I’m a scientist who’s also a cartoonist. So I’ve got a pretty keen interest in scholarship and empirical research on humor. And I want to talk about research and sexist jokes, and where that leads. It’s a response to a narrative about the Tim Hunt situation that goes something like this:
It was just a joke. An unfortunate turn of phrase. It’s not that big a deal. He’s a nice guy who’s nice to many women – he didn’t mean to belittle anybody. It’s not demeaning if you don’t intend it to be. He’s eminent as well as nice, so give him a break. Lighten up. What has the world come to? Over the top social media firestorms are a worse threat than thoughtless remarks. Academic freedom/democracy is at stake.
I’ll start with research on the seriousness of humor and follow that thread through to the potential for effectively reducing sexism. I’m not going to talk about professional comedy. That’s a whole other kettle of fish.
Science is dominated by a narrow slice of the world’s demographics. It’s tough for “outgroups” to gain and maintain a foothold and respect.
Humor can be used to create a quick bridge between people. But it can also reinforce outgroups’ otherness and relatively marginal social status.
Disparagement humor (e.g., racist or sexist humor) is humor that denigrates, belittles, or maligns an individual or social group…[P]eople have become less willing to allow joke tellers “moral amnesty” for their derision of social out-groups through humor.
Sexist and other discriminatory disparaging humor takes a code for granted: its funniness relies on people recognizing the stereotypes that are the basis for the joke. It asks us to not take discriminatory stereotyping seriously. That’s not going to take the sting out of it.
Ford and Ferguson concluded that jokes don’t create hostility to the outgroup where it doesn’t already exist. But the evidence, they said, showed that joking reinforces existing prejudice. If you joke about women and get away with it, those who are hostile to women will see this as social sanction for their views and behavior. The joke tellers don’t themselves have to be actively misogynist to end up encouraging others to be.
Sexist humor’s impact may also reduce people’s willingness to take action against discrimination. Take for example this randomized controlled trial of men recruited via Mechanical Turk, published by Ford and colleagues in 2013 [PDF]. Men who were already high in hostile sexism were less likely to express support for actions that would improve gender equality after hearing sexist rather than neutral jokes. Even if that only meant they were more willing “to show their hand”, it’s not reassuring.
A joke communicates something about the teller, and what they think is acceptable. If you haven’t listened to what Tim Hunt said on the day after the remarks that set this off (reported in detail by Deborah Blum), it’s worth listening to the two tapes here to get his take at the time.
[Update] On 18 July, The Times published a tape provided to them by another journalist who was at the lunch, Natalia Demina. It is a snippet of part of his remarks: Hunt included a statement with a very sincere wish that women not be harmed “by monsters like me”, that received a warm response. I’m sad that a person who clearly wishes women scientists well, nevertheless put a likable face on sexism.
The parts of his statements on the BBC tapes that portray women as difficult in the scientific workplace because of gender characteristics are sexist, as is calling young women scientists “girls”. That’s not dependent at all on whether the statement is a joke or not. If it’s not said with malice, then it’s just less hostile: but it’s still sexist.
When Hunt spoke/joked of the benefit of all-male labs, he was not hypothesizing some comic universe. There are all-male labs – and most labs are headed by men (including the ones at the Crick where Hunt wound up a lab in 2010).
Speaking of the Crick brings us to the issue of what role eminence plays. Should it mean you get more of a pass than someone else?
According to work by Jason Sheltzer and Joan Smith, elite male scientists may be even less likely than other men to employ women in biology labs. Anything that reinforces the message from their peers that this is in any way desirable isn’t going to help.
Sexist remarks and jokes form one of the constellation of factors that make up workplace gender harassment, mapped out by Emily Leskinen and Lilia Cortina with a group of experts in 2014. A 2010 systematic review and meta-analysis by Sandy Hershcovis and Julian Barling found that the higher the status of a person who is harassing, the worse the damage. That seems to me to be relevant to the public sphere as well.
Beneath the words “it’s just a joke” lies the implication that sexist talk itself is not really serious. That trivializes the burden of incivility and disrespect. Workplace incivility is psychologically stressful and forms part of the climate that allows discrimination against individuals to flourish (see Yang and colleagues’ 2014 systematic review).
A Nature editorial about Hunt’s remarks said that in science, “discrimination against women runs deep” in our psyches across gender lines. When it comes to everyday sexism, Janet Swim and colleagues suggest that people may not be able to see it clearly, though: “Perhaps people do not define themselves as sexist and conclude that the beliefs must not be sexist because they endorse them”. They found men hold sexist beliefs more often than women – and don’t experience sexism directed at themselves very often.
Socialization as women complicates sexist jokes, too. It’s not just that we may find humor in different sources, as Jennifer Hay points out [PDF]. But if women don’t laugh at men’s jokes, we’re told we don’t have a sense of humor.
Not being able to take a joke is also at the heart of the “just a joke” narrative. And it seems to me to be coded, too. To not laugh at a sexist joke, or to confront it, brings with it the risk of being branded a humorless or overly sensitive feminist…
There’s societal pressure after all, to be liked – and to be, well, ladylike, isn’t there? To be “a good sport” – even when people are insulting our gender: let’s not take the whole gender equality thing too seriously, right?
Saying women are somehow overdoing it in demanding gender equality and respect is itself a manifestation of modern sexism (see Susan Fiske and Michael North [PDF]). Asking women to lighten up about sexism, is really another round of sexist behavior, whether it’s intended to be or not. And increasingly, women who were concerned about the attitudes revealed have been targeted. (See postscripts and my later post, The Outrage Factor – Then and Now.)
Julia Becker and colleagues point to the need for “seeing the unseen” – understanding what everyday sexism really is. That’s not enough, though, to change sexist behavior – that requires empathy, as well. Gender bias awareness training has had some success in academic environments, including the WAGES program (studies summarized by Becker) and a cluster randomized trial reported recently by Molly Carnes and colleagues.
We need to make it safe to confront sexist behavior, though, especially when it’s coming from powerful and influential people: it hasn’t looked all that safe during the Hunt incident. Several authors in this field also write that we need to appreciate the benefits confronting everyday sexism can bring, like increased confidence. We confront sexist behavior far less often than we would like to think we do – maybe only half the time (some researchers peg it as even less often). Melanie Ayres and her colleagues show that young women’s willingness to confront everyday sexism depends partly on individual factors, and partly on the situation.
There are big differences in people’s willingness to take risks though, and that comes into play here. Taking this kind of risk with people in power in the workplace is one of the standard ways people’s relationship to risk is measured. Ayres argues that calling out jokes may be easier than calling out other sexist behavior. Perhaps it’s essential for gaining the confidence to tackle behavior that’s harder to confront.
The first step, though, is realizing that disparaging sexist remarks are in no way less serious in the form of a joke.
The second, it seems to me, is a societal problem. Yes, there’s a lot we can do to dismantle everyday sexism as individuals. But we can’t just expect people to take potentially serious risks with their careers, one by vulnerable one. We need better support for when they do. We need collective action, too, to enable social change. The internet and digital communication are unleashing torrents of sexist and misogynist ugliness on a scale we’ve never seen before. It’s also enabling a new wave of feminism though, writes Rebecca Solnit:
…building arguments comment by comment, challenging, testing, reinforcing and circulating the longer arguments in blogs, essays and reports. It’s like a barn-building for ideas: innumerable people bring their experiences, insights, analysis, new terms and frameworks.
We need to strengthen “feminists on Twitter”, not revile them. Gender equality is inherently disruptive to those comfortable with the status quo: anything other than almost imperceptible change will be discomfiting to many. We can’t know for sure, of course, what will bring us deep and lasting progress.
But it won’t come from being ladylike.
CODA: On 18 July, The Times published a snippet of a recording of Hunt’s remarks. I added a paragraph to the section with the other two tapes of Hunt speaking about this.
Part 3: A Tim Hunt Timeline: Cutting a Path Through a Tangled Forest (An analysis posted on my personal website on 27 July)
Part 5: The “Un-Calm” After the Tim Hunt Storm (Timeline followup)
[Postscript] For those following the twists and turns of framing of the Tim Hunt debate, this post was published on 22 June – two days before the theory about journalists conspiring to hide that the remarks were framed as a joke launched through the media. In fact, that he was joking had been central to the narrative from the first day.
On 30 June, epidemiologist and statistician Darren Dahly summed up the problem with Tim Hunt’s comments neatly:
For what value of X is the following joke acceptable? “The trouble with group X is that they always [stereotype 1 and 2]. Now seriously…”
[Postscript] On 26 June, the Provost of UCL (University College London), Michael Arthur, reaffirmed UCL’s decision on the incompatibility of Tim Hunt’s honorary post with the University’s commitment to equality and diversity:
An honorary appointment is meant to bring honour both to the person and to the University. Sir Tim has apologised for his remarks, and in no way do they diminish his reputation as a scientist. However, they do contradict the basic values of UCL – even if meant to be taken lightly – and because of that I believe we were right to accept his resignation. Our commitment to gender equality and our support for women in science was and is the ultimate concern.
[Postscript] (23 June 2015): Two excellent posts expand on themes I only touch on here. Suw Charman-Anderson’s post expands on the theme, “With great power comes great responsibility”; Emily Willingham’s on the trouble with calling criticism of Tim Hunt a witch hunt.
Liz Silva posted a poignant symbol on Twitter: the Crick Institute’s failure to acknowledge Rosalind Franklin. It’s worth pointing out here that despite its stated commitment to diversity, the 17-member Executive Management Team of the Crick includes only 3 women (none with scientific domains of responsibility).
[Postscript] (24 June 2015): Beginning with a report in The Times, a more pointed round of attack was opened up, this time particularly of the journalists who had reported the original comments. I added a recommendation to listen to the second tape (including the use of the word “girls” for young women scientists, which occurred in that second tape).
That so many feel so strongly that this should have no repercussions is an indicator of how deeply entrenched the tolerance of sexism is in science and society. Tellingly, at the time I wrote this, the comments at The Times singled out the two women journalists, but not the third (a man). And the race (and more) of one of the journalists was explicitly slurred, and allowed through The Times’ moderation (deleted following my complaint).
Correction: Thanks to Jim Woodgett for pointing out I’d misinterpreted a page at the Crick’s website: corrected on 24 June.
[Postscript] (1 July 2015): On 29 June, Uta Frith, chair of The Royal Society’s new Diversity Committee, wrote a most impressive post about the Tim Hunt episode, and their plans to improve diversity at The Royal Society. Not be missed.
Another post me from on research into humor: one on science communication (Wocka! Wocka!)
The “Not a lady” photo is me at work at the NIH. It was taken at our Wikipedia edit-a-thon for Women’s History Month 2015.
[Update on 23 July] Disclosure: I am a (freelance) contributor at MedPage Today, whose global editorial director is Ivan Oransky, one of the journalists involved in reporting Tim Hunt’s remarks.
* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.