‘Just’ Joking? Sexist Talk in Science    cover

‘Just’ Joking? Sexist Talk in Science


Responding to the narrative about the Tim Hunt Situation. 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.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars on 1 review

"Excellent. Well written and supported, and to the point. A friend if mine who works at NASA just told me his new girlfriend was awesome because she went to their Gala and handled the sexist comments about breasts etc. "very well. She's a keeper", he said. Now you understand why he is just a friend." 5 stars by

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Just a Joke

Just a Joke

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 the picture here.

Understanding Outgroups

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.

Acknowledging Stereotypes

In a 2004 review of empirical research, Thomas Ford and Mark Ferguson [PDF] point out:

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.

No Laughing Matter

No Laughing Matter

Image by Hilda Bastian

Another Example

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.

It’s Still Sexist

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. The parts of his statements 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.

Employing Women

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.

Trivializing the Issues

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 to flourish (see Yang and colleagues’ 2014 systematic review).

Resisting Anger

Resisting Anger

Image by Hilda Bastian

A Sense of Humor

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. But if women don’t laugh at men’s jokes, we’re told we don’t have a sense of humor.

Lightening Up

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). 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.

Confronting Bad Behaviors

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.

It’s ‘Just’ Not Funny

It’s ‘Just’ Not Funny


Making a Change

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.

Online Issues

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.


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