Field of Science

Hey, Nature--the 1950s wants its sexist prose back

"Oh, Beaver! I LOVE to shop!"
Maybe it's because they're middle aged. That can't be it, though, because I am, and I know better. My husband is, and he knows better. Maybe it's because they like Jethro Tull. Anyone who likes Jethro Tull is immediately, profoundly suspect in my book, so I'm going to go with that as the explanation for the wildly sexist bullshit that turned up in September 2011 in Nature, ironically entitled "Womanspace." NATURE. And the year is correct: TWO-THOUSAND-AND-ELEVEN. Not 1951, but TWO-THOUSAND-AND-ELEVEN.

The author, Ed Rybicki, purports to compare the shopping styles of men and women. Thanks to passages like the one below, I was transported back to a time when men were men, women were women, and Hugh Hefner had just published the first issue of his groundbreaking new magazine, Playboy, which men like these read only for the articles. Rybicki writes:
At this point I must digress, and mention, for those who are not aware, the profound differences in strategy between Men Going Shopping and Women Going Shopping. In any general shopping situation, men hunt: that is, they go into a complex environment with a few clear objectives, achieve those, and leave. Women, on the other hand, gather: such that any mission to buy just bread and milk could turn into an extended foraging expedition that also snares a to-die-for pair of discounted shoes; a useful new mop; three sorts of new cook-in sauces; and possibly a selection of frozen fish.
Stereotype much? Let me help you gain some clarity: I detest shopping. I hate the grocery store. My least favorite day of the week is Monday, not because it's MONDAY but because it is grocery store day. I purchase clothing about twice a year in 10-minute microbursts of laser-targeted selections, primarily because I so very much hate shopping. I own clothes that date back almost to the era from which this writer appears to hail, because I so very much hate shopping. As a woman, I am not alone in that--about 50% of my sex (warning: more sexism at link), it seems, joins me in the repulsion.

The writer goes on to draw out a strained discretization of women as Gatherers and men as Hunters--perhaps he's not familiar with the fact that some of us are more Neanderthal than others and that Neanderthals didn't do that whole hunter-gatherer thing--and uses it as a springboard for an epiphany about parallel universes. It strains to the point of shatter, but it's along the lines of, "Women have mysterious ways of finding mysterious things in mysterious spaces while shopping, spaces men seem incapable of finding," extrapolated to "Women reside in a parallel universe." He then discusses having consulted other men to "observe such phenomena," collecting their observations about how women shop.

Playboy writing, this is not. Sexist writing, it is.

It goes on:
Women can access parallel universes in order to find things, whether they do it consciously or not. They have probably always been able to do this, and now there is fierce speculation as to whether this constituted the evolutionary advantage we had over other primates: the presence of bulbs, grains and nuts on the table that had been retrieved from parallel universes when the hunters came home empty-handed was probably a major factor in the survival of our species.
"Probably always been able to do this"? While the idea in itself isn't without support--see "Neanderthal lack of division of labor may have contributed to their extinction"--to connect this to some 1950s conception of Women-Shop-Gatherer vs Men-Shop-Hunter is sexist and a metaphorical failure. Has the writer ever been hunting? Far more than gathering, hunting involves finding--and taking--elusive food in places that themselves can be elusive. The parallels posited in this piece aren't parallels. The acts of hunting and gathering intersect in any number of complex ways that defy easy categorization, including division by sex.

Continuing with the "Take my wife...please" banter, the writer states that the difference between women's capacity to find things in a parallel universe in Ye Olden Tymes and our ability to do it today is that today, "they (italics mine) know they can do it." This knowledge, it seems, means "things have changed." I'm a touchy feminist, and when I see men bemoaning that women have become empowered through knowledge, I turn into a somewhat stabby feminist.

The stabbiness became extreme when I reached the penultimate graf of this sexist anachronism:
Because groceries aren't all they go looking for. It turns out the next item on the shopping list is better-looking versions of us.
After reducing women to a stereotyped shopping monolith, cheekily analogizing women's behaviors as a parallel universe (can someone finally kill the astronomic analogies for men vs women, please? This book is almost 20 years old), and expressing fear over the empowerment of women, he now marginalizes women into superficiality, hazarding that given our newfound knowledge, we will exercise it to get rid of ugly men and select "better-looking" versions.

I'd suggest that a rationale other than one based on looks might lead to the selection of a different version of the writer in question. But what I can't understand is, What was Nature thinking?

Further reading
Follow on Twitter: #womanspace
  • Comments on the piece at Nature. Some blithe. Some angry. Some dismissive.
  • A letter to the editor of Nature, "Women: Sexist fiction is alienating," taking issue in much more sober fashion than I with what the piece said and with the effect of countenancing this kind of sexism.
  • And another letter to the editor, "Women: Latent bias harms careers," doing the same.
  • From Janet D. Stemwedel, a member of the Scientific American blog network (a part of the Nature Publishing network), "In which I form a suspicion that I am not Nature's intended audience."
  • Also from a Scientific American blogger, Christie Wilcox, "The Charismatic Misogynist."
  • A letter that appeared in the Nov. 4 issue of AASWomen, addressing Nature's editor-in-chief, nothing that he is not the EIC of Cosmo.
  • A post from Dr. Isis: "What Womanspace really looks like and why Nature can suck it."
  • From Alex Wild at Scientific American: "Nature Publishing Group's New Journal: Womanspace." Now that's tongue in cheek.
  • From Paul Anderson, who points out that the "Womanspace" piece in fact violates Nature's own comment policy.
  • From Stages of Succession: NPG WTF.
  • Anne Jefferson makes the point in her title: "Dear Nature, you got a sexist story, but when you published it, you gave it your stamp of approval and became sexist, too."
  • And the smart Kate Clancy, also blogging at Scientific American (again, part of NPG), invites us to Occupy NPG.
  • Matthew Francis at Galileo's Pendulum has a warning from Galileo himself. 


  1. Sigh. So brilliant. Thank you Emily for saying what I was too frazzled and furious to say myself. More later, but for now, brava!

  2. WTF? This is the first I've seen of this piece, which -- apart from being a sexist throwback to the 1950s -- is little more than fatuously inane tripe passing itself off as quirky wit. Why was it deemed worthy of publication at all? Is Nature that hard up for copy, the editors must resort to publishing drivel?

    I'm sure the author and his friends think he's just hi-LAR-ious. Cue the predictable wringing of the hands and huffing and puffing about how those humorless Feminazis can't take a joke. Why, some of his best friends are women, and THEY think he's funny, so THAT's all right! Best to retreat with wounded dignity, secure in one's smug, self-satisfied complacency.

    Sigh. Give me a break.

  3. I know! The writing is awful. It just makes me think about how my grandparents thought Bob Hope was hysterical when...he wasn't.

  4. I was brought up on 1950s stereotypes - and none of them turned out to be worth spit. Damn. They would have made the world such a simple place to operate in! Heartless, cruel and profoundly unfair, but simple.

    I would really like to see the community Mr. Rybicki lives in. I have never actually visited one of those fabled towns where nuclear families live under large rocks and watches endless repeats of the Lawrence Welk show on black-and-white cathode ray tube TVs. It would be very interesting.

    I hear they have to give up rational thought, learning and emotional development as residency requirements, but they get lots of accordions in return - which for some is a worth-while trade-off.

  5. You are not all women. You definitely are a touchy feminist.

    I'll think of you and make sure to complain the next time I see a TV commercial slamming men.

  6. {Checks to see if Anonymous counters anything I've already said. Nope.}

    I don't like sexism of any kind. I love men, but I don't think they're all the same and would never write as though they are. I also don't tolerate male bashing. So, I'd love it if you'd think of me the next time you see a TV commercial slamming men. Mwah.

  7. I find outdated stereotypes of men equally insulting and distasteful as well. EG, the short-lived cable series "Manswers," or "The Man Show," both of which presented men as belching, beer-guzzling Neanderthals incapable of deeper thought or feeling. So yes, Anonymous, please think of me, too. I will be outraged with you in solidarity.

  8. "I love men, but I don't think they're all the same and would never write as though they are."

    Don't you think scientific generalization, when appropriate, is worthy, even when it would be about differences between men and women? (I'm not thereby saying anything about the article in question.)

  9. I'm not going to generalize in my response to that; I'll have to be specific. In some cases, yes, generalization can be useful and often close to comprehensive. For example, it's reasonable to say that "Men tend to have penises." But that's not always the case; there are exceptions. It's useful to say that the gonads of the two sexes, when typical, produce different hormones. But, for example, to then extrapolate that to say that this basic general difference results in discrete sex-based behaviors like hunting vs gathering in shopping, that would be over-generalizing.

    As for specific individual men, I not only do not think that they are the same, but I also know that they are not. Many factors come into play, including the gender of the man in question. Shopping would be way down on the list of what I'd wonder about in men (or anyone else), but I do know men who seem to enjoy shopping as much as I hate it.

  10. And thanks for an interesting question.

  11. Janet Stemwedel also had a stinging response. I was amused by this part:

    If presenting as male in society would mean that someone else would take on responsibility for buying my clothing, I would seriously consider it. Even though I can’t grow facial hair worth a damn.

  12. I think Ed Rybicki comes across as if he is not-so-secretly spiting women after considering divorcing his wife, or perhaps fearing he is about to be left, or both.

  13. @Liz Yes, I'd included Janet's response in the links added at the end of the piece.

    @David...I don't get that from what he wrote. I think he was trying to be funny but accidentally time traveled backwards for this "Future" Nature piece.

  14. Is there already in Nature the typical answer kinda "hey, lighten up, show some sense of humour, etc." or have they decided to have some decency and say "sorry" or something like that? I'm afraid to go and take a look, that's why I'm asking. Now, I beg your pardon, I gotta go to my ab-shaper session at the local observatory, so next time we talk about twin stars instability in the presence of nearby massive gravity fields, female colleagues can get some added sexist fun.

    Nature, cut the crap, please.


  16. What is a "shoping" experience?

  17. Ah, I see Kanazawa is an editorial consultant for that journal and that the author of the "shoping" paper is on the editorial board.

  18. I have a confession: I love Jethro Tull. I've even seen them live.

    Phew. Now that I have that off my chest, you are my hero.

  19. Ha! That made me laugh out loud. Hmm. Everyone's got their own ideas about music, right? ;)

    Can we just be mutually heroic to each other? 'Cause I love what you do.

  20. Is it time to petition Nature for an apology?

  21. It gets worse.

    Read this:

    Have a vomit bowl ready.

    And this, by the Futures editor himself, Henry Gee:

    You'll need two vomit bowls.


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