Sexist Derailment in Science

This is an archive of my article first published on Storify on 16 November 2014.

Let’s delve into an analysis of the arguments used to derail social media discussions on gender inequality in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The context is two recent events: the New York Times article that claimed “Academic Science isn’t Sexist” and the Rosetta Mission (#ShirtStorm).

Being a woman in science, particularly being active on social media and speaking out about inequality, is very difficult, to say the least. We spend a lot of time not simply being “trolled” by uninformed members of the public who react to issues based on personal opinions, but we also spend a lot of energy arguing with colleagues about the basics of inequality.

Derailment is a set of argumentative positions that aim to shift the focus of a discussion from one topic, into another, unrelated issue. Derailment might be classified as a form of trolling. Trolling involves the “higher order intention” to “coerce” a speaker into an argument. Several sub-types of trolls have been identfied by researchers (for example, ranging from obsessive to malicious).  While some people may not recognise their behaviour as trolling, derailment has the same effect, as commenters disrupt important conversations about inquality by groups that do not have equal social power.

Derailment is especially deployed in discussions on social justice through a range of tactics, including:

  • making false equivalences about equality;
  • using subjective examples or personal opinions to dismiss documented evidence of discrmination;
  • resorting to biological determinism to deny social inequalities are problematic (e.g. “men are biologically superior to women”);
  • gaslighting minorities and White women, especially by calling into question emotional legitimacy and mental stability (“if you think this is a problem, you’re just a crazy woman”);
  • demanding additional evidence to that already presented;
  • undermining professional credentials of minorities and White women when “debating” inequities;
  • blaming feminism and “political correctness” for identifying a problem;
  • normalising inequality as being inevitable, or somehow less pertinent due to previous patterns of inequality (“things are better today than in the 1950s”).

Below are examples of how these derailment tactics play out in science discussions about sexism.

I will now illustrate how these derailment strategies are deployed in social media discussions through a case study combining two examples of sexism in science that ocurred in the same week.

Derailment Bingo by piranha at Dreamwidth. Via Tumblr

Case study: Sexism in science

I’ve previously written about the sociology of why people refuse to engage with scientific studies in certain areas; gender equality is one. This is due to deeply held beliefs, unexplored bias, but most of all feeling threatened about the loss of status.

A couple of weeks a go, I published an article on STEM Women critiquing a New York Times Op-Ed based on a flawed scientific study. I showed that the methodology did not match the data and conclusions and I showed that the authors’ social position futher undermined the analysis. A team lead by a White male professor arguing that sexism is not an issue affecting the gender disparity in STEM not only defies the existing empirical literature, it also reinforces White male privilege, by ignoring class, race, sexuality, disability and other issues. I showed this linking to science studies.

This article was one of many written by women in science who similarly debunked its myopic view of gender inequality. My article did not go down well in some science communities, including some that I run, as I show below. As the article was published on STEM Women, a group that I help manage with two other women scientists, we spent a great deal of time not only dealing with trolls (men who wrote sexist, rude or emotional responses), but also a great deal of time explaining to other colleagues from our science communities that the science on inequality is unanimous that gender inequality is very real and has serious consequences (examples below). We should not have to deal with such push back, of course, because we have produced various other articles explaining how sexism works in STEM, through both cultural and institutional practices as well as everyday interactions.

Less than a week later, the Rosetta mission was marred by scientist Matt Taylor, who made media appearance wearing a shirt objectifying women. I wrote an article, again on STEM Women, showing that this was an example of everyday sexism – a daily reminder that women are objectified, under-valued or otherwise made to feel unwelcome in STEM. I showed that this act of everyday sexism exemplies institutional barriers women face in achieving equality in STEM.

My article and others like it (linked in my post) highlight the importance of having male colleagues in particular speak up about sexism, given that women scientists and journalists who spoke out against the shirt were harassed. Women were sent rape and death threats via social media. There was relentless trolling online and segments of the mainstream media belittled the concerns of women in STEM. Women scientists’ rational critiques of sexist practices were being met by violent opposition based on emotions.

Taylor went on to apologise. His employer, the European Space Agency has yet to do the same, even after the Australian Astronomical Society and other agencies have unanimously said they see this event as reflecting the professional exclusion of women. The abuse of women in STEM continued.

Sexist logic in “science” arguments

Men (and some women) who say they love science continued to argue that women were “ruining” a momentous event in human history by bringing up sexism. Why don’t we focus on the women who worked on Rosetta, they demanded to know? (Even though they themselves were not interested in writing about these women.) Many women pointed out that it is possible to celebrate science while also pointing out problems within scientific practices that were put on display for the world to see, and which need redress. Intrepid science writer Emily Willingham wrote about the abuse being levelled at women, noting a dangerous logic in these attacks. This included the invocation of a “lynch mob” narrative, twisting the history of racist practices to scold women.

Male scientists in particular refused to listen to their woman colleagues on this issue. Philosopher Dr Janet Stemwedel’s excellent Storify (To the science guys who want to understand #shirtstorm) argued that male scientists were refusing to engage with the science of sexism simply because it was fellow women scientists pointing out the facts.

Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, Katie Hinde, who also co-authored the SAFE13 Study which examined sexual harassment in science, noted the circular dynamic of these events. One week it’s a New York Times Op-Ed that contributes to the public’s misinformation about sexism, and the next week it’s another scientist at a high-profie event.

These are not isolated events. This year, my colleagues and I have covered the use of a sexist image in a scientific journal; sexism on a popular science site; prominent science lectures and articles arguing girls are “naturally” adverse to STEM (a myth debunked by science many times over); and A.V. Flox covered the use of transphobic imagery of transgender women on Science Magazine. There have been other controversies involving high-profile scientists unleashing sexist abuse against women, as well as #GamerGate and other threats against women in technology.

Women in STEM spend a lot of energy and time combating sexism. This detracts from our efforts at public outreach where we’d prefer to talk about scientific research. It also shifts focus away from finding solutions to inequality in science, as we are forced to demonstrate, over and over, that inequalities exist and that this warrants serious policy change and intervention.

“Debates” about the science on sexism within STEM are draining. They take their toll by sapping attention away from women’s need for recognition in fields where they are a minority. Here are some examples of my recent experiences in Google+, where I am a moderator and member of various science communities.

When moderators do not act

STEM on G+ is a community of 28,000 members. A woman colleague reposted my #ShirtStorm article into STEM on G+. She writes: “everyday actions are connected to institutional sexism; that is, the organisational and policy barriers that women face throughout their education and careers.” Of the 61 remaining comments (the worst ones were deleted), all of the voices of dissent are men who used abusive language and collectively minimised the voices of women scientists. For two days, only three women challenged the sexist comments in the community (a fourth woman joined us on the second day).

One of the main detractors on the thread is the moderator of the community. He sets the tone for derailment by asking about the manufacturer of the shirt. He then asks if the shirt depicts “real” women. Next he asks if people really want to ban clothing or if society should consider “other possibilities” (note: no one had brought up these arguments).

Derailer men show up saying that no one would care if a woman had worn such a shirt and that this is a double standard in society. The community moderator argues that sexism is subjective:

“I know this question seems either strange, or maybe offensive in some way (haven’t been able to understand why), but does this still equal ‘sexism’ if it was a room full of women, and the person with the shirt a lesbian?”

I provide an extensive definition of sexism and link to articles with peer reviewed sources. The moderator returns to then ask if the shirt would be considered sexist on a beach and other nonsensical hypothetical scenarios, even though we have specified that it is the professional context that we are addressing. He tries to “debunk” my definition of sexism, which is informed by social science. He does so using his subjective ideas of sexism, ignoring my scientific references.

Other derailmet arguments include the idea that individuals should be free to express their individuality. They argue that Taylor’s autonomy of self-expression means he should not be called sexist. A couple of men hammer the idea that we are encouraging weakness by focusing on sexism. One man says:

“What you guys are doing is really weird and intolerant, and it’s only going to build weak minded people whose whole life will be ruined as soon as they encounter something that opposes them.”

Women scientists are admonished for being bad role models (by standing up for women):

“The best thing people can do is act as the best role model they can be. Do unto others and all that. Fighting on the internet is about as useless as spitting at the moon.”

I call out the moderator letting him know his community is hostile towards women in science. He suggests quite the opposite, that all the abuse heaped upon us is useful:

“So having this conversation is part of the solution. It lets people know where these social boundaries are.”

The thread only dies down after one of our high-profile male colleagues jumps into the discussion, after we pinged him for his assistance.

Personal attacks

At the same time, my #ShirtStorm article is posted by a woman scientist into another Google+ community for Space, which has 278,00 members. The arguments are similar but they are even less civil.

The first cab off the rank brings up “sex positivism,” an argument trotted out all over social media by people who wished to argue that the shirt was no big deal. Another man asks if people would have been outraged if he’d worn a shirt with half-dressed men. More flippant comments follow about “Victorian prudishness,” “that’s horseshit” and personal attacks on women scientists:

“Stop getting distracted by it, and pay attention to the science.That’s on YOU.”

Another man says the topic of sexism during a space mission doesn’t belong in a community about Space;

“this Space group isn’t really the place to be creating drama about the suitability of office wear.”

A male colleague intervenes, saying it’s a “touchy but important subject.” He reminds people to refrain from personal attacks, and that if people are upset by the discussion they should refrain from commenting in an adversarial manner. He pings two male moderators who are well known in astronomy social media. Neither responds.

More men pile on sarcasm and abuse:

  • what if a “gay man” wore this shirt for “gay pride”?
  • What if it became “a crime” to wear a shirt?
  • Is there evidence that this man who wore the shirt if sexist, because if not, we shouldn’t be talking about the shirt!
  • What about all those nude statutes everywhere in the world? Those statues were built by men who “devalued women” but Taylor’s shirt is art – stop oppressing culture!

A women scientist offers a peer reviewed study once on the effects of sexism at work. This is ignored. She’s instead told that she should be more concerned about women who are “damned to live their lives in cloth sacks… for God…” We might presume this concerned human rights activist is talking about the burqa, the Muslim dress worn predominantly by women in some Muslim-majority nations. This sanctimonious incantation of the “oppression” of Muslim women is a go-to argument deployed by sexist people who neither understand Islam nor care about Muslim women, nor are educated enough to understand how Muslim women are punished and “Othered” (made to feel different and unwelcome) in Western societies.

More attacks follow:

  • “pick your battles!”
  • The shirt was created by a woman!
  • “Again, the same types mad at this guy’s shirt are the same types that banned Ayaan Hirsi Ali from speaking. Let’s try to be more consistent.”
  • “You need a psychology study to prove this shirt is sexist!”
  • “Where’s your evidence” the creator of the shirt intended the shirt to be sexist?

Three of us women scientists continue to answer comments referencing scientific studies. More men insult us and their comments are removed by moderators who never make their presence known. The four moderators are pinged publicly to address their policy on abuse.

The moderators do not respond. Instead the admins privately ask for the thread to be closed. This means no one else can comment, but the sexist derailment goes unchallenged by the moderators. The lack of action by the moderation team sends the message that abuse of members is permissible; and that women in particular should expect abuse if they address sexism within their own field of speciality.

“Toughen up”

I am one of around 10 moderators of Science on Google+, the largest science community on Google+ and one of the top 10 largest science communities on Google+, with 463,000 members. The fact that we have such a large following is a testament to people’s interest in science – but the downside is that there is a high level of abuse that goes along with the work of moderation.

Our community has an ongoing problem with sexism that we work very hard to stamp out. Our community policies explictly say that sexism, racism or any other form of abuse is cause for immediete ban. We state that one of our community goals is the promotion of diversity in science. Yet we deal with many members who think sexism in STEM should not be a scientific topic of discussion.

We banned at least 10 people for making highly inflammatory comments on my ShirtStorm post that was reshared into Science on Google+, and deleted many more comments involving personal attacks. Comments included an attempt to argue that Taylor is “pretty much autistic.” Autism is a conditon to be treated with respect and compassion. Yet it is often evoked when White men make mistakes and even when they are involved in violence. This point is moot and an ableist cheap shot; it turns autism into the problem, and detracts from the discussion about sexism in science.

Other comments we removed strayed into spurious comparisons:

  • What if you saw Taylor riding a bus wearing that shirt?
  • What if a woman wore the shirt? What’s this got to do with science?
  • I’ve got a daughter and I’m going to raise her to be tough so this type of thing doesn’t get to her.
  • You people are just suppressing human sexuality. You can’t change men!
  • Don’t hate men who love women and appreciate their beauty!
  • My [wife/girlfriend] is totally chilled about this, why can’t you do the same?

And the biggest cry [drum roll please]:

If you can’t toughen up, then you don’t belong in science!

I’ll end with part of a comment by one of the women on the thread, Kiki Jewell, an artist and active contributor to our community:

“This whole thread has given me a new, clear hypothesis: “men cling to their misperceptions [sic] about women’s experience, despite evidence.” Some men in this thread believe “being strong in the face of sexism is enough to overcome it.” Women and a few knowing men are saying, repeatedly, that this is not their experience. One man, in particular, is saying over and over, “I used to think that, but I have learned otherwise.” Yet, the other men argue in return that the women and these few men must be wrong. Why is this? The rest would be personal conjecture, but I call on the scientists in this thread to ask themselves why most men cling so tightly to so many perceptions that others are telling them repeatedly are not true.” 

Aggrieved entitlement

My article on #ShirtStorm called on STEM men to help women do some of the “heavy lifting” on sexism. Yet the majority of men who weighed in derailed the discussion. The rest stayed silent. Why does this happen? I find Professor Michael Kimmel’s argument on White male privilege to be useful when thinking about derailment. He has researched the men’s rights movement in the USA and found that they carry a sense of “aggrieved entitlement“:

“Today’s Angry White Men look backward, nostalgically at the world they have lost. Some organise politically to restore ‘their; country; some descend into madness; others lash out violently at a host of scapegoats. Theirs is a fight to restore, to reclaim more than just what they feel entitled to socially or economically — it’s also to restore their sense of manhood, to reclaim that sense of dominance and power to which they also feel entitled.”

A similar sense of aggrieved entitlement might explain why so many men, and especially White men, took to science communities to relentlessly attack women’s discussions of sexism in science. These examples are not the only ones; as a science moderator, I am subjected to much more abuse than my male colleagues. Men will repeatedly question my input, even when it’s in my field (social science) and they are not knowledgeable on the topic (gender inequalit). In these discussions about ShirtStorm, derailment was used to push women out of men’s (perceived) space. Science is the domain of men. Women’s concerns about what happens to them as scientists don’t belong in science forums.

Moreover, the fact that women scientists want to discuss sexism in a science community is considered a violation of science.

Rather than staying out of these discussions, men defend their territory through derailment tactics, using flawed logic, abusive language and personal attacks of women scientists who speak up against sexism.

In short, some men in STEM do not want to think about inequality, and they also think it’s their right to violently tell women they shouldn’t speak about this either. That is the aggrieved entitlement behind derailment: men think it’s their right to determine what constitutes a science discussion, even if the topic is about the practice of science.

Some of our male colleagues spoke up on these threads, or they reshared our posts and weathered arguments by sexist men who were hostile that male scientists bother with silly sexism stuff. Some STEM men wrote their own blog posts about ShirtStorm. The problem is that too many others were bystanders to sexist derailment.

Some of our colleagues who have no problem saying “I support equality” during neutral times were noticeably absent from these discussions. Not speaking up when it really matters contributes to sexist culture in STEM.

Ending derailment

STEM women draw on scientific evidence when talking about sexism in science. Derailers do not. Instead, their entire argument hinged on emotion – on their aggrieved entitlement. They were baasically saying “I don’t like that you said this and how it made me feel!” and “This doesn’t make sense to my preconceived worldview as a man!” When derailers demand “more evidence” they are really saying: “I don’t like that scientific evidence makes me uncomfortable about my role in inequality.”

Women’s professional credentials and lived experiences have greater weight on the conversation about gender inequality than men’s lay opinions and personal anecdotes. Other than a wealth of studies already showing the impact of sexism on girls and women’s education and careers, women practitioners have contextual knowledge of what it’s like to be a woman in STEM.

Derailment tactics defy science because they discard empirical evidence in favour of misplaced anger, false dichotomies, nonsense hypotheticals and abuse. There is no such thing as supporting equality and standing by while sexism flourishes.

Don’t let derailment fool you into being a bystander to inequity.