Benevolent Sexism is just Sexist. So Stop It!

A Personal Aside

So this post comes from a conversation I was having with my wife a few weeks back and a recent conversation on social media about a student being called a bitch by an authority figure in public that precipitated this post. An important note for this post is that I will be talking about language and thus will be using language some, hopefully most, may deem offensive in some way. I promise I am using it to make a point, not to delight in vulgarity.

Briefly, as an introduction, my wife notified me that some terminology that had crept into my vocabulary was nothing more than benevolent sexism and part of the problem for women in science. This made me think again and realize that the sexist, scared little child within me was lashing out, and I was cheering it on.

For this I apologize to all women in science. I was wrong and not helping any of the women I consider students, friends, and colleagues. I am now making every effort to follow my own advice given below.

My post is about how we communicate about our peers and students in science. Often times we have a shorthand that is not easily understood except by our closest network and often even then we may be saying things we do not actually mean-or if we do mean the words we used we would likely prefer that they be left unsaid.

To start, I will pose a question raised in my mind from this clip:

So does anyone see the problem with her advocacy of Hillary Clinton in this clip? I didn’t until a week or so ago. The problem is that you need to know the full context and information surrounding why the skit happened to understand that in this case Bitch is meant as a compliment, albeit a left handed one. Unfortunately for Tina Fey and women everywhere, this clip sort of opened the floodgates for men to start referring to anyone they see as a strong woman as a bitch, the same way Chris Rock accidentally allowed caucasians to feel justified in using the word nigger without having the guilt of the word’s historical implications.

Now in regards to the clip, as men we often think we call a woman a bitch as a compliment, but is it really? The type of scientist I admire most is one that is assertive and won’t back down, gets straight to the point rather than dances around it, is highly intelligent, scholarly, and has little patience for their time being wasted. The trite question here is to ask what shorthand would we use to describe these traits, asshole, dickish, bitch, cunt, ballbuster, prick, and so on. I am going to ignore most of these and go for the one I find maximally harmful because we as men say it so often as a compliment, but only rarely do they actually mean it as one.

Why do we feel it is in any way okay to say, I like her because she’s a bitch? Last time I looked that word does not mean what we think it means. It comes with baggage of unreasonableness, moodiness, aggression, and a general dearth of likability. If I sound like I have contradicted myself in is it is because I just did. And not just to make my rhetorical point.

When I said I like this woman in science because she is a bitch, I was being a lying hypocrite: whether I knew it or not. I called her a bitch because I am intimidated by her intelligence and strength FULL STOP. I’m jealous. My word choice did not come from affection but rather hostility. I chose that word to belittle the female scientist, not to build her up or describe her in any meaningful way. If I were honest, I would say I like this female scientist because she is assertive and won’t back down, gets straight to the point rather than dances around it, is highly intelligent, scholarly, and has little patience for her time being wasted. I should also add that I find these traits somewhat intimidating. However, it is because of this reasons I am driven to seek individuals with these traits out as collaborators, they provide attributes that are complementary to mine.

Now am I overreacting? no, I do not think I am. I have seen many cases among those I work with using this type of derogatory language and caught myself doing it. I will never say, “I like working with Steve because he is an unreasonable dick”, so highly would I say, “I like working with Stephanie because she’s a bitch?” I can also clearly recalls numerous situations when I overheard this type of descriptive language being used in public or in professional settings. People laugh and act as if they enjoy the joke, but I would bet most of them are not coming away with positively valenced emotions toward the woman being called a bitch. They will likely be keeping their distance and, even if only in the back of their minds, waiting for any instances of unreasonable behavior. Worse, the woman now has to watch her back because she has potentially lost the support of a number of colleagues because of a poor word choice.

My TL;DR to this post is simple: Do NOT under ANY circumstances use the word Bitch to describe a female scientist. It is a belittling term that needs to go away right now. If you have to explain any background or context for people to understand your meaning as something other than an insult, choose another word. If you have to describe a female scientist, just describe her, describe the attributes you admire as if it were a male colleague. There is no excuse for caging an insult as a compliment to hide your own insecurities.

Men, grow a pair and do the right thing. Treat everyone with equal respect and maybe we can start taking baby steps toward progress.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

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