Thursday, 17 November 2011


There have been two articles resurfacing (as it turns out) in the press. One of them is an opinion piece by the Chancellor of Buckingham University (link - it's so awful my college has blocked it "because the content contained prohibited words and/or phrases"). It talks about female students being a "perk" for male lecturers and professors. Read the Guardian article on the subject - it isn't blocked for porn.

The other is a short fiction article in that bastion of hyperbolic science Nature. It's entitled "Womanspace" (or there's the PDF). It passed without much comment when it was published - just goes to show no one reads Nature for the short stories. It was only when two responses were published in today's correspondence section that women in science started to prick up their ears.

Anne Jefferson has written a brilliant response: Dear Nature, You got a sexist story, but when you published it, you gave it your stamp of approval and became sexist too. And this is it - Henry Gee (@cromacrox if you're interested...) is the Senior Editor of Nature. He approved the publication of this story. He even had the nerve to gloat afterwards:
I'm amazed we haven't had any outraged comments about this story.
Well you got them now, Henry. And you probably think it's going to drive more and more traffic to you, and that there's no such thing as bad publicity. My husband @panderson1979 has suggested that a campaign to the advertisers might hit Nature where it hurts. There's a whole hashtag, #womanspace, devoted to it already. I imagine the author, @edrybicki, is waking up to some interesting replies this morning.

I commented to a friend on Twitter that so much sexism seems to be as a result of a few men thinking they're being funny. And I imagine Ed Rybicki thinks it was rather funny. And I imagine Henry Gee thought it was also funny and a jolly good wheeze. Henry Gee has prided himself on striving for equality in academia, and especially tackling institutionalised anti-semitism. Yet he approves a discriminatory fiction story because it's discriminatory against a group of which he is not a member. He would not have published a story entitled "Jewspace". One could not get away with writing the sentence, and Henry would not publish it:
"But the answer is clear: Jews can access parallel universes in order to find things, whether they do it consciously or not."
The article would be offensive if "blacks" or "gays" was substituted in for "women". From "Blackspace":
"I said, only half-joking: 'Well, blacks seem to be able to do that - maybe they’re getting into spaces we poor guys can't?'"
And from "Gayspace":
"Gays, on the other hand, gather: such that any mission to buy just bread and milk could turn into an extended foraging expedition that also snares a to-die-for pair of discounted shoes; a useful new mop; three sorts of new cook-in sauces; and possibly a selection of frozen fish."
Just to be clear, these are unacceptably discriminatory sentences. So why would Henry Gee allow these things to be said about women in his journal?

It is hard enough to be a woman in science, and sexism is rife in academia. Sexism and the enabling of sexist behaviour is one of the many reasons I am "just" an FE lecturer, when I could have been a PhD. I fear for my female students' welfare as I send them off to university each September, and hope that their enthusiasm and optimism for their future isn't eroded away too quickly.

Update: As well as Anne's post linked to above, also look at The Biology Files and Science Sushi, who have further thoughts. And for an editor and publisher's take on this, look at my awesome husband Paul's Open Letter to Nature. Paul is fortunate enough to be 50% of one of many couples that proudly show the 1950s stereotype to be utter fiction...


  1. Hmmm, I was contemplating taking out a subscription to Nature after being sent a recent offer. I wont be after this.

    It is also truly ironic that this was published on 29th of September, the same month that Nature Chemistry published an edition with one of the best covers:

    and several articles about the representation of women in science related issues.

  2. Thanks for this article. Putting other words there in place of woman makes it abundantly clear just how appalling this piece is.

  3. Aieeee!! I've just read the Guardian article about Buckingham's chancellors piece. Dear lord. At least in the US there's a good probability he'd be sacked by now for writing a piece like that.


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