Saturday, June 28, 2014

Dear Kate Question on Feminism and Responding to Offensive Comments - Part II

Every month, the GWAMIT Mentoring committee runs an advice column named after Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.

This week, the column was not written by one of the GWAMIT Mentors as usual, but by Kelley Adams at the Violence Prevention and Response office at MIT Medical. To reduce the length, the question is addressed in two parts linked below. This is part II; part I can be found here.

The tragedy in Santa Barbara California has sparked a nationwide debate on misogyny, male privilege, and feminism. This in addition to the White House's recent task force on sexual assault on college campuses has resulted in a greater and broader conversation of these topics in our personal and professional spaces. My question is how to address peers and friends when they make statements that are casually misogynistic/insensitive without being labeled as a (forgive me) "feminazi"? All of my female friends have examples of such behavior from close friends who would defend them to the death if personally hurt by a man but say things like "well when women smile when they are saying no, they're really just saying try harder" or "well what about men's rights?" or "women falsely accuse men of rape all the time"? I don't want to attack my friends but I am uncomfortable just standing by. Any thoughts or tips on how to navigate these conversations without negative repercussions?

YesAllWomen (face this concern)

This section, part II of the response to your question will address specific strategies for responding to offensive or misogynistic comments, regardless of the speaker’s intention. 

One response to the critical analysis of terms like “feminazi” is that they’re just words; they don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, especially when it comes to violence prevention. Contrary to this view, violence against women (as well as other genders) occurs because it is tolerated in our culture. Without rehashing the discussion of rape culture in Part I, the things that contribute to the continued tolerance of violence include low conviction rates (only 3% of rapists go to jail), hostility towards survivors when they attempt to report, and blaming victims for their own assaults, just to name a few. All of these things may seem unrelated to offensive or insensitive jokes or comments, but language is powerful; regardless of intent, the more rape jokes that are told and laughed at, the more trivialized rape becomes and the safer rapists feel in their environments.

Historically, we have tried to prevent rape by telling women how not to become victims, which does not work since rape only happens when rapists decide to rape. Current best practices in sexual violence prevention involve the use of an active bystander approach. Being an active bystander can include saying something (alone, with friends, or getting someone else to do it) when a situation doesn’t look right, or making sure a friend who has had too much to drink gets home safe.

All of the following suggestions are based on some assumptions: that the person who made the comment is someone you can approach and speak with, and that they do not have significant power over you in some capacity (i.e. can’t fire you, won’t react violently, etc.). If one of these is not true for your situation, get in touch with someone you trust on campus to talk about it and problem-solve together (MIT resources listed at the end).

In situations where it is safe to do so, I suggest that people speak up when someone makes a comment that is offensive, insensitive and/or misogynistic because it is important to communicate disagreement. How many times have you been in a situation where someone says something offensive and the group’s reaction is to just look at each other, ignore it, and/or change the topic? These types of reactions are forms of passive tolerance. Plus, there is often someone else around who is just as offended by what was said as you are.


General strategies for responding to offensive or misogynistic comments:

1)      Be curious: Ask the person to expand on what they meant by the comment, ask them what prompted it (i.e. what made you think of that?), and/or ask them where that belief comes from.

2)      Cultivate empathy: When someone says something insensitive or hurtful about a group of people, this is a good indicator that they likely have never considered what it might be like to be a part of that group. You can ask the person how they would feel if they belonged to that group and heard that comment, or if they would make the same comment about someone they know personally who is part of that group (a common example is to ask people who blame victims for their assaults to consider how they might feel if some they care about were assaulted).

3)      Call it like you see it: If you are comfortable doing so, don’t hesitate to label a comment (not the person making it) “insensitive” or “misogynistic”, with the caveat that using the word  “misogynistic” tends to result in you having to do some basic education on gender and feminism before you can even discuss the offending comment.

4)      Educate: Often misogynistic comments are based on misinformation, stereotypes, and are factually incorrect. Arm yourself with knowledge, and be prepared to talk about what you know. This is a great way to engage with someone and lessen the chances that they will react in a defensive way so that you can have a conversation about the topic. Most people are reasonable, want to be good people, and are willing to at least discuss their beliefs.


Building on these general concepts, here are some talking points for each of the comments you listed as examples in your question:

1.      "Well when women smile when they are saying no, they're really just saying try harder."
·         You might want to ask something like, “What makes you think that?” or “How do you know?”, and then raise the question of why it is that body language is perceived as more credible than verbal communication.

·         In this specific example, you might want to talk about the socialization of women as compared to the socialization of men - women tend to be socialized to be nice, not to upset anyone, and to take care of others - could it be that a woman smiling while saying no is trying to convey that message in a polite way or trying to let the person down easy? Not to mention, living in a world where women are harassed and hurt on a daily basis, wouldn’t it make sense that a refusal given to someone who could potentially hurt you would be conveyed as gently as possible?

2.      "Well what about men's rights?"

·         Feminism advocates for equal rights and opportunities for everyone, and in doing so works to address the harms that traditional forms of masculinity and femininity cause people of all genders.

·         Men's rights activists (MRAs) are another thing altogether; this is a group that feels wronged by women as a group and espouses misogyny under the guise of protecting men's rights (for example, see this discussion of the gunman at UCSB and his interest in MRAs).

·         Furthermore, talking about issues that are specific to women (or predominantly experienced by or disproportionately affect women) is in no way asserting that issues affecting men are less important. Because the social structures that enable sexual assault against women to occur are the same that enable sexual and other types of violence against all genders to occur, the aim is to change these core structures. We need everyone involved to be able to do that in a way that is beneficial on a societal level, so prioritizing the rights of one group over another is counterproductive in reaching this goal.

3.      "Women falsely accuse men of rape all the time." 
·         I am so glad that you mentioned this, because I hear it constantly. Despite popular belief, this statement is empirically false. False reports of rape occur at the same rate as false reports of other major crimes, despite the fact that there was a “study” that came out a while back claiming that almost half of reported rapes are false accusations. This inaccurate finding and the study it came from have been reviewed and determined to be shoddy science.



Unfortunately, violence and beliefs that foster it are prevalent throughout our society and culture at all levels. This is expressed verbally through comments at the individual level, displayed through abuse and mistreatment within relationships and friendships, and evidenced by the lack of services for male victims of sexual violence, for example. The good news is that we have the ability to change this, and we can start to work on this monumental task by talking about it.



References and further reading:

Atherton-Zeman, B. (2012, Jul 17). “’Nice Guys’ Contribute to Rape Culture.” Ms. Magazine. Retrieved from: http://msmagazine.com/blog/2012/07/17/nice-guys-contribute-to-rape-culture/

Futrelle, D. We Hunted The Mammoth: the New Misogyny, Tracked and Mocked.

Moseley, W. & R. Gomes. (2013, Feb 4). “Ten Things to End Rape Culture.” The Nation. Retrieved from http://www.thenation.com/article/172643/ten-things-end-rape-culture#

Ridgeway,S. (2014, Mar 10). “25 Everyday Examples of Rape Culture.” Everyday Feminism. Retrieved from: http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/03/examples-of-rape-culture/

Starling, P. (2009 Oct 8). “Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a Guy’s Guide to Approaching Strange Women without Being Maced.” Retrieved from: http://kateharding.net/2009/10/08/guest-blogger-starling-schrodinger%E2%80%99s-rapist-or-a-guy%E2%80%99s-guide-to-approaching-strange-women-without-being-maced/

Stotzer R. L. (2009). Violence against transgender people: a review of United States data. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14, 170–179.


For a list of MIT Resources, go to http://sexualmisconduct.mit.edu/resources-assistance

Despite “sexual misconduct” being in the URL, all of these resources also assist with other issues. If you reach out to one and they feel that another resource could be of better service, they will connect you. 

Dear Kate Question on Feminism and Responding to Offensive Comments - Part I


Every month, the GWAMIT Mentoring committee runs an advice column named after Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.

This week, the column was not written by one of the GWAMIT Mentors as usual, but by Kelley Adams at the Violence Prevention and Response office at MIT Medical. To reduce the length, the question is addressed in two parts linked below. This is part I; part II can be found here.


The tragedy in Santa Barbara California has sparked a nationwide debate on misogyny, male privilege, and feminism. This in addition to the White House's recent task force on sexual assault on college campuses has resulted in a greater and broader conversation of these topics in our personal and professional spaces. My question is how to address peers and friends when they make statements that are casually misogynistic/insensitive without being labeled as a (forgive me) "feminazi"? All of my female friends have examples of such behavior from close friends who would defend them to the death if personally hurt by a man but say things like "well when women smile when they are saying no, they're really just saying try harder" or "well what about men's rights?" or "women falsely accuse men of rape all the time"? I don't want to attack my friends but I am uncomfortable just standing by. Any thoughts or tips on how to navigate these conversations without negative repercussions?

YesAllWomen (face this concern)


Dear YesAllWomen,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and timely question. I will address it in two parts: part I covers feminism (below), and being labeled a “feminazi; and part II will cover specific suggestions for responding to insensitive and/or misogynistic comments.


Sexual assault on college campuses is getting a lot of national attention as an issue right now, and you are absolutely correct in linking this and other types of violence with societal structures of privilege, power and gender. The gunman in the recent UCSB shooting made this connection painfully clear as the media uncovered his videos and  “manifesto,” both of which reek of misogyny and entitlement. Those who commit these kinds of violent acts are often written off as crazy or mentally ill (and often this is true), but, perhaps more importantly, they show us what our society’s current beliefs and norms look like in their most extreme form.

In addition to a long history of tolerated violence and systematized oppression in this country, the variety of messages we as cultural beings and consumers are exposed to create an environment where violence is tolerated. This is what is known as “rape culture.” Rape culture is a concept used to identify problematic ideas and norms in a broader context so they can be altered in order to make our society a safer place. Often this is misperceived as a way of infringing on free speech rights.

To understand rape culture better, first we need to understand that it’s not necessarily a society or group of people that outwardly promotes rape (although it could be).
We’re talking about cultural that excuse or otherwise tolerate sexual violence.
We’re talking about the way that we collectively think about rape.
More often than not, it’s situations in which sexual assault, rape, and general violence are ignored, trivialized, normalized, or made into jokes. [Shannon Ridgeway]

The comments you cite in your questions are examples of rape culture. You mention that such comments may not be intended to offend or cause harm, but it is important to note that the impact of these comments is the same, regardless of intention, and furthermore, they reinforce the existing climate that tolerates violence.

Feminism historically has -- and likely will continue to have -- negative connotations. Many have attempted to distance themselves from the word “feminism” (see: every utterance of “I’m not a feminist, but…”) not because of the ideals that feminism advocates for, but because of the negative stereotypes that have come to characterize it. In reality, being a feminist means that you don’t believe one’s gender identity (or race, or disability status, or sexual orientation, etc.) should determine their rights and opportunities. Notice the goal of feminism is equality, and not taking away men’s rights as men’s rights activists (MRAs) assert (warning: this links to misogynistic content).

Sexual violence affects all people, but disproportionately so with regard to gender. Around half of transgender people have experienced sexual violence (see Stotzer, 2009 for a review), sexual violence against women is very prevalent (one in five women in college experience attempted or completed rape –not including other forms of sexual assault), and the vast majority of perpetrators are men. This is not to say that only or all men are perpetrators, or that men are not sexually assaulted (one in six men are sexually abused before the age of eighteen), or that violence against men is not important. The goal is to eliminate all forms of violence by altering the social, cultural and institutional structures that condone it.

Returning to your question, I think you are justified in worrying about being shut down if you speak up against misogynistic comments, and calling someone a “feminazi” is a relatively common way of doing this. As Lesley Kinzel puts it, “feminazi” is: “a term designed to belittle and dismiss those who would criticize or even just advocate in favor of thinking harder about underrepresented perspectives and experiences.”

Furthermore, “feminazi” is a term that equates the desire for gender equality with torture and mass genocide, specifically the murder of more than 11 million people. Just think about that comparison for a second.

Generally, information and knowledge are the best tools for responding to comments that are insensitive or bigoted. Try not to get caught up in trying to convince the other person that what you have to say is not “just feminist ranting”; recognize “feminazi” and other such comments for what they are, and continue with what you want to say.  Remember that while you can’t get everyone to see things from your perspective, saying something may result in a seed being planted that opens the person up to change at a later date.

In conclusion, I want to commend you for being willing to say something when you hear these types of comments, as actions like these are what change social norms and move us that much closer to eliminating elements of our culture that foster sexual violence.

Most importantly, give yourself credit for speaking up for what you believe in.

Part II will address strategies for responding to offensive or misogynistic comments and has further resources. It can be found here.



Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dear Kate - May 2014 Edition

The namesake of this advice column is Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.
Dear Kate,

I'm a female PhD student. During my research work, I feel a bit different when working with a female or a male. With women colleagues (graduate students or post-docs), I seem to feel more comfortable discussing with them and asking for help. But when talking to men, I seem not dare to ask for more help or have deep discussions. I (slightly) hesitate to ask my male colleagues for help because I don't want people to feel I'm taking advantage of men, also it is a bit weird for me. When discussing with men, if there is a question jumping out of my mind, I hesitate to ask because I think it may be my own slow response or lack of knowledge.
I think there may be some psychological reasons from me. How can I overcome this barrier? How can I feel equally comfortable working (and talking, socializing, etc.) with male as with female?

Thanks a lot!

Female PhD


When I was an undergraduate at an engineering program, the ratio of men to women in most of my classes was around 8:1 or worse. This made me feel pretty awkward at first because I was a shy person anyway, and felt even shyer as one of those few women who “dared” to take engineering classes among all the men. I wondered, what must they be thinking about me sitting there, sticking out like a sore thumb? (It doesn’t help that I’m tall, and at 18, I wasn’t yet comfortable with my height!)

I worried about this in the case of my male professors, too, but I didn’t yet have proof that anyone doubted my capabilities. Then I started my sophomore year and sat down in a class with 6 women and 56 men. I know the numbers because the professor pointed them out and then proceeded to make a jaw-droppingly crude, sexist joke at the expense of me and the other five women. I won’t repeat it here, but you can be assured I will never forget it.

This event forced me to make a decision. I could let this professor’s attitude get to me and despair that my engineering career would be forever marred by derision from men. I could have shrunk back from the challenge. But I didn’t, and instead took what I consider to be a very simple, yet realistic viewpoint: There are some mean, insensitive people in the world. You are going to come across those mean people once in awhile, but they are the exception, not the rule. And if someone, for example, makes an awful joke at your expense, it’s not fair to label the group that person belongs to as a group that will never respect you. That professor didn’t make the joke because he’s a male engineering professor and all male engineering professors are like that. He made it because he’s a jerk, and some people are just jerks.

If you don’t speak up and risk getting hurt, you’ll never give people a chance to respect your work and treat you as an equal in the first place. You also noted that you worry about people thinking you’re taking advantage of men when you ask them for help. Try to frame the situation as one in which you can promote equality and respect across all divides, gender and otherwise. Maintaining a gender divide because you don’t want to be taken the wrong way serves only to perpetuate the divide for yourself and others. Crossing the divide allows both parties to benefit, and the only way to do it is to put yourself out there and practice, practice, practice!

I want to emphasize the importance of a support system, in this and all the situations you will encounter as a student and a professional. The hesitation you feel is partly a product of the gender issues in our society, but I also believe that most individuals are fundamentally nice, kind people. Identify who those kind people are in your network so that they can help you deal with the unkind ones.

Kate H. 
Kate H. did her graduate studies at MIT has been an instructor here for the last three years.
Thank you to this month's Dear Kate student contributor and to Kate H.! If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of Kates (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here. We are always looking for more questions for our Kates to answer! 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dear Kate - March and April 2014 edition



The namesake of this advice column is Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.


Dear Kate,
MIT is an amazing place -- so full of opportunities and so encouragement that I can't imagine having picked any other university to go to grad school. Over the last couple of weeks I've received a number of emails from my department admin (and others around MIT) advertising an abundance of fellowship/scholarship opportunities, but I have I begun to struggle with some deeper philosophical questions regarding the appropriateness of gender-specific awards. Of the last 10 in my inbox that went out to wider mailing lists, 8 were only available for women... now I understand the importance of helping elevate and empower women in academia but it felt to me that these types of gender-exclusive scholarships really should have less and less of a place in higher education. The US already boasts more women in higher education than men and the real challenge lies in the drop-off between grad school and postdoc/faculty. In that sense, wouldn't it be better to channel these opportunities at bridging that gap rather than enriching the intelligent women who already attend? Have we gone too far? How will we know when we've done enough and need to focus on a different location in the pipeline?
Equality Emily

Dear Equality Emily,

I’m glad your experience as a graduate student has been so positive- I must agree MIT is an amazing place. It is true that overall the number of PhD earned by women has come to equal men in the last 10 years, but that is definitely not the case in all STEM fields. As you pointed out, the gender gap widens drastically immediately after women receive their PhDs. Why this is the case is not simple to answer although two factors stand out: the need to balance career and family and a lack of professional networks. A graduate fellowship is not just check to help your advisor offset the cost of your existence- submitting the application alone is a valuable professional development exercise, if awarded it is significant addition to your CV, it is an extra opportunity to improve skills necessary to be competitive, and it is a professional network. Should more be done to address policies and issues facing women as they leave their PhDs? YES, but we should not remove effective opportunities while trying to improve support at other points in the pipeline. There are many ongoing efforts to bridge gaps in academic post-PhD careers, such as the NSF’s ADVANCE program, the Career-Life Balance Initiative and grants to cover costs for childcare but there must be a shift in the academic culture along with policy changes for these efforts to be successful. I believe we will have done enough when the demographics of our academic leadership reflect our communities and support the diverse needs of the people those institutions impact.

Kate M.
Kate M. obtained her Ph.D. in Biology and is currently a program manager at MIT.

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month's Dear Kate student contributor and to Kate M.!
If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here. We are always looking for more questions for our Kates to answer!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Dear Kate - February 2014 Edition



The namesake of this advice column is Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.

Dear Kate,
How best should I respond to obvious sexist remarks from people outside of MIT? Two occasions in recent memory come to mind--once when I was shadowing physicians, considering going to medical school after graduating with my master's, I was asked did I wanted to leave engineering "because the math was too hard"? Also, at a holiday party I was told point-blank that the only reason I got into MIT was because I was female. Usually I'm too stunned to respond but then I'm left feeling angry and discouraged.
Female Engineer

Dear FE:

It never ceases to amaze me how many people feel compelled to offer gender-specific, offensive insults (or any insult for that matter)!   You can't control other people, but you can manage your own responses.  The first step in dealing with this type of interaction is taking a moment to breathe before you choose how to respond.  I use the word respond very specifically.  Responding rather than reacting allows you to take the "high road".  Little or nothing is achieved by becoming defensive or combative and you will not change anyone's mind.

In the first instance, a response such as, "As much as I love math, the idea of helping humanity through medicine appeals to me greatly.  Is that why you went into medicine?" The first sentence leans on a positive aspect, while the second is a question which deflects negative energy from you.  If we wanted to verge on the snarky (which may be more satisfying but ultimately not positive for you), you could simply ask, "Is that why you went into medicine?"  However, it is important to know your audience and if you have to remain respectful, the first response is probably the better one.

In the second example, you could choose to respond directly with, "I'm sure you didn't mean to be insulting or insensitive. Isn't this weather/food/house incredible?"  Since this is a social occasion, most likely with no career implications, you can be a bit more imaginative and "off the wall".  By following your initial straight-forward statement with a non-sequitur question, you can deflect the negative energy.  

The following is crucial: you must employ a half-smile.  Easy and confident. You can practice.  Imagine the sling of an insult coming at you.  Breathe in slowly, exhale slowly, inhale again.  All the while with a half smile. On the 2nd exhalation, practice saying, "I'm sure you didn't mean to be insulting and/or insensitive.", with a gracious smile on your face.  

Kate W.
Kate W. has been a senior administrator for MIT for more than 25 years.
 
On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month's Dear Kate student contributor and to Kate H.!
If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.