSpeechIsSacred crowd’s argument that they’d rather everyone show just how repulsive their thoughts are so they can be countered with more speech. No thanks. There’s a point at which I don’t really care how vile someone’s ideas are. If you’re a misogynist, racist, homophobic, hateful asshole, please keep it to yourself. The harm that the speech does outweighs any benefit that can come from providing it a platform.

  8. sharoncrawford says

    You can act your way to good behavior sooner than you can think your way to good behavior. “Changing hearts” is sentimental balderdash.

    I truly don’t care if you think racist, sexist, whateverist thoughts. I only care what you do.

  9. says

    Also, I like the origin of the term “calling out”. It signifies not letting someone get away with spreading bullshit with complacency. Sure, we may not care so much about Honour™ or Reputation™ anymore, but holding people to account for what they say is still a worthwhile pursuit. That’s how I see it anyway.

  10. says

    Hmmm. I know what you mean, but at the same time…well I would feel too self-righteous putting it that way myself. You know? Who am I to “call someone out” in that way?

    Weird, I’ve kind of talked myself into seeing how it can sound too ideological after all.

    Maybe it’s the result of having people on Twitter tenderly explain to me that Wooly is the nicest person in the world and if she calls me a fucking cunt…well…

    Tactful, you see. Not coming right out and saying “well you must be one.” But…well…

    Nice passive-aggressive “well…”

  11. Martha says

    Thanks for posting this, Ophelia. I agree that it’s important to call scientists on blatantly sexist behavior, but I’m much less certain than PZ apparently is that this behavior is on the way out. Moreover, even if we got rid of every comment about female scientists’ bodies and the dinosaurs who think women can’t do science die out or retire, there is still a societal bias that men take work more seriously and are more competent at it than women. As Virginia Valian and others point out, the effects don’t have to be large to add up in the long term. Accumulation of disadvantage is much like having a slightly higher interest rate on your home. It may not make a big difference in career outcomes in the short term, but it costs women a lot more in the long term. This view is backed up by countless studies showing that the gap between male and female success in science grows over their careers.

    So the little stuff really does matter, as we’ve also seen over and over again in the debates about feminism in the atheist community. It’s pretty hard to call people on these less egregious examples of sexism. I’m not saying it isn’t important; it is. But the effect is most visible in the aggregate, so dealing with these issues in a case-by-case manner isn’t always very effective. Many male scientists respond to these long-term studies by saying that what we’re really measuring is that attitudes are getting better, that women did have it harder in the 70s but not any more. My experiences suggest that view is absurd. But how many more long-term studies will it take to overcome confirmation bias and convince people?

    I also think that many male scientists (and athesists, from what I can tell) are especially resistant to the notion that they can have unconscious biases. They think that being skeptical of other people’s data and ideas means that they’re skeptical of their own. I really think it threatens something at the heart of their egos to admit unconscious bias and go about the hard work of compensating for it.

    Make no mistake, it is hard work. No, it’s not hard to quit using offensive epithets or making blatantly sexist comments. That’s easy, and we shouldn’t tolerate that behavior in any professional setting. On the other hand, its not very easy to point out that a colleague values quality A over quality B if the male candidate is superior with respect to A, but the next time around, he (or she) will value B over A if the male candidate is better at B. It happens all the time. Moreover, it’s hard to be honest with oneself and ask how much correction should be applied when examining the cv or female or minority candidates. That’s what it will take for things to be more even, though.

    Finally, while it is clear that some women are worn down by egregious behavior on the part of their research directors or relentless harassment by co-workers, even those of us fortunate to avoid those situations get worn down by the cumulative toll of having to work that much harder to be taken seriously. Frankly, I’d rather have an asshole tell me my science is no good because I’m a woman. That’s easy to ignore. It’s much less easy to ignore skepticism that is apparently scientific, but that would never be applied to a macho male scientist. That’s much more likely to affect a woman’s confidence.

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