08 May 2007

matlab for men

A friend of mine wrote to the creator of the site "Matlab for Men" and asked him why he chose this name. She told him she feels the name discourages cooperation among engineers of all genders and reflects poorly on the international image of Sharif University.

A student of the creator (who my friend cc'd) replied in earnest trying to defend the name's creativity, and she forwarded that response asking us what we thought. Here are my responses.

Date: Sat, 5 May 2007 11:08:21 -0700 (PDT)
If it were an American writing this email to you, I would feel comfortable assuming that "Matlab for Men" means "matlab only to be used by real men" in the fully chauvinistic sense. I would spam them everyday and get my friends to do it until they could come up with something actually creative (bc I don't think it is creative, if this is the true original meaning).

However, I really don't know how this translates. Perhaps they really did mean "Matlab for Humans" when they wrote it-- implying that they are giving useful working advice to real people for how to use matlab.

He seems genuine in wanting to make you feel like it's not offensive, but I find it amusing bc in English there are gender neutral/incuding terms for a few of the examples he's offering, like cowgirls, businesswomen or businesspeople. From my experience you would never call a cowgirl a cowboy, for example. Not because it's offensive but because it's inaccurate. (And besides, the Dallas Cowboys are all men.) This is opposed to words like mankind and human which have the word "man" inside but have always been defined to mean all people. Again-- all of this is solely from the English language perspective. I think you could suggest to him that he changes the name to "Matlab for Mankind"--which sounds great and is actually creative.

I have always understood how people think that some women are being picky when they ask for a change of vocabulary in order to be technically more equal, when in reality the word is mostly used equally for both genders anyway. This guy's example of "freshman" is a good one-- if we all started getting riled up and saying you have to start saying "freshpeople", it would be silly.

However, I do think that if all people were somehow magically able to let go of the issues attached, then clearly the best choice would be a gender neutral or gender including vocabulary. Then men who run the front podium at a restaurant would not be called "hostess" or men who help you on the airplane would not be "stewardess"...the "ess" ending implying female.

There is nothing wrong with wanting it to stay the old way that everyone is used to, but there is also nothing wrong with wanting the neutral case. And once something is changed, it soon becomes "the old way that everyone is used to" anyway.

Date: Tue, 8 May 2007 09:38:48 -0700 (PDT)
I just wanted to let you know that I had one further thought this morning about this email. It irritates me to no end that he said twice that you should not "segregate yourself" and not use the website because of the name. This is one of the most detrimental things that someone in a position of power can do-- preemptively blame the victim for the disadvantages they will face.

In fact, for every one woman who says they refuse to use the website because of the name, there are ten women who feel discouraged and ashamed to use that website. The segregation is happening because of HIS choice, not because of yours.


Jonathan B. said...

I actually suspect that the truth behind the name contains more sexism and chauvinism than his defenders either realize or admit. Having said that, why do you give a shit? Use it or don't, but why they hell would you let a website from some hamlet university in the Middle East piss you off? You do women no service by suggesting that there are multitudes of them who are too "ashamed" to use a goddam website because of some chauvinistic title. I'm pretty sure you're wrong about that, too. Most women engineers I know are made of far tougher stuff than that.

Laura said...

Jonathan-- thanks for your comments.

(1) Sharif is the best technical university in Iran, and is among the top technical undergraduate universities in the world. Also, it's the alma mater of my friend who wrote the website creators in the first place.

(2) It didn't piss me off that much :)

(3) I'd like it if not just tough women were eligible to become engineers. That said, "ashamed" was probably a poor word choice. I do feel "discouraged" might be accurate for some.

PS I don't know how I didn't see this till now. Sorry for the MUCH delayed response :)

Jonathan B. said...


Yes, this is a long term correspondence! I completely forgot about this. I'm sorry I was so bombastic.

Anyway, I wasn't suggesting only tough women can become engineers, I was trying to imply that women in general are far tougher than that. In my experience, women who are capable don't spend much time worrying about sexism. The fact that we make such a big deal out of the supposed disadvantages of women in science does more harm than good, in my mind. It gives women the idea they can't far more than whatever sexism is left.

And that was my main point. Worrying too much about women being offended is far more troublesome than the few examples of overt sexism you can find, like "MATLAB for men." The latter can be written off easily, but what can't be written off so easily is the constant message we who are in science get about how important it is to hire women, how they must be encouraged to join us, how we must make engineering attractive. I wonder how women could possibly want to join a profession where from the very beginning they are assumed to be in need of such help. I also laugh at the idea that we will achieve equality between men and women by treating women with such self-conscious delicacy.

This is said more as a general comment, not directed at you or what you said about the MATLAB site. I am just trying to explain why I reacted the way I did. I'm sure this wasn't something you were really making as big a deal out of as I did.