Making It About Gender

Michelle Dean —  Dec 19 2014 @ 12:18pm
by Michelle Dean

The news about humanity is never very good when it comes from Reddit, is it? Today’s contribution comes via an editorial at WIRED. Its authors, Elena Glassman, Neha Narula and Jean Yang, are scientists at MIT. They described the gendered horror show that was their Reddit AMA:

Within an hour, the thread had rocketed to the Reddit front page, with hundreds of thousands of pageviews and more than 4,700 comments. But to our surprise, the most common questions were about why our gender was relevant at all. Some people wondered why we did not simply present ourselves as “computer scientists.” Others questioned if calling attention to gender perpetuated sexism. Yet others felt that we were taking advantage of the fact that we were women to get more attention for our AMA.

The interactions in the AMA itself showed that gender does still matter. Many of the comments and questions illustrated how women are often treated in male-dominated STEM fields. Commenters interacted with us in a way they would not have interacted with men, asking us about our bra sizes, how often we “copy male classmates’ answers,” and even demanding we show our contributions “or GTFO [Get The **** Out]”. One redditor helpfully called out the double standard, saying, “Don’t worry guys – when the male dog groomer did his AMA (where he specifically identified as male), there were also dozens of comments asking why his sex mattered. Oh no, wait, there weren’t.”

“Oh, it’s just Reddit,” you might be saying to yourself. As a seasoned 4chan conspiracy theorist myself –at this point I think “4chan prank” whenever some weird story begins to break, at first even wondering if the whole Sony leak could be a 4chan hoax, if they could have made up the whole document stash – I understand the impulse to brush this sort of thing off as trolling. It is that, and undoubtedly some of these comments come from the sort of pure unmitigated jerkery commonly found in the underbelly of the internet.

But it’s also something else. Because their comments aren’t all that far from ones I have heard myself, said with utter sincerity. Men don’t respond very well, still, to the notion that gender might be relevant. They might be a little meaner about it in anonymous spaces online, but you can see the problem everywhere.

One of the slim, ephemeral benefits of being publicly identifiable as a feminist is that I don’t tend to be in male-dominated or even male-only spaces very often. There is one giant exception to that. Years ago, I spent some time in a journalism school. An admissions fluke had me in a class that was overwhelmingly male. There was one other woman, but she dropped out early.

I knew I was in for it when in a very early class, one of the other students starting waxing philosophic about fact-checking and John D’Agata. And towards the end of this digression, he referred to the magazine The Believer. And then he referred to its editor as “Ben Marcus’s wife.” Full stop.

I’m polite. I’m Canadian. I waited for the discussion to come around to me. I said something like, “You know, her name is Heidi Julavits. I wouldn’t call her Ben Marcus’s wife, if I were you.” I meant it rather benevolently at the time. I was amused.

Now, to be clear, at the time the student registered chagrin. As I recall, he said something like, “Oof, that probably sounded sexist, didn’t it.” It did. There he had it. We moved on.

But the incident hardened into a parable within our small class. Mea culpa: I participated in this hardening by sometimes teasing the other student about his use of the phrase.

The parable didn’t come to be about him, though. It came to be about me, about what I was like, meaning that I was the kind of person who’d insensitively attack a man for making an inadvertently sexist comment. And gradually, the story became a way for the other male students to express their frustrations with my views of the world. I remember very clearly one of them bringing it up – it seemed to come up way too often – months later and saying, “There was nothing wrong with what he said. Ben Marcus is more famous than Heidi Julavits.”

Now, you could be forgiven for not wanting to do the fine filigree work of parsing reputations here. Suffice to say that I don’t think either Marcus or Julavits would be upset if I said that neither of them was particularly famous. I do, actually contend, that even within the kind of meager fame literary circles bestow on writers and editors like them, that Julavits is likely better known. This may only be true because Marcus writes experimental fiction and she is involved with more widely accessible work. (The latter is not an insult in my world.)

But that isn’t the point. The point is it’s odd to classify a woman as someone’s wife, particularly in a professional context, and no, your gut feeling that someone is more famous does not get us away from the problem with the phrase. Even if you didn’t “mean” to be sexist, the identifier “somebody’s wife” is a remnant of sexism. Women take it personally. They should. It was long used as a way to inform women that, as in Rebecca Solnit’s phrase, “This is not their world.”

The tossed off remark was only the spark of the larger problem, though. When I said something that day, and even later when I teased the student, I wasn’t trying to be a warrior for gender justice. I was trying to gently remind a bunch of young men that they, too, should pay attention to the names of women. It was almost friendly professional advice, because it was quite possible that they’d end up pitching stories to her.

Nonetheless, it labelled me as the person in the class who “made things” about gender. It made me the butt of these young men’s jokes. Which eventually had the result of making me angry with most of them, because there are only so many times you can hear from people that your apprehension of reality is incorrect before you start to get angry with them. I realize they might have felt the same way about me. But they outnumbered me at the time. Which they still do, by the way, just about everywhere in journalism that I’d actually like to go.

That’s another way of saying that besides injured feelings, I had history and statistics to be angry about. As do those MIT science professors.