Dr. Emily Grossman (PhD. in Cancer Research) participated in a televised debate on UK Sky News last week about women in STEM subjects. The debate discussed the controversial comment made by Nobel Prize winner Sir Tim Hunt the week before: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry”.
Her participation was subject to misogynist comment on social media in the following days.
The following are some of the comments from under the clip on You Tube. Be aware that the usual content warnings apply. I classify them according to the type of misogynist trope being used.
1.Women are not “real” scientists/professionals. They can only do the “easy” part of any job.
2. She must hate men because she has been sexually assaulted, etc:
3. Women are biologically and/or intellectually incapable of certain professions. They demand special treatment and still complain.
3. Attacks on the women’s race. In this case, antisemitism:
4. The charges of being a “feminazi” and of being “insane”.
5. The invocation of violence and the implication that women should not leave the “kitchen”.
Having read comments of this nature, Dr. Grossman made the following comment on Twitter.
— Dr Emily Grossman (@DrEmilyGrossman) junio 10, 2015
This reference to the sexist nature of the comments she had received has since been questioned by a number of people on social media; most surprising of all, by those who are commenting on the same thread as the examples posted above. Her comment also prompted the person she had debated, Milo Yiannopoulos, to publish an article on 11 June in which he insisted she had invented the harassment received. He displayed his research -done entirely on Twitter- in order to claim that Dr. Grossman was doing women a disservice for making up such allegations as such false claims of misogyny means that this accusation (just like false rape complaints) “lose their power to shock”. Mr. Yiannopoulos apparently did not read the comment thread under the YouTube clip. Or if he did, he appears to see nothing wrong with the comments directed at Dr. Grossman. His understanding appears to be that the qualification of what does or does count as misogynist abuse “comes down to interpretation”. It is our understanding that misogyny has a clear definition: “hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women, or prejudice against women.” Moreover, in both science and general debate, opinion is only valid if based upon well-researched evidence. Here Mr. Yiannopulos is on tricky ground, since his evidence is anything but well-researched. In fact, as the selection of comments I have included above attests, by limiting himself to a Twitter search, he fails to consider all the material at hand. And even if we look exclusively at Twitter, the charge that Dr. Grossman is inventing harassment is quite solidly disproved: The theme of the You Tube comments and these tweets is quite clear: women are not intelligent enough to be “real” scientists and that when they undertake scientific careers their presence necessarily lowers standards. They should desist from attempting to compete with men and return to the kitchen. These comments also meet dictionary definition of misogyny (“hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women, or prejudice against women.”) The careers of women scientists both today and in history demonstrate the fallacy of arguments which claim women are unsuited to science. Thus the insistence with which this idea is expressed, in the face of this evidence, is difficult to attribute to anything but an irrational dislike to women in general. Similarly, the call for women to “return” to the kitchen and not take part in science, or public life in general, is an affirmation of the need to preserve these spaces for men. This again suggests an aversion or prejudice to women as a group.
Why is Mr. Yiannopoulos keen to argue that Dr. Grossman is inventing the misogyny documented here? The answer appears to be that it allows him and various like-minded individuals to continue to berate her for her perceived inability to take part in reasoned, scientific debate. On one hand, they are again playing on sexist stereotypes regarding women’s behaviour. On the other, they are arguing that rational, scientific debate and/or criticism of this debate includes personal attacks and abusive language. Thus, if Dr. Grossman cannot handle herself in such an environment she should not enter it. These ideas certainly appears to be reflected in the reactions on Twitter and You Tube to Dr. Grossman’s tweet and Mr. Yiannapoulos’s blogs:
Moreover, as the comments made in the last fortnight under the You Tube clip attest, hostility can quickly turn into insults and personal attacks. Commenters describe women as “stupid”, “harpies” and “parasites”; they imply that their reasoning is impared (“Are all women mentally unhinged?”); they fantasise about sexually assaulting her (“slapping her with my cock”); and gleefully celebrate the verbal violence they perceive Dr. Grossman to be receiving (she “was raped”; her fellow debater “tore her a new asshole” etc). Finally, there are those who simply opt for the old chesnut, “you are women, shut up”.
At End Online Misogyny our position is clear: the abusive language and misogynist sentiment evidenced here have no place in any type of debate, be it in academia, journalism, popular science, social media or the street. We know that the use of such language is designed to intimidate and frighten the listener into silence. Its aim is to assert ownership of public space by the aggressors with claims of intellectual and emotional superiority. At the same time, it seeks to make the subject of this language doubt themselves and their professional value; to remind them not to get ideas above their “station”; and to accept the superiority of he who shouts the loudest. As a result, we refuse to be intimidated and above all, we refuse to be quiet.
Finally, we note that Mr. Yiannopoulos does not have a high opinion of women, women scientists or feminists in general. In a second article he wrote about his debate with Dr. Grossman, he argues that the reason that women are not better represented in science is because they are more likely to drop out or switch careers. He claims that efforts to encourage women to study science subjects is a feminist project which is doomed to failure because “given every opportunity to choose, women stubbornly refuse to study the subjects feminists would like them to.”
He refers to his debate with Dr. Grossman in an attempt to illustrate his argument. According to Mr. Yiannopoulos, Dr. Grossman’s arguments can be interpreted to mean that “women [in science] need special treatment because they’re fragile delicate wall-flowers who cry a lot”. In his text, he affirms that institutional efforts to encourage women into science are akin to awarding them privileges over men. Thus, in his words, far from facing a glass ceiling, women are on “a crystal escalator”.
If you listen to the interview, it is clear that Dr. Grossman is not actually arguing any such thing.
What she says is that science has historically been seen as been a subject only for men. And as a traditionally all male profession, it is an environment in which women are not always welcomed. As a result, some women may lack the confidence or the support to pursue a career in science.
Hostility to women in science -as in everyday life- is frequently expressed in the form of “jokes“, and both conscious and unconscious bias. It is seen in attitudes which still class science subjects as for “men only”, and in studies which show that men with similar qualifications to women are regularly preferred over them in job applications. Countering this with special measures and support is not giving women an unfair advantage, rather it is an attempt to level the playing field.
As ever, we send our solidarity to Dr. Grossman and all others being targeted with misogyny.
Note: The You Tube comment thread has been edited in the last fortnight and some of the comments we document here in the form of screenshots have since been deleted. We have collated the original shots in an archive on our Pinterest page. These clearly show the comments recorded here were made on the You Tube clip above. You can consult it here.
Update 30 June 2015: The misogyny directed at Dr. Grossman continues. Here is a selection of tweets we found at the weekend: