by invitation only

Cocktailphysicsmoi
I thought I'd start out the new year with a little old news and and old, old rant. Just let me just get on my flameproof suit before I get going.  Please read carefully before you turn on the flamethrower. A little background, first. I recently decided to give up my ties to organized religion without completely eschewing some sort of spirituality (though that's not the current topic), and one of the reasons I finally got fed up was the rampant misogyny and exclusivity practiced by most organized religion. In short, I got tired of being told that because my 23rd chromosome pair happened to by XX and not XY and my genitalia internal rather than external, that I was somehow unfit for duty.

It's
not just religion, obviously, that's misogynistic, but it's always been
interesting to me that this is one of the characteristics that religion
and science—often so antithetical to each other—share, and for so many
of the same reasons. Of course, this is because both spring out of the culture around them and are carried out and structured by the people in
that culture who have the power to make the structure. Need I say that for thousands of this years, this has been, almost exclusively, men? So if men decide
women are too inferior in whatever way to have a personal relationship
with God either through study of the texts or through participating in
the mysteries (exemplified by Milton's "He for God only, she for God in him.") little
wonder scientists should (even unconsciously) think the same way about what many see as a new, improved replacement system.

The reasoning, though, is strikingly similar and you'd think
male scientists would pay more attention to that. Of course, it's to their
advantage not to. It's convenient for them to claim that women's brains
are not made for math (an old saw rapidly being dulled) or that we
don't do science the way it "should be done,"
i.e., the way men do it.
Probably true, but not necessarily bad or wrong. Just different. I'm
not talking about the scientific method here, but about the culture of
science and the way men and women approach problem-solving. This is a factor not just in the scientific establishment, but in medicine and business as well.

And of course, there are social and cultural pressures on women now
that men don't have to deal with, as the Gender Equity report by the American Physical
Society
(pdf) I recently helped edit shows quite clearly. This is a factor just as often conveniently forgotten
in the interpretations of key scriptures that seem to ban women from
positions of authority in the church, while just as conveniently
ignoring the scriptures that show them in those positions.

There are also some striking similarities between the two areas in
their jealous guarding of knowledge. In both cases, men are are
frequently the gatekeepers of the more esoteric aspects of knowledge
(see, physicists), intentionally or unintentionally. Personally, I
think this is partly because guys like secret societies and all that. They're
forever making exclusionary clubs, from the Royal Society to the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks.
But religion and science are public endeavors, affecting all of us.
(Just look at the Evangelical Right's influence on elections in the
U.S., if you don't believe me.) Faith that asks no questions is merely
blind, stupid obedience; science that allows no free sharing of
knowledge is not just bad science, but dangerously blind itself. In both
cases the idea that "it's too complicated for you to understand" is
used to keep the general public from asking uncomfortable questions:
"Why is Junia, a woman, called an apostle?"  or, "What are we going to do with the waste generated by nuclear power?" Ultimately, both science and religion are closely bound up in the culture, politics, and social mores of the society around them and reflect those values. Claiming that either of them is neutral or value-free is delusional.

All this is by way of saying that Richard Dawkins' selection of writers for the new Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing
is damned odd, if not downright insulting. For one thing, there's nary a mere science writer among
them; they're almost all scientists, even Rachel Carson, who started
her career as a biologist. This is one example of the "father knows
best" attitude so many scientists have toward the public: only
scientists can truly communicate the beauty and wonder and complexity
of science to the rest of you ninnies. This is far from the truth. It
is, in fact, usually a hell of a lot easier to teach good writers about science
than it is to teach most scientists to write well, particularly for the
public. Most of them have a tendency to include too many advanced
details that chase people away, rather than broad, interesting ideas
that draw them in. My fellow Cocktail Party Physics blogger Jen
waxes eloquent about this frequently in our conversations and here on the blog. The advanced
details are important, but you don't start out with those for people
with no or little background in the subject, and getting the concepts
if you're not a scientist is far more important than understanding the
technical details right away. Scientists often have a bad case of
"can't see the forest for the trees" when it comes to writing for the
public, particularly in their own subject.

And, of course, there are too few women, three, to be precise: biologist Rachel Carson, Helena Cronin,
a philosopher who works in sex selection (and who happens to think
there are more smart men than smart women—to be fair, she also thinks
there are more dumb men than dumb women); and Barbara Gamow, not a
scientist, but wife of physicist George Gamow,
who is included because of the poem she wrote in response to one of
George's lectures. How cute. I say this not to denigrate Barbara Gamow,
who was, like many women married to male scientists, extremely
supportive of her husband's work and no doubt a sounding board for it,
but to illustrate the attitude prevalent about women's role in science (which oddly reflects their view of women's place in art, too):
strictly supportive; observer not participator; muse not partner.

Rachel Carson got in, I suspect, because she's hard to ignore; she was so prolific (and a fellow alumna of my alma mater!) and so pivotal in the early days of the ecology movement. But where's biologist Lynn Margulies, who, with James Lovelock, developed the Gaia theory? She's a wonderful writer. Where is primatologist Dian Fossey? Hello? Gorillas in the Mist anyone? Child psychologist Anna Freud? Primatologist/ethologist/anthropologist Jane Goodall, who, like Fossey, wrote extensively for the public? For that matter, where's Margaret Mead?
I see physician Lewis Thomas on the list (one of my favorite writers,
though he wrote as much about life as about science) but not doctors Perri Klass or Michelle Harrison. Where's oceanographer Sylvia Earle? Or forensic anthropologist Emily Craig? And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

And we haven't even gotten to the non-scientist, women science writers: Natalie Angier, Dava Sobel, Heather Pringle,or Mary Roach, to name a few, not to mention my eminent and articulate Cocktail Party Physics co-bloggers.

Hawkins' selection is pretty heavy on evolution (no surprise, given
that he's an evolutionary biologist), genetics (again, no surprise),
physics, neuroscience, and biological systems. There's not much
chemistry, straight-up biology, medicine, and no ocean science or any
of the so-called "soft" sciences like sociology or anthropology. If what
he was aiming for was a balanced picture of the wonders of modern
science, this book is hardly that, but it's not even a balanced picture
of the best science writing. Like the hard sciences, it's very male-dominated (and white males at that). Enough with Peter Medawar already.
He's not that brilliant. He's taking up space with his multiple
selections that could easily have been given to a woman or two,
scientist or not.

Dawkins could have done much for women scientists everywhere by
recognizing their work in this volume. Instead, he just dragged out a lot of
the old war horses: Eiseley, Watson & Crick, Gould, Thomas, Hoyle,
Haldane, Snow. That's fine to a point in an anthology like this. One does need to
include the classics and the big guns like Hawking and Einstein. But if
you're
going to include the likes of Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, Brian
Greene, Lee Smolin and Kenneth Ford (Full disclosure: I used to work for him), all fine choices in their own right, then you
need to include some contemporary women scientists or science writers too, dammit. If we want science to matter to everyone, we have to include everyone.

Why make a fuss over this? Because this is how women (and minorities) are
systematically pushed out of history and out of the present consciousness, in exactly the same way we were
pushed out of recognition of a place in the early church: simply by excluding us first from memory and then from the party itself. That's all it takes. Just ignore us. But don't expect us to like it. Or to keep quiet about it.

39 thoughts on “by invitation only”

  1. Member of the choir here. Try admitting to being a nurse and writing about health policy and programs. I must have found the last true outpost of the intertubes because no one comments. Not ever.
    Inclusion? No. Ostracism. Yes.
    Worse is that women (among them many nurses) are just as contemptuous of the field and it’s rightful place at the table as men. It’s seen as a bastard child of medicine, instead of as a science in its own right (which is how it’s licensed and practiced, albeit with a gazillion problems and restrictions).
    Do you find that there is proportional representation in commercial science reportage of qualified women reporters? What about overall (everyone who reports on science, regardless of competency or qualification)?

  2. Lack of recognition was one of the problems cited in the Gender Equity report. One of their recommendations was that dept. chairs make sure to mention women’s research and nominate it equally for prizes alongside men’s research, so yes, I think in physics that proportional representation is a problem. Any of my co-bloggers want to speak to the science reportage question? You’re all much more immersed in it than I am.
    Several nurses in my circle of friends and family say the same things you do about nursing. I wonder if that will change as more men enter the field? Traditionally, the minute men begin to enter a female dominated field, it gains in prestige. (“It must be cool and worthwhile! Men are doing it!”)

  3. The only thing I would add is that once women have been excluded, it is justification for further exclusion: “Well, if women were really capable, why haven’t more of them done something important?!”

  4. Men too …
    hate men’s clubs, worry about nuclear wastes, struggle against unjust work recognition …
    One should go beyond the mere gender stereotyped argument and create a new social group of those who hate clubs, worry about nuclear wastes, reject supernatural and mystical elements, … and become some kind of “social bright” (see http://dorigo.wordpress.com/2009/01/02/i-am-a-bright/) namely a “Bright” concerned with social issues like why the rich get richer and the poor poorer… A whole new programme… is’nt it :-))
    BTW:
    Women too …
    love women’s clubs, do not care about nuclear waste …..

  5. Yeah, yeah, “men too.” They’re the privileged default though, and women the exception. Men worry about getting enough work recognition; women worry about getting any at all. This is not a “stereotyped gender issue,” it’s an actual problem. Read the APS gender equity report before you talk to me about stereotypes.
    And you miss the point of the post: it’s not about nuclear waste, hating clubs or rejecting supernatural and mystical elements. It’s about equal opportunity and representation for women and minorities in not just science, but the world at large. This is only a small example of how it happens everywhere. Being a Bright as Dawkins is doesn’t, apparently, guarantee you’ll be more aware of discrimination against women.

  6. I like to read on this blog intellectual posts such as the recent post on ‘A gift that keeps giving’ that deal with science based on facts. Leave the sexist comments, personal opinions, things that bring division between men & women, put-down on religion etc, to the Huffington type of blogs. Enough is enough!! There is enough hate in the world without adding to it.

  7. i concur with the author. As a religious Jew, many people[who are ignorant of *FACT*] often ridicule me for being sexist, obstinate, and fault me for keeping my wife home, pregnant, and in the kitchen. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. My wife accomplishes more than i do in terms of our religious growth, even though i grew up with it, and she only returned to the faith before we married. i have a big problem with even many rabbis who try to put women in a different place. In Judaism, women are put on a pedestal, because they are more connected on a spiritual level. Because they are closer to God, and have the ability to create life, women are accorded more respect just for that. i applaud my wife for having prepared a talk for many of her friends on the topic of potential, and what people can achieve. i wish i could do the things she can. i understand that we come to Judaism differently, and do things differently, but in the end, we are a couple, and committed together.
    i feel that the flagrant discrimination is part of human(read: male) nature. While there are a few men, i’m sure, who aren’t that way, and some women who would do the same, it’s unhealthy and antithetical to growth of any kind, whatever the field. i’m actually quite fond of one of my friends, a gearhead herself(sort of). She’s a nuclear physicist, and deals with “noise”, either studying it, designing something to make less of it… something like that. i know i would never be able to do that. i couldn’t see anyone taking advantage of her, because she’s smarter than her coworkers(she works for the government).
    It’s a shame that this happens. Maybe men will wake up one day soon and realize that women’s ability to work can complement men’s work.

  8. “Dawkins” seems to transmute into “Hawkins” at one point – but that’s probably just some quantum gravity effect due to the high emotional energies involved…
    As a white western male, enjoying all the trappings of privilege and power that that brings with it, I wanted to agree with your article, but I have to say that I lost the thread, as it seemed to go off in many different directions. (Also the mental image of your internal genitalia was not welcome while I was eating, although the fairer sex has a definite advantage in that regard, as it is amazing how many day-to-day collision hazards occur in the male groin area…)
    I had heard of the finding that there are more clever men than women in the world. That was many years ago (60s? – I can’t find a link just now) but this is looking (I guess) at the statistical spread of IQ among populations. Women were found to be more tightly distributed around the mean than men. So, more stupid men exist than stupid women(no surprise there) but the average was found to be the same, if I recall. (As for the significance of IQ as a measure of intelligence, well that’s another story…)
    Of course I can only speak for myself, but an interest in maths and physics started very young so I kept taking these courses. However, it was clear in those early school days that girls were dropping out of such courses as soon as they could (much to my regret…). Now, I don’t think that can be blamed on institutional misogyny (at least one A-level physics teacher at my school was a women, and both my PhD supervisor and the head of department were also women) but of course, individual samples count for nothing statistically – I could even mention that the UK’s first female PM was trained as a chemist (but I’m not too proud of this fact for other reasons…)
    So, perhaps the bit issue: why do girls drop out of science at an early age – and how to stop it happening?

  9. in this spirit – what about anglophone unjustified domination? apparently it wasn’t enough that everyone either way has to speak and read in the current lingua franca, but they apparently even had to be native speakers as well to be considered, judging by the selection. this surely has no reasonable justification given contemporary polyglottism in science and, if for some reason still insufficient, standards of translation? preferences of specialization area set aside, another obvious name on the list ought to be rita levi montalcini, not just still a brilliant mind at 99 but also a great testimony of a woman’s life in science.

  10. It is, in fact, usually a hell of a lot easier to teach good writers about science than it is to teach most scientists to write well,
    I think this is absolutely the opposite of the truth. Many scientists are at least competent writers – theses and papers don’t write themselves – and learning the skills of effective science writing for a broad audience is just a matter of practice. When they’ve mastered that, they are then able to communicate complex and difficult ideas effectively, not least because the first stage in being able to do that is understanding the ideas in the first place. Examples abound: Dawkins, Feynman, Hofstadter, Dennett, Weinberg, Gould…
    On the other hand, the idea that you can take a capable writer and pump him or her full of a load of science which he or she then turns into great science writing seems to me terribly naive. Certainly there are science writers who follow this path, but I invariably find their work shallow, trite and devoid of the kinds of genuine, startling insights that real scientists can bring to their writing. They are generally in the classic position of the Third Artist: the First Artist paints from life, the Second Artist copies the First Artist, and the Third Artist copies the Second Artist. By which point, all the complexity and nuance that made the First Artist’s work invaluable, and the Second Artist’s at least worthwhile, has been washed away.
    Actually, I think the key point is made in your own words. It may be relatively easy to teach good writers about science, but that’s not the same thing as teaching them science.

  11. -Iain, I couldn’t (obvously) disagree with you more. The scientists you cite are undoubtedly fine writers, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. Communicating science to the public does not require a Ph.D. There is nothing comparable about writing either a dissertation or a scientific paper and writing for the public. In the latter you have problems of voice as well as content, which scientists don’t as a rule have to grapple with. Dissertations and scientific papers invariably employ the passive voice, which is damned hard to break out of, if the writer is even aware of it. Fine writing, contrary to most people’s concept of it, is actually an art, not just a skill. Anyone can be taught to write competently, but writing well–with verve and excitement and a real personal voice–is a genuine talent. Nor is it just a matter of “pumping writers full” of scientific knowledge. The best science writers generally have pretty solid backgrounds in science themselves, whether they have degrees in it or not. They couldn’t write a dissertation or sometimes even do the math, but neither can the people they’re writing for. What they can do is communicate the excitement you say you’re missing. And when that excitement is missing, it’s not because the writer doesn’t know the science, is because they’re writing outside their expertise, i.e., not a science writer. I’m not saying no scientist can write well about their field, but the ones who can hold my interest without losing me in minutiae and formulae are few and far between. Even Feynman gets to be a bit much after a while. And Gould was often very stilted, despite his folksy voice.
    -Gustav, I couldn’t agree more. I’d love to have a collection of science writing with a more international flavor. I’d love to have one that was just more diverse period.
    -PLO, this post isn’t about hate it’s about exclusion. So if I point out sexism in a system, whether science or religion, I’m automatically sexist and anti-religion? How does that work? The divisions are already there, whether I point them out or not. Ignoring them doesn’t make them disappear. Critiquing a system can actually be useful. And it has a place in writing about any system, science or religion or politics.
    -James, I think you’re right about the IQ thing averaging out, and you’re right to point out that it’s a bogus measure of intelligence anyway (Gould wrote a couple of great essays about that). As for why girls drop out of math and science, it seems to be largely down to peer pressure and the (now) very subtle expectation that girls aren’t good in either discipline. It’s still not cool to be smart if you’re a girl. Math and science are often seen us unacceptably nerdy.

  12. sister of physics brothers

    I have always wanted to know why the writers of the Gender Equity report chose the pull quote that says, “if you publicly chastise those who make demeaning or snide comments”… “the rewards are great.”‘
    This is terrible advice. First, it assumes that a person in power is witnessing the gender-based harassment; that rarely happens. Second, it assumes that the person in power has enough information to determine fault without investigating, and even though I am not a fan of harassers, that would not be fair to an alleged harasser. Lastly, it escalates harassment into a public scene and potential violence, aside from disrupting work. It is better to handle these things in an HR department, or at least remove the harasser and take him or her behind closed doors, and deal with it in a fair, non-emotional manner for both victim and alleged harasser. It seems no one talked to a lawyer before putting that quote so large and in front.
    Can you advise me on why this choice of solution and how that fits in with the idea of gender equity?

  13. “Sister,” I think the context that pull quote was taken from was in discussing zero tolerance policies for sexist remarks. The report urges heads of departments to make it clear that demeaning remarks won’t be tolerated during, for instance, faculty meetings. It’s not a suggestion to act on hearsay, but to act in the moment, when it happens, as anecdotal evidence indicates it often does. It’s much more harmful to let remarks slide when they’re made (which signals tacit approval) than to quash them immediately. And those remarks are actually far less rare than you might think, according to surveys.
    Unfortunately, even when sexual harassment complaints are filed, they’re often ignored or not acted upon when they are brought to HR departments. But the pull quote is talking about “caught in the act” situations, not where it’s he said/she said. Those situations are always much harder to deal with for everyone, especially where it’s ongoing.

  14. sister of physics brothers

    Lee:
    Thank you for answering.
    In fact, complaints about, or brought to, leaders are ignored more often. It is often the leaders who are the harassers. So I guess we have no real answer. HR is under the leadership of someone and that leader should make sure HR is working.
    As a victim in just the very gender-based harassment situation, in a physics environment, public “anything” just brings retaliation onto the victim more than it stops the harasser. It is emotional, spur of the moment responses that will create a disaster in the workplace for everyone, victim, harasser, onlookers, etc. You don’t change people by acting like a “parent” in front of others, when the speaker thinks he or she is fine to make the comment. As a victim, I can tell you the tension created by this solution is not helpful. It further victimizes the victim by making “her” issue bring unwarranted attention to her that the harasser gets angry about. The leader is not around enough to protect the victim and then it is the victim who is branded with “causing public turmoil.”

  15. Lee,
    How often do you find people from a science background patronising the world with pop accounts of the great works of Sheaekspere or the symphonoies of Beethoven?

  16. James,
    If, by “pop accounts” you mean “dabbling” outside their degreed specialty for the public:
    -Isaac Asimov, Ph.D. chemist, Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (and the Bible!)
    -Sir Jonathan Miller, neurologist & theater and opera director
    -Sir Arthur C. Clarke and about every third writer of hard science fiction at Clarion
    -Lewis Thomas, MD, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony
    -Alan Lightman’s excursions into fiction
    Those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.
    I think it’s the word “patronising” that’s the problem.
    Actually, the idea that “of course, scientists are the best writers to describe science” is of that same “patronising” mindset. Fiction and writing in general are part of the humanities, not the scientific disciplines. You don’t go to the physics department for composition classes, do you?

  17. I sat next to the single most important scientist of the 20th century IMHO at an ACS symposia on the impact of mass spectrometer in chemistry. The scientist was Carl Djerassi and his contribution was the creation of the oral contraceptive pill. The pill has allowed women to enter and stay in the work force for as long as they want to or feel economically required to do so. And in so doing, women have been changing the workplace dynamic in a very positive way and contributing to increased economic viability in so many industries around the world. In my field of biotechnology, women have a very high percentage of staff positions and have been my manager, mentor and ocassionally a more jumior staff contributor to many challenging research projects. Biotechnology and drug development activities would immediately collapse without your continued contributions. I cannot speak to the issues of glass ceilings as I do not have experience with senior management in large pharma but I can say unequivocally that there is gender equality as far as professional roles go at the bench and middle manageament in biotechnology.

  18. I just finished writing an article for my college alumni magazine about women in science. For those of you who are interested in looking up information about this question, and don’t mind reading through committee reports, there is an excellent study by the National Academies of Science, called “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” that you can read online or download for a very reasonable price at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11741.html. Also, for physics types, there is some interesting data (slightly older) on the retention of women at http://www.aip.org/statistics.
    I’d like to mention one thing from the AIP website that I have not seen mentioned or discussed *anywhere* on the Web. They have a graph of the percentage of bachelor’s degrees in six different sciences that were earned by women during each year from 1966 to 2004. In every subject but one, there is a slow and steady increase of women. In biological sciences, the percentage in 2004 was *over 60%*! Chemistry was over 50%, and mathematics was around 45%. At the bachelor’s level, these fields are already at or near gender equality. Physics and engineering are far from equality, with about 20% of the degrees going to women, but at least they are making steady progress.
    The one big exception, which sticks out like a sore thumb, is *computer science*. The percentage of women earning bachelor’s degrees in computer science peaked around 1984, at around 35 percent, and it has gone downhill ever since.
    What’s the deal? Why has CS alone, of all the sciences, become *more* male-dominated over the last two decades? My personal hypothesis, based on observation of my nephews, is that boys these days grow up absolutely immersed in the world of computer games, and therefore computer science is their first and easiest choice for a major. For girls, that is probably less true.
    Anyway, I just thought I’d throw this out for discussion.

  19. Lee: “Gordon: R U serious?” Yup. Sort of…
    There are very good women science writers (Sylvia Nasar, Gina Kolata, Jennifer :)), but
    I do find most women to be humor-impaired compared to men (there are always exceptions).
    Christopher Hitchens is being abit of a troll, but his column is headlined as “Provocations”,
    and the subtext is spot on.

  20. Gordon: Don’t start me on Christopher Hitchens; that’s a side issue. But saying “I do find most women to be humor-impaired” is a sweeping generalization. You don’t even know most women. I suspect that many women you do know don’t find the same things funny that you do (hmmm, jokes about what women are like, maybe?), but that is not the same as lacking in humor. This is another example of using the male paradigm as the standard default. “You don’t find our humor funny, therefore you have no humor of your own, because our humor is the only legitimate template.” I suspect many (not all) women would find your type of humor . . . insulting? Juvenile? Misogynist? I dunno because I don’t sense anything funny in your writing here. Women’s humor is the humor of the oppressed: sharper, sarcastic, not meant for your ears. Of course you don’t “get it.”
    I see your Christopher Hitchens (shudder) and raise you a Ms. article:
    http://www.msmagazine.com/summer2004/whatsfunny.asp

  21. My writing here wasn’t supposed to be funny–that sort of proves my point. And talk about
    sweeping generalisations—“insulting, juvenile, misogynist..” Other than Tina Fey, I don’t
    find any women equivalents of Robin Williams, Bill Maher, Dana Carvey, Jim Carrey, John Cleese, Ricky Gervais, etc. etc.
    And I am Canadian, so I don’t find your American “in your face” humor very funny. British humor
    is “sharper, sarcastic, not meant for your ears” but “of course you don’t “get it””. Hmmm, name
    a British female “comedian”. It seems that I have stumbled into a feminist warren.

  22. Gordon: well, you’ve at least stumbled into one Feminist. I can’t speak for my fellow bloggers, though I know Jennifer would probably agree with me.
    And you totally missed the point, especially here: “And I am Canadian, so I don’t find your American ‘in your face’ humor very funny.” I was saying that your personal viewpoint about women (or American) comedians does not qualify as a Universal Truth. One thing to remember is that humor is almost always a kind of thinly disguised aggression or rage. It’s seldom funny when one is the butt of it. It also depends somewhat on the universality of experience. Since women experience the world differently than men, it follows that the two won’t always find the same things funny. There’s no objective standard of “Funny.” There’s just “funny to me” and “funny to you.”
    It sounds like we like a lot of the same male comedians (except Jim Carrey) and that sweeping generalization I made about your humor was about ONLY your personal sense of humor, not every man’s (with the possible exception of Christopher Hitchens, who is insulting, juvenile, and misogynist). Actually, I love British humor, the drier the better. I also think “Absolutely Fabulous” is one of the funniest shows ever written and Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley are brilliant. Not to mention Monty Python. But again, that’s beside the point, too.
    The point I’m trying to make is that, in our culture “maleness” is used as the standard and “femaleness” (or what men perceive as femaleness) is the deviation from that standard. That’s the logic you’re using here: “I don’t find it funny therefore it is not funny to anyone else. Or anyone that matters, anyway.” It’s untenable because its premise is false. The correct standard is “humanness,” unqualified by gender or race. Anything else opens the way to bigotry, oppression, and exclusion.
    And that’s not funny, either.

  23. Saying “maleness is the standard” is like postmodern feminist Irigay saying that science is a rape manual. Alan Sokal skewered this postmodern drivel. We need someone to skewer polarising political correctness and victimising feminism—Hitchens will do. He is abrasive, but is a great essayist.

  24. I’m not a fan of Irigaray myself, but you’re talking about apples and oranges. There’s nothing PoMo about the notion that “Maleness is the standard.” It’s been a tenet of feminism since the 70s. If it’s not true, why did it take so long for pharma companies to include women in their drug test protocols? As late as 2001, that was still a concern with the FDA. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1172908 Women were excluded from drug trials because pharma companies (composed mostly of male researchers) figured that if a drug worked in men, it would work in women, as well as have the same side effects. The standard dosage is still calculated for a 160 lb. male. Medical science has been notorious for treating female anatomy as just a deviation of male anatomy, e.g., the clitoris is just a mini penis. The attitude is evident in the disregard for the need for childcare, as well. Men don’t need it (they have wives to take care of their kids) so why should we bother with providing it? It’s evident in something as simple as the fact that when women entered the building trades, or joined the Armed Forces in large numbers, it was hard for them to find clothing, tools and gloves that fit them. Most uniforms are tailored and designed for men. Look at the outfits your mail carrier and cops wear: they’re designed for men and altered to fit women. It’s evident in the lack of insurance coverage for birth control (while Viagra gets covered).
    There’s nothing victimising about pointing out social injustice. What, we should just suck it up and let people pay us less? Exclude us from jobs we can do? Fail to acknowledge our contributions? I don’t think so.
    Alan Sokal’s article had nothing to do with feminism; it was skewering (rightly) obfuscating jargon in the humanities and social sciences. That doesn’t invalidate anything said by feminists; feminism is not just some kind of academic discipline, or interesting philosophical pursuit. I suggest you take a look at Susan Faludi’s book Backlash, rather than getting your feminism from Hitchens. He’s a good writer but he’s still a misogynist jerk.

  25. Dana,
    “The one big exception, which sticks out like a sore thumb, is *computer science*. The percentage of women earning bachelor’s degrees in computer science peaked around 1984, at around 35 percent, and it has gone downhill ever since.”
    I tried looking into this a little (spurred at some point last year or the year before by the same AIP report you mention), and only found more confusion. One curious aspect is that the decline you note came at a time of overall decline in CS bachelor’s degrees: both men and women started deserting the field in the late 1980s, but women deserted it at a higher rate than men.
    The other curious aspect is that female share of Ph.D.’s in CS has been rising more or less steadily, with no sign of any correlation with the trends in bachelor’s degrees.
    You might find these pages of interest:
    http://www.barnard.columbia.edu/bcrw/womenandwork/spertus.htm
    http://women.acm.org/documents/finalreport.pdf

  26. Gordon:
    “Other than Tina Fey, I don’t
    find any women equivalents of Robin Williams, Bill Maher, Dana Carvey, Jim Carrey, John Cleese, Ricky Gervais, etc. etc.”
    Carol Burnett, Sandra Bernhard, Paula Poundstone, Margaret Cho, Tracey Ullman, Janeane Garafalo, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Amy Sedaris, Sarah Silverman, …
    (One can argue about how funny they are as individuals, but the same can be done for male comedians; e.g., I don’t think Dana Carvey or Bill Maher belong in the same category as Robin Williams or John Cleese.)
    Ignorance of evidence is not evidence of absence.

  27. You see, I don’t find any of those women at all funny other than Carol. Mostly they are loud,
    vulgar, and aggressive (well, I give you that many of the males are too, but “funny” can also be appended).
    “feminism is not just some kind of academic discipline, or interesting philosophical pursuit.”
    It isn’t?? Tell that to all the rather ridiculous “Women’s Studies” departments at univerisities. Yes, women deserve equality and parity. In most programs and at most universities now, if you are a white male competing for admission to say, medicine or law, or applying for a job against an equally (or lesser) qualified woman, or better yet, a minority woman, you are wasting your time. ( FYI, I am not looking for a job 🙂 ).
    I think that you are correct that men and women often have different senses of humor. Thats because there are differences in brain structure resulting in cognitive differences—oops thats politically incorrect. Damn this is hard.

  28. Peter, thanks for the info and links. It is odd that women’s PhDs in CS are rising but not the bachelor’s degrees. Makes me wonder what’s going wrong in the undergrad programs that’s going right in the grad programs.
    Gordon, I think it’s interesting (and revealing) that you think male comedians who are “loud, vulgar, and aggressive” are funny but not female comedians who display the same traits. A little stereotyping going on? Or perhaps it’s the respective targets of that humor. Saying that men and women have different senses of humor strictly because of hardwiring is simplistic. Cultural influences have a lot to do with it as well: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070614104032.htm
    No, Academic Women’s Studies programs and feminism are not equivalent, though they are related, and no Women’s Studies department would make that claim. Feminism is a social justice and political movement out of which women’s studies sprang; women’s studies are just what they sound like: inquiries into history, literature, sociology, anthropology, biology, history of science, etc. through women’s eyes regarding how those disciplines affect and define women. The object of Women’s Studies is to allow women to reclaim their own history and define themselves, rather than letting males define and interpret women’s experiences, as has been the case throughout history, until recently. Have you ever taken a women’s studies class? Why does that offend you?
    And let’s see your hard data on the hiring of women over men. Anecdotal evidence doesn’t count. Here in the States, quotas are no longer allowed. I don’t know what you Canadians get up to. Let me refer you to an excellent discussion of this issue: http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2009/01/shaker-input-needed.html#comment-5073548 Over here, there are now more women than men completing college, so I think that’s going to tip the balance quite a bit. I fear for your gender.

  29. Turn things around. Where are Male Studies departments? Fortunately, I don’t think many universities are stupid enough to have them, but who knows? I don’t think that either male or female
    loud, vulgar aggressive acts are funny, but it seems to me that those women comedians mentioned(except Carol) are more vulgar than the men.
    Of course women and men are hardwired differently. Brain development is hormone dependent both in utero and after birth. You would be hardpressed to find any neuroscientist who thinks differently.
    It is only innumerate humanists who think otherwise.

  30. Remember what I said about “male” being the underlying paradigm? That’s why there are no Men’s studies departments; it’s been nothing but men’s studies for the history of education. How could it have been otherwise when women were only accepted into universities, or even taught to read, in the last century?
    What’s “more vulgar than the men” mean? That’s a subjective and personal judgment.
    And if you really read my comment, you’d know that I didn’t deny that women and men are hardwired differently. I said claiming that was the only factor in differences in humor was simplistic. That’s not a denial, it’s a criticism.
    I also notice you don’t respond to any of my challenges for info, or the questions I ask you. What up with that?

  31. I’m a woman and I’ve spent most of my professional life surrounded by really smart male geeks, many of them very talented, arrogant and insecure. People are complicated. I have one remark to make to the ‘feminist victim crowd’ – get over yourselves. I learned incredible amounts of technology from the guys I work with, and I’ve put up with their patronizing ways and their competitiveness. Men are killer competitors – if you don’t like that trait, don’t go into the fields they excel in – it’s a total package, the good and the bad. If you want to compete in computer games, computer science, shut up and write some good code. That will earn you some respect. Whining about why the world owes you recognition will only make you seem more incompetent. Most men put up with the same crap from other men that women claim to put up with – only the guys don’t complain about it so much.

  32. Ann, that’s great that you don’t mind “putting up with” badly behaved male geeks, but your personal experience isn’t a universal truth either. There are a lot of women who either don’t want to or are really uncomfortable with the lack of social skills that patronizing attitudes and over-competitiveness indicate, and there’s no good reason they should have to put up with it. What justifies that bad behavior? Intelligence? No. Skill? No. There’s nothing that says you can’t be intelligent and have mad coding skillz while being polite and respectful too. What you’re talking about is strictly a self-perpetuating subculture.
    But here’s the real question: why should men alone define the playing field and the rules? Because by playing like the boys, that’s what you’re letting them do. Who’s to say that the male approach is (a) the only one or (b) the best one? Women do approach problems differently than men do, so harassing women enough to make them leave the field is actually hindering it. The rude geek boys need to learn how to share the sandbox. It won’t hurt them to suck up and learn some social skills either.

  33. In response to the sexist Gordon: Paula Poundstone, Ellen DeGeneres, and for British, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Catherine Tate….
    Off the *top of my head*, and I don’t even pay much attention to comedy.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top