Seeing the unseen

More from Hilda Bastian’s post on “just joking” and sexist talk in science.

Sexist humor’s impact may also reduce people’s willingness to take action against discrimination. Take for example this randomized controlled trial of men recruited via Mechanical Turk, published by Ford and colleagues in 2013 [PDF]. Men who were already high in hostile sexism were less likely to express support for actions that would improve gender equality after hearing sexist rather than neutral jokes. Even if that only meant they were more willing “to show their hand”, it’s not reassuring.

No, it’s not. We see that playing out all the time on Twitter – all those sexist bullies reducing each other’s willingness to take action against discrimination, day in and day out. Twitter is to sexism as manure is to tomato plants.

When Hunt spoke/joked of the benefit of all-male labs, he was not hypothesizing some comic universe. There are all-male labs – and most are headed by men (including the ones at the Crick where Hunt wound up a lab in 2010).

Speaking of the Crick brings us to the issue of what role eminence plays. Should it mean you get more of a pass than someone else?

The opposite! Because eminence leads to visibility and influence. If you use your visibility and influence to shit on feminism, the way Dawkins does, you’re doing a bad thing.

According to work by Jason Sheltzer and Joan Smith, elite male scientists may be even less likely than other men to employ women in biology labs. Anything that reinforces the message from their peers that this is in any way desirable isn’t going to help.

Sexist remarks and jokes form one of the constellation of factors that make up workplace gender harassment, mapped out by Emily Leskinen and Lilia Cortina with a group of experts in 2014A 2010 systematic review and meta-analysis by Sandy Hershcovis and Julian Barling found that the higher the status of a person who is harassing, the worse the damage. That seems to me to be relevant to the public sphere as well.

And then there’s the whole “you have no sense of humor!” routine. It’s in the box with “you’re ugly” and “you’re a prude” and “you’re a witch.”

Julia Becker and colleagues point to the need for “seeing the unseen” – understanding what everyday sexism really is. That’s not enough, though, to change sexist behavior – that requires empathy, as well. Gender bias awareness training has had some success in academic environments, including the WAGES program (studies summarized by Becker) and a cluster randomized trial reported recently by Molly Carnes and colleagues.

We need to make it safe to confront sexist behavior, though, especially when it’s coming from powerful and influential people: it hasn’t looked all that safe during the Hunt incident.

That’s one way bloggers can be useful, I guess – we don’t have to be afraid of bosses or angry colleagues. (Unless of course we’re the kind of blogger who has a job as well as a blog, but who is that rash and foolhardy?)

Yes, there’s a lot we can do to dismantle everyday sexism as individuals. But we can’t just expect people to take potentially serious risks with their careers, one by vulnerable one. We need better support for when they do. We need collective action, too, to enable social change. The internet and digital communication are unleashing torrents of sexist and misogynist ugliness on a scale we’ve never seen before. It’s also enabling anew wave of feminism though, writes Rebecca Solnit:

…building arguments comment by comment, challenging, testing, reinforcing and circulating the longer arguments in blogs, essays and reports. It’s like a barn-building for ideas: innumerable people bring their experiences, insights, analysis, new terms and frameworks.

We need to strengthen “feminists on Twitter”, not revile them. Gender equality is inherently disruptive to those comfortable with the status quo: anything other than almost imperceptible change will be discomfiting to many. We can’t know for sure, of course, what will bring us deep and lasting progress.

But it won’t come from being ladylike.

Good; I’m doing it right then.


  1. Maureen Brian says

    Of course you’re doing it right!

    Social media represents an actual shift in power, something which SuperBlokes, individually and collectively, are reluctant to acknowledge.

    Now there is one small corner of the universe where we have equality of arms. Sexists can no longer talk across us as we speak, appear not to hear what we say until some bright man repeats it and runs off with the credit, bring in in the whole weight of the status quo or of their particular hierarchy to slap us down.

    Yes, of course, they can be very rude, very dismissive, try to gang up on us and sometimes get away with wild generalisations unsupported by evidence but what we say is on the record and they can’t delete it!


  2. davidmc says

    I think there has been a correction regarding the all male Crick labs, apparently that’s just the heads of dept. Just pointing it out lest it come back to bite yer bum, as these things are apt to do, at a later date.

    Also the petition organiser has commented and invited people to sign, Hilda is very patient.

  3. sezit says

    Let me tell you about working with the_______ (pick an underclass… Blacks, gays, American Indians, etc.)
    They ______ (pick a negative stereotype…. Get loud, emotional, drunk, etc) we white men should have ______ (some increased privilege… separate working spaces, allowances for bad behavior, etc.)
    Oh, wait, you were listening? Ummm…
    No, no, just kidding! Oh, com’on, I’m not a (racist, homophobe, bigot, etc). I’m just enjoying a little teasing (coded abusive bigotry) that I thought you wouldn’t notice!
    Really, I have friends who are in that group (of people I like to insult)

    Nobody would allow a professional to use that excuse for bigotry against any other underclass. And we can’t allow women to be demeaned.

  4. Donnie says

    The opposite! Because eminence leads to visibility and influence. If you use your visibility and influence to shit on feminism, the way Dawkins does, you’re doing a bad thing.

    Like “The Shirt” incidence, the gentleman forgot that he was representing the entire team and not just himself. He did not foresee how his choice in shirts reflected the subtle sexism in STEM fields. The issue wasn’t the Pop art shirt, per se but the fact that he chose that shirt for an interview with the media as a representative of the team. He was roundly criticized for his wardrobe choice. He listened to, understood and put the criticism into context. He was truly apologetic. People (generic term) accepted his heart felt apology, everyone* learned, and everyone continued to talk about the great achievement.

    *except for the the entitled jerks because….reasons.

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