Internet, We Need to Talk. It’s About Your Sexism

With Emily Graslie, Chief Curiosity Correspondent for the Chicago Field Museum, making a strong stand against sexism on the Internet, we sought her perspective on Internet culture and how this could be reflected in the wider scientific community.

Internet, we need to talk. It's about your sexism

The Internet is a fantastic place, boasting a wealth of information, advice and tools that can enrich the lives of those who use it. Communication is far easier than ever before, through the vast array of available social networks; an unlimited feed of knowledge may be disseminated at the mere click of a button and people revel in the joys of an unrestricted outlet, with which they can use to express their thoughts, opinions and wisdom.

Oftentimes, however, this freedom can be abused. When sat behind the monitor and casting judgments and aspersions in Internet forums, chat rooms and the comments sections of YouTube videos and articles – or any other creative works, for that matter – people are veiled by anonymity. Uninhibited by the shackles of everyday social decorum, arguably, people are willing to use the Internet to voice some particularly divisive viewpoints.

Is this a true expression of an individual’s genuine feelings? Are others simply trolling to solicit the attentions of their fellow man? Perhaps, some are venting frustrations they feel unable to articulate during face-to-face interactions? Ultimately, the motives behind these cowardly acts are irrelevant. The Internet, despite all of its brilliance, has become a veritable breeding ground of intolerance and inequality.

As a case in point, individuals propagating sexist and misogynistic ideals – conscious, or otherwise – are rampant across the Internet. From denigrating remarks about female video gamers to incessant sexualization and objectification of women in entertainment, sexism is an almost inescapable problem.

Laurie Penny has faced gender discrimination when writing for the Independent
Journalist of The Independent, Laurie Penny, has previously faced disturbing gender discrimination when writing online.

It is all-too-common to see a female express their thoughts on the Internet, only to be subsequently dismissed, marginalization and humiliated. Demeaning jokes, leery advances and gender-centric rebukes replace civilized conversation and debate, derailing constructive interaction.

Laurie Penny, a writer with The Independent, produced an article in 2011 that sought to underscore some of the abuse female writers encounter on the Internet. Her disillusionment, after perpetually experiencing various forms of gender-related online abuse, is plain to see:

“An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill and urinate on you.”

Penny is not alone in her experience of gender discrimination. Lauren McCullough, senior editor of Breaking News and former social media manager for the Associated Press (AP), also encountered sexism throughout her daily dealings online, including on her Facebook page. Likewise, the renowned Internet personality, and tech and gaming aficionado, iJustine – a female YouTuber with over 1.8 million subscribers – was labeled iWhore by a previous viewer; the term stuck, and continues to be used to this day.

Joining the ranks of female personalities, speaking out against online sexism, is fellow YouTuber Emily Graslie – an employee of the Field Museum in Chicago, whose main ambition lies in sharing what goes on behind-the-scenes of the Museum with members of the public.

Emily Graslie Tackles Sexism on the Internet

Graslie works as the Chief Curiosity Correspondent for the Field Museum and hosts a YouTube channel, called The Brain Scoop. The Brain Scoop is designed as an educational portal to inform the masses as to the various goings on at the Field Museum. Graslie is renowned for enthusiastically delivering content on a range of academic subjects, primarily revolving around anthropology, zoology and paleontology.

Providing a unique take on all things Science, Graslie ventures through the halls of the Field Museum, collaborating with peers, embarking upon gory dissections and studying insects and taxidermied animals. However, during one of her “Ask Emily” episodes, she discusses the sexist comments, to which she is the subject, and reflects upon some rather weighty issues.

From the date of writing, the video has been watched over 700,000 times and over 2,700 comments have been uploaded. With Graslie’s stand against Internet sexism and bullying having gone viral, individuals of both male and female persuasion flocked to offer their support.

This did not stop the sexist comments from bleeding through, however. Briefly perusing through the comments section of the video, it becomes clear that trolling, sexism and blatant misogynistic rhetoric remain deeply entrenched within Internet culture. Anybody who has frequented these types of comments sections in the past, however, already understand this to be a not-so-uncommon occurrence.

Sexist Comments for Where My Girls At YouTube video1
Just a handful of the sexist, trolling comments uploaded by viewers of Graslie’s “Where My Girls At?” YouTube video.

Meanwhile, there were a number of graphic comments that cannot be shown, for obvious reasons.

The Guardian Liberty Voice took the opportunity to interview Graslie, and get her take on sexism in science and on the Internet. We kicked off the interview by asking her about her passion for her role in the Field Museum, and where she saw herself in the future.

“… the Field Museum offers an incredible amount of opportunities. Pretty much anything you can dream, you can do here. I’ve been afforded a lot of experiences I don’t think I would get, not only from other natural history museums, but anywhere. It’s like an educational playground. You know, if I have a question about something, there is bound to be an expert in the building or somebody who knows someone who can provide an answer for that kind of thing.

So, this continuously stimulating educational environment is definitely not one I’m interested in leaving any time soon. But, I don’t know; who knows how this will evolve and change. I’ve only been doing this for a year and, in two weeks, I’ll be on a plane to Kenya. So, who knows where next year will take me?”

What’s the Kenya trip about, or is that top secret?

“No, I’m happy to talk about it. We’re accompanying some field museum mammalogists who are studying bat ecology in a couple of the national parks in Kenya. So, I’m hopping on a plane with them and we’re going to show that our science isn’t just confined to the walls here in the Field Museum in Chicago, but we actually do research all over the world.”

What are the best and worst parts of working… well, I suppose you can’t really say the worst parts?

“The coffee in the office is terrible!”


So what are the best parts of working at the Field Museum, there?

“I would really have to say I love my colleagues. They’re fantastic, interesting, captivating, engaging people. If you think I’m… excited about what I do, talking with people who have spent 30 years of their life, or in that range of time, devoted to being an expert in… one specific area; it’s really inspiring. These people live and breathe what they study and what they’re invested in…

One of my biggest inspirations, here at the Field Museum, is our assistant curator of Invertebrates. Her name is Corrie Moreau, and just to hear her talk about ants… you become, all of a sudden, invested in these tiny things…

…I don’t know how many ants I’ve stepped on, inadvertently, in my life, but – all of a sudden – I’m wondering, like, about the life and times of all these ants and there are more species of ants than birds and mammals combined; it’s fascinating. So, to be able to talk with people like Corrie, who can just drop a million factoids on you in a passing conversation, it really is a joy to come to work every day.”

During her latest video on sexism, Graslie mentioned a limited number of females involved in producing and hosting educational channels in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). We asked whether she felt that STEM occupational fields were underrepresented by females – an issue that, perhaps, skews the online community’s perceptions of women in science.

“Almost every scientific field. At least, if not on the level… [of the] institution then how they are presented in the media needs to change. Our first tenured female curator, here at the Field Museum, is still somebody who’s a member of the staff. Since then, there has only been a handful of women who have been tenured, and this is in a hundred or more years of this museum’s history… You know, you never see ‘Bob Jones, male scientist from XYZ museum;’ you always see ‘Corrie Moreau, female scientist from the Field Museum.'”

Gender shares of total and STEM jobs for 2009
Gender shares of “all jobs” and “STEM jobs” for 2009, exposing a gender gap between males and females in STEM positions.

Indeed, Graslie’s point is well-founded. Despite numerous initiatives designed to promote inclusion of females in STEM education and employment, only a quarter of STEM positions were held by females – a figure that has remained consistently low over the past decade.

According to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey (ACS), women comprise 48 percent of the U.S. workforce. In contrast, females comprise just 24 percent of the STEM workforce, despite an increase in the proportion of college-educated women. The survey also found a “gender wage gap,” with female STEM workers earning less than their male equivalents, irrespective of age or education.

So, why do you think that’s the case? Why, particularly in STEM… is it such a male-dominated area?

“A lot of it has to do with workplace accommodation for women who want to be on the tenure track. A lot of the times, if a woman is in that kind of professional environment – she wants to pursue her PhD, she wants to be tenured – her life partner, whether or not she has one, is probably also someone who is academically or professionally inclined.

So, it’s fine until they think ‘you know, I want to have a family,’ and then whose role is it to stay at home with the child? I mean, if you’re only given a week of maternity leave and you’re expected to work 40 – 50 hours a week and there’s nobody at home to take care of your children, well, a lot of women are going to fall back and not, maybe, go for the tenure route. They’ll still stay devoted to the science and the research, but it does make it more difficult to attain.

We don’t have any kind of on-site childcare offer here at the Museum and the same can be said for many universities and laboratories across the world.

So… when women come to make those big life decisions they wonder, ‘well, do I want to have the nice house and the white picket fence, or do I want to work every day?'”

In light of this apparent discrepancy, the Obama administration set about trying to broaden the participation of females involved in STEM education and employment. In 2009, the President’s Educate to Innovate campaign was launched.

Women are awarded 41 percent of PhDs in STEM fields, but make up just 28 percent of tenure-track faculty in these areas. In a bid to reduce the dropout rate of women in STEM careers, the government announced plans to improve “program flexibility,” by encouraging family-friendly practices that ensure women can more effectively balance work responsibilities with family life. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has also developed a re-entry program, designed to help women return to work after taking time off to raise children.

In the March 4, 2013, Nature podcast, Uta Frith of University College London and Professor of Experimental Physics Athene Donald, who was appointed Gender Equality Champion at the University of Cambridge, discussed the issue of gender equality. The pair considered gender biases and stereotypes, along with the absence of women from STEM fields.

The Women in Science Group

In light of these issues, how can females be encouraged to enter STEM fields?

As mentioned in Graslie’s YouTube video, the Field Museum has a Women in Science group, which is dedicated to inspiring women to participate in the sciences, and may go some way to tackling this problem.

We enquired a little more as to how the group supports budding female scientists.

Women in Science logo“We have monthly meetings. We bring in outside researchers, and scientists, and women in communication roles, and women who are doing citizen science projects. We just really try to highlight their work and to start an internal dialogue that we can bring with us when we speak out…

So, we need more examples of more women doing more creative and inspiring things. So, this group kind of facilitates that discussion; it keeps us thinking about it… It’s not that we don’t have colleagues doing amazing things, it’s just when you go out in public and someone’s like ‘you’ve got Bill Nye, you got Neil deGrasse Tyson and women: there’s Jane Goodall… who else? Who else?’ So, we’re filling in the ‘who else?’ with the Women in Science group.

We have interns who focus on women’s studies and women in science groups and it’s really a museum-wide initiative. We’re also pulling in people from the public; people from communities; from universities; young and up-and-coming women scientists, and just trying to align with the same goal.”

Are STEM YouTube Channels Also Underrepresented by Females?

Graslie points to the fact that only four STEM-based YouTube channels are hosted by females with over 160,000 subscribers; comparatively, 14 STEM channels are hosted by males with more than 400,000 subscribers.

With so few women currently entering STEM professions, this could partially explain the limited number of female YouTubers producing such content. Equally, it is suggested that females involved in uploading STEM content may – under the weight of sexist comments – prematurely throw in the towel, which, in turn, reduces the number of females viewers inspired to consider STEM careers as viable options.

With YouTube channels starting to gain a massive surge in popularity, we asked Graslie whether what we are seeing is the same trend – often witnessed throughout history – where women have to fight to claim their stake.

“To some degree. I also feel like the number of women on YouTube is going to have a reflection of how many women are actually pursuing STEM or science communication degrees, or professions outside of YouTube. So, I think the people on YouTube, and what is being said on YouTube, is sometimes a greater reflection on what social norms are outside of the Internet.

Graslie also stated that she was not trying to infer that men don’t also receive negative comments, or similar pressures. However, she drew comparisons to the other major educational shows:

“… their comments sections are so constructive, a lot of the time – really positive. And, I don’t feel like it’s too much to ask that an audience like mine could also be productive, in such a way.”

During your latest YouTube video, you mention a few of the sexist comments received. When you receive such personal comments – whether they are intended to flatter, or not – how does this make you feel? Does it affect your passion for YouTubing?

“I’d like to think that it doesn’t. I can ignore the comments; I can become desensitized to them; I can just not read them. I don’t feel that’s constructive. I think, by ignoring them, I’m not really addressing the larger issue… any woman on YouTube is going to have to deal with negativity, and it’s just really unfortunate when that happens to be on a channel for somebody… whose entire purpose is anything but the focus on their appearance.

So, I see that as discouraging, not only for me – whether or not I might be able to handle it – but for the young people in the demographic for which my channel is directed. I am one of very few women on YouTube – as I kind of illustrated in my video – who’s making education content. So, I’m also one of very few women who’s going to be a role model to young girls who are online, who are looking for educational content and who are looking for strong female role models in science roles. So, when they see those kind of comments and they say ‘you know, I wanted to have my own channel, but I see the kind of comments on your videos,’ what do you do about it? And, I was realizing my answers was, well, I haven’t done anything about it. Maybe it’s time to change that.”

When browsing through the comments section of Graslie’s YouTube video, it becomes clear that her finger is, well and truly, on the pulse. A conversation between a group of female commenters, explaining the basis for their hesitation in uploading their own content, substantiates the afore-mentioned argument.

Commenter put off by comments seen on Emily's YouTube channel1
Commenters explaining how they were dissuaded from uploading creative content, due to sexist comments seen on Emily’s YouTube channel.

Is the Internet Becoming a Mouthpiece for Expressing Sexism?

Cyberspace is touted as a platform for freedom of expression, heralded as an opportunity to restore a sense of democracy and power to the average citizen. In recent times, however, debate has flourished over whether the dissemination of obscene material and ideals, including sexism, should be tolerated.

Hate speech is not free speech
At what point does “free speech” become something else, entirely?

Understandably, many are uncomfortable with censorship, of any kind, and see it as another step towards a “nanny state.” Questions over precisely what constitutes freedom of speech are also difficult to answer; similarly, how accommodating content creators and web hosts should be, in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny, for example, remains another point of contention.

With the internet boasting such a diverse ecology, and with the identities of many of its users concealed, we asked Graslie whether the type of cyber abuse she had experienced could be tackled.

“I don’t know why it has to be an anonymous Internet. reddit, for example; reddit can facilitate some amazing discussions from anonymous groups… and maybe I am being idealistic, but I would like to think – if I am hosting an educational channel, in which I am trying to replicate the kind of environment that you would have in a classroom – that kind of language just wouldn’t be tolerated; it wouldn’t be appreciated.

… there’s only so much I can do. Obviously, I made a video that got fairly popular and the comments, still, are saying ‘this girl needs to stop crying, like, she needs to get over it and stop whining.’ I think having a community that’s going to police those kinds of comments, for the creator, is a move in the right direction. More people speaking out and saying ‘I know you’re anonymous, and I know you can say whatever you want, but who are you? Who are you to say that somebody who spends so much time and energy making something, and trying to do positive in the world, [is] not worth your time. Like, who are you?'”

Ultimately, in addressing the conundrum of sexism on the Internet, Emily Graslie is adopting a brave stance; one of action, as opposed to apathy. During her video, she stresses the importance of persevering through the initial learning curve, before calling upon the community to lend their support to the creators of STEM content. Indeed, it’s gratifying to see the dilution of abusive remarks by a sea of people driven by their passion for science, and a community willing to focus on the content of the Chief Curiosity Correspondent’s work, as opposed to her gender.

Editorial By James Fenner


Interview with Emily Graslie

Brain Scoop YouTube Channel

Brain Scoop Tumblr

The Field Museum

The Independent

Daily Mail

U.S. Department of Commerce STEM Factsheet

Nature News

2 Responses to "Internet, We Need to Talk. It’s About Your Sexism"

  1. Michelle Avenant   May 6, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    Thank you for such articulate and well-sourced insight! It is not often that I find online content that is in-depth enough to go beyond the obvious, especially regarding gender issues.

    Whilst the internet provides a sinister mirror into the twisted prejudices of patriarchal society, it also plays host to material of amazing emancipatory potential – for example, within the field of sex education:

    Double-edged sword, much? :/

  2. Angelina Bouc   December 24, 2013 at 3:22 am

    Amazing read!!!


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