An open letter to Dr. Rybicki…

You’ve expressed confusion and disappointment over the uproar created by your Futures piece in Nature. You cite women who have no problem with the gender roles you spoke about with “tongue in cheek”. You insist that us female scientists are being too sensitive. And while numerous bloggers have tried to put this into context for you, I wonder if taking things out of context for a moment might help. Consider this recent post from the NY Times Motherlode Blog, regarding Gymboree’s recalled line of *sexist* onesies:

We get that Gymboree didn’t set out to make a statement about smart men and pretty women. And science teachers don’t wake up in the morning and think, “You know, I think boys are just better at this stuff, so I’m going to call on them more.” Kindergarten teachers don’t consciously say, “Girls like to draw and boys like to build, so I’ll have the girls draw the poster while the boys build a giant pyramid for the Egypt fair.” Those things just happen, the way these shirts just happened. We don’t think about them, and we should. Letting the little sexist choices slide suggests that we think the Western world has changed about as far as it’s going to go, and we should be grateful for that, accept the compliment — Moms are Pretty! — and move on. I don’t think so. Do you?

Maybe your short story isn’t the biggest issue out there concerning sexism, but it’s the little issues that are frequently the most dangerous. Little slights, which appear innocent enough on the surface, permeate our thoughts and actions without our conscious permission and ultimately DO have consequences, whether we intend for them to or not. What may have begun as an innocent, “tongue-in-cheek” piece about gender roles and knickers was given a huge stage when published in Nature, from which the underlying sexist message could pervade the entire scientific community. When brought to our attention, many smart, confident female scientists were offended. We know all too well the result of ignoring these “little issues”, and we made the decision to stand together and refuse to be marginalized. I’m sorry if that offends you, but maybe you shouldn’t take it so personally.

19 thoughts on “An open letter to Dr. Rybicki…

  1. The upside of finding all this new gray at my temples each morning is the perspective that is growing under the roots of said hair. While reading the #womanspace controversy (for lack of a better term), I am much reminded of the original controversy that came out around Judith Bat-Ada’s article “Playboy isn’t playing” within the now-classic work “Take Back the Night” edited by Laura Lederer in 1980. Many, many affable old Rybickis saddled up their typewriters to sing the praises of good clean pornography and decry any feminist objections as the humorless prudery of a bunch of uptight ninnies who just couldn’t take a joke. There was even backhanded blather about how Playboy was actually a celebration of the noble female form. Not only couldn’t women take a joke, they couldn’t even take a compliment. And when the issue didn’t drop, they tried to shame those who cared into focusing upon something “more important.” What’s my point? These guys’ playbook hasn’t changed. They’re recycle this same old crap over and over, but gals, each time it bothers me a little less. The crusty old badgers who’ve been telling us that we women are fit only for the kitchen and the shopping mall for 30+ years have been wrong for 30+ years. However, being wrong didn’t bother them 30+ years ago and it doesn’t bother them now. An apology from them isn’t worth any more than their original opinion was. They do contribute something very important to science and society, that none of us should underestimate in its power to change things. They retire.

  2. “I’m sorry if that offends you, but maybe you shouldn’t take it so personally.”

    Now your response above is a fairly measured one, which is more or less appropriate, even if I partly disagree (a children’s clothing line is a serious business, a little story which is fairly clearly not intended to be serious, no matter how widely circulated, is not). But look at some of the responses in the comments to it. People are outraged, they think that the author is a despicable and disgusting person, and apparently at least one of them has contacted his institution, presumably to get him fired.

    If you were in his position, how could you not take this personally?

    If you want to get people to learn things they are doing unintentionally, you do not do it by scolding them and saying they are horrible people. Doing that only leads to defensiveness and hurts the cause they are trying to support, even if it results in some temporary crumbs thrown in your direction.

  3. I dunno, Nick B, his comments were the same no matter how measured or not the post he was responding to. Especially when outed as a “disappointed” sock-puppet.

    But Rybicki isn’t the one responsible. Henry Gee and the other editors at Nature are the ones who should have known better and should be sending out the message that Nature is not misogynistic as it currently appears to be. Because the message they’re sending right now is that they’re doubling down on the misogyny, and that message is bad for science as a field.

    Rybicki is just one small-minded virologist in South Africa. He’s unimportant. Nature used to be a top general interest science publication. Their message is what is important. And right now their message is a very bad one.

  4. @nicoleandmaggie: “He was outed as a disappointed sock puppet” – with my photo on it. Not exactly a secret.

    “Rybicki is just one small-minded virologist in South Africa”. Really? You know that for a fact? Have you ever read anything else I’ve ever written? Do you know ANYTHING else about me? I thought not.

    And if you take away some of the very mistaken assumptions underlying what people claim are my attitudes, garnered from my 973-word story, what are you left with? A story. A story that got into Nature, which has one a week.

    If you take just a tenth of what people have written about me, with absolutely no knowledge of me, or of my home and especially my professional environment, you will see what amounts to unremitting personal attacks – and even derogatory remarks about my family. So yes, I was and am disappointed. And yes, thank you Nick B, it is hard not to take it personally – except that I’ve had such good news on another front this week, that it blew this crap out of the water.

    Carry on having fun, then, won’t you!?

  5. Ed, it’s not about you, it’s about the harm that the journal Nature has done and is doing to women in science. The publication of this story and the incredibly misogynistic reaction to it are attempts, conscious or unconscious to keep female-scientists from achieving and to keep them in their place. It is pernicious and I am very glad I went into a field in which mistakes like this are rectified rather than amplified, because we know that good science can’t actually be done when there’s bias and ignorance in place.

    I’m going to quote as what I’m about to say has already been said (and willfully ignored), but is still important, even though I am sure it will not make a lick of difference:

    The first letter to the editor of Nature, succinctly says:

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v479/n7373/full/479299b.html

    “Joking aside, it is hard to laugh off implications that routine domestic duties involve mysterious rites known only to women, and that only men are reliable observers who can make scientific discoveries.

    Rybicki’s story reflects the pernicious prejudice that biology inherently limits women’s success at the highest levels of government, business and science. In our view, it is distasteful to publish fiction that promulgates such sexist notions, even if it was written tongue-in-cheek. We should instead be encouraging the dissolution of the last bastions of ‘manspace’.”

    Anti feminist bingo: http://hoydenabouttown.com/20070414.431/anti-feminist-bingo-a-master-class-in-sexual-entitlement/ Note the: “Can’t you take a joke” right there in the middle.

    Paul Anderson: http://freethoughtblogs.com/entequilaesverdad/2011/11/18/dear-nature-there-is-a-crucial-difference-between-being-contentious-and-being-a-misogynistic-asshole/#comment-31352 and http://www.paulanderson.org.uk/2011/11/an-open-letter-to-nature/ Though, who knows, maybe Nature is also racist– they’re just not as open about it.

    Jacquelyn Gill: http://contemplativemammoth.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/womanspace-responses-to-rybickis-display-of-male-privilege-on-npg/#comment-108

    “Given this comment, I think you have failed to see the point– a point which many people have spent thoughtful hours carefully explaining in the posts I’ve collected (and which I have to honestly wonder whether you’ve read). The posters have already gone into great detail about WHY the fact that your piece was “fiction” doesn’t matter. Stories can still harm, especially when they are as thinly-veiled as “fiction” as this one. You used a lot of hurtful, negative stereotypes as shorthand in your story, which is not only lazy writing but which reflect the biases that you hold as a writer. ”

    I’m going to ignore the stunning personal defenses from folks in your family. http://freethoughtblogs.com/entequilaesverdad/2011/11/18/dear-nature-there-is-a-crucial-difference-between-being-contentious-and-being-a-misogynistic-asshole/ I have a funny feeling that your so-called “rabid feminist” niece might beg to differ with the defenses, if she truly is feminist. Nobody would be attacking your sister (if the internet commenter claiming to be your sister is indeed your sister, and there’s no reason to assume otherwise unless Rybicki went from not understanding how to use a sock-puppet to being able to mask IP addresses) if she wasn’t using sexist and derogatory language herself. It’s not actually helping.

    Finally, here’s a link to all the links exploring exactly how this story harms women. http://contemplativemammoth.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/womanspace-responses-to-rybickis-display-of-male-privilege-on-npg/ There’s a lot of information there.

    Again, the Rybicki family is unimportant. It’s the journal Nature that’s the problem.

  6. Nicole: You cannot on the one hand say that deciding to publish something is wrong, but writing it is not.

    Further, there is disagreeing and talking about the issues it raises, and then there is the response we’ve seen here, and you are doing your argument no favors by implying a conspiracy on the part of the author.

    Why, exactly, do you think you (and the rest of those offended) hold the key to feminism, and that any woman who isn’t offended isn’t a feminist, and their opinion isn’t worth considering?

    Over-reaction to relatively trivial slights does a movement more harm than good. It only serves to alienate those who otherwise would be on your side.

    Imagine if a different tactic were taken: People, instead of lashing out and deriding, took the time to use it as a chance to explain why such things, even though they seem harmless, can have negative effects, you might actually have ended up with Ed saying “You know, maybe you have a point, I’ll be more conscientious of such things in the future.”

    But instead, we have this. Maybe getting all riled up and getting morally superior makes you feel better, but it doesn’t really improve anything.

  7. Oh for God’s sake, Nick B, can you really not see that implying that housework is women’s work, and not just that, work that women are uniquely suited to do, is not a trivial slight? This is the nonsense that gets spouted at us to explain the imbalance in the numbers of men and women in professional positions in science, despite the fact that women are now equal in the achievement of undergraduate degrees (and even graduate degrees!) in many fields. We’re told that there is no sexism there. No, it is just that women find it hard to balance work and home. And why do they find this hard, when men don’t? Well, because women are just naturally better suited to do the work around the home, of course. No, there is no systemic sexism here. Just biology.

    This is complete and utter bullshit. I don’t find it any harder than my husband does to balance work and home, and that is because he does his fair share of the work around the home. He would be perfectly capable of going to the appropriate store and finding underwear for his daughter. In fact, he has actually accomplished this apparently difficult feat. Multiple times.

    The reason that the decision to publish this in Nature, and not the decision to write it, is the real problem is the fact that Nature has such a wide reach. Young women who aspire to challenging careers read this nonsense- and this piece is only the latest installment in an ongoing stream of crap, some of it actually coming from women who call themselves feminists- and they get scared. They internalize the belief that they “can’t have it all” (whatever the hell that means) and they hobble their own dreams and aspirations. They lower their sights, and don’t aim quite as high. Because they want kids, and “everyone knows” that it is impossible to combine motherhood and a career in science. Or that the kids of women who try are screwed up by day care. Or any number of other things that just aren’t true, but that our culture tells women anyway.

    And so smart, hard-working women decide not to try for the career they wanted. The world loses out, and so do they. THAT is why this matters. Not because it matters that one scientist wrote something offensive in the mistaken thought that it would be funny, but because it matters what the scientific culture tells its youth.

    Ed, I don’t expect you or Henry Gee to really understand this. But for the sake of the women you teach and advise- I hope that you at least try. I can see that it would be hard to take a step back from feeling hurt and misunderstood. But if you are as supportive of women in science as you say you are, you really should try.

  8. From where I stand, there are two points being made here that I think are worth consideration:

    1. @Nick, you make the assumption that, by aggressively dealing with the little slights, the important underlying issues end up devolving into a tit-for-tat discussion. This is certainly the case in many of the blogging venues I’ve visited the past few days (and appears to be happening here now as well). I respect this argument, but I don’t think it should prevent the smaller issues from being raised. That was the point of this post – the less outrageous examples of gender bias are just as important as the big ones to confront and dispel. Additionally, I wasn’t comparing the onesies from Gymboree to Dr. Rybicki’s story; I was using the point made in the Motherlode blog post to illustrate the importance of dealing with ALL perceived gender slights head-on.

    2. I understand that nobody likes to be called out; I certainly don’t. And I’m not sure it’s appropriate to personally attack Dr. Rybicki for this; certainly not his family. (OTOH, I’m also unsure it’s NOT appropriate to call Dr. Rybicki out, based on his own words stating that he knew he’d catch flak for this.) Still, I think it’s very likely that Dr. Rybicki is a good man, husband, father, and a fair scientist who treats women with the utmost respect in the workplace. I’m not calling him out here as a jerk or a sexist. I am calling him out for making a mistake, and I’m asking him to consider the feelings of those he offended. It’s rare that issues like this get any attention at all without making a big stink. And just because there are some out there who derail the conversation into an attack on so-called “feminazis” doesn’t mean women shouldn’t aggressively stand by their convictions. There needs to be a discussion about this, and politely informing somebody that something they’ve said/done is hurtful doesn’t usually initiate an appropriate response, if any at all. Additionally, I must note that many of the initial attacks were not aimed directly at Dr. Rybicki, but the editors of Nature, who have a history of stifling impassioned debate.

    I never intended this post as an attack on Dr. Rybicki, but wanted instead to try and bring focus back to the original point many women have been trying to make. A joke/story/allegory/whatever, no matter how innocent it may seem, which serves to marginalize women or place them into a specific role by suggesting they have evolved to perform certain domestic functions, is offensive, just as it would be for certain races. I was offended, enough to speak up on this blog. All I’m asking for is Dr. Rybicki and the editors of Nature to acknowledge this, apologize, and move on. That’s it. As scientists, we’ve all had to admit from time to time that we were wrong, or at least not completely right. Why, when the apology involves something deeper, about who we are as people, does this have to be so much more difficult to confront?

  9. Believe it or not, you can be a feminist WITHOUT being female. And, you can be female WITHOUT being a feminist.

    There are many types of feminism. Only one type of feminism, Cultural feminism, in which “women have special, unique qualities that patriarchal society devalues. These feminists might argue that a woman’s place is in the home, but we should value home production more than we do as a society,” is compatible with the story and Nature’s response. Cultural Feminism has NO PLACE in a science journal. It might not be out of place in Better Homes and Gardens (though many would disagree), but it does not belong in a journal for whom those reading are expected to be scientists and to work and interact with female scientists. Cultural feminism is incompatible with having women in science at all. And that seems to be the message Nature is trying to send, which is the problem.

    Again, Nick B., as I’m sure you’ve been told before, Bingo! http://hoydenabouttown.com/20070414.431/anti-feminist-bingo-a-master-class-in-sexual-entitlement/ Your comment just hits so many of these common tropes it’s almost as if you’re choosing what to say based on one of these cards. Here’s a second if you need to come up with more:
    http://hoydenabouttown.com/20080218.1460/antifeminist-bingo-2/ (though it looks as if you’ve already found it).

  10. I think it’s possible to call someone out as having done an unwise and hurtful thing without personally attacking them (a “you made a mistake” not “you are a jackhat”).

    So Dr. Rybicki, I respectfully ask you to get over yourself. There have been some personal attacks on you, yes (If I remember correctly, I personally called you unfunny- sorry. For all I know, you could be quite the hilarious person in meatspace).
    But if that great news in your life blew this whole thing out of the water, maybe you should think about what makes you so resilient.
    Maybe you should think about what it would be like to get this kind of criticism for a story if people had been constantly telling you, throughout your entire life, in ways overt and covert, that you don’t belong here, that you aren’t good enough, that you should do something else. Maybe you should think about how your story exists in a society and a field (evolutionary biology), and, indeed, a journal that marginalizes women in subtle and less subtle ways.
    Most importantly, maybe you should think about how to be a supportive spouse, father, mentor, supervisor and teacher to the women in your life. Because even if you never intended anything bad, it’s a difficult world and they’ve got a lot of discriminatory bullshit to deal with. While I’m not going to speculate about you as a person, your story is a clear sign you could do more.

  11. I like the way the defense has essentially devolved into “Awww, now you girls are just being *mean* …” It’s always amusing when the same fellows who created a generation of women who had to fight hard to play with the boys act so surprised when we show up with our gloves. And our bats.

  12. Nicole: I could write a bingo card too. That doesn’t make them wrong. And of course the implication is that because I am doing so, that means I am a sexist. Because everyone who disagrees with anyone decrying “____ism!” is clearly a ____ist, and thus should be belittled and excluded from discussion.

    And cloud: “Oh for God’s sake, Nick B, can you really not see that implying that housework is women’s work, and not just that, work that women are uniquely suited to do, is not a trivial slight?” That wasn’t the implication. Only a superficial reading of it out of context would get you anything like a serious suggestion that Nature or the author thinks that women *actually* are generalizable in that way. This is an example of misreading. There is some truth to the idea that even something done in jest reinforces stereotypes, as Dr. O discusses, but that is a different animal.

    When I read “Womanspace”, I saw pretty much what Dr. Rybicki said he was trying to do: he couldn’t complete a task that his wife could have easily, so he and his friend made up a grand theory based on well-known stereotypes to excuse why they individually could not do it.

    Dr. O, I think your points are fair ones. Maybe Nature has some pattern, I haven’t looked, so I will take your word for it. And as I said, there is a valid point to be made about the subtle reinforcement that can happen when these stereotypes are repeated unchallenged.

  13. Nick B. Maybe not intentionally sexist, but definitely intentionally clueless. You could fix that by reading up more. If you don’t want to read all the excellent posts on the subject, I suggest Why So Slow by Virginia Valian and Lifting a Ton of Feathers by Paula Caplan. They are full of actual science. And you can see why these things have negative effects.

    Also, if the article already posted on the pervasive harm of stereotype threat by Christie Wilcox
    ( http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/2011/11/18/the-joke-isnt-funny-its-harmful/ ) didn’t speak to you, this one might: nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2011/05/22/stereotype-threat/

    Thanks for trolling!

  14. Nick B, I don’t see the point in wasting my time arguing with you, so I’ll stop with one observation: my reading comprehension levels are a great deal better than you credit. I understood that piece just fine. I interpreted it differently than you, perhaps because the “joke” being made was at my expense. But that doesn’t mean I misread it.

    And I’ll judge Nature and its editors by their actions, not what you think they intend.

  15. > We know all too well the result of ignoring these “little issues”, and we made the decision to stand together and refuse to be marginalized. I’m sorry if that offends you, but maybe you shouldn’t take it so personally. <
    thank you Dr. O // where can i sign please //

    imho, if there is an agreement that basically e.g. "words express thinking, attitude, views, perception of life" also in the soc. applied-/sciences-community, then clearly if NPG/Nature in it's soc Futures (!) section publishes a soc. sci-fi (!) short-story (in this case *womanspace) then clearly i am beyond words to express my dismay.

    and if Ed Rybicki would be able to agree on that basic concept, then clearly his words, also in his comment here, simply reflect his thinking; for all to see and read. and if he agreed that soc. human (self-develepment) and scientific progress can only be achieved by e.g. the proverbial-Einsteinian "question everything" that his words fail to address, then he reflects a basic scientific fail. (unless he prefers a soc. fast-forward into the past, which he displays).

    furthermore, imho, any human being who lacks the basic (yet, i agree, for some rather demanding/complex skill of) soc. empathy, then this human being fails at being human. ergo, whoever denies empathy to more than 50% of a population (women in this case) lacks basic human skills, apart from e.g. cognitive dissonance, willful ignorance, display of soc. Dunning-Kruger-effect.

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  18. Looking back on all this nearly three years later is quite educational. First, because I now take a much mellower view of the whole thing; second, because it really was just a blogosphere bubble, pretty much over in a couple of weeks.
    Leaving the original intent of the story still out there for anyone to see.
    Which was, it was a STORY. No more, no less.
    The reaction to it was also an education – and it showed me that getting hurt was not smart, and that there is a great deal of discontent out there in academia / researchspace about perceived sexist attitudes in the workplace and in publishing.
    So, wiser and smarter, I continue in my small-minded virological way to try and do good.
    Stay cool, won’t you? Especially nicoleandmaggie.
    Ed Rybicki

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