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A Positive Outlook – On Sexism in SF/F

There has been a lot of controversy and commentary in the SF/F writing community of late centered around the last few issues of the SFWA bulletin. I am not a SFWA member, so I have only heard about this second-hand and have not been able to find the cover art in question or all of the articles. Jim C. Hines has a nice summary of links here, but it centers around accusations of sexism in the SF/F publishing industry over the course of three recent issues of the SFWA bulletin. I’m not going to rehash the details here because others have already done a more informed and thorough job than I can. What I do want to say, is that most of the writers and editors that I have met at conventions or through the internet have not shown any overt sexism or unprofessional behavior. Perhaps I’m lucky. Perhaps I’m just unobservant. But whatever the reasons, I wanted to share some of my positive experiences that, I think, illuminate how much progress has been made for women in recent decades.

First off, I work as a veterinarian in my “day job” and veterinary medicine is a field which has experienced a dramatic gender shift. From the early 1900’s through most of the 20th century, veterinary colleges admitted primarily male students, citing reasons such as a woman’s lack of physical strength required for work with farm animals and the concern that women would leave the field to start families. I’m sure that at that time, some of this reflected the applicant pool. But from the late 1960’s up to the past decade, the ratio of female students admitted to veterinary colleges in the United States has flip-flopped, going from approximately 11% to 77%. The data from 2009 showed that for the first time, women outnumbered men among practicing veterinarians. This shift in gender in the profession is not completely understood, and there are still gaps in pay between women and men in the field, but I take it as a sign that such a shift could occur in other traditionally male-dominated fields. For more information on this change in veterinary medicine, here is a good summary article.

I grew up a tomboy, playing street hockey and manhunt with my brother and the neighborhood boys. I never felt singled out as the only girl among them. I was bigger than they were (for most of the time), and I played just as hard as they did. Even in college, if I showed up at the local roller-hockey pickup game, I might have received some odd looks, but I was never told that I couldn’t play. At a purely physical level, sure – I was at a disadvantage, being only 5’2″ and lacking testosterone – but we weren’t out there to play professional hockey. I could skate and stick handle better than some of the men. In any group activity there will be players of different skill levels, and this was not an elite group, just a group of friends enjoying the day.

When I began fencing, this was also a male-dominated activity. In my event (saber), there weren’t even competitions held for women. It wasn’t until the 1998-99 season that the NCAA added women’s saber to collegiate competition, followed by the first Olympic individual event in 2004. In fencing, afficianados of a particular weapon are usually ecstatic to have more people train and compete in that weapon. I never experienced anything I could verify as sexism from any competitors, coaches, or tournament staff. Like I said before, maybe I’m oddly fortunate. I’m sure there are others who have had a different experience.

I’m also a PC gamer, and I did have one recent experience that could be loosely called sexism. My cute blond human female character in Guild Wars 2 was busy pursuing quests in a pastoral area of farmland, cows, and peasants. I had just finished one task and was headed off to fight some monsters, when another character began to follow me around. The game allows you to pick up buckets of water and dump them out – presumably you would do this in the correct place to fulfill the quest goals. Instead, this other character asked me, “Do you want a bath?” and proceeded to dump the water on my character repeatedly. I ignored this, never engaged the other player in any conversation, and when I had decided to move on, teleported to a different location. That ended it. Was this a sexist attack on me? The other player had no reason to know that the person behind the character was female. I think rather than label this sexist, I would prefer to call it “being an asshole”. People are going to behave like this at times, and if there is a hint that the target’s gender plays a part, it may be sexist or discriminatory, but I would venture that when you’re being an asshole, you don’t stop to think about those facets of your behavior. There will always be individuals who act out in a malicious way against others, but this shouldn’t be accepted as normal by our modern society.

I don’t want to discount or discredit the experiences of those who have endured serious discrimination. There is still work to be done, and I don’t think that comments on a female editor’s appearance in a bathing suit belong in a commentary about her work. The research studies and case reports that I read in my professional veterinary journals don’t relate information about the author’s bra size or shoe size, be they male or female. Why would they? It’s not relevant. I just want to say that if veterinary medicine and sports can show a willingness to change and be more inclusive to women, then surely SF/F, the field that purports to speculate on the possibilities of the future and imagination can also make progress in this regard.

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