“Womanspace” by Ed Rybicki is the most appalling thing I have ever read in a scientific journal. When I read the Futures (science fiction) piece you published on 29 September 2011, about how the hero and a man friend were unable to cope with a simple errand and how that led them to discover the existence of parallel universe inhabited by women that naturally endowed women with their domestic prowess, but which women were too dumb to observe until the great men of science made their discovery, I checked to make make sure I was still on nature.com. To my dismay, I was.
The story hearkens back to the “good old” sexist days when men did important things (like write books about virology) and women did unimportant things (like keep their families fed and clothed); when men couldn’t be bothered to be useful around the house and even when women did manage to get science degrees they were better employed as cooks and errand runners. The writer makes the explicit assumption that all of his (and, thus Nature’s) readers are male and have a “significant female other” who helps with their shopping. The story uses a cliched trope that women have an alternate reality, but then adds the extra punch that we aren’t even smart or observant enough to know it. As a woman scientist reading this article, it seems in every way designed to make me feel othered and excluded from the scientific academy.
It’s one thing to write a not-very-funny witty story full of sexism and gender stereotypes, but it’s a completely different thing to publish it with the stamp of approval of one of the world’s leading scientific publications. Maybe the writer is really privileged and clueless enough not to have intended this as an effort to put women in their place, but it’s not plausible that the Nature editorial staff were blind to the way this piece would be perceived. Besides, the evidence suggests that both the writer and Nature’s Futures editor were fully aware that they were courting controversy and perhaps were even doing so intentionally. When the piece was published, the author tweeted “I WILL catch flak for this” and four days later Henry Gee (who claims to be the editor of this section) commented: “I’m amazed we haven’t had any outraged comments about this story.” The outrage did come, and the majority of comments posted on Nature’s website have been highly critical. This week, Nature published two of the comments as correspondence in their current issue, which is how this story caught my attention. I don’t want to read fiction in my scientific journals, but I do pay attention to letters with titles of “Women: Sexist fiction is alienating” and “Women: Latent bias harms careers.”
So far I have seen no other response from Nature Publishing Group, on what in my opinion is an atrocious decision to give a broader platform to the author’s sexist views. The Careers section of Nature routinely has articles about the challenges faced by women scientists, maybe now they can write an expose on their own organization? Better yet, Nature should print an apology for the piece and seriously review their practice of approving Futures articles for publication.
University of North Carolina at Charlotte