When Feminists Are Gaslit

Sometimes it’s death by a thousand cuts

By Tara Haelle

A brief Twitterstorm took off in the science writing community last Thursday that I had inadvertently caused – but had to miss because of multiple family and work obligations. But the reasons that led me to accidentally trigger that storm are, I think, as important as the discussion that ensued.

The cloudburst centered on a guest post at the SciAm blog Curious Wavefunction about Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s response to the “Larry Summer’s question” – the evidently still confusing question of why there are fewer women in science. (In a speech at Harvard, economist and professor Larry Summers implied that fewer women and minorities were in STEM fields due more to differences in innate abilities than to discrimination.)   Of course, the premise of that question is itself unstable: There are plenty of women in science, but they don’t tend to get as high on the food chain as men and aren’t as represented in some disciplines as in others.

"Gaslighting" comes from the 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman in which a woman is manipulated by her husband into doubting his or her own reality. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

“Gaslighting” comes from the 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman in which a woman is manipulated by her husband into doubting his or her own reality. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Still, the blog post attempts to justify Summers’ response, arguing, “the latest research suggests that discrimination has a weaker impact than people might think, and that innate sex differences explain quite a lot.” The author suggests that women’s aptitude draws them into more of the “social sciences” rather than the physical sciences. Of course, all this mansplaining, sourced with Wikipedia and a documentary, has been debunked time and again, with actual research, and a skim of the comments reveals how little of this nonsense is part of the consensus in psychology. (ETA: Scientific American blogs editor Curtis Brainard has responded to last week’s criticism here.)

But it was not the repetition of that problematic question on women in the sciences that set me off—it was how I reacted to this blogged response to it that lingers and disturbs.

Before coming across the SciAm post, I had posted on Facebook an awesome Verizon commercial, aptly showing how little slights throughout childhood dissuade girls from pursuing science. The commercial is damn near perfect: It doesn’t take much, building up over time, for girls to get the message that science isn’t what they “do.” After I posted it, it garnered plenty of likes but no comments until late that evening. Someone I’d recently friended but never met posted the comment below (which he has since deleted but I have saved via emailed comment replies from Facebook):  Screen shot 2014-06-26 at 7.36.14 PMHe wrote, “This video implies that discouragement causes women to less often choose engineering in college. Could it be that they simply tend to prefer other majors?”

I rolled my eyes and sighed. It was 2 am, and I didn’t know this person in real life, so I wasn’t sure how much feminist educating the situation required or whether it was worth it. Then I remembered the Neil DeGrasse Tyson video. Perfect! No need to say anything at all! I could just post the link for that video, featuring Tyson so eloquently conveying how ridiculous it is to resort to the “they just don’t prefer the sciences” explanation in the midst of all the gender and racial bias that exists.

Off to Google I went. I don’t remember my search terms now, but the video was the second link listed. The first was the Curious Wavefunction SciAm blog post. Cool, I thought – perhaps a SciAm blogger has already discussed the social science research revealing how utterly absurd and sexist this whole “maybe they just choose something different” BS is. Perhaps a link to this post would be better than the video.

Clearly, I was wrong.

I read the post in the wee hours of the morning, with each paragraph sucking more of the wind out of my sails. For too brief a moment, I was angry. Then I was frustrated. Then I was confused. Then I was uncertain. I don’t have much of a background in evolutionary psychology. I am an appropriately skeptical journalist who is adept at critically reading science pieces, and I saw red flags all over the place in this post. But it was late at night and I was tired and lacked the foundational knowledge to really assess the validity of several of his points. I certainly didn’t have the knowledge to debunk it proficiently. I probably felt like many non-scientist parents do when trying to process scientific studies.

Deflated, I didn’t post the Neil DeGrasse Tyson video as I planned. After all, what if the commenter went off and found this SciAm blog post I had found and posted it in response? What would I say then? (Yes, that thought actually crossed my mind.) I considered commenting, “That’s a lovely little myth ignorant misogynists tell themselves to avoid recognizing their own privilege.” But then, what if he had a point? What if I simply wasn’t up on the research? It was almost 3 am by then, and I was headed to bed, doubting myself. Doubting what I thought I knew about the subtle but powerful forces that keep more women out of the sciences. Maybe I was wrong. I wasn’t sure.

I woke up and discovered late that morning a friend to whom I’d PM’d the link just before I crashed had tweeted the link out. Other women on Twitter whom I also admire tweeted to ask why this kind of crap was allowed on the Scientific American blog network. Women with expertise in these fields pointed out that the post was unfactual and its points had been debunked repeatedly. It wasn’t until long after the furor had died down that I had a chance to review the tweets and feel reassured that everything I knew about women in the sciences was pretty much what I thought it was, not what this blog post threatened it might be.

The term "gaslighting" has come to mean a form of psychological abuse in which a person is led to doubt his or her own experience. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The term “gaslighting” has come to mean a form of psychological abuse in which a person is led to doubt his or her own experience. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

My doubts from the night before had finally evaporated, but their existence had been real. They were planted by that post. That Curious Wavefunction blog post had gaslit me. Yet – I’m an assertive, outspoken, confident, educated feminist. I can be blunt when discussing or debating privilege, discrimination, and misogyny. I regularly call out male privilege and mansplaining, whether it’s directed at me or others. I had even just returned a week earlier from a conference focused explicitly on issues of women in science writing.

But that wasn’t enough. Despite my assertiveness, despite my confidence, despite everything I know about being a woman and a feminist, this one post made me question something I already knew. It made me wonder if the inequality of women in the sciences really had some evolutionary or biological basis rather than the blatantly obvious factors associated with gender bias and discrimination.

Imagine, if you will, then, how such a post might affect a high-school or junior high girl, or even an undergrad or grad student who stumbles across it, perhaps looking for the same DeGrasse Tyson video I was searching for. If I, with my surety and pugnacity and familiarity with these very pitfalls of feminism and womanhood, could be gaslit by an authoritative-seeming post on a respected outlet but chockfull of BS, what would happen to someone more vulnerable?

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Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle, health editor of DoubleXScience, is a photographer, former high school teacher, current adjunct journalism professor (Bradley University), aspiring children's book writer, avid scuba diver, former triathlete, sometimes yogi, and eternally curious journalist who primarily specializes in health and science reporting. She was once a world traveler, eating strange insects, climbing ancient ruins and swimming with sharks, but that was before she became a mom (though she knows those days beckon again soon). She also blogs about health and science for parents at Red Wine & Apple Sauce and is a senior editor of mental health at dailyRx News. She is most passionate about reporting on vaccines, marine biology, mental health, parenting and prenatal and children's health, but she also dreams of a day when she can revamp the entire U.S. educational system to improve reading instruction and science literacy.

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