Tag Archives: sexist language

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.

Quick hit: The enemy is not MEN. The enemy are a-holes.

Gina Minks responds to a post on our linkspam:

I read this post (via the Geek Feminism Blog) and I just have to respond. The post is titled “Why women in tech need to stop whining and start to nurture our own”. I think the gist of the post is that women need to encourage other women to be techies. I can agree with that. What I can’t agree with is the language she uses to address women who speak out when they have experienced discrimination (and yes Margaret, women still face discrimination in the workplace).

So she tells us a story about discrimination she experienced…

I figured this would be an easy call. I had all the facts, all the symptoms. I needed the tech support person to gather the info and dispatch the part. Of course, tech support people make you go through some troubleshooting on the phone with them – only fair they shouldn’t send out parts unless something is broken.

Here is where it got weird. The guy on the phone asked me: “Let me ask you something – do you like to bake?”. It took me aback, but I played along. I needed the part…I figured he was making small talk till a screen he needed came up. So I said “yeah…..”. And he goes, in a very belittling voice: “Ok well this is going to easy, just like baking a cake. Inside the server is all of the different ingredients, and we are going to mix them all up and have a nice cake!”.

And then draws a pretty clear conclusion:

the enemy is not “MEN”. The enemy are a-holes. This support guy was a total a-hole. The guys I worked with back then were not a-holes. When I told them what happened, yeah they laughed their butts off. The term “then you bake a cake” became part of our culture when someone couldn’t figure things out.

Read the rest here about her thoughts on calling people “whiners” and how that makes it harder to respond well when things go wrong.

Linkspam decided she liked math after all

  • Desperate to own Computer Engineer Barbie? She’s now up for pre-order on Amazon.com, shipping December 15, 2010. Other places may have her as well (feel free to note any you find in the comments, especially for non-US readers). Edit: Note that she comes as both African American and the stereotypical Blonde-haired Caucasian variety.
  • Think maybe Computer Engineer Barbie just isn’t for you? You might get a kick out of this photo of the Open Source women at GHC10. We decided to do a photo where we “patched” her to be a bit more free software friendly:
    Grace Hopper 2010-13

  • Ever wondered if complaining about sexist language actually made things better? The answer may be yes: Accusations of Sexism Spur Greater Sensitivity: “New research finds confronting a man about his sexist language can have surprisingly positive results.
  • Eva ponders, “What does Bechdel really mean?” examining why she originally disliked the arbitrary-ness of the test and what she gradually learned through applying it to things she loved.
  • You’re probably sick of hearing about The Social Network, but I’ve been told if you’re feeling like doing some outreach to feminists who believe that CS really is for loser male nerds, here’s a thread or two you might like (or hate) to check out.

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here and if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention you can also use the tag #geekfeminism on twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious or twitter.