Tale of a Story

Like all good stories, this also begins with “Once upon a time….”

Once upon a time, quite recently, two middle-aged men went shopping for some little girls’ knickers. They failed in their quest. They returned to the home of one of them to report their shame – to a highly-scornful wife of the resident middle-agee, who had sent them out to get them out from underfoot while she got supper ready, because otherwise they just sat around and talked crap. About Jethro Tull, consumer electronics, viruses and science fiction.

And there’s the problem, you see: if I’d said ‘househusband” for my mate, which he is, as well as being a self-employed graphic artist, and “gourmet-class cook [IMHO] and astrophysicist” for the wife, which she is, all might have been different.

But I get ahead of myself.

After wallowing in shame a while, the two men discussed just why they had been unsuccessful. Given that they were both (a) highly imaginative, (b) science fiction fans, (c) quite well educated in modern science, they came up with a disarmingly simple notion. Oh, and did I mention the discussion was fueled by good Australian red?

The notion – which has nothing to do with the reality of the situation, which is that while my good friend does shop frequently for everything else, he does not often buy girls’ knickers – was that women access parallel universes while shopping; that they do this without even thinking about it, and have been doing so ever since grubs, roots and berries are what kept humanity alive, while men were out failing to kill edible animals.

A simple notion, and quite complimentary to women, one might think? And pretty denigratory of men? One did think so – which is why I found myself writing a story on my iPad, somewhere out over the Indian Ocean, as I winged my way home to Cape Town with a broken entertainment console in front of me. Pretty much knocked it off in a single sitting, then polished it a little, and sent it to Henry Gee of Nature: I thought he might like it, given that he seems to have much the same sense of humour as I do, and had published one of my stories previously.

To my pleasant surprise, he asked if I would like it in “Futures”, there at the back of Nature: I said “Yes!”, and so it was done.

Backtracking slightly: Futures is the science fiction section – I repeat, SCIENCE FICTION section – of Nature. They publish SCIENCE FICTION, which in recent months has dealt with, in the words of one their editors, “…petty thieves, terrorists, pedophiles, mass murderers, religious maniacs, lesbian robots, quantum-jumping time travelers and genocidal aliens”. So I was in good company – I thought.

And there it sat for a good couple of months, given that it was published on 28th September, garnering the odd mainly complimentary comments from people who know me.

Ed gazed into Womanspace - and Womanspace gazed back into Ed

Then the sh!tstorm started, sometime last week…Thank you, Alma, for waking me up to it!  Really!  Nice picture there, mind – I asked the author for a high-res copy, but he didn’t oblige.

Seldom, in the history of science fiction publishing, can so much have been written, in such a short time, about so little.

Really: the piece is only 973 words long; just this one blog and its associated comments must be triple that!

Damn, complaints even made it into the actual Nature: see two letters in the latest issue , here and here!!

I was utterly dumbfounded: to read those highly charged comments and frequently vicious personal attacks on me, was to see a reflection of a person I certainly don’t know looking back at me – and one that is also utterly unrecognizable to anyone who knows me.  Worse, a few of them found it necessary to pity my wife, who was misguided enough to comment on the Nature site, for being married to a prat like me.

My son then alerted me to #womanspace on Twitter – and was horrified by what he found there, because that wasn’t the father HE knew.

Then they started attacking me where I work…now, I did NOT give any affiliation whatsoever in this piece, nor in my other Futures contribution – yet people started writing to my Head of Department, telling him to discipline me!

I especially liked this one:

“I admit I don’t know much about your institution, but I am dismayed to find that you will keep on staff such blatant sexists as Prof. Rybicki. It may be that he produces exceptional work or is an excellent funding recruiter, but views such as his are an impediment to science by discouraging would-be scientists to enter technical fields. …
I know his piece in Nature was intended as satire, but this is the same kind of humor that’s found in jokes that begin “I’m not racist, but…” It perpetuates the bias that makes it so hard for people like me to do my job. It perpetuates known myths that gender plays a role in our abilities or predispositions.
I urge you to have an earnest chat with Prof. Rybicki. Perhaps you feel that his other work speaks for itself, but I would point out that I’d never heard of Prof. Rybicki before now, and that my only knowledge of your institution is in the framework of his piece in Nature. He may think his piece was published in fun, or in an attempt to raise an eyebrow or two, but certainly this type of work is only damaging the reputation of your institution.” [my emphasis]

Let me get this straight: pointing out IN A WORK OF FICTION that women have superhuman abilities, and that most men are bozos, perpetuates a bias that makes it hard for this person to do their job?? While I sympathise with her situation, harassing me at work for something FICTIONAL I wrote in my personal capacity comes perilously close to bullying and abuse – not to mention cyberstalking.

For many of the other responders, who condemned me out of hand for daring to put a woman in the kitchen, and inept men in a supermarket – I will point you to the second paragraph of this blog.  I have also made an analogy of which I am quite proud, to a respondent to this blog.

Imagine that the phrase “There I was, sitting on a stool, enjoying a beer…” is savaged by critics, for being chairist (why wasn’t he/she using a chair??) or winist (what’s he/she got against wine??).  What sorts of implicit assumptions are on display here – those of the author, or those of the critic?

I will make no other comment on the blogosphere storm – other than to quote a few positive comments to the original story:

“Duncan Wright said: While concerns about the exclusion or marginalisation of women, or indeed any other demographic, are legitimate and should not be trivialised, those concerns have no place here. I fully defend both Ed’s writing of, and Henry’s selection of this story for publication. It is readily apparent that the Futures section is one of fiction, distinct from the peer-reviewed research articles published elsewhere in Nature. To anyone unable to make this distinction, full professor or not, I would suggest they have more pressing problems than imagined sexism. Futures publishes fiction from a wide demographic, on myriad themes from diverse viewpoints. I myself am unable to relate to the main character as he muses on speaking to his absent significant female other, as I am also unable to relate to absorbing the memories of others, being blacklisted for being human, or being a Malay country singer, all aspects of stories recently published in Futures. When we demand that works of fiction are inoffensive to all, we find ourselves on very dangerous ground.” [my emphases]

And:

“Yasu Min said: Obviously, there are many people who take life far too seriously. I, for one, am a university student, a woman, and am in no means any good with the domestic parts of life. I found this to be hilarious and a nice spot of fun. The author has clearly stated he wasn’t being sexist, so I don’t understand why you have to accuse him of such things. It’s not like analysing a piece of work from a hundred years back, by an author that is deceased, and being unable to find out what was truly meant by it. He’s alive and well and it was written for a bit of fun. My mum has always been able to find things that I, or the rest of my family, could not. She’s a professor at university, holds a Ph.D, has published loads of things in her field and she finds this to be most entertaining.  So she’s both a domestic queen and is also well educated in scientific matters.
So, my opinion is to get off your high horses and stop taking such things to heart. It’s just a bit of fun and I enjoyed it very much, made my morning just a bit better.” [my emphasis]

And:

“Ceci Bee said: Goodness. I just created an account for the sole purpose of giving a modicum of positive feedback; I have to admit it, but I feel sorry for the author (and not just because I’m a woman!). I read this because a friend linked to it with a decidedly negative comment. We are both females with backgrounds in science (life sciences, in particular), but I found it funny. While I respect the arguments that question this story’s placement in a scholarly journal, I believe this is part of a general push to include more light content in even the most serious publications to appeal to a wider range of readers, as well as a cultural “loosening-up,” if you will, regarding strict adherence to seriousness in certain scholarly and scientific settings. Whether these are beneficial is debatable, but that is not the current debate.
If the author was unintentionally reinforcing negative stereotypes about women, he was reinforcing a similar number of equally negative ones about men. Are they clueless when it comes to shopping for clothing, particularly for the opposite gender (which apparently is a market women have cornered)? Should I conclude that men do not pay attention at all while shopping, since they are selfishly considering their next electronic purchase or their supremely important business venture while their virtuous and self-sacrificing wives knowingly consider the needs of the entire family? Do men have such problems locating items that it takes a woman to fix their hopeless wandering and set them on the right track? I should say not; we are all simply humans with our own strengths and weaknesses. While a reader could draw those before-mentioned ridiculous conclusions, I doubt maligning any particular gender was on his agenda. [exactly!!] Not all stereotypes are so emotionally charged that they cannot be used to generate humor, but every joke will find a detractor. If you want to accuse him of insensitivity, call it naivete. I will grudgingly admit that some of the offenses against women in science were recent enough that it is not entirely preposterous to not assume that people will automatically recognize that the notion of a male intending to publicly and seriously insult females’ capabilities in the name of science is unlikely in a scholarly forum.” [my emphases]

And finally:

“Peter Welch said: I would look forward to an article on Humorlessspace, in which ostensibly educated people project their personal issues inward and they mysteriously show up as righteous rambling on websites.”

Amen to that – oops, just insulted devout people! Ah, be damned to that, I’m an atheist meself…. Thank you all for seeing that I did not set out to offend, and for not being offended!

In closing:

WOMANSPACE. IS. JUST. A. STORY.
For which I got paid, incidentally, which puts me one up on nearly all other Nature authors.

It does NOT reflect my personal views of women and gender.

It has NOTHING WHATEVER to do with my professional life.

Thank you.

PS: And thanks to Peter Welch, who phrases it much better than I ever could.

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About Ed Rybicki

Ed is a 60-ish virologist and biotechnologist, formerly a Zambian and presently a South African. He is into family, virology, biotechnology, science in general, science fiction in particular, photography, red wine, wearing loud shirts, 70s rock, blues and smooth jazz...and telling stories. Sometimes, interesting ones. And writing for his own amusement.
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19 Responses to Tale of a Story

  1. Arielle says:

    Hi Dr Rybicki, I am very relieved to learn from this post that this was written with no intent to harm, which I believed from the start.
    Please let me tell you what I thought about your story. Stereotypes, even positive, are harmful. The difficulty in overcoming stereotype threat (the unconscious stereotypes we associate to other people and ourselves, and the unconscious efforts we make to fit them) is recognized. Let me give you an example related to the stereotype you have presented: in a science lab context, a non-formal event is organized. Guess who is solicited first for the cooking / buying ? Guess who feels more compelled to offer help ? Women of course, because they are better at it than men, or so they are thought to be. This is why anti-gender discrimination manuals in academia fields strongly advise to not use stereotypes, even in jokes. And this is why I was very surprised to see you , an academic, reinforcing a stereotype. My guess is that you were just unaware of all this.

    There was a sentence though where I felt offended, the one mentioning ‘your female significant other’. I immediately felt like I was an anomaly in your vision of the Nature public. I would have felt less offended if , from the start, you had mentioned that this story is addressed only to straight married men. But you didn’t. The sentence is set as a rhetorical question where the natural and expected answer is ‘yes, I had the experience to talk to my female significant other’. Answering no seem unexpected and ‘out of the ordinary’ (while probably the majority of Nature’s readers does not have a female significant other), and I felt that in your eyes I would not normally belong to the academic world. Can I ask you : did you think the audience is all straight married male ? Or did you forget about the ‘other’ people ? If not can you explain me why did you write this ? Again, I am sure this was done without intend to harm, but I am curious to know how this could happen in your mind.

    You say it is just a story, and that it does not reflect your personal views (why publish something that you don’t believe in is another story), but when a respected scientist publishes something in an important journal, this gives a lot of credit to the theories/ideas presented. I am sure you could publish your edited blog post in Nature to set straight that you do not believe in these theories, and that you are aware that the public of Nature is more than married men
    Regards

  2. Ed Rybicki says:

    Hi Arielle:
    I think I live and work in a very feminised environment: you know what would happen in the “Guess who is solicited first for the cooking / buying” scenario in our work situation? Someone would get punched. Solidly. We just don’t WORK like that! Which explains to some extent how I could think I could write something like “Womanspace”: because everyone around me is confident enough in their own identity to be able to see the fun in it, and not the denigrating gender stereotypes that seem to be the prevalent impression from outside.

    Seriously, my environment is one where women have no problem in being appointed, becoming senior, or achieving – whether married and with families, or not. VERY unusual for a developing country, possibly, but hey, we have possibly the most liberal constitution in the world, and certain rights and expectations are entrenched in our national and especially our institutional employment and advancement policies.

    As for “Have you never had the experience of talking to your significant female other…”: well, the story is about the ability of women (or, as an acquaintance pointed out to me recently, certain men) to access other universes – so it refers to the experience of men (or, possibly, women) observing their partners accessing other universes. It is not necessarily aimed at “straight men”; recall that this is a short piece, and there was simply not the option of exploring ALL permutations of relationships in order to get the point across.

    Because it IS just a story.

  3. Ed Rybicki says:

    PS: “why publish something that you don’t believe in is another story” – no, it’s just that science fiction allows one to explore EVERYTHING, including what you don’t believe in.

    • Anthony says:

      Perhaps I should approach this in a different way.

      Science fiction explores those things that cause us to question our values, morals and understanding of the universe. In some respects, you’ve done that quite successfully, which should obvious from the feedback you’ve received. However, the vehicle you’ve chosen to explore it in was the equivalent of driving a Hummer to a green party convention. You might be able to get away with it if you parked far from the show, but driving up to the front door of the convention centre makes it a bit more conspicuous. (eg, publishing it in nature) Still, you showed up, even if the message is somewhat mixed.

      Regardless, shrouding an interesting science fiction tale with stereotypes that are actively being used to discriminate against people (in any context) just leaves a bad taste in my mouth – which is unfortunate, because the concept is interesting (some people access different dimensions to perform every day tasks), but the execution (women use it to get by with every day tasks) left much to be desired, in my humble opinion.

      I love good science fiction, good writing and interesting scenarios, even when I disagree with them, but I’ll stand with the people who say this one touched a raw nerve – even if it was unintentional.

      • Ed Rybicki says:

        Sure! Thank you for a reasoned response.
        Now: go read George RR Martin’s “Ice and Fire” series, and tell me about the stereotypes therein? Is he using them as part of the overall message, or just as necessary props in what is in essence a saga of a mythological feudal society? So is he sexist, or is he just depicting a sexist society?

      • akismet-4fba290485400a2edc25b28b1ed6f9cb says:

        Hi Ed,

        Thanks for the reply above. Yes, I have read GRRM’s books – at least a few of them. And the fact that you’ve brought up GRRM in this context suggests to me that you’ve failed to understand my point: If you want to investigate a particular issue in science fiction, you should remove it from the context in which it’s controversial, and place it against a backdrop in which you can investigate those issues without stomping all over people’s pre-conceived notions.

        That, in a nutshell, is exactly what you’ve failed to do.

        Besides, if you’re comparing yourself to GRRM, you have a long way to go – he created a world in which those problems existed in order to explore them. (He does have strong women characters who rebel against the stereotypes, as well as men who fail to live up to the expectations of the society. Do we need a full book review here?)

        In contrast, you simply reiterated a stereotype and then provided a device by which that stereotype operates.

      • Ed Rybicki says:

        Not sure you can dismiss GRRM so glibly – or my point.
        So no, I obviously don’t get it – I’m what my old faith would have called “invincibly ignorant”.
        At least we get to go to Limbo, and not to Hell B-)

      • akismet-4fba290485400a2edc25b28b1ed6f9cb says:

        Your point, on it’s face, is simply that because others treat gender stereotypes in one way, you should be able to do the same. Am I correct?

        If so, then you’ve failed to understand that the reason GRRM and others can do so without the same level of harsh criticism is because they’ve taken those issues and placed them in other contexts away from the real world battle ground in which they are currently entrenched (ie, the point of science fiction), diffusing much of the tension around the gender stereotypes. A component of Science Fiction that you’ve completely failed to engage in your story.

        Do you really not see the difference between exploring otherwise sensitive topics in the real world and in imaginary worlds?

        Let me give you an example: Have you read the books in the series starting with “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card? In it, he discusses the issues of guilt felt by Ender for exterminating a race with which he was at war. I’m fully capable of understanding the torment the character and his remorse and regret. In contrast, I would not be willing to sit through a book which glorifies a genocidal dictator on Earth in the same way.

        By removing the issue to another world and another setting, Card is able to explore deep issues in a novel way. By completely skipping that step in your story, you’ve failed to make use of the most important aspect of science fiction: the ability to create an alternate universe and explore it. Instead, I’m left with the nagging feeling that you might actually believe that this story has some element of real world applicability – just the same as an apologist for a genocidal murder would be suspected of sympathy with the murderer just the same – while I doubt Orson Scott Card really does sympathize with genocidal murderers.

        it’s an extreme example, but perhaps you’ll see my point.

      • Ed Rybicki says:

        I think it’s a little convenient to say that transplanting something from its context means you can then explore any contentious thing you want to. I would have hoped people were a little more robust than that.

  4. mbeisen says:

    I am by no means a hairtrigger PC-policeman, and think that humor plays a useful place in disarming stereotypes of all sorts. But when I read this story, the only vibe I got out of it was one of tired gender stereotypes, recycled in an effort at humor. The reason people got so offended about this is that in the circles where most of us travel, the whole “women know how to shop while men are clueless” is not just inaccurate, it’s beyond trite – restricted to the realm of lazy standup comedians, our hopelessly out of touch grandparents, and people like Jim Watson who are trying to be sexist jerks. It’s just something we don’t expect to see from a respectable scientist in control of his senses. I assumed in the first place – and I take you and all your friends at your word – that you weren’t trying to be offensive. But I’m astonished at your steadfast refusal to learn anything from people’s responses. Your retort to “it’s a work of fiction” is belied by your own statements on the Nature site that everything short of the alternative worlds (which wasn’t the thing that pissed everyone off anyone) was true. And it doesn’t really matter anyway. Offensive stories that are fictional are still offensive. (And, what difference does it matter how long your piece was? I can be vilely offensive in one word, let alone 973).

    So I want to ask you a few questions. Do you really think everyone who responded poorly to this piece – including me – are off their rockers? Does nothing that all the people who have commented on this piece – most, I should add, rather intelligently – ring true to you? I’ve pissed people on the internet off before, but I actually felt like I learned a lot from this experience. Have you learned anything from this?

    • Ed Rybicki says:

      Hi Michael:
      How am I to learn from the responses? So many of them are so derogatory, that there is nothing to learn, except that people in the blogosphere are obviously willing to say anything about anyone, with only the slightest provocation.
      What are the things that pissed people off? Woman in the kitchen…explained in my blog, and that WAS a scene-setter rather than a statement of where women should be. It’s like starting a story with “I was sitting on a stool, drinking a beer”, and having people lambast you for being chairist and winist.
      Different abilities of men and women: SO misinterpreted by some as to be laughable; however, some basis for concern there – given the kind of work environment conditions described by many (which horrify me, BTW – our environment is not like those).
      The science: the story is not long enough to describe the science, no more than “the neutrino drive” is explained in the average SF story. SO to criticise the scientific method described is also laughable.
      So – no, you are not off your rockers – but nor are the folk that liked it. I AM reasonably elderly compared to many of the respondents (amazing number of PhD students out there who seem to have time to blog); I have read a LOT of SF, and I am into dark humour, satire, irony and sarcasm – and tried to share a little of what had been an interesting discussion between a few friends of like mind.
      I have learned to not do that again – at least, not in Nature.

      • Think about it from the perspective of a woman in science who has, undoubtedly experienced overt sexism from their male colleagues many times over, and feels (entirely accurately) that the systems of authority in the field (hiring and tenure committees, grant reviews, journals, etc…) make things harder for them because of myriad conscious and unconscious biases about inherent differences between men and women. I’m sure if they had come upon your piece on your blog or somewhere like that they would have been equally turned off by its content, but they might have let it slide as just another annoying example of senior male colleagues highlighting – or really celebrating – gender differences. But this wasn’t on your blog – IT WAS IN FREAKING NATURE – which, for better or worse (I saw worse), is one of the prime gatekeepers of success in this field. By publishing a piece whose central premise is that men and women are different in mysterious, yet inherent, ways Nature was signaling that they do not take these issues seriously. It’s hard to imagine anyone seeing this and not being disheartened. All the more so because the editor who published it seemed (by his comments on the page) to have known it would be offensive and to be disappointed not to have gotten a stronger response. And he has immense power to affect peoples’ careers in science.

        Yes, I know it was fiction – and in a part of the journal that isn’t taken as seriously as the rest. But in some ways I think that’s worse. Rather than viewing fiction as shielded from the real world, I think most people view fiction as a place where raw, unmediated sentiments come to the fore. And I think the same is true for Nature – they are likely very careful about what they say in the editorials and news sections of the journal – indeed they often editorialize and report on these issues in good and strong ways. But the fact that this slid through unnoticed in the Futures section clearly demonstrates to me that the problems of sex bias in science are lurking and powerful at Nature.

      • Ed Rybicki says:

        Michael: just possibly, then, in the case where a woman has NOT “…experienced overt sexism from their male colleagues many times over”, then they would NOT “…feel[s](entirely accurately) that the systems of authority in the field (hiring and tenure committees, grant reviews, journals, etc…) make things harder for them because of myriad conscious and unconscious biases about inherent differences between men and women” – would you admit that their response might be simple amusement?

        You make a mistake if you think that is EVERY woman’s experience – and weird as it may seem, it is NOT the experience of many people around me.

        Which is why I wrote what I did, because my personal experience is of strong women who don’t seem to have too much of a problem getting ahead.

      • Karl says:

        You do a remarkable job of missing Michael’s (mbeisen’s) points, Mr. Rybicki. “in the circles where most of us travel, the whole ‘women know how to shop …yadda yadda yadda.

        Fly, little electrons, fly!

  5. Ed Rybicki says:

    And folks…that will be IT.
    It’s been. Really. But grant deadlines wait for no person, and my significant other and major collaborator is getting impatient with time spent answering blog queries, when I could be polishing an NIH grant application.
    SO don’t bother posting any more comments to this, because they will become wasted electrons at the touch of a finger.
    And I won’t post any more songs to #womanspace.

  6. Pingback: Sexually dimorphic behaviour in human shopping | Ed Rybicki's Blog

  7. Karl says:

    “You posted my comment, but edited it to amuse yourself”.

    Yes, and here I go again…B-) Sorry, you make it so easy!

  8. Pingback: Dr Isis gets outed. I get hits. Life goes on. | Ed Rybicki's Blog

  9. Pingback: Recognising Sexism: Boobs to ‘Broteomics’ | STEM Women

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