In my mini-review of The Amazing Meeting 8 I mentioned that there were two very dark spots in an otherwise amazing (sometimes the word just fits) weekend.
I was not ready to discuss these in detail, but when I stumbled over this blog post by Blag Hag Jen McCreight, I felt that at least one should be discussed and I would like to do so through the filter of one of the best talks of the weekend, given by Massimo Pigliucci.
McCreight addresses the question of sexism, saying:
The one annoying thing I saw was the perpetuation of the Sexy vs. Smart binary in talks.
I saw none of this in talks. She gives two examples: Michael Shermer’s talk included a Los Angeles County Fair commercial from a series which has been shown for several years now.
This series is meant to portray a stereotype of geography, not the attractiveness (or the gender; they could have easily used the dumb surfer boy image) of the actors. I can understand this getting past much of the audience. Those of us who live in southern California and have seen the entire series likely take it for granted.
That said, the video seemed to have little to do with the rest of his talk and seemed a bit too “look at these dumb people”; I cringed myself when I saw it. So this is probably worthy of discussion, but I do not think it is a strong example of associating appearance with intelligence.
McCreight also accuses SkepDoc Harriet Hall of sexism:
Whenever she mentioned Jenny McCarthy in her talk as an example of someone saying something stupid (which Jenny McCarthy certainly does often), she would include a picture of her bending over in a bikini or some other scantily clad outfit. Why was this effective? Why not use a photo of Jenny McCarthy in a suit?
Why is it sexist for Harriet Hall to show Jenny McCarthy, a former model and Playboy bunny, in a swimsuit rather than something more modest? If McCarthy were, say, a cashier by trade, the image of her in a cashier’s smock would have been just as appropriate, no?
The purpose of the images was to show that frightened parents will favor the message of someone entirely unqualified to give medical advice over their MD. McCarthy is qualified to have her picture taken and did so “scantily clad” for years.
McCreight also repeated something central to her own talk (which I am not ready to review in its entirety):
The stereotype goes that women can sexy/attractive/beautiful and stupid/ditsy/unscientific, or they can be smart/witty/scientific and frumpy/plain/ugly. This myth annoys the hell out of me, especially because it’s so common.
This is where I put on my “Massimo” glasses and discuss expertise.
Media stereotypes are not “myths”. In fact, they do not necessarily reflect what individuals in society actually believe. These definitions are important, especially when one’s argument relies on them. When you make statements about one thing (media portrayals), but you are really talking about something else (behaviors and attitudes), you need to prepared to cite sources which clearly show that these are interchangeable; the distinction matters.
The truth is that attractive persons are more likely to be associated with an occupation that is held in high regard, including scientist, than less attractive persons. That’s the halo effect. It is very well-established in the psychological literature and not limited to men or even human beings.
Some of the points Jen made are valid criticisms, but the valid criticisms are overshadowed by vague, uninformed statements. Many of the points rely on whether her general claims of “this is what people think” are accurate. She does not cite sources which show that she knows “what people think”, nor is her background in psychology or a related field, which might provide some evidence of expertise in this area.
“I’ve seen it” is not evidence, something a young scientist in training (and many older, experienced ones) must constantly remind themselves in order to overcome our brain’s desire to think that it is.
McCreight defended TAM organizers by repeating a statement made many times by Jeff Wagg about speakers at TAM7:
Last year, 8 women were invited to speak at TAM. 2 said yes. 1 of those women had to cancel.
I have never heard Jeff compare this with the number of men who were invited and how many of those accepted or canceled. Without that comparison, this information tells us nothing.
Frankly, however, I care much more about the quality of the speakers than their gender, but given the number of high-quality speakers available who are women and the ratio seen at other events, the lopsidedness at TAM in past years was a bit disturbing. I thought they did a great job all around this year and didn’t need to be defended.
I thought the sex workshop was on Sunday…
Regarding the “Feminism & Skepticism Workshop”, although I am not the person she quoted, I was sitting directly behind McCreight and walked out when “Angry Vagina Craft Time” was announced.
My take? There are three criteria which should have been met for a topic or activity to be included in this workshop:
- It is a feminism issue.
- It is a skepticism issue.
- The discussion is well-researched and well reasoned.
Although there were definitely some good points, much of what was discussed prior to “Angry Vagina Craft Time” failed to meet one or more of these criteria, especially #3.
Asking people to make vaginas (term used loosely) out of felt and googlie eyes did not make me uncomfortable, but infantilizing women’s genitalia and calling it “light humor” made me a bit angry – yes, I had an angry vagina. And an angry jaw. It could have made many women very uncomfortable, yet it served no purpose that I could see short of a “fuck you” to those who have criticized the workshop’s organizers in the past for such things.
I left because I had seen enough.
Overall, in regard to sexism at TAM8, I thought this year was a huge improvement over last. I attribute this largely to a different mix of attendees. I really wish that friends who were turned off by the culture last year could have experienced it. Perhaps they would see the community differently.
To sum up my experiences and in answer to McCreight’s questions: There were exactly two times during the weekend when I was offended. That workshop was one of them. Ironic, isn’t it?