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Something else entirely

I was going to write something about National Novel Writing Month and how I’m tweaking the rules this year to get some of the mass enthusiasm without any of the nervous breakdown, but. I saw this instead, and am too angry about it to write about anything else.

Nature, one of the premier scientific journals, regularly publishes science fiction stories, which I think is fantastic. A number of authors I respect have featured in it, and I’d like to do so myself one day.

But this story? Not at all pleasing. “Womanspace,” by Ed Rybicki, was intended as a tongue-in-cheek mostly-true anecdote about two inept middle-aged men (as stated by the author, himself one of those men). That would be fine with me. I know plenty of inept men, and quite a few of them are covered for by incredibly competent women.

Where Rybicki goes wrong is extrapolating from his single data point to ALL men, and particularly ALL women. Men are hunters, you see, and women are gatherers, and as such women have miraculous shopping powers which extend to retrieving goods from parallel universes that men can’t access.

The story buys into stereotypical ideas in other ways: the two men are busily discussing plans for a technical book while the protagonist’s wife cooks dinner. She recalls a domestic purchase that she hadn’t had time to make, and sends the men off to do it. So the woman is in charge of cooking and shopping, except on special occasions where it’s necessary to send the men out for something even though they’re doing something important? The shop staff are of course female as well, as necessary to his point.

Just as aggravating, the story made the open assumption that everyone reading such a prestigious journal would be male, and would have a wife at home.

I’m willing to give Rybecki the benefit of the doubt here. He and his friend and his wife had a funny anecdote, and were all amused, and he wrote it up without thinking too hard about about. After all, middle-aged males in the sciences are often oblivious to issues of stereotype and discrimination regardless of the number of training sessions they’ve sat through. (He says in his comments that some of his best friends are women “my own (better-paid) professional wife thought it was funny,” which doesn’t really help his case but was enough to pass his own personal filters.

But WHAT were the editors thinking? I expect more thought from the editorial staff, and that’s where I place the major share of the blame here. It’s 2011, and we’re still dealing with outdated stereotypes about the roles and mental processes of men and women, even here among purportedly-enlightened scientists?

Oh wait. I knew that.