Nature is a big deal. Vaunted and ancient, Nature publication is a serious endorsement. Womanspace, a poorly written story with truly embarrassing stereotypes, does not deserve such an endorsement. Ed Rybicki’s story about how women enter a parallel dimension making them good at shopping and womanly behaviors is frightening in how oblivious both the author and his editor, Henry Gee, are to how harmful the themes and ideas propagated within the story are. An actual paragraph from the story:

At this point I must digress, and mention, for those who are not aware, the profound differences in strategy between Men Going Shopping and Women Going Shopping. In any general shopping situation, men hunt: that is, they go into a complex environment with a few clear objectives, achieve those, and leave. Women, on the other hand, gather: such that any mission to buy just bread and milk could turn into an extended foraging expedition that also snares a to-die-for pair of discounted shoes; a useful new mop; three sorts of new cook-in sauces; and possibly a selection of frozen fish.

One winces at the idiocy on display here. Then one grieves for his wife and daughter, who likely endure his unintentional slights daily.

And within Rybicki’s unintentional meanness lies the tragedy. Christie Wilcox explains the irrelevance of intention and the impact:

I get what Ed was trying to do – he was trying to be funny. I might even be able to turn off my internal angry feminist for a moment and say that he didn’t mean to reinforce gender stereotypes, and instead was trying to tell a cute story about his wife. He wasn’t trying to be a complete jerk.

The thing is, a guy doesn’t have to be a complete jerk to be sexist. There are plenty of charismatic misogynists out there – guys who don’t notice how they say things that demean women, especially when they’re trying to be complimentary. They don’t even realize how their frivolous and yes, sometimes even funny, comments contribute to the derision of women in society and in STEM fields in particular.

A commenter here, for example, began a supportive comment on a post of mine with: “I think Christie is correct, and I’m not just saying that because according to her profile picture, she’s absolutely beautiful. [emphasis mine]“. I get it. He wastrying to be flattering – but instead, he implied that my looks are the most important factor in whether or not something I write is correct. It’s hardly the first comment I’ve received like that.

Commenter Peiter von Dokkum nails it down further:

What this story highlights is the issue of unintentional, subconscious bias, which is something that our community has to come to grips with. As is clear from his comment the author sees himself as supportive of women scientists, and merely intended to illustrate his own helplessness in the face of everyday obstacles. However, the story places women and men in fundamentally different categories: women are well-organized and domestically-oriented whereas men are useless in everyday life but come up with theories about the universe. It is this subconscious categorization which hurts women when they are climbing the academic ladder. I believe that men on search committees generally do not see themselves as biased, but that many men have subconscious notions about women which impact their chances of getting hired.

Things are better for female scientists than they were a few decades ago, as the overt sexism of the past is slowly dying out. Unfortunately subconscious biases still exist, as illustrated by this story. I am somewhat hopeful that these biases can be remedied, precisely because they are unintentional; it may help, for instance, to discuss these issues on search committees prior to interviewing candidates.

There is a wonderful compendium of retorts to the garbage that is Womanspace. The volume and quality of the negative response is heartening. Thank goodness for the instant retort made possible by the internet.

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