This is what public shaming does: I’m genuinely trepidatious about commenting on this topic, lest I incur the wrath of social media.
But first, let’s celebrate the #distractinglysexy hashtag. Because no matter where it came from, it speaks to real perceptions and it is awesome.
I found the hashtag before I heard about the Tim Hunt debacle. “Hmm,” I thought, “that’s too bad. It must have been uncomfortable to be one of the women in that audience.” Then I was taking photos this weekend at a client’s STEM function, and they were looking at old class photos of graduates. In the first class, in 1969, there were no women. In the second class, there was one woman, who happened to be attending. I overheard her laughingly remark, “Everyone always asks me why women in (my field) are so stubborn. Well, you have to be stubborn, to be a woman in this field!”
But that wasn’t the kicker. One of the old fellows, looking at the time in the mid-eighties where the class photos began to segue from a male-dominated field to a female-dominated field (yes! in the sciences! bonus points if you can guess which field it is), made a remark that could have come out of Tim Hunt’s mouth: “Must have been distracting to have all those women in the lab,” he said. “Yes,” his companion agreed. “Some of them are real lookers!”
I tell you this not so that you can have MOAR OUTRAGE. To me, it was a genuine indication of how pervasive these ideas are within a certain generation. And Zoe Williams has a fantastic article in the Guardian which you should read, and I am going to quote thusly:
The issue is particularly piquant in the wake of the Nobel laureate Professor Sir Tim Hunt (I give him his full title to indicate my elaborate respect for his plentiful science), who lost his jobs following what has come to be described as a feminist witch-hunt. To a conference in Seoul, he explained the problem with women – you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry. By the end of the week, he had lost his posts at University College London, the European Research Council and the Royal Society. “I am finished,” he said, in an interview with the Observer. “I had hoped to do a lot more to help promote science in this country and in Europe, but … I have become toxic.” This looks like the best possible case against making a fuss: the price he paid was out of all proportion to the remarks he made, which were jocular and minor. He was tried by Twitter and convicted by his employers, unable until it was too late to make a case in his own defence.
We first need to separate the individual women who mocked Hunt with the hashtag “#distractinglysexy” from the institutions that fired him. Most of the social media response was, itself, pretty jocular. While plenty of people said that Hunt distilled the working environment in science, and the reason women can’t thrive in it, it didn’t follow that those people were calling for him to be sacked.
I keep seeing this trend of pillorying people for small-minded remarks, when their actions speak loudly of them being an otherwise generally good human being, and it’s wrong.
1. Words are easy disproportionally to prove. A man said some stuff he shouldn’t have said in front of a bunch of women. Yep. It was bad. Let’s put this in perspective, though – what about a man who pinches a woman’s bum or “accidentally” brushes against her breasts? Whether in a crowded room or in private, although this is a much more egregious action, it’s also much harder to provide a record of what happened. In a very real way, people who have given verbal proof that they hold outdated or sexist views (even when defended by co-workers and family members) are treated just as badly – or worse – than those who actually cross that line.
2. People are a product of their environment. And a product of their own determination. It’s both. You start with a huge dose of being a product of your environment, taking for granted the values and ideas handed to you by your parents and your teachers – in which actions and situations often speak louder than words – and bit by bit, as you grow and educate yourself and form opinions and learn from experience, you figure out which of those values and ideas are wrong for you and should be discarded. You form your own person, and it’s a life long process. Some people ossify into crusty old Get-Off-My-Lawn buggers well before their time. Some people, god bless ’em, stay curious and motivated all throughout their journey until they die at a ripe old age.
But bias is subtle and pervasive, and you can’t discard values if you don’t even realize you have them. Or, even more subtly, you can completely agree with a statement that says, “Women are equal to men,” and yet, when someone mentions a judge or a scientist, automatically picture a male person in that role.
Here’s my example of this. I grew up in a farming community. For anyone who didn’t grow up on a farm, the women are an integral part. There are not that many farm women who don’t how to start a tractor, or who haven’t taken a turn on the combine or driving the truck during harvest. But when I was growing up, men were farmers, and women were the farmer’s wives. I saw a picture when I was in grade 12 that was captioned something like, “(Woman’s name), a farmer, stands next to her crop.” MIND = BLOWN. I’m pretty sure this was a photography book celebrating women in all aspects of industry, from space travel to firefighting to scientific research to trucking, and it was the farmer that got me. Just from that one little syntax, I could see one of the pervasive ways that the outdated language of sexism had a legacy in our community – a leftover from a time, not that long ago, when women didn’t drive tractors.
Here’s another example of someone being a product of their time, this one not so subtle, and one of the most shocking things I’ve recently read:
It’s a section of Virginia Woolf’s diary from 1915, discussed in Virginia Woolf in Context, by Bryony Randall & Jane Goldman. She didn’t grow up, as I did, in a time that recognized the personhood of disabled and mentally handicapped people. You can read the book it’s excerpted from if you want the greater picture of what the views of Victorian England were – her thoughts were not considered radical, but thankfully, we’ve moved on since then.
What is my point? Just this: a reminder that tolerance and understanding can extend in all directions. That whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had. That you can be tolerant of a person’s mistakes while not being tolerant of a sexist situation or comment.
Let him or her among us who has never made an off-colour joke or tasteless comment throw the first tweet.