Sexism, Skepticism and Civility Online: an Interview with Jennifer Ouellette
Since writing the article (and podcast episode) On Codes Of Conduct: A Brief History of Civility, Inclusivity, Sexism and Skepticism, I’ve received a number of emails about the issues raised and I was even approached several times in person at the SkepTrack Dragon*Con about it. The James Randi Educational Foundation’s "Code Of Conduct" at The Amazing Meeting 9 and the history (or “herstory”?) of women within the skeptical movement were of particular interest to many and I’m glad to say that I’ve been encouraged to continue writing and podcasting on this and related topics.
In that article, I mentioned that “the growing popularity of and opportunities to attend conferences and meetings are clearly influenced by online interactions—our conversations and comments appear worldwide rather than in our hometowns, and civility isn’t just about talking to people who aren’t skeptics or atheists.”
When concerns about the number of women contributing to, attending, and feeling comfortable at skeptical conferences leads to a formal announcement by the most popular skeptical conference in the world, it must come as no surprise that “online podiums” for women soon fall under similar scrutiny. As DJ Grothe put it in the special edition of the 2009 Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, there are "promises and problems" with Skepticism 2.0, and we are not alone in recognizing how attitudes towards women play a significant part in this.
My interest in this topic was initially piqued by a study mentioned by feminist writer and blogger Jessica Valenti back in 2007, entitled How The Web Became A Sexist’s Paradise. Valenti writes, “… Even women who don’t put their pictures or real names online are subject to virtual harassment. A recent study showed that when the gender of an online username appears female, [that individual is] 25 times more likely to experience harassment. The study, conducted by the University of Maryland, found that female user-names averaged 163 threatening and/or sexually explicit messages a day.”
It’s the Internet’s best-known secret: talk to any woman who writes online and there’s a good chance that she has a story about insults, abuse, snide asides, and inappropriate comments that derail and even attempt to censor her efforts to communicate. In 2011, the most well-known case of “trolling” of atheists and skeptics via email and social networking resulted in a real-world arrest (‘David Mabus’ Arrested By Montreal Police Over Online Death Threats, Huffington Post). In November 2011, there are articles worldwide, from the Guardian to Time magazine, documenting Twitter trends demanding recognition of sexism online using the hashtag #MenCallMeThings.
In one of those bemusing cases of synchronicity, on the same day that CSICOP originally published "On Codes of Conduct" in my Curiouser and Curiouser column, a similarly themed article was produced by Jennifer Ouellette on the Scientific American blog Cocktail Party Physics.
Jennifer Ouellette is the author of a number of science books for the general public including The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Outbreak (Penguin, 2010); her work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, New Scientist, and Physics World, among other publications. She is currently working on her fourth book for Penguin, Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self. For two years, Jennifer served as the director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a LA–based initiative of the National Academy of Sciences fostering creative collaborations between industry professionals in Hollywood and scientists.
Kylie Sturgess: In your July article Is It Cold In Here? on the Cocktail Party Physics blog, you’ve written about the chilly climate that women can face in male-dominated environments, with an example of Linda Henneberg, who worked at CERN. How can you tell if there is a “chilly climate”?
Jennifer Ouellette: Well, she talks a lot about subtle behaviors and sometimes not-so-subtle behaviors that made her feel unwelcome, that made her feel like she was not seen as a true part of the team. I think the line that most struck me was not the fact that some of the physicists were flirting with her and treating her with kind of this fatherly condescension but that the attitude was, “Oh, it’s so cute that you try.”
These are very, very small, subtle things and so I know why it’s hard for some people to understand why we are complaining about them. The point that I try to get across in my blog post is that there is a cumulative effect. These little tiny things add up, like little grains of sand can add up and form an avalanche and actually just wipe you out. Collective behavior, with lots of little things acting together in concert, can actually have a very damaging effect.
But to my mind you can tell immediately there’s a chilly climate when you test what happens when you bring these things up. Do people say, “Gosh, we never thought of that; we’ll try to do better so you feel more welcome,” or do they get defensive? Do they start attacking you and telling you you’re crazy?
I think in light of the things I was talking about in that particular blog post, to me that’s a very clear indication that there’s a chilly climate—when a woman cannot set boundaries, cannot say, “I would appreciate it if some of these behaviors didn’t happen. This is how I feel. Can we do something to change this culture to make people like me feel more welcome?”
If the response to that is an invitation to silence, as we would call it—or a sledgehammer to silence—then I think you have a problem.
Sturgess: You also talk about (and this is why I thought the article was so incredibly timely) progress in terms of improving workplace environments for women, and you gave some fantastic suggestions. Do you think that we’re going to see a similar change with online environments, since that’s become of great concern to many skeptical and atheist women? Of course, I think it’s of great concern to many women, but do you think we’re going to have a more focused effort [in skepticism], and do we need to?
Ouellette: Oh, we absolutely need to. I’ve been very heartened by the fact that there seems to be more of a concerted, unified effort by several women. Not just in the skeptic atheist community, not just in the physics community, but all over the Internet: women who are in the public eye, who blog openly, who have been putting up with a level of abuse that I thankfully do not experience except when I write about issues of women and chilly climate! So yes, there has been progress, but it started with women being willing to speak up and show up. When I talked at the end of that blog post about a manifesto for change, it’s not an accident that I said step number one, the absolute first step, is for women to show up, and speak up, and not be silent even though it’s tempting.
I almost didn’t write that blog post because I was angry about the situation. I had just read about Linda Henneberg and her experiences at CERN. I mentioned it to my husband, about how upset I was and how I wanted to write this post. His first reaction was, “Oh God, don’t do that.”
He said, “You’re just going to get so much crap for that. Why do you want to wade into that mess and just invite all that venom and be personally attacked like that?”
I said, “Yes, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to experience any of that. But I also don’t feel that I can be silent, because now I’m censoring myself. Now I’m deliberately not saying something because I don’t want to be attacked. I am choosing to be silent, choosing to be the good girl and know my place.” I think that’s the issue. You really do have to take that first step and show up.
It makes a difference. I can tell you from personal experience. I’ve been involved in covering physics for twenty years now, and I’ve seen the progress that’s been made because male leadership and female leadership and younger men and women in physics starting speaking out and said, “You know what? We’re going to change something about this.” Yes, some of them got attacked. Yes, there were complaints. You had the usual male privilege and the defensiveness that comes with that. I understand nobody likes to have their privilege and their bias pointed out to them.
I have white privilege, and I am not a horrible racist by any means, but sometimes my privilege shows in very subtle, subconscious ways. When it’s pointed out to me, my first reaction is to get defensive. The key here for the men in the community, now since we’re talking about this particular kind of chilly climate, is to get past that defensiveness. [We need to say,] “I’m sure you’re a nice guy, and just because we’re saying that there’s a lot of nasty people out there does not mean that we are saying that you are like that too. We are asking you to stand with us and speak out against them.”
So I would like to see those two things happen. I think when you see those two things happen more and more—and I think that is happening—you start to see the seeds of change being sown.
Sturgess: Similar to your experience in physics, I found that I dealt with people who were harassing me or confronting me both online and in person. Talking to friends and learning that I was not alone gave me confidence and made me realize that it wasn’t something completely wrong with me, that these people weren’t targeting me because I was deserving of all of the criticism—that in fact there were bigger issues at hand. That reflection really helped. Do you think that there is a best approach when it comes to online sexism? I mean, I found help by talking it out. Does censoring the very worst help —or does it risk ignoring the existence of opposing or different voices altogether? Is there a middle ground?
Ouellette: You know, I’m not really an advocate of censorship, but let’s be clear here. There’s lots of places for people to spew their venom on the Internet, and not allowing it on a professional website or on your personal blog post or anything like that is not censorship. This has been debated for a very long time, since the advent of the blogosphere essentially. You actually do not have a right to spew your venom in someone’s face in his or her living room. They do not have [an obligation] to listen to you. They do have the right to hang up on you, or to ask you to leave or do any of those things.
I do think I would like to see a little more deleting of some of those comments, and I think most women do delete the worst of it. But there is also a time, and I think that I’ve seen a number of women now over the last month or so starting to save instead of delete the comments and then occasionally putting them up and saying, “Look, you think that we’re just complaining about the occasional rudeness. Here are some examples. This is not safe for work; here is what we get on a daily basis.”
I think you do need that shock value to get people to realize that we’re not just being silly, that some of these things are extremely vile and unacceptable in any kind of civilized forum.
So, I do think there is a middle ground. I think I would like to see more policing of the Internet comments in general, because some men do in fact get abuse. I don’t think it’s as bad as it is for women, and I believe the male bloggers and the male online people who have taken female identities occasionally and said they got it far worse when they were women. I believe that.
But I think [considering] what’s allowed online, it’s okay to start saying, “There are certain things that as a community we will just not accept.” There’s nothing wrong with that; that’s not censorship. It’s not like they can’t go and speak their mind somewhere else, but you don’t have to allow it to poison your community.
Sturgess: When is it engaging someone in a substantive argument and when it is becoming abusive? I’ve had this conversation with many people where they’ve said, “No, no. I’m just giving legitimate criticism.” Then you start looking at the length of this so-called criticism and you start hitting the table with your head! When you feel like you’re getting too drawn in with an argument, do you think there’s a good guideline as to when to stop?
Ouellette: That’s a tough one because we’re talking about matters of degrees. It’s a continuum: things heat up slowly and at what point do you hit that critical threshold where it’s just becoming nasty? Emotions run high when these subjects come up. Look at the comment thread on the Is It Cold In Here? blog post; at some point, I just gave up and stopped responding. It simply wasn’t worth it. Actually I did not delete very many posts either; I went against my own advice and let some of them stand. Given the nature of the post I felt that some of the commenters were in fact proving my point for me. So, eventually, let them hang themselves and leave their comments up there.
I do think that there’s a time to engage and a time not to engage. When you start picking on little tiny points; when you start attacking the character of the person and questioning the person’s motives; when you start doing what are called derailing techniques, [remember that] at some point, [it’s important] to not let it delve into personal attack. Words matter. Make sure that what you’re arguing about is about what’s substantive and not one of these smaller nit-picky things. Sometimes you react strongly to something because your feelings are hurt. Sometimes you’re defensive—nobody likes being called out on something. I certainly don’t! Being mature enough to own up to that is important. Self-knowledge is the key.
I will say that I got a couple of emails from leaders, male leaders, at various skeptic atheist organizations asking for more information about some of the reports that have been done by the National Academy of Sciences on this issue by the American Physical Society.
The skeptic and atheist movements, and I think there’s some question whether they’re the same or different, are getting bigger and more popular. More and more people are joining and more and more women are thinking of joining.
Suddenly they’re experiencing some growing pains; suddenly it’s not just the tight little community. You don’t have the same level. You start getting some of these issues cropping up when you start getting bigger and bigger.
To me, it’s a good sign that some of these conversations are happening, as ugly they can be and as unpleasant they can be. Because as I said, it means that first, the community is growing and secondly, more and more women are willing to speak out about this issue. And that means that those are the seeds of change being sown. So, I do think it’s going to get better as you go.
That is my hope. I’m eternally optimistic.
Sturgess: I’ve got my fingers un-skeptically crossed myself, I have to admit! Thank you, Jennifer.