“I am not a pretty girl – that is not what I do.”
A few weeks ago, I received a facebook message. It was from a male admirer of my blog (and his fiancée, coincidentally). In it, he said “You are GORGEOUS, and your tits look absolutely incredible.” I froze. I know it was meant as a compliment, but it made me really uncomfortable. It was a sentiment that was much more muted in other comments I’d gotten. You know, ones like “wow, you’re an amazing writer AND you’re hot?” or “who would have thought a pretty girl could be so good at science?”
Of course, if you point out to any of these people that their comments are sexist, they instantly defend themselves and say that’s not what they meant. They weren’t trying to imply women should be less good at science or writing, they just wanted to say that it’s cool that I’m pretty and nerdy. They think women in science are great.
|Is this Brian Switek without the plaid?|
But what they fail to realize is the fact that my looks are important enough to comment on is what makes their comments sexist.
Sure, maybe male bloggers get the occasional “you’re hot”. But can Ed Yong or Carl Zimmer say they’ve gotten comments about their packages? Has any fan approached them and heralded their tight abs or buttocks? I’m guessing the answer is no*. No one is amazed that a guy like Eric Johnson is good looking and a good writer, because no one thinks it strange that a good looking guy has other talents, too. Men can look however and do whatever – their intellectual pursuits and their physical appearance aren’t intrinsically linked. But for a woman, everything is linked to how she looks. Everything.
Sexism is a hard thing for me to talk about. My generation likes to think we’re past it. Our great-grandmothers and grandmothers fought to secure women equal pay and the right to vote, and our mothers continued to fight through the feminist movement in the 70s and 80s to ensure that we don’t feel as excluded or put down as they did. That was their fight, their struggle, their blood, sweat and tears. They suffered so I don’t have to.
Growing up I was a tomboy. I went to liberal private schools and was allowed to be as strong minded and bodied as I desired. In college, I had powerful female professors (with kids!) that served as my mentors and role models, and I never once felt like being a woman in science was frowned upon.
So why did I go the the session on women in science blogging? I wasn’t set on attending beforehand. But I was one of the many women who talked to Kate Clancy, and in my conversation with her and Anne and the rest of the women at that table, I realized that, more than ever, I needed to be in that room. I needed to hear the struggles of my fellow female bloggers, even if I haven’t experienced them, and I need to be a part of the conversation. Because even if I haven’t been attacked for my gender on my blog yet, I could, and probably will, be. The battle against inequality was not just my mother and my grandmother’s war; it’s my fight, too.
After all, if you look around at the current science blogosphere, you can’t help but think there’s something wrong. Despite the fact that over half of the attendees at Science Online were women, female bloggers make up a small portion of the high-profile blogging networks. As Jennifer Rohn noted last year, no major blogging network even comes close to a 50/50 male/female ratio. Perhaps it is in part the fault of female bloggers for being too meek, mannered and mild and not shamelessly self-promoting in every way they can – but I doubt it.
Why isn’t there a girl version of Ed Yong or Carl Zimmer? Why is there no woman in the elite list of the most well known science bloggers? The excuse that there aren’t enough high-quality female science writers just doesn’t cut it anymore. They’re out there, and they have been for years. Incredible women like Sheril Kirshenbaum have been standing up and taking the full brunt of the internet’s misogyny with the utmost grace. We have to be honest with ourselves as a community. The problem isn’t that the women aren’t there. It’s that they aren’t being taken as seriously.
Most women I know hate the idea that their gender is a factor in their professional life. A friend of mine and fellow graduate student, for example, recounts angrily how she found out she was referred to by one of the male professors her first year as “the pretty one.” She intentionally wears t-shirts, jeans, and little make up at work to downplay her femininity and be seen as just another graduate student. One of my blogging friends, similarly, has told me she blogs under a pseudonym simply because she wants to take her looks out of the equation.
I’m not so complacent. I shouldn’t have to hide the fact that I am a woman just to be seen as a brilliant scientist or a great writer. And I am young and bull-headed and perhaps just naive enough not to hide. You might notice my looks first, but I’ll be damned if you don’t hear my words, too.
I don’t have the same risk-aversion that other female scientists or science writers might because I haven’t been beaten down or held back. Nor am I timid. Trust me, no one has ever accused me of being too quiet. Call me ambitious, driven, or even a bitch – those words are all compliments in my book – but be certain that I will not allow my gender to prevent me from achieving success.
Clearly, we need to make a change in the science blogging community. I won’t stand up and say I have all the answers. I don’t know how to better encourage other female science bloggers other than to say I’ve got your back. I can’t assuage the fears of those who think if they put their name and face on a blog, they’ll lose credibility or get attacked, other than to lead by example. But maybe I don’t have to do more than that. Perhaps all it will take to tip the scales is a woman who is willing to say “bring it” and is still standing a year later.
Well, then. Bring it.
*I’d comment on whether or not the packages, abs or buttocks of the male bloggers are up to par, but I think I’ll let their wives be the judges instead.
UPDATE: Here is the video of the session: