Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Blonde Walked into an HPC Article...

I like to keep up on the latest news in high-performance computing (HPC) as much as any other computational scientist, but there are some websites that evidently don't want me as a reader. I don't fit their model of what it means to be a scientist, you see. I read this particularly problematic article and had to check my computer's date function to confirm that it is 2009, despite troubling statements like
Each Opteron core gets its own Cell chip to do its math for it, like the blonde who isn't dating the nerd but the nerd thinks is...
What Jaguar needs is some powerful nerds so its blondes can run code, and it looks like the next generation of machines at the supercomputer center are going to be using the Fermi GPUs.

Really, Turd Biscuit? Is it necessary to insult 50% of the population (because blonde jokes are not about people with light hair, they're about women), and impugn the abilities of accomplished women?

It is so depressing that these types of "jokes" are still an acceptable type of "humor." When I complained about the blonde "jokes" contained in this article on another forum, I was soon accused of being too uptight and having no sense of humor.

I knew when I did it that I was opening myself up to criticism, and I was counting down the minutes before somebody called me a humorless feminist. I did not need to wait long. I gave a short reply to that man, but here's a more in-depth explanation of why I object to these so-called jokes.

First, the stereotype that women use men to do their homework for them is so tired, untrue, and insulting to everyone involved. It's insulting to me and women like me, because it places doubt in people's minds about our abilities -- maybe I manipulated a man to do my work for me, and am actually incompetent! It also provides space in men's minds to think it's actually appropriate to ask whether I got my job because of my husband, upon meeting me for the first time.*

It's insulting to men, too, suggesting that they are so desperate to get women's affections that they will compromise their academic integrity, or so socially inept, that they don't know when they're being taken advantage of. Either way, it's an insulting insinuation.

Second, these types of jokes in a professional setting (and I would classify reporting about a new supercomputer on "one of the world's biggest online tech publications" as a professional setting) serve to remind the targets of the joke that they don't belong in this field. Thanks a lot for letting me know I'm not one of the nerds, for reminding me how different I am from everyone else in HPC, and for reminding me that some people think I'm too stupid to do my own work. That helps bolster my confidence and builds trust between me and my male colleagues.

Finally, humor legitimizes prejudices. Sexist humor acts as a 'releaser' of prejudices, according to a study by Professor Thomas E. Ford of Western Carolina University et al. The presence of sexist humor in a social environment creates an environment where men with sexist beliefs feel free to act upon those beliefs, because they believe that within that environment, sexist behavior is acceptable.

In their experiment, they asked men to imagine that they were members of a workplace. They then had the men read either sexist jokes, neutral jokes, or sexist statements, and subsequently asked them how much they would donate for a women's organization. Ford and his team found that "men with a high level of sexism were less likely to donate to the women's organization after reading sexist jokes, but not after reading either sexist statements or neutral jokes." Similarly, after viewing sexist skits disparaging women, the men allocated larger funding cuts to women's organizations in the hypothetical workplace. The studies show that "humorous disparagement creates the perception of a shared standard of tolerance of discrimination that may guide behavior when people believe others feel the same way."

I'm sure there are people out there who, even after reading this, would accuse me of political correctness. Sure, you may have the right to free speech, but how about tempering that freedom with respect for your fellow human beings? Treating others with respect is not such a huge constraint. Or, if the only way you know how to talk is by using sexist tropes, then you need psychological help.

Please, people, it's not hard to come up with inoffensive metaphors. I can think of so many better ways that he could have expressed his point, that wouldn't be offensive to anyone! What about Dilbert and the pointy-haired boss? That would have expressed the exact same dynamic, minus the antipathy for women. Or a brain and muscles. The brain tells the muscles what to do, and they have to do all the actual heavy lifting! Those are the first two jokes I thought of, in under 30 seconds, and they disparage no one.

* Yes, this happened to me. I should have either asked if he'd gotten his job because of his wife, or told him that I got my job through the powerful stay-at-home-dad cabal, but I was too stunned to think of those replies at the time.


Madeleine said...

That is indeed a disgusting analogy.

Individual commenters on that site might not be interested in your perspective, but I think the editorial staff of the original publication ought to be aware of what they are publishing. Perhaps you could send them your long version.

Jane said...

Ugh, how annoying. Good for you for standing up and commenting---and I second Madeleine's suggestion about sending your thoughts to the editor.

ScienceGirl said...

The * has happened to me also, and I am proud to say I did immediately ask the guy if he got the job because of his wife. It got the point across quite nicely, but I was still fuming for days nonetheless.

PhizzleDizzle said...

Ohhh, goodness, will this NEVER end? It makes me soooo MAD to know how dickish some dudes can be. I know for some of them it's not even on purpose, but then they think that not doing it "on purpose" give them free passes to do things that make toxic environments for women. GAH.