Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Science Blog Gender Drama

If you pay attention to the science blogosphere, you probably heard the commotion yesterday when Sheril Kirshenbaum moved her blog to Discover Magazine. She was welcomed by a bunch of sexist mouth-breathers who drooled over her appearance while simultaneously proclaiming ignorance of anything she's ever written.

Ms. Kirshenbaum has written a great post summarizing the resulting brouhaha. She articulately lays the smack down on those who make inappropriate comments about women in a professional setting, and praises the many allies who stepped up to point out that such comments are not okay. You should read her post and click on the links provided there to many other good posts on the subject.

While there were many highs and lows to "mmmmmm, wo-man"-gate, one point that I found especially intriguing was the assumption by some bloggers that the pseudonymous Comrade PhysioProf is a woman. Those who read his blog regularly are aware of his gender, but some who knew him only from his defense of Kirshenbaum's right to blog without being sexually harassed referred to him as a female. Must we automatically assume that anyone who calls someone out for sexist comments is a woman? Plenty of other male bloggers also voiced their outrage about this inexcusable behavior, and I salute them for it. I know plenty of men who consider themselves feminist allies, and I know that it can be uncomfortable for them to speak up about sexism that they witness. Thus, I would like to take this opportunity to thank these men for their contribution to the discussion, and for showing that feminism is not just a mysterious thing that happens to women when they have bad PMS.

When I started this blog, I was conflicted about using my real name and photograph on my posts. Part of this was a concern to maintain a certain level of professionalism within my university and my lab -- I don't want to spread gossip or leak confidential data. But part of it was a fear of being judged not for what I study, but for who I am. If someone reads my blog and sees content that explores issues of women in science as well as articles from issues of Science, will they think I'm whining? Will they not want to hire me, because I might be a trouble-maker? Will they perceive me as less competent because there is a picture of a young blonde woman at the top of the page? Will they be turned off because there's a tag for posts about "feminism?"

The comments directed at Ms. Kirshenbaum have given me still more causes for concern. Thankfully, most people are capable of interacting professionally with women -- even attractive women -- without making the Neanderthal-esque comments that were directed toward this female scientist through the anonymous internet. But who's to say how many people are thinking such things without saying them? I don't mean to accuse everyone who's ever noticed a cute coworker of sexism, but I do wonder about how my scientific work will be perceived as a consequence of my being born female. There are people out there who will never be as impressed by my CV as they are by my T&A, and odds are I'm going to have to work with them eventually. Thinking about this is disheartening, and leaves me feeling rather powerless.

Sheril Kirshenbaum has far more blog readers than I do, with a small army of folks who totally have her back. But, there are people who have my back, too. When things like this start to get me down, I think about my own allies: extraordinary role models, enviably talented classmates, supportive friends, and even total strangers who are enlightened enough to speak up when they see something wrong.

None of us are in this alone. And our numbers are growing.


  1. Hey, thanks for posting about this, I hadn't seen it at all and might've missed it. I think she has a very good point here:

    >> So what we collectively ought to be doing is finding the means to reinforce reality over ‘reality‘ television! It’s past the time we get the simple honest message out in a way that resonates that women can be successful, intelligent, hip, and most importantly–it’s our choice how we define ourselves. I suspect that society and culture will catch up…eventually. <<

    ... and that one of the beneficial effects of you putting your name and picture up is that it reinforces that.

  2. This stuff, this is why I stopped blogging. I was never any good at maintaining anonymity, and I didn't want to subject myself to the kind of crap I knew I'd get if my blog got more than a handful of hits.

    I feel bad for wimping out though and I wish I could figure out a way I could make it work for me.

  3. I just found your blog because of your recent comment on FSP.

    The whole debate at ScienceBlogs was fascinating. Everyone seemed to agree that the comments were juvenile and unprofessional. But there was a bitter, acrimonious flame war anyway because (i) people disagreed whether the ass-hattery in question was de facto "misogynistic", and (ii) everyone was anonymous.

    Notably, Sheril's actual response was quite measured, muted, and, well, worthwhile compared to some to most of the posts floating around ScienceBlogs.

    All this to bring me to my larger point: you are awesome (awesome!) because you (apparently) do not blog pseudonymously. In my opinion it makes for better blogging.

    I'm looking forward to reading your blog.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Curt.

    I think this is a touchy subject that is prone to spurring flame wars because even if the inciting indiscretion seems small, it's something that women experience over and over again. It can be hard to keep a civil tone when you're fighting the same battles every day. But, I agree that anonymous arguments get out of hand much more easily. Because I blog under my real name, I try to think carefully about everything I write before I post it. I know that anyone who reads my blog could also confront me about my opinions. On the other hand, it makes me reluctant to write about more personal things, so this blog might not always perfectly reflect my experiences. It's a tradeoff we have to make.

  5. I think discussions like this get touchy and volatile partly because the people making the bad comments often don't have any bad *intent*, and it creates cognitive dissonance: for it to go smoothly, they have to figure out that their comments had bad *effect* without feeling bad about themselves, and it can be uncomfortable. They may feel unfairly attacked even when the "attacks" are correct.

    I agree, Sheril's response was excellent.

    Huh, I just noticed something: If I feel like I'm talking about a scientist (who I don't personally know), my default inclination is to use their last name, whereas if I feel like I'm talking about a blogger, my default inclination is to use their first time. I stopped and hesitated when I wrote her name in the preceding sentence, and figured out why I was ambivalent. She's both, but in this case, acting more in the role of blogger.

  6. Dear lord, we just went through RaceFail and now this. Some days I wonder how women or people of color avoid going stabby at the way they get treated.

    I was fortunate to do my PhD with a woman adviser who was one of the most brilliant people I've ever met, back in the pre-blog days. You would have been astounded at some of the (physical) mail she got. Or maybe not astounded, so much as appalled.

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