Sexist or Insensitive? Either way – It’s just lazy, and it is keeping women from taking part.

This post is by a guest blogger who wishes to remain anonymous.

I recently received an invitation to attend a guest lecture in my research institute entitled: “Tits struggling to keep up (with climate change)”. Is this funny? Is it a clever pun? Is it sexist? Is it insensitive?

I have seen many cases of scientists trying to make their topics more inviting with a ‘sexy’ title to a paper or talk, and, if followed through properly, it can be a very effective way of engaging an audience who might otherwise be bored by the topic. This example, however, does not qualify in my mind as an effective tool for communication. Instead, I would say that this is exactly the kind of lazy title-tweaking that makes up some of the subtle sexism that continues to pervade the higher education research environment.

I call this lazy for two reasons: first, because it cashes in on the sexist structures which are widespread in our society, and the assumption that simply linking an idea to female sexual organs will be enough to make it interesting to the masses; second, because in order for a ‘sexy’ title to be truly effective, it needs to be placed in the context of a larger theme within the paper or talk, which will continue to highlight the ‘fun’ side of the research while presenting the relevant data. I hardly think that the presentation is peppered with pictures of the breasts of aging women instead of birds.

Recently it was mentioned to me by (male) senior members of staff that the institute is trying to encourage women to enter and remain in research. So, a female colleague and I discussed the sexist/insensitive attitude of the title and decided to comment. The institute’s response? “There is no pun.”

Now, I find this hard to believe, considering the construction of the sentence. If there were no pun, the use of parenthesis would be unnecessary. However, it is just barely possible that the scientist in question has a poor understanding of parenthetical usage. It is also possible that the title was meant as a joke, which we were meant to find mildly amusing, and enticing enough to attend the lecture.

In the end, it doesn’t matter; whether the title was meant as an ‘inoffensive’ joke, or was simply insensitive, these are the small pin-pricks that jab at female scientists on a daily basis. To be reminded that your worth as a human being, in a societal context, is still largely based on your appearance and adherence to strict sexual and social norms, despite your ground-breaking research, and to have this happen while you are at work, and to be expected to laugh at this reminder, rather than mention how unwelcome it is, is not acceptable. It is this laziness and this insensitivity that subtly reminds women of ‘their place’ in even the most prestigious labs and universities.

3 thoughts on “Sexist or Insensitive? Either way – It’s just lazy, and it is keeping women from taking part.

  1. Infophile

    I recall an incident that took place at the university I attended for grad studies. A professor in my department (astrophysics) gave a colloquium talk about galaxy behavior and evolution within groups. The title of the talk was “Stripping, Harassment, and Strangulation: The Sexy Lives of Galaxies.” Now, stripping, harassment, and strangulation are all accepted terms for things that can happen to galaxies within groups. And I can see the temptation to put the three of them together in a winkwinknudgenudge sort of way. Like the case mentioned in the post here, there’s a plausibly-deniable title that could have been used, but it was decided to go one step further and make it explicit.

    To the credit of feminists on campus, this talk title managed to get some real discussion going, and I think the professor involved realized that this wasn’t a good idea (I haven’t talked with him directly about it, but the other professors I have talked to about it are of the opinion that the anger about the title was warranted).

    And just in case anyone is reading this wondering what the big deal is: The title lumps all of stripping, harassment, and strangulation under the banner of sexy. If only stripping were under this, it could have been defensible, depending on how the talk was structured (There’s a great Emperor’s New Clothes metaphor that can be used here – if his clothes are invisible, how can you tell when he’s stripped?*), but lumping in harassment and strangulation – serious, non-laughing matters that can be particularly bad for sex workers such as strippers – pushes it clear across the line. It’s making light of violence against women, helping to normalize it.

    *Weigh him.

    1. Anonymous OP

      Frankly, I find it incredible that such titles even cross people’s minds in this day and age. Thank you very much for sharing your example – I’m glad to hear that some positive discussions came out of it. I have been considering what my next step is, and whether I should continue to raise my concerns through other, hopefully more receptive, channels at my institute…your experience definitely gives me hope, so I think I’ll give it another try!

      1. Infophile

        Best of luck to you in this! One other thing I’ll recommend in pursuing this is to lead off with this point (from the last paragraph of your post): “…these are the small pin-pricks that jab at female scientists on a daily basis. To be reminded that your worth as a human being, in a societal context, is still largely based on your appearance and adherence to strict sexual and social norms, despite your ground-breaking research, and to have this happen while you are at work, and to be expected to laugh at this reminder, rather than mention how unwelcome it is, is not acceptable.” I think that’s your best argument for getting through to others, so you want to put it out first to have the best chance of winning them over to your side.

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