Last Saturday there appeared an NPR interview with Shrinivas Kulkarni. Dr. Kulkarni is the McArthur Professor in Astronomy & Planetary Science at the California Institute of Technology. I’ve never met the man, but based just on what he’s written in his CalTech bio and the way he expresses himself in the NPR interview, he seems a reasonable person with a good sense of humor. Granted, it’s a very limited data set.
In that interview, Kulkarni has a somewhat whimsical quote when talking about being a professional astronomer.
“We astronomers are supposed to say, ‘We wonder about the stars and we really want to think about it,’ ” says Kulkarni — in other words, think deep thoughts. But he says that’s not really the way it is.
“Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call ‘boys with toys,’ ” he says. “I really like playing around with telescopes. It’s just not fashionable to admit it.”
I probably would have never heard of this interview, or if I had, I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention based on the article that NPR put online. But in the audio version broadcast on NPR, it’s a little different than that article makes it. In the interview that went on the air, after Kulkarni says “boys with toys,” the NPR host, Joe Palca, interrupts him twice to question the use of the phrase. But nothing comes of it.
Others weren’t so forgiving. Others who are among the vast (yet far too small) number of women who work in engineering and science. Others, perhaps, who might have young daughters who want to be an engineer or a scientist but now might have to re-emphasize to them that it’s possible for a girl to dream of those things, even if that guy on the radio doesn’t include them in his joke.
There’s a good article over on Slate describing what happened next. Kate Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois, went to Twitter and posted some pictures of herself using scientific equipment. She used the hashtag #GirlsWithToys. Other women scientists and engineers saw it and joined in. Then more. Then a LOT more. #GirlsWithToys was a trending topic on Twitter all weekend, and I’m still seeing some posted today.
“Boys with toys.”
No one has called for Dr. Kulkarni’s head, his job, or even an apology. If he’s made any further comment, I’ve missed it. (Please put something in the comments if you’ve seen it, I would love to know about it.) The only response has been a large crowd of women (as well as men posting about their wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters) politely pointing out that a casual play on words is actually a sign of a much deeper problem. It’s a problem that runs so deep that for many people the first response was, “Really? They’re getting bent out of shape over that? It’s a joke, nothing more than a little rhyming phrase!”
Of course, there was a fair amount of pushback from the “men’s rights” advocates and rabid anti-feminist crowd. No surprise there, but the MRA crowd are the same pinheads and knuckledragging buffoons who were bent out of shape this weekend because they believe the new “Mad Max” film is a feminist propaganda film designed to emasculate the American male psyche. I don’t know about you, but that gives me a pretty accurate yardstick to show me how much credibility they have. Keep those clowns a long way away from me and we’ll be just fine.
But what about everyone else? If you’re a member of the first group, the “Really?” group, I would ask that you pause, avoid the instantaneous reaction, and give a closer look to the societal biases embedded so deep in a phrase like “boys with toys” that we don’t even see them any more. To make a quick quip, an alliterative play on words, 50% of the population got ignored, and when they point out the problem they get criticized for being thin skinned. Which is pretty meta if you think about it. Get casually dismissed with a turn of a phrase, protest, get told you’re wrong because you’re not being dismissed or silenced or ignored – and then get told to shut up and go away.
Yeah, maybe we might want to think about that just a bit.
Me? I’ve got two daughters who we’ve tried to raise to be as independent and strong-willed as possible. So I get it. I see why women were upset. I was upset.
Sunday, when the hashtag and tweets were still going strong, I started re-tweeting posts that I saw. Some were from women I know through Twitter, some were from colleagues of theirs, some were from total strangers. I limited myself to one example from each woman, and I stopped re-tweeting posts after the first sixty-six. I could have gone on all day, I could have posted six hundred and sixty-six. (More to follow after my tweets.)
I don’t want to live in a world where we can be punished for anything that comes out of our mouths. I don’t want us to turn into North Korea. I’m a huge fan of the First Amendment. I hate “political correctness.” I’m sure that I some times stick my foot in my mouth without realizing it.
None of that is what this is about. This is about realizing that there’s a problem in our society, and it’s a problem that needs to be addressed. It’s a problem that is embedded unconsciously into our society and our language, and we have to see it and recognize it before we can change it.
Look back over the last few articles about the NASA Armstrong event and what I’ve written recently about our space programs. Did anyone notice how I refer to “remotely-piloted” planes or “uncrewed spacecraft?” A year ago I would have said a “manned plane” or “manned mission” or “manned spacecraft.” It’s still a very common term.
It shouldn’t be. It’s not that hard to use language that’s inclusive.
I’ll defend to the death your right to not be forced to make the change – but I’ll think you’re a dinosaur who’s incapable of adapting and evolving while I’m fighting. You’ll be wrong in my book. I’m not saying we have to religiously refer to “manholes” as “personholes,” or ” or “firemen” as “firefighting personnel” – but that doesn’t mean that we can’t get into the habit of using a term like “maintenance hole” or “firefighter.”
There’s a whole list of words and phrases we don’t use any more (or at least we use much, much less) because those words and phrases hurt people. They make life hard for people. They subtly and subconsciously tell people that they’re less, that they’re not welcome, that they don’t deserve to think they’re the same as us.
Changing our language to consciously include everyone instead of subconsciously favoring a select group isn’t just a feminist intellectual exercise in outrage. It’s something that all of us should be putting an effort into to make the world a better place.
Especially if you’re being interviewed by NPR.