Tag Archives: sexism

On Autonomy and the Role of Men in Feminism, and Wom*n Only Spaces or Events

Paper doll graffiti in a public street - Rome

I’m going to attempt to preemptively answer some questions that come up time and time again. These are often the questions that come from men who encounter the wom*n’s edition of a journal, a feminist-themed talk, or anything that is discussing things that are branded as “wom*n’s issues”. In a university specific setting such questions include: Who is the Men’s Officer? Where is the Men’s Room? And sometimes ‘I’m a Feminist Guy, let me in Your Freakin’ Wom*n’s Room Already’.

Why do we have a Wom*n’s Room?

Wom*n’s Rooms are safe places for those who are female-identifying to escape the daily grind of living in a sexist society, a place to chill out and a place to access resources, and to talk to and connect with other wom*n on campus. For wom*n students, there are lots of subtle (and often not so subtle) reminders that the university (and uhh the world) can be a bit of a boys club. Female students experience sexism and in their daily lives and this impacts on their work and study. Wom*n still make up the vast majority of violence, sexual assault, and domestic violence victims. On average, wom*n earn less than men. We also still don’t have full reproductive freedoms or accessible abortion.

Dale Spencer did an experiment on what happens when men enter what is designated as a wom*n’s feminist space as research for her PhD thesis.[1] She writes:

Present at the discussion, which was a workshop on sexism and education in London, were thirty-two women and five men. Apart from the fact that the tape revealed that the men talked for over 50 per cent of the time, it also revealed that what the men wanted to talk about – and the way in which they wanted to talk – was given precedence.


There is no doubt in my mind that in this context at least (and I do not think it was an atypical one) it was the five males and not the thirty-two females who were defining the parameters of the talk. I suspect that neither the women nor the men were conscious of this. There was no overt hostility displayed towards the females who ‘strayed from the point’, but considerable pressure was applied by the males – and accepted without comment from the females – to confine the discussion to the male definition of the topic.”

Wom*n’s Rooms aren’t perfect. I’m not here to tell you that. They aren’t a solution to the problem — but they’re a start to redressing those problems by giving wom*n a forum where men do not verbally and intellectually dominate conversational space.

When wom*n call a space or event ‘autonomous’ what does that mean?

 The word autonomy has been dissected and re-evaluated numerous times in academic literature. In terms of feminist and oppression politics, the term autonomy has a fairly unique meaning. Autonomy is by no means a simple concept and it means different things to different wom*n in the feminist movement. But, simply put it’s about reclamation of personhood and agency by being free to organise and collaborate exclusively with other wom*n, without the immediate influence of men. It also means decisions affecting wom*n should be made exclusively by wom*n.

c9437d68fc89b04f4616fa461349481eAnd I can hear you now with ‘men are important, too!’ and ‘the patriarchy hurts men as well!’ or ‘you’re being a “feminist elitist”. I agree with most of those statements, actually. But here’s why autonomy, wom*n’s only spaces and wom*n’s only protests and events are still totally fucking necessary.

Here’s the thing: feminists don’t necessarily want your help. Sometimes we would prefer to be only in the company of other wom*n. Sometimes we want to feel that our voices are truly our own. The truth is those male feminists are often seen as being way more brave, and way more valuable than female feminists. I’m kind of tired of that. Because the truth is that as a woman, being a feminist is much more difficult. You’re accused of being crazy. People might even stop being friends with you if you speak out too much. You’re told you should be an “equalist” instead. Because ‘liberation’ is a dirty word (like feminism); it has to about ‘equality’ rather, because men feel threatened by the word ‘liberation’. For many wom*n their feminism aligns with their subjective lived experiences, such as sexual assault and the different ways that their race, sexuality, (dis)ability, gender identity and class intersect with their status as a woman. For most men (and especially those whose gender aligns with their sex assigned at birth) their ‘feminist’ beliefs don’t have the lived experiences like these, which directly inform their feminism. However there are ways you can be constructive (and I’m getting to that, I promise).

This is why it may be requested that you do not attend certain events. Most wom*n who seek out wom*n’s only spaces might get a small amount of enjoyment out of feeling safe for half an hour or so. I’m not suggesting that all wom*n who desire this have had horrific experiences with men, but it might be helpful to think about what might cause someone to do that if you’re considering getting into to a heated argument with them. Topics discussed in what are designated as autonomous, wom*n-only spaces are often highly sensitive, and many wom*n who have experiences with these issues don’t feel comfortable discussing them in front of men.

I’m tired of trying to get men on side with feminism, tip toeing around and sugar-coating things, which might alienate male allies. I’m tired of self-professed feminist men thinking they are entitled to criticise wom*n’s approaches to feminism. I’m even getting tired of the numerous hours spent on articles rallying men to the cause with ‘The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too’ thing because yes, of course it does but, overall it is actually overwhelming good for men. That’s why it exists in the first place. Because the majority of men are invested in its continuation. The more time spent on men’s issues as feminist issues, the less space and time exists for issues, which directly affect wom*n in feminism and go to heart of how we can restructure our oppressive environments. Men who can appreciate the importance of feminism, because they understand decent human behaviour don’t deserve more room in feminism than currently exists.

Men who call themselves feminists are often looking to be part of your circle, in my view. They’re looking for a feminist card that gives them an equal voice in feminist circles, they’re looking for a feminist card when they screw up and get called out on being sexist. They have no role in feminism in my view aside from being pro-feminist or a feminist ally and getting the spaces they dominate and making them feminist. Ask how you can help out instead. Can you put up some posters for a feminist group on campus when they’re campaigning? I’m sure there’s not going to be a problem with that. Offer to help set up the Wom*n’s Collective’s stall. Have meaningful conversations with the other men around you about gender roles. Speak up when you hear something sexist happening or being said. Listen if someone is telling you about an experience they’ve had that they said was sexist. Listen and act if someone is telling you that something they think you said was sexist.

And after all this if you still feel threatened (albeit even slightly) by the idea of wom*n exclusively meeting in public for some purpose, feminist or not, then ask yourself why. You might be part of the problem.


By anonymous




[1] Results were published in Man Made Language, 1981.


An open letter


Dear ABC News

Last night when you were reporting on the Governments decision to launch an inquiry into work place discrimination around pregnancy and maternity leave you decided to spin it as  ‘the Government attempts to reignite the gender debate’.


You are the damn ABC you are not supposed to be saying things like this. I mean I expect it from Andrew Bolt but I had higher hopes for you.

I mean the Government looking into the fact that women who are ‘of child rearing age’ don’t get hired for jobs simply because the employer doesn’t want to have to take the risk they may decided to have a child and then have to pay maternity leave, or the fact that many new mothers returning from maternity leave are told they must go full time or face redundancies. Or new mothers returning to the workforce not being granted more bathroom breaks or being put on less physically demanding duties. Its all obviously just the Government trying to restart the gender debate– not make life fairer and easier for women, not to ensure that the workforce is safe for women and certainly not to attempt to make a dent is the sexism that women in this country still face. It is most certainly just them trying to start up the gender debate once again.

266257282_640But seriously when did working towards equality end up being part of the gender debate. What even is the gender debate? All I think of when I hear you use this stupid term is arguments that were accompanied with boy germs and cooties being whipped from whoever was touched by the other sex onto some poor child who happened to not be holding their fingers in the ‘germ lock’ position.

And oh how you have me in a rant now ABC! Like the children I know who used to feel this way about other boys and girls, I wish you would grow up!

 Grow up and acknowledge that women still aren’t treated the way men do.

Grow up and realise that the ‘gender debate’ is not a real thing its what mens rights activists think feminism creates.

Grow up and stop viewing anything the Government does for women is not directly related to the fact that we have a women as Prime Minister.

Grow up and accept that the Government isn’t out to win brownie points but rather help women to have a fairer go at life.

And stop bloody breaking my heart with you ill informed, factually offensive, and down right disgraceful reports around women’s issues.

Mikaela Wangmann

National Womens Officer 2013

10 out of 40, ‘aint bad? Wait.

i need feminism because

I was talking with a friend of mine recently who spoke to me about how he thought that it really was bad how women were treated in the past but was super glad that they weren’t treated so bad anymore.


While I know he had the best of intentions and was not being malicious, he was merely ignorant and the discussion frustrated me. I spent a significant period of time explaining all the inequalities to him but the one that he could not get his head around was that we value men and their achievements significantly more than we celebrate those of women. I tried to come up with several examples that I thought he could relate to a really understand. I ran through a few examples and he couldn’t see what I meant, then as we got the bill for out coffees and we jostled over who would pay I realized the perfect example of sexism in our society.


Of the forty people who have been featured on Australian money only 10 have been women, while I acknowledge that it is better than I though it would be its still bullshit! Money which is one of the things that we value most in our society, and having your face brandished across it is one of the greatest honors that can be bestowed features thirty men and ten women. Thirty to ten. TEN.


So this is basically saying that of the forty most noteworthy people  printed on our money only ten were women. Yea because I am super sure that there have defiantly not been more cool, inspiring, hardworking or just generally boss women who could have been chosen.


This disregard of Womens achievement really bugged me, but at least I finally got my message across. Feminism win. It is little victories like this, explaining and recruitment to the cause that is what has kept our movement strong for so many years, and what we need to do to keep it strong and continue to progress. So I guess the moral of the story is don’t back away from these discussions and don’t give up if you can’t win someone over immediately keep pushing because we can never have to many feminists. And really- everyone who believes that women and men should be treated equally is a feminist.

Mikaela Wangmann

National Women’s Officer 2013

On the Offensive: A Case for Furious Feminism

its ok to be angry

Alison is just a really angry person who has been blessed with being UTS Wom*n’s Officer for 2013. Alison liked to write letters to the editor before the internet made it the bastion of time-rich conservatives. In leiu of this, Alison likes to be an advocate and, short of a serious criminal record or parking fine, will hopefully one day be of the silk or in a suit, yelling at people for a living.


Wom*n’s bodies have been the site of patriarchal conquest for aeons, and if you’re reading this blog, I’m sure I don’t have to delve much into that conquest. But how often do we think about the conquest of more abstract rights, bodies and expressions of wom*nhood and feminism? And how do we negotiate these when, as wom*n, we have internalised a great deal of social boundaries regarding what conduct is proper?

I’m talking about emotions, specifically, anger, and its expression in feminist circles.

Why is it that a man’s anger on wom*n’s issues (read: White Ribbon Day) is noble and righteous, but a wom*n’s (read: Every Other Frickin’ Day) is unreasonable, embarrassing and laughable? For a man to sway with rhetoric and quaver his voice with passion was the sign of a good speaker. A wom*n’s furious vibrato is nothing but hysteria.

For an embarrassingly long time, the man thinkers of the day treated a wom*n’s unruly emotions in the most patronising, pathological and bizarre way. It was considered that an angry, upset or noticeably emotional people with egg-producing reproductive organs had the condition hysteria, and for some time, it was thought that egg-producing reproductive organs were malfunctioning, spurting hormones everywhere or leaping about the body, inducing within the wom*n some unnatural and perverse state in which she expressed unpalatable feelings, often relating to grief.

The vibrator was invented as a more automated treatment after doctors subjected wom*n to manual stimulation (read: sexual assault) in order to ‘cure’ this grave condition and the scourge on society that an angry wom*n was.

In particular WOC and ATSI wom*n have suffered significantly under this construct, denied rights and believed to be racially inferior due to their non-complicity with colonialism (see: Sapphire caricature). It’s apparently funny, even meme-worthy, for a WOC or ATSI wom*n to express fury or upset. Some of my un-favourites include “Aboriginal Woman Yells at Man on Train Lolz” or, if you want to delve into history “African-American Woman Gets Angry When She’s Catcalled ROFLMAO”.

We have a long and grievous history in which we have been subjugated, bodily, ideologically and physically based on our anger for an infuriatingly long time.

Cut to today and one would guess that this would be an issue solved and lain in our past.

I wish it was so.

Feminism has this bizarre lateral trend which I have noticed where we call out people for calling out, we bring shame and scorn upon those wom*n who yell at the patriarchy. We are happy to make subversive bunting, but very unhappy to back a wom*n up in a confrontation against her cat-caller, a misogynist bro in caucus or in a fight with a microagressively sexist friend.

And I’ve tried this ‘Nice Wom*n: Please, Sir, I Can Haz Rights Nao’ thing, and it is soul-destroying. I grew sick of explaining things to people for whom patriarchy and feminism was a series of non-sequiturs and strawman arguments. When people would see a wom*n’s cheeks become flushed as they pick apart her experiences under a lexical microscope and laugh because she takes it too seriously. But a Daily Life, Mama Mia, Kochie’s Angels brand of feminism is riling against that, saying that we’re something more, that Angry Feminism is something that we should move beyond, that it’s a stereotype and that Feminist Killjoys and Misandrists are forcing everyone to shy away from the big F word.

I’m not for a second going to tell you what to feel or how to act, and I can tell you that acting on my feminist anger has won me exactly zero friends, zero jobs, and zero Mama Mia articles on my nifty range of cunt-cakes, yet has stirred within me a huge affirmation for my ideas, an understanding of my self-worth, a more complex contemplation of intersectionality and my role in the activist realm. My anger is a great enabler, it drives me to get things done, it drives me to examine privilege and it drives me to consider my feminism in forever changing lights and to temper my anger with pragmatic empathy, not to those who perpetuate ‘-isms’, but with those who are subject to them.

This is not a free-for-all pass to screaming. We must also consider the safety of others. But we must also consider substantive violence. A yell here or there may be nothing compared to years of lateral ideological subjugation and cruelty. A yell may be just and furious and fitting in all the right ways for a person who has been subject to this cruelty and, though it is not the focus, may bring a shameful call to action for the receiver. A yell, though, may also trigger a stander-by with significant history, and so we must be careful.

But these things haven’t really been mapped out yet, or set for negotiation, because respectability politics and the cringe of the modern feminist at the howling, unshaven, buzz-cut hulk of a feminism supposedly passed, have yet to really shift and make space for such a discussion. The answer has always been a resounding ‘No’, even from our own, an ejection from the feminist table.

It’s alright, if you want to, to be that rabid, furious, screaming, crying feminist, because it is nothing else but your prerogative, your right, and potentially, your joy.

And, in the face of things, there’s a lot to be furious about (here’s a sampler of some pretty standard run-of-the-mill bullshit).

  • With every student/pensioner/everything discount you can pull, the average cost (excluding transport, accommodation, time off work, recovery and pain medication) of a medical or surgical termination from a not-for-profit is $300;
  • Forced sterilisation of (dis)abled wom*n is still happening;
  • Revenge porn is a thing;
  • Sistagirls (trans* ATSI wom*n) are still dying in custody in men’s prisons and no-one’s saying a word;
  • Nice Guys ™ are everywhere right now, and they’re going undercover, without their fedoras and chain wallets;

And my un-favourite;

  • We’re encouraged to be polite in the face of all this.



Alison Wonderwound

UTS Womens Officer 2013




Axe The Tax!



Sophie is the 2013  UWA Women’s Officer .Only after her term started did she label herself a feminist but since she adopted the title she has decided that to her feminism is more about how she lives her life and how she allows other people, especially men, to treat her. She also has an astounding ability to fall over multiple times in a day for no apparent reason.


The Axe The Tampon Tax Campaign was born one Tuesday in the office of a colleague during casual conversation. I decided that, since I am Women’s Officer at the UWA Student Guild, I finally had the power to do more than bitch about it.

Since then, more menstrual puns than the world’s men can handle have been shared on social media, and the change.org petition has gained more than 10,000 signatures in less than two days.

The whole argument of this campaign is that having a tax on tampons is fundamentally sexist.

I’ve had a lot of criticism on this, and I think a lot of it is because people (ok, men) don’t get the point of the petition. I don’t think there is anything wrong with taxing most products – even things like nappies and children’s clothes. Sure, in an ideal world we wouldn’t have tax, yaddyayaddya, but we do – and everyone uses these things. However, unless you are libra pad man, if you are a male, you will never use sanitary products, which means you will never be taxed for them. Having your period sucks enough without chucking a sexist tax into the mix. And to add insult to injury… condoms are already GST free – so men, the argument that you get taxed for your essentials? So INVALID.

You can get involved with this issue by signing the petition here:

And tweeting all the pollies you can – let everyone know what a #bloodyoutrage it is!!!


Sophie Anne Clare Liley

Women’s Officer at the UWA Student Guild

It’s like, you don’t even care how disgusting I find you, you’re #sahbrave

Why hello, most backhanded of all backhanded compliments, it’s so nice to see you again. I’ve been hearing you for years, from lots of different people, nearly all women.

I hadn’t heard it for a while, until I was sitting in a bar with a group of young women, most of whom would identify themselves as being feminist, and then it hit me smack bang in the middle of the conversation.

First, “Well you wouldn’t think it was a good idea would you, you’re not very attractive”

To which I responded, “That’s pretty rude”

“Well, I mean, OBVIOUSLY I was JOKING

Followed by (from a different attendee) “I mean, obviously she’s joking, I think it’s great you don’t wear make up every day. It’s so brave”

And there we go. Again. They don’t really mean any harm by it I suppose. But what they’re really saying is ‘hey there, look at you out there, not conforming to what I expect of you and not even caring that I find you disgusting’

How. Fucking. Brave.

The thing about ‘you’re so brave’ is that it’s often a comment that comes seemingly out of nowhere, and it hits you like a ton of bricks. I remember going out to dinner with a family member once thinking I looked pretty nice. I went to the bathroom and after I came back I was treated to, “Wow, look at that dress you’re wearing, it’s so brave of you to show of your curves like that. You’re so voluptuous. I wish I was as confidant as you”

As a young woman who wasn’t really that comfortable with the idea of being called the evil fat a million times while I ate my pasta it really stuck with me. What hit me the most is that I knew they didn’t really mean it, because they would never believe that you could ever be anything other than skinny to be beautiful, attractive or desirable.

That is the crux of the problem. Because of the way that our society is structured we know that the only way to really be attractive is to be stick thin and big boobed and white and blond and able bodied all at the same time. Anyone who doesn’t fit that particular ideal (or at least most of it) isn’t really enough.

As much as I loathe to write a piece about how terrible it is the way women tear each other down (because, lord knows, there’s enough of those around) the idea that you’re just so brave to be willing to exist outside of the ideal comes mostly from women. I just don’t really understand why people find the need to say it.

Is there another way that it should be? Should people who aren’t skinny, or aren’t able bodied or aren’t ‘attractive’ in the traditional sense hide away? Or wear giant clothing that hides any semblance of a shape? Is it that women shouldn’t be out in the world being so open about being fat, or ugly or old or (dis) abled?

So, if any of you who think we’re just so brave are reading this, think about it the next time you go to say it. Because we know what you really mean.

I’d love to hear your opinions, especially on twitter, hash tag what you’ve been told with #sahbrave. Tag @nuswomens for your voice to be heard!  


The fat moles and super stars of Australian sport



Every four years Australia is given an opportunity to illustrate to the nation, and to the world, just how much we have changed.

The Olympics come around and there’s a lot of new coverage about how good Australians are at sport, what an excellent inclusive country we are and just how badly we’re going to beat those awful pommies.

Something about needing to beat the English really matters to Australia. Like the ex boyfriend you just can’t forgive for dumping you, or the girl that beat you for school captain (or is that just me, best women get vice anyway) we can’t seem to face an Olympics without hyping up some jingoistic pride about just how wrong they were to banish us.

Australian’s love their sport. Well, that really needs a clarification, Auslian’s love their men’s sport. Their women’s sport not so much. It’ funny because there are some things that it appears that women are allowed to be good at, like tennis and lingerie football, but not a lot else.

Our Olympics coverage started out a little dicey, there was the awkward information that while the male Olympians were flown business and first class to London for the Olympics while the women Olympians were flown economy. Now while I’m not inclined to be particularly sympathetic to people complaining about not flying business class, however this time was different.

Our women’s Olympic teams are almost always way better at being Olympians than the male ones. The women win more medals and beat more pommy teams than the men. But they get paid less and have to fly coach.

The gig got somewhat worse yesterday when swimmer ‪Leisel Jones had an article written by Fairfax about how she was ‘out of shape’ and treting the Olympics ‘like a holiday’. Never one to let the words do the walking they included pictures (taken from angles that would make Miranda Kerr look rather short and stout) of Jones.

The words ‘this wouldn’t happen to a man’ have seemed to lose all of their meaning at this point. Jones is a talented swimmer, who debuted in the Australian team at the age of fourteen. Commenting that her body has changed since then is stating the obvious. To use deliberately unflattering pictures of a swimmer to make an argument that has no basis is a fate we can only allow for a woman. Male sports men are too well respected by Australians. 

What do you think about the Jones incident? What does it say about Australian attitudes to female sports people? 

Interview: Kaitlin Ferris



What Year were you NUS Women’s Officer?


What was the biggest issue for women student’s the year you were women’s officer?

This is a really difficult question.

The issue which perhaps was central and common to an overwhelming number of women, was their experience and perception of violence on campus. The anecdotal evidence of threats to and violations of women’s safety, in educational spaces was astounding. And the work the department has done since, with the survey, has rendered the experiences of women students undeniable to those who refused to acknowledge the problem.

I say it’s a difficult question, because there are so many underlying issues here. The under-investment in services which would assist in addressing the problem, the reticence to disclose information central to making any progress or change, and the threat’s existence in and of itself…these are such deep, entrenched problems, which really were at the forefront of the very preliminary push for change in 09.

What do you think is the biggest issue is for women students today?

I think the violence and sexism which takes place in the classroom is a really fundamental issue. Sometimes blatant, other times more veiled, it is a source of ongoing and frequent oppression.

This kind of fundamental discrimination and rejection of views on a gendered-basis feeds  into the way men will enter the world, and the validation of such behavior, particularly through silence on the part of teachers is a source of grave concern.

What achievement or campaign are you most proud of?

Finally getting somewhere with the safety on campus issue really made the whole year’s toil seem worth it. I hate that it was such a disgusting occasion which brought the issue to the attention of the wider community (the St Paul’s Facebook group). But it meant that people/media/universities had to pay attention to what we’d been trying to get through all year.

I’ve been absolutely amazed by the work Keelia, Courtney and yourself (Noni) have done on this issue in the years since. The survey, and the way it has had a genuine and real impact on changing attitudes to this issue amongst those with the resources to do something about it has been such a source of inspiration.

When you were women’s officer what couldn’t you leave the house without?

Phone. And whatever sanity I could scrounge up for the day was always  a bonus.

Do you think that the women’s movement is growing or shrinking?

Growing? I suppose it depends on what you’re prepared to include as being part of the movement. Is it attendance at Slutwalk, or at NOWSA which forms the measure of growth in the movement? Or both? Or neither?

I suppose either way, I feel like in my own communities, and to my surprise in my experiences this year especially, there are more women who identify as feminists. So I’m going to remain the eternal optimist and say growing (full stop)

What are you doing now?

I’m a law student. Which is an unexpected place to have found myself in, but one I’m for the most part pretty happy with.

What message would you give to young women thinking about getting involved in the student women’s movement?

Look after those around you, and take care of your health and wellbeing.

Nothing is more important than your family, and your friendships.

And try not to forget the reason you got involved in the first place.

All of these things are easier said than done, of course. But you should do them anyway.

Would you do it all again?

Another difficult question. I worked with some truly amazing people, and there are many moments and things I would not want to take back.

But I wish I’d followed my own above advice a bit better.

I guess the answer is a qualified yes J

Piss Weak- Vile Kyle wins derogatory argument, can continue to make statements about ‘Fat Slags’ he wants to ‘hunt down’.

I wrote a blog when the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) handed down a decision to place strict licensing restriction on Austero (Vile Kyle’s license holder) which would have imposed significant fines in the event that any of the shows on 2day FM broadcast material that was offensive or demeaning to women or girls.  In the blog I called it, “A surprisingly gutsy decision” (read it here), it would appear that I was right, and I spoke too soon. They have reversed their decision.

Now ACMA argues that they haven’t actually backed down at all saying that the new code was not a back down, rather a slight alteration. The decision says that, “‘program content must not offend generally accepted standards of decency…having regard to the demographic characteristics of the audience of the relevant program’.” I’m not a lawyer or anything, but it seems to me that that isn’t really the same.

As I pointed out in the April blog, majority of the listeners to the Kyle and Jackie O show are women. So that’s the audience. Content can’t offend generally accepted standards of decency, with a largely female audience.

What I liked so much about the original licensing restrictions was that they were a message about what we can reasonably object to on our airwaves and within our public discourse. For some reason overt sexism and statements trivializing violence against women are still allowed to be a part of the language used in the mainstream media.  Outrage is never in short supply, consequences are rare in this world where it seems like feminists are the only people that still care.

Words, and the meaning of words, are intensely powerful. While the outcome of the licensing may well be the same whatever the words the statement has changed. Where ACMA once responded saying that the sort of language Kyle used was no longer appropriate in this day and age that was a message. Now it’s blunted by the retraction.

ACMA had an opportunity to send a message to women and men that said that sexism has no place in mainstream media, violence against women has no place in our culture and that there would be consequences for those who continue to flaunt the decency standards we expect for those who are given a giant microphone. They turned their back on that message with this decision.

I don’t know about you all, but I’m really disappointed by this turn around. To think that there might have been a real consequence, a real message sent and then for the patriarchy to win out yet again is piss weak.

What do you all think?

NeuroSex: Or, The “delicacy of the brain fibers” in women prevents complex thought

By Boo Patrick

“The delicacy of the brain fibers” in women prevents complex thought.

            Nicholas Malebranche, 17th century

Seeing that the average brain-weight of women is about five ounces less than that of men, on merely anatomical grounds we should be prepared to expect a marked inferiority of intellectual power in the former… the inferiority displays itself most conspicuously in a comparative absence of originality, and this more especially in the higher levels of intellectual work.

George Romanes, 19th century

[On why there is a lack of women in high-end science-related positions] ”…in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude… reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination”

Lawrence Summers, Harvard President, 21st century

Neuroscience has been used often in history, to give bullshit a sense of credibility.  This article in no way intends to disavow the many researchers who treat their material with discernment, and, dare I say it, delicacy; I hope only to make evident the raging fictions abounding in popular science, and to stress the significance of human agency when confronting gender issues.

Brains are elastic…

And we are only just beginning to understand to what extent.  Just as, with blindness, the visual cortex is automatically used to processes tactile sensations,[i] people can train their brains to become more adept at certain activities.  Such is evidenced in the work of Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, who, after hearing about a study that contrasted the brain development of rats in stimulation-rich cages, with those in sterile environments, figured that if rats could grow their brains, so could she.  Born with a severely asymmetric brain, which allowed her to remember entire news shows, but not to tell the time – she repetitively performed the tasks she found the hardest.  This method proved so successful that she opened a school, and has seen many children achieve similar results – all through her claim to a better brain.[ii]

…and we don’t understand everything about them…

The idea that the abilities of one’s brain are both fixed, and determined by biological sex, saturates western media, as do the assertions that males are naturally better at maths and science, and females more adept communicators.  Through the course of my research, it has become increasingly obvious that this is oversimplification at its finest, and that, when performing complex activities, many different parts of the brain are in dialogue with each other.

Rather than attempting to explain gendered gaps, ‘neuroscience’, as it appears in popular culture has become a buzzword in itself, and a way of selling sexism, without appearing sexist.[iii]  Rather than reading, “Women are better drivers than men” (an incorrect statement, in case you were wondering) one can state that “Women have less developed spatial awareness stemming from their underdeveloped left hemispheres”.  Sounds legitimate, right?

…but some people pretend that they do, and it sucks.

Many studies have been used to retrospectively explain why things are the way they are, namely, why the achievements of women have been dwarfed by men.  In order to do so, ‘scientists’ throughout history have attempted to track down the source of woman’s inferiority, and, with the emergence of neuroscience in the seventeenth century; the brain was increasingly used as the site of weakness.

In the nineteenth century, many women were institutionalized for suffering from “hysteria”.  Used to encompass any illness experienced by women, biologists asserted that it was caused by a woman’s ‘wandering womb’, as the womb would move around inside the body, searching for a sexual outlet.[iv]  Though the theory sounds ridiculous now, its core principle – that women are controlled by their hormones, and cannot be angry without being irrational/PMS’ing – remains commonplace.  In this sense, neuroscience has been used only to justify social attitudes, without telling us anything.


If our brains are as ‘plastic’, or susceptible to change as has been indicated, it is perhaps more fruitful to explore how thought is influenced by social conditioning, rather than merely projecting social hierarchies upon data.

In 2008, Science magazine published an article called ‘Culture, Gender, and Math’, which argued that internationally, as female emancipation rises, the gender gap in mathematics is removed, explaining the disparity as being due to sexist social attitudes, rather than biology.[v]

In another study conducted by Angela Moe, participants were told to complete a mental rotation test, for which men typically account for 75% of the top scores.  The test is often used to explain men’s dominance in math/science fields.  They were split into three groups; the first group was told that men had a genetic advantage in taking the test, the second group was the control, and the third was told that women were more adept at the task.  In both the first and second groups, the men came out ahead, while in the third, men and women performed equally.[vi]  When scrutinized, the results of these studies show the significance of cultural factors in determining people’s abilities.  They illustrate an idea that should be considered obvious – that without self-belief, and a supporting network, it is much more difficult to achieve success.  Stereotypical generalities, that men make bad communicators and women bad inventors, can therefore behave as self-fulfilling prophecies and suppress ability, as they force people to identify with a position of weakness.

…and Intervention

Curious as to why women are still so underrepresented in science/engineering fields in Australia,[vii] I interviewed several female engineers, employed at a major international biotech company.  Each person believed that talking to female high school students, and ‘demystifying’ engineering and what such jobs entail, is the most effective way of enhancing women’s involvement in the field, as getting people started is the critical step.  One engineer commented that many of her intelligent female friends were flabbergasted at the prospect of being an engineer, as they had the impression that it must be beyond their capabilities.  Having been profiled so long as the domain of eccentric, white male geniuses, it is understandable that some girls, living in a culture still marked as patriarchal, could feel inadequate, and intimidated by science.  Groups such as RoboGals have sought to remove from science its sense of mystique, as they show female students how to program robots, showing them an accessible engineering, and presenting them with more diverse role models.

One scientist noted that the advertising used to entice school-leavers into engineering programs often relied upon traditionally male visual codes, as they focused on the large and fast machines that engineers build – a model that potentially alienated female viewers.  She suggested that, by representing other facets of an engineer’s role – such as their potential to benefit third world communities – a wider selection of people could be attracted.

Rather than hiding behind the sexist generalities of popular science and culture, major technology-based institutions – through starting female leadership programs, and encouraging paternal, as well as maternal leave – are taking responsibility for gender imbalances, and attempting to rectify them.

The best, and also the worst thing, about neuroplasticity?  Things can change, but it’s up to us.

Boo is a member of the University of New South Wales Women’s collective. You can check them out on Facebook here. They’re doing a call out at present for Art works for a national competition ‘What is a woman?’. Contact them on Facebook to express interest. 

[i] S Begley, ‘Math is Hard, Barbie Said’, in Newsweek Magazine, October, 2008.

[ii] J Hawley, ‘How to rewire a brain’, in Good Weekend Magazine, March 2012.

[iii] C Fine, Delusions of Gender: how our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010, p. 168.

[iv] M Schutzman, The Real Thing: performance, hysteria, & advertising, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999, p. 34.

[v] L Guiso, F Monte, P Sapienza and L Zingales, ‘Culture, Gender and Math’ in, Science, Vol. 320, 2008, pp. 1164-1165.

[vi] C Fine, op. cit., p. 28.

[vii] In 2009, women made up 9.6% of the engineering workforce. Engineers Australia Statistical Overview, 2009.