Monday, December 02, 2013

Is There Such a Thing as "Casual Sexism"?

 I've been noticing many more articles about sexism and the Web.  I'm going to try to string some of these articles together in this thread to raise the issue of why more women and girls aren't in computer science AND why girls may not play as many video games (it might have something to do with the reception at online gaming rooms).

The first article was a story on KUOW about UW and young women in computer science.  One interesting line:

“One of the things that parents tend to do is they’re much more protective of their daughter’s time online,” said Rane Johnson, a principal research director at Microsoft Research Connections. Johnson said parents want to protect their daughters from the unknown dangers of the Internet.

“And so girls are experiencing gaming or the Internet or computer science or programming a lot less than their brothers,” she said.

So first, is that true at your home?  Do you worry more about your daughter online than your son?  

From UW's Ed Lazowska:

“Last year we graduated 28 percent women from this program — it ought to be, let’s say, 50 percent, so it’s half of what it ought to be,” Lazowska said. “The tragic thing is that we’re double the national average.”

He said the trick is to get women in the door.

My older son had been telling me about how aggressive some guys are in gaming chatrooms.  (Gamers love to talk and trade tips and tricks.)  He told me that earlier on in the game world if someone found out a girl was in the "room", it was "OMG, you're a girl.  Do you want to hook up?"  He said it was equivalent of whistling at a girl on the street for his generation.

He thinks there is certainly a level of misogyny going (like a woman suddenly appearing in the man cave during the big football game - it changes everything).  But he believes there is a culture for women to be nice and accommodating, no matter what is being thrown at them.  And, there is the anonymity factor - men can "bravely" and comfortably say every thought that pops into their head.

This has come to the fore with writers like Lindy West (who used to write for The Stranger) who write for the online magazine Jezebel.  She appeared on a talk show to explain a subject she had written about - rape culture in America - as part of a debate over whether comedians should tell rape jokes.   But what ended up happening to her was a volume of comments over the Internet that were rape threats and threats to kill her.  And then there was the customary assessment of her looks. 

She had one column where she talks about a study that was trying to get an idea of how people understood the risks and benefits of nanotechnology but found other surprising results:

Participants were asked to read a blog post containing a balanced discussion of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology ... The text of the post was the same for all participants, but the tone of the comments varied. Sometimes, they were "civil"-e.g., no name calling or flaming. But sometimes they were more like this: "If you don't see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you're an idiot." The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn't a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience . . . Pushing people's emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their pre-existing beliefs.

On Saturday, NPR had an interview with Emily Graslie who has a fantastic science video blog called The Brain Scoop.  (She's called, by Wiki, "an American science communicator" who works at the Field Museum as their "Chief Curiosity Correspondent." ) NPR's Robert Krulwich interviewed Ms. Graslie about the responses she sometimes gets.  They are depressingly familiar. 

Now I get that she's part entertainer and you gotta give the people something to watch.  But many comments are about how to make her hotter or that the guy who works with her on the video is the brains. 

Many of the folks who write her, write not about the science, but about her body, her looks, her clothes, and do so without any apparent embarrassment. She's a science reporter who happens to be a young woman, and her woman-ness is the thing they focus on. The science, to her chagrin, often takes second place.

In her new video, Emily (with help from director and video editor Michael Aranda) gives us samples from her mailbox, She's not mad, not exactly. Instead, she just explains why these matter-of-fact little letter bombs make it harder for her to work, and how they hurt — every single day. And, being Emily, she explains it very well.

So are trolls ruining it for girls and gaming?  Are there larger implications to cyber attacks on girls/women?  Does it make it harder for girls to want to pursue these professions?


Josh Hayes said...

Melissa, there is a HUGE amount of data on this subject, and it's pretty damn unequivocal. The answers to your last questions are yes, yes, and yes.

On the anecdotal level, I can say that my son plays a lot of online games (he's a PC gamer and sneers at those "console kiddies"), and I've heard some of what flies around on the teamspeak channels. It can be pretty vile, although in general it's not sexist, it's just generally awful. The kind of content-laced profanity (yes, I said it that way on purpose) that we've all heard from adolescent boys. The trouble is, most of these players are NOT adolescents. I guess I would have expected twenty-somethings and older to have outgrown such palaver.

So surely, that's a hostile environment for just about anybody - but identify as a female, and hoo boy, I'm sure it'd ramp up something fierce. I don't know why there seems to be such a current of hostility to women, downright phobic, but it is surely there. Like a clubhouse, with no gurls allowed, I guess? And if it WERE just some Calvin and Hobbes-style clubhouse, big deal. But it's more than that: STEM fields in general have a lot of this "clubhouse" mentality.

Most importantly, lack of hostility is NOT the same as equal access. Men in these fields, and indeed, men in general, need to call bullsh*t on this stuff when it happens. Just as we wouldn't stand by when someone is being a racist (we wouldn't, right?), we shouldn't stand by for sexism, casual, blatant, or anything in between. I have a daughter, too, and she's damn good at math and science, and I want her to go where her interests take her, without having to put up with sniggering, sputtering, spittle-flying invective from the troglodytes who can't get over it.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Josh, you put your finger right on the issue.

Too many people, in many kinds of situations, do nothing. They'll say - afterwards -"I don't think like that" or "I wouldn't say that" but what will it take to reel behavior back?

People speaking up. Not getting aggressive but yes, saying "dude that's not cool" or "that is very unkind" or something that acknowledges that the speech/behavior is NOT okay.

Anonymous said...

I came across this article that I think fits in with this idea. We thought GoldieBlox was/is cool but I have to admit after reading this article, it made me rethink it a bit.



Anonymous said...

We have an xbox account that my son set up with a properly male sounding name. My daughter ended up playing Call of Duty and being on the xbox more than anyone else, go figure. At first, she played other players under her brothers account name so they assumed she was a boy. She had a blast and they treated her like a comrade. Well she decided to rename the account to something that suited her and happened to be a clear clue that she was a girl. Even though she told her team that she was the same person, their behavior radically changed. It was truly bizarre.


RosieReader said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RosieReader said...

I read "Growing a Girl" was back in the 90s, before my first daughter as born. The book referenced a study that showed that people spoke to fetuses differently if they believed there was a boy or a girl inside. Since my first was bald for two years, and generally dressed gender-neutrally, I would often tell strangers she was a boy, and my anecdotal experience was that the adjectives they used to describe her were very different than when I said she was a girl. Given that research, and my own experience with my daughter, plus my 53 years living as a woman in this country, I am not at all surprised by what HP's daughter experienced. Saddened. But not surprised.

Anonymous said...

My daughter was one of two girls in a Robotics class of 30 - and the other one dropped out. It is the first class she's had to deal with sexist comments. Teacher has gone out of his way to make her feel included and special - but I can still see how tough it is and how programming is growing on her - her favorite class inspite of the boys club approach.

Anonymous said...


There's an IGNITE program in Seattle... I don't know much about it but have heard good things. Had to google it.

Does anybody know more about it?

--Heard about