55 thoughts on “Sexism Illustrated

  1. XKCD is one of the best things on the internet. The romantic ones make me cry, the computer language things go over my head, and the rest are thought-provoking and/or hilarious. If you’ve never heard his 45 minute conversation with Verizon, trying to straighten out a bill using simple math, which they simply *could not grasp* I highly suggest it. The check he finally sent them contained a complex mathematical problem instead of straight-forward amounts/numbers – too funny!

  2. I want to laugh at this, but it makes me sad.

    In high school, I challenged my calculus teacher to a Minesweeper Duel to disprove this bullshit stereotype. He was unhappy to get his ass handed to him by a 17-year-old chick. I felt bad. Oh, wait – no, I didn’t.

  3. This would also suit any type of “-ism.” Put a person of color. Put a fat person. Put an old person. Put a young person. Put a gay person. Anything that’s not You is Them, right?

  4. I love this entry from XKCD! I just sent it to a few of my friends. BTW – if you view the comics on the original site, many of them have roll-over text. The one for this comic is “It’s pi plus C, of course.”

  5. Perfect! Tari, my high school calc teacher was a woman (yay!), but I always did well in math and was hated by many of the smart boys for blowing the curve. The clincher? When one particularly obnoxious and arrogant guy came into class one day bragging about his SAT scores. He then turned to me and condescendingly asked what mine were – his face fell in record time when I gave my math score, a good 40-50 points higher than his. I felt so bad (not!) ;-)

  6. Heh, I’m a mathematics M.A. (and a chick), and I love this! By the way, past high school, I didn’t really find much discrimination against women for being good at mathematics. The math department was backwards in other areas wrt us, but they certainly didn’t hold us to different expectations.

    However, that could be because our grad department had the largest fraction of women students of any top-tier math department in the country. Score!

  7. I was always in either accelerated or honors math, and really there were always plenty of girls in them too; I never noticed any discrimination. The only thing that bugged me was a report I did on probability in 10th grade, and the teacher (who was very impressed by it) looked at me with a fair amount of disbelief and asked, “Do you seriously understand this?” I said, “Well yeah, I wrote it. I get it.” He was awfully surprised, but I didn’t get any sense that it had anything to do with my sex(although I did occasionally hear grumbles to that effect with this partiular teacher), just that I guess maybe it was advanced or something. (Actually I really enjoyed that one; learned a lot from doing it.)

    Sara – one thing’s been bugging me forever about those rollovers – sometimes they’re not complete – like it stops in the middle of a sentence, and I can’t figure out a way to get the whole rollover comment to show – only the first x number of characters. Any help with that one?

  8. Looking back, actually, all but one of my higher math teachers were women. Algebra, trig, geometry…only that one man in the bunch. Er, that’s high school level though – couldn’t tell you about college as I didn’t go.

  9. My most sexist teacher in high school was in ninth grade English. Even my parents noticed – when they went in for conferences, he addressed all his comments to my father, despite my mother asking all the questions. His daughter was a few years behind me, and I always felt a bit sorry for her having such a bint of a father.

  10. XKCD is my favourite comic ever. About every other strip has me going “IT’S SO TRUE!!!”

    And this was one of those.

  11. I *heart* XKCD, and today’s was awesome. “Substitute” is still my favorite, though. I have that one posted on my lab desk.

  12. AnnieMcPhee – To see the full text right click or the equivalent on the comic and select the image Properties. You can see Alternate Text there (and expand the Properties window if you need to).

    I don’t remember having overtly sexist math teachers, but I do remember there being a point in high school when math and science became somewhat more difficult for me. Instead of being offered extra help I was immediately let off the hook of even having to attempt things like Calculus because I was “better at other subjects” like English, History, Languages, etc. (I took Statistics and Computer Science, which were considered “easy math” at my school, instead.) Because apparently it was normal to go from being in advanced algebra classes to not being good at math any more. I think I blew that theory with my success in a calculus class I took much later, though.

  13. This makes me sad, because it is so true. I’m female, and was a high school math teacher for two years. (I’ve now taken a slight career detour and teach ESL, but I still tutor some of the kids in trig to keep my math skills sharp.)

    For the alt-text question above: if you have Firefox, it will cut off the alt-text after a certain length. Right click on the picture, and choose properties. A box will pop up that shows the alt-text, and you can expand the box until you can read the whole thing.

  14. I’m a statistician. The only girl in my department. I saw this this morning, printed it out and put it up next to my Dilbert cartoon about the fallability of spreadsheets.

  15. Hah, I never bothered with all that fancy crap with the settings — I just right-click and “View Page Source”. :)

    Anyway, yay for XKCD guy. He’s going to be at Penguicon (in Troy, MI), which is only about 3 hours from where I am, and I thought it was perfect: a Linux-slash-SF convention. (For myself and my boyfriend, that is.) And then it turns out I have to work that weekend. *sigh*

  16. Sometimes I feel kind of bad for being one of those girls who really isn’t good at math (it was all down hill after long division in fifth grade). I guess I’m not terrible at it; I did take honors math classes in high school, but I always struggled. My math SAT score was decent, but it was over 200 points lower than my score on the verbal. I just don’t enjoy the subject. Still, I have a twinge irrational guilt for conforming to the sexist stereotype.

    Phledge- A fat acceptance version of this cartoon would be awesome. I picture it going something like this:
    Panel one: a thin person watches another thin person consuming a large amount of food. Text reads: “Wow, you eat a lot.”
    Panel two: a thin person watches a fat person consuming the same amount of food. Text reads: “Wow, fat people eat a lot.”

    It really is a great way to demonstrate the generalizations made about marginalized groups, as well as the different standards they are held to.

  17. Sometimes I feel kind of bad for being one of those girls who really isn’t good at math (it was all down hill after long division in fifth grade).

    Hey, I totally suck at math, and I stopped apologizing for it in high school. I just don’t want anyone to look at me and think girls suck at math.

  18. Funny thing, I had no problem with math when I studied it on my own later. Differential equations? Who knew those could be fun? But in class, fuggeddaboudit. You miss one thing the teacher says, and you’re toast.

    P.S. Dieting does not help with math skills either.

  19. Perhaps it goes without saying (or doesn’t need to be added here), but I’d like to add a reminder that sexism doesn’t stop at conscious prejudice. From laws requiring health care plans to cover prostate cancer but not prenatal care to cultural assumptions reflected in language (“he” as an acceptable pronoun signifying anybody), sexism is built into all of our institutions.

    The cartoon is brilliant, but it doesn’t quite explain “How It Works.”

  20. ha!!

    … and you know, i’ve realized in my wise old age that i was always naturally pretty good at math. i was good at geometry, i loved algebra, and in other math subjects i found satisfaction in getting the right answers because it all seemed like a foreign code to me and it was cool being able to crack it.

    but then why did i hate it as i got older and why did i get a D in third quarter trig? because i believed “girls aren’t good at math,” but more specifically, i believed that “i am not good at math.” whenever i got a bad grade on some math thing and said something about it at home, my mother would comfort me with how she hated math and wasn’t good at it either (she’s always had this issue of projecting herself onto me, but let’s not get into that right now).

    so anyway, instead of putting the blame for my math grades on the fact that i hadn’t done my homework, i had the perfect underachiever’s excuse: my bad grades in math are innate. i just didn’t understand the problems because of my teeny tiny little mathematician brain. if one believes s/he is weak, s/he *is* weak.

    this was also not helped by the teacher quality, to be fair, since jr/sr. year my teacher (same person) was, no joke, refreshing her memory of trig and calc as she taught it to us. she told us this regularly and seemed to think it was funny. she was the department head, too. and, not related, but the day before the SATs she advised us to eat chinese food for breakfast the morning of the test “because chinese people are good at math.”

  21. I have to print that one out and stick it up by my desk. I had great fun in high school being the only girl in the applied maths class and beating all 11 guys. Now I’m the only girl in my physics research group. Luckily nobody ever suggested I shouldn’t do theoretical physics because I’m a girl.

    I would love to see more women taking up the “hard” sciences, but there are some advantages, like never having the queue for a loo at a conference! ;)

  22. I was pretty awesome at math in high school — got an A in college calc! Go me!

    But, I didn’t like it much. Okay, so I hated calculus. I was afraid to admit it because I didn’t want to fall into the girl stereotype. Just because I’m a girl, and I’m good at math, that doesn’t mean that I’m not allowed to like art, drama, and english, right? Darn skippy.

  23. Hunter, thanks! That alt-text thing has bugged me for a long time.

    I love love love xkcd. Two comics ago he did one that simply stunned me (called Helping). The guy is amazing at pinging back and forth between funny and witty and deep and raw emotion.

  24. I just discovered this comic a couple days ago and love it! :D Especially the one with the laser gun for squirrels and the substitute math teacher ;)

    I personally always hated math but excel at what I call “practical maths.” For example, I could never tell you how many square feet of flooring you need for a certain sized room at whatever cost without a calculator. BUT I can make change in my head without having the return amount there on the register thanks to many years as a bakery cashier. Simple things like that.

    OH and I LOVED geometry! Proofs rocked my world. No real need for formulas or calculating numbers just…”Prove it is a right triangle.” :D Awesome. If only all things in life were so easy.

  25. BUT I can make change in my head without having the return amount there on the register thanks to many years as a bakery cashier

    Working as a cashier did the opposite to my arithmetic skills! I got so used to relying on the register that I got completely flummoxed when someone would give me a $20 bill and then go, “Oh wait, I’ve got 14 cents” or whatever, after I’d already punched in $20. But, but… THE REGISTER SAYS I’M SUPPOSED TO GIVE YOU $3.86 BACK! HOW ON EARTH AM I SUPPOSED TO FIGURE OUT HOW MUCH TO GIVE YOU NOW?

    Yeah, yeah, I know. But seriously, I was so conditioned to making the change the register told me to make, my brain just went DEAD when I had to do something else. And then the customer would be all, “Yeah, it’s FOUR DOLLARS,” and I would feel like the world’s biggest idiot.

    The only other thing I have to add here is that the guy who has the crappiest arithmetic skillz of all my exes? Also has a degree in pure math. So I’d always be like, “Hey, math guy, figure this out,” and he’d be like, “Dude, that’s not math, that’s arithmetic, and I suck at it just as bad as you do.” That kinda blew my mind, but it totally makes sense that they’re two very different skills.

    Thank Maude for calculators.

  26. eyelinerpirate, out of curiosity, where do you see “conscious prejudice” in this cartoon? To me, the whole point is that it’s unconscious — the guy doesn’t think he’s being sexist, he thinks he’s being empirical.

  27. I saw that on Feministing yesterday. Hilarious, yet sadly true. I haven’t faced any direct sexism in my academic field (theology/music), but I don’t doubt that it can happen.

  28. Sad thing is, even in the otherwise highly amusing and geeky XKCD forums, the discussion of this comic boils down to “yeah ok but you know women actually are worse in maths, because their brains are different, from evolution, and raising children instead of hunting. Everyone knows that!”

  29. Kate,
    I totally suck at arithmetic too. I hate it when people try to use me like a human calculator in meetings. Hellooooo That’s what I have Excel for!

    Though when I worked retail our cash register did not tell you how much change to give, and that did wonders for my arithmetic. Oldest cash registers ever.

  30. Kate ~ I do find that having registers give you the amount to dole out as change DOES affect your ability to think…the only reason I could make change so well is that our machine HAD no little screen (we’re talking archaic here) so you had no choice. That and you really had to add up all the items in your head first…find when each loaf of bread was $2 or $2.50 but when we started in on everything being like $2.64 and stuff then my brain started going loopy ;)

    Good practice though!

  31. The undrawn third panel: girl kicks guy in balls.

    I realized a little while ago that I’m only two degrees of separation from the guy who writes/draws XKCD. I don’t know how I’m going to use this information, though.

  32. The only other thing I have to add here is that the guy who has the crappiest arithmetic skillz of all my exes? Also has a degree in pure math. So I’d always be like, “Hey, math guy, figure this out,” and he’d be like, “Dude, that’s not math, that’s arithmetic, and I suck at it just as bad as you do.” That kinda blew my mind, but it totally makes sense that they’re two very different skills.

    I have a math degree, and I’m not particularly good at arithmetic. I remember this one time I was trying to count people on a bus, and I kept getting fucked up, and someone was like “weren’t you a math major?” Yeah, like I learned how to do this in fucking Advanced Counting.

  33. You were in Advanced Counting? Man, I had to take Remedial Counting.

    (That is, in fact, what those of us who were in the math/science/computer magnet but had to take non-magnet math called our classes. I wish someone had told me at the time that I was good at science and logic; I assumed that since I was crap at math, I couldn’t go anywhere in that discipline.)

  34. I saw this cartoon on Feministing as well, but while I was there I also saw a link to Kira Cochrane’s essay on her latest effort to feel better about herself and get healthy: she’s going to lose some weight by eating less and exercising more.

    Does anyone else have the urge to make a new cartoon in answer to Kira’s essay?

    Apparently she’s starting a column.

    Those college calc classes I took did nothing for my mental arithmetic skills… I’ve been in the 60th percentile on that stuff since I was in first grade. Yet here I am working in an accounting office; go Excel!

  35. Melissa L., LOVE the FA version you came up with.

    This is excellent. I know it’s not really the point of the cartoon (and is basically anecdotal to boot) but as we all know, many kids seem to be “let off the hook,” as marymac observed, for taking “hard” courses for various possibly unsavory reasons. My very smart best friend expressed some uncertainty about whether she should take Earth Science (the “easy” freshman science class in our school… note I’m not saying it is actually a blow-off topic, that’s just how the classes were tiered there) vs. Biology (the “hard” class). Immediately they told her to just go with Earth Science. Later she realized she could have easily handled the Biology class, and felt a little angry that they had basically advised her that if she thought she might not be able to do it, she was probably right. Thinking about it since then, I don’t think it was a coincidence that she was female and somewhat poor, and also newer to the district so not as high-profile a “smart kid” as some of the rest of us.

    It was funny to watch a similar (but less serious) thing happen to me later when I went to a new school. At my old school, I was the straight-A kid and no advisor would have considered telling me anything other than to take Biology, if I were in my friend’s situation. I actually never spoke to an advisor about that type of thing because they and I just assumed I would take honors everything. Then I moved to North Carolina at 16 and as the new kid (I also dressed in sort of a low-level rebellious “skate punk” style that was actually pretty run-of-the-mill but not common in my new school… but probably it was mostly that I was new) they ignored my protests and stuck me in the state-required “Physical Science” class, usually taken only by freshmen. When the teacher found out I had already had Biology and Chemistry, he laughed and sent me to Physics like I had wanted to take in the first place. This also happened with the AP classes I wanted to take… they wouldn’t let me in until I took an IQ test (????). Thank god I’m a good standardized test-taker or I would have been pretty pissed. All this to say that schools may tend to assume that new or “untested” kids should just play it safe with their course selections (and I think this can be worse for girls, minorities, and poorer students in some course areas), when IMO maybe they should let them try the hardest option they think they can handle, then re-evaluate if it doesn’t work out–I’m not saying all kids can or should take every possible high-level class in every area, but why not let them try it if they want to? It can be really damaging if you are encouraged early on to “aim low” academically.

    I have never encountered any sexism in my higher education–plus “Women in Engineering” programs are everywhere now, and in a lot of engineering programs female enrollment is increasing, or equal to or higher than male. So these programs are by and large working in my experience. But the ingrained beliefs that get expressed anywhere this topic comes up (like Em described in the XKCD forums) are proof to me that it is by no means time to “let up” on programs for recruitment of women and minorities in math and science, like the MRAs would like. Things would likely go downhill really fast if we pretended everything is equal and sexism-free at this stage of the game.

  36. I was very good at math until my first year of high school algebra. I got the best score in the class on the first test and for some reason, it was all downhill from there. I guess I got bored. I really regretted it when I had to take algebra again in college and had a really, really hard time with it.

    I’m sometimes ashamed of how bad I am with math because it’s such a cliche. But I’m not dumb enough to think that I’m bad at math because I’m a woman. I’m bad at math because I just am! I’m a “linguistic thinker,” if that even really exists.

  37. Yeah, Em is right about the discussions. They’re a little disappointing, although they’ve veered off of biology and are now a couple of people trying to explain to everyone else about privilege, and it’s going off about as well as you would expect. (Like a lead balloon.)

    …Someone should go in and help them.

  38. Thanks to all for the help in the rollover text; I’m adding that thing to my Firefox browser tonight.

    “Sometimes I feel kind of bad for being one of those girls who really isn’t good at math.”

    Don’t worry, I feel the same way about being a FA who hates exercise, gets pretty little of it, and doesn’t exactly always eat healthy stuff.

  39. I never really liked math since 4th grade when my teacher gave students timed multiplication quizzes. I know the point of them was to teach us to instantaneously remember the answer to problems like 3 x 6 and other combinations, but damn, I’ve never been a super-fast kind of person. I kept having to re-do quizzes because I couldn’t finish them on time. Worst part was that the teacher held a pizza party for people who had past the multiples of 10 quiz by a certain date, and I had just made it to multiples of 10 quiz right at the due date so I couldn’t go to the party.

    This and other events made me feel like I wasn’t good enough in math, which was kind of ridiculous since I was usually in the honor classes for the advance math courses and earned A’s until my pre-cal and calculus classes (B and C respectively). When it came to standardized math tests though, I didn’t do so great. I guess what sucked was the feeling of being inept because I wasn’t perfect at everything.

    During my junior year my pre-calculus teacher asked how students felt about math and why during an introductory survey, and I wrote about how I disliked math because of the timed multiplication quizzes I had to take in 4th grade. So what did she do? She gave us timed quizzes! They were on something to do with trigonometry, and needless to say, I didn’t pass a single quiz ^_^.

    Even though she did nothing to make me feel capable at math, the same pre-cal teacher was the one who inspired my step-sister to become a math teacher, so I guess it balances out.

  40. Heh, I never had a problem in my math classes; but I still remember feeling disdain and a bit of pity for the old-fashioned eighth grade history teacher who told me that I was “very logical, for a girl”. I figured he didn’t have the brains and/or flexibility to understand that girls were just as smart as boys. Sometimes, a bit of youthful arrogance is a good thing.

    As far as math itself goes, I can follow arguments through diffy-q; but I’m not creative with math, so it wasn’t the right field for me.

  41. Woohoo! It worked and now I have to read through the ENTIRE archive again so I can see all the alt text. But that’s a pleasant way to spend a couple hours, so fine :)

  42. fillyjonk,

    Sorry for the lack of clarity — you’re right, the speaker is quite likely unaware of being sexist. What I meant to say was, the speaker is consciously discriminating against women. He’s deliberately acting on a notion of inequality, and he’s fully aware of his own perceptions.

    By contrast, much systemic sexism can operate without anyone acknowledging, to themselves or anyone else, that a distinction is even being made. Even on the individual level, claiming “equality has been achieved” can be just as powerfully sexist as “girls suck at math.”

    (Which is not, incidentally, to knock the comic. It illustrates what it wants to illustrate really well. I just feel like we should be reminded of the role of our institutions whenever possible.)

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