Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

“I’m so done with it”: Conservationist speaks out against sexism in science

with 17 comments

Amanda Stanley

Amanda Stanley

Last week, we wrote about conservationist Stuart Pimm receiving criticism for casual sexism in a recent book review.

The journal did not retract the review, but it released an editor’s note condemning the language Pimm used, including quoting a movie scene in which a man told a woman “I don’t take whores in taxis.” Some readers have questioned whether this is really an instance of sexism, including here in the Retraction Watch comments.

So we reached out to Amanda Stanley, a conservation scientist who was so troubled by the book review that she wrote a letter to the editor, to be published soon in Biological Conservation. Here’s her powerful explanation of where this fits in the overall conversation about sexism in science:

When I first saw this, I felt deep sadness. The language was so inappropriate and so uncalled for. It’s not about the argument or the book or different perspectives on conservation, it’s just about the language. Personally, as a woman in science and conservation I’ve been through the gauntlet of casual and overt sexism in science, and I’m so done with it. I read the review and I was really sad, but ready to say – as I have all the other times – “That’s what happens.” Then I saw a blog post by Britta Teller, saying she was a young woman in science, early in her career, and why wasn’t anyone else speaking up? She felt like she was putting herself at risk speaking out against someone as powerful as Stuart Pimm.

Well, I’m mid-career, I’m relatively established, I have a safe job. If not me then who?


I think there’s been a sea change in conservation and conservation science. We’re seeing a shift…a lot of discussion about diversity of culture and diversity of gender in conservation science. It’s up to all of us to speak out and say, this is not ok in our community. We’re just not gonna take it.

I think it’s not a coincidence that when a certain type of man wants to really insult someone, they turn to gendered insults – you run like a girl, you hit like a girl. If you want to call somebody a sellout you call them a whore. There are a lot of other instances that one could use. Pimm clearly wanted to insult Peter Kareiva. I don’t think we can let him get away with the fact that those insults are gendered. It perpetuates a culture of hostility towards women, and we can see that everywhere. This is not the worst instance of sexism that has ever been, but it’s casual workplace misogyny. It’s the little things that add up over and over.


I will say that Richard Primack has been excellent to work with. When I submitted my letter to the editor he called me within fifteen minutes. We talked for about an hour. He gets it. When they initially put the editors note out there, it said “this language can be read as denigrating to women,” which is the same as saying, “I’m sorry you were offended.” They changed that. That’s made me feel much better about this…Something like this comes out and somebody says that wasn’t appropriate, and then there’s the trolly backlash. But amongst all of that, there are good leaders and good men who stand up on the side of inclusion.

I asked how this got published in the first place, and it turns out book reviews are handled separately, so only the book editor saw this before it went online. It sounds like they’re going to make sure everything goes through the editorial team now. From what Richard was saying, it’s really difficult to retract a paper, so that’s why he tried to get [Pimm] to change the piece. My interactions with the editor have been really good and I think he’s handing this as well as he can.

We are and can and should move to a place where casual sexism in science is a historical footnote, not a current reality. This is just one of the little things we all have to put up with, but if you don’t call out the little things how can we address the big things?

Here’s an excerpt from her upcoming letter to the editor, which has been fast-tracked and should be appearing in the next few weeks:

Framing an argument using ‘whores’ and ‘prostitution’ is harmful and denigrating to women, and is not appropriate for the pages of a scholarly journal. These words matter, and matter deeply, and are indicative of the broader gender and diversity problems within conservation science and practice.

Stanley works for the Wilburforce Foundation, a non-profit group. Despite having the support of her organization, she spoke to us as an individual, not as a representative of Wilburforce, which

…supports many scientists and conservation organizations (including TNC and some of the authors of Keeping the Wild) but did not provide support for the book itself, Peter Kareiva, or Stuart Pimm.

Update 4 p.m. Eastern, 12/10/14: Stanley’s letter to the editor is now available online.

Written by Cat Ferguson

November 24th, 2014 at 11:30 am

  • Sebastian Frische November 24, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    The point made by Pimm is that the very idea of arguing against “new conservationism” by publishing a book is in fact to help this “ism” by creating attention to it. This is a fair point in a book review and as I’m not working in conservation I would probably never have heard about this “ism” if not for this discussion. Without Pimm’s metaphor, this review would probably never had my attention. So due to the metaphore I now know that some organisations (which I have never heard about before) pretending to be “green” is actually controlled by “non-green” industry and hide behind “new conservationism”. I guess this was the purpose of Pimm’s metaphor.

    • Bobo November 24, 2014 at 1:49 pm

      The problem being that the organizations themselves (and the people working for them) do not consider their work to be “non-green”. They merely have a different opinion on how best to conserve nature: namely by stressing its instrumental value as opposed to its intrinsic value.

      It is inappropriate for Pimm to call them “whores”, and it certainly has no place in a book review.

  • Ellen Simms November 24, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    Sebastian Frische, It is not justifiable to denigrate an entire class of scientists just to make a point.

    • Derec Avery November 25, 2014 at 1:10 pm

      But it’s appropriate to denigrate and smear a scientist simply for his poor choice of shirts to wear during an interview as happened to Matt Taylor and in doing so overshadow the fact that the ESA landed a probe on a comet after a multi-billion kilometer journey?

  • Karen Sz. November 25, 2014 at 2:20 am

    @Sebastian Frische: There are a lot of links between so-called “green” organisations and heavily polluting industries, from my reading. And I say that as a Computer Scientist (and thus not in the field of conservation or biology at all).

    If the editors of this website would allow, let me turn this around. Let’s say there’s a book out on how science can survive only if it’s in collusion with politics. (I also have a degree in Politics.) I review the book (I’m brilliantly scathing, of course) and I begin as follows:

    “I confess to having had a teenage crush on Brad Pitt, the actor in ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Think Up A Film Title’. In the latter film, he has had penile enlargement surgery in order to further a scandalous affair with the Secretary of State. When she finds out his equipment isn’t authentic, she stops the limo, and orders him out of the vehicle and into the middle of a storm. When he asks why, she replies: ‘Your dick is too small. What other reason do I need?’ I teach this as a metaphor for academic discourse…Just because some scientists get a lot of attention, doesn’t mean they deserve it.”

    If I wrote that at the beginning of a serious review, I would deserve every letter of criticism that I would get. This kind of writing is *highly* inappropriate, and if it’s considered “INoffensive” in biology circles, then thank dogs I read Comp Sci and Politics journals instead.

    • ammmmmg November 25, 2014 at 12:03 pm

      This is a book review and as such an opinion, not a purely academic paper written as dryly as possible with passive voice throughout to assure the reader should fall asleep.

      For example I Googled Nature’s book reviews and opened the first one I came across (on the book “The Skeptical Environmentalist”) and found it to contain this: “The text employs the strategy of those who, for example, argue that gay men aren’t dying of AIDS, that Jews weren’t singled out by the Nazis for extermination, and so on. “Name those who have died!” demands a hypothetical critic, who then scorns the discrepancy between those few we know by name and the unnamed millions we infer.”

      This is not an academic style of writing (would you bring up Nazis or gay men in your academic text if that’s not what the research is about?), and it need not be: This is not an academic piece. It has no references for one, and it is allowed to use colorful language associated with opinions rather than facts. With it, it keeps the reader engaged. This is an example of good writing: something which is pleasurable to read (again, contrast this to the average scientific paper). I should mention that the review I took the above excerpt from, completely coincidentally, was coauthored by the very same Mr. Pimm whose latest text caused the uproar.

      I’ve now established that I think the book review should be assessed by the same scale you’d use in any book review and that this has traditionally indeed been the case even in scientific journals . Would you be upset if you saw a book review on The Economist, say, (as they often do review academic books) use the word “whore” or employ personal anecdotes to enhance the impact of the text?

      If so, you have grounds to be upset at Pimm and the venue that published his review. I, personally, however am not offended nor do I see any reason to be: To me, that you infer sexist overtones where none were meant are more telling of you as a person than of the author.

      • Bobo November 25, 2014 at 2:53 pm

        Your argument makes precisely zero sense.

        Comparing one’s argumentation style to that of Holocaust deniers is potentially a valid point. Holocaust deniers use logical fallacies and fake “facts” to support their stance. It is not a gendered or ethnic slur, and it is a clear analogy.

        “Whore” on the other hand–especially as it was used in the opening paragraph (i.e., specifically to refer to a promiscuous woman rather than a prostitute)–is derogatory, gendered, and loaded with value judgments about women. There’s also no connection to “whore” in the sense implied later in the piece, namely a prostitute.

        Putting aside the gender issues of the term, and the nonsensical mixed metaphor, it is hopefully obvious to anyone operating on two hemispheres that–in a formal venue–it is inappropriate and unbecoming to call one’s opponent in a debate a “whore”.

    • Leonid Schneider November 26, 2014 at 4:01 am

      Great Karen, it is always useful to switch roles to make discrimination understandable. Your Brad Pitt example is just what it needed to expose Pimm’s attitude to women for what it really is.

  • Sebastian Frische November 25, 2014 at 3:41 am

    Ellen Simms: Is the class of scientists you refer to the “new conservationists”?

  • Wesley November 26, 2014 at 5:26 am

    Wait a minute. Before you neo-puritans start another crusade against the evil misogynist. He was quoting a misogynist movie character. Must we censor all literature and movies in history for misogyny? Must delete racism from them as well?

    • Karen Sz. November 26, 2014 at 7:59 am

      Wow, way to miss the point, Wesley. Let’s be clear here: Pimm can quote whomever he wants. If I want, I can quote an anti-Semite (“As Slimy Drakey famously said in Nabokov’s classic, “Jewlita”, we all know Jews control nanophysiocognitivebehaviorism with an iron grip. I am wondering whether their kosher-only cabal controls wind-farm research in the same way?”). There you go, I just said it. The question is, while my perky little introduction may get many thumbs up at a few of the more odorous sites that inhabit the internet, **does my anti-Semitic quote belong at the beginning of a review of a book on a scientific topic**? It may be my personal opinion, and I am not one of the Semitic peoples so I have no horse in that particular race, but I would hazard a guess that it doesn’t. But that may just be me.

      PS Neo-puritan??!! Scoff scoff. Sir, you don’t know me At All. 😉

    • johnalanpascoe November 26, 2014 at 10:14 am

      The problem is not quoting a misogynistic movie character. The problem is endorsing the value judgement made by that movie character, which as we have just established, is misogynistic.

      By using that specific quote *as a metaphor* you are reinforcing that a) being a whore is a bad thing (and e.g. makes you undeserving of taxi rides) and that b) being a woman with multiple sex partners makes you a whore (even though that behaviour is perfectly fine for a man).

      Of course you are perfectly free to endorse misogynistic value judgements, but don’t be surprised if people complain about you doing it in a scientific book review.

    • Bobo November 26, 2014 at 3:29 pm

      African Americans notoriously have a difficult time getting rides in taxis. Replace “whore” with the N-word wherever it occurs in the book review. These still would not be the author’s own sentiments (although he implicitly seems to approve of the notion by using it as an analogy in the final paragraph of the review). But is use of the “N-word” acceptable language in a scientific journal just because one found a movie in which it was used (especially when that movie is irrelevant to the topic of the article)?

      Essentially, Pimm just wanted to call Peter Karieva a “whore” and he hid behind a misogynistic movie quote to do it.

  • Leonid Schneider November 26, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    Please correct me if I am mistaken, but is it the case that everyone defending Pimm’s choice of words is a man, and those offended by his misogyny are exclusively women, plus myself (apparently due to reading online The Guardian 😉
    It does says something about a possible issue of hidden sexism in science, apparently.

  • imohacsi November 26, 2014 at 9:39 pm

    Should we be suprized, that neo-conservationists are raging on the publicity brought by the review? Bad light on the green-business… If this would be really about sexism, journals should start retracting every paper titled “size matters” (common phrase in the other direction).

    • Bobo November 27, 2014 at 2:45 am

      “Size matters” is not derogatory, and whether or not size is important is a matter of fact, not a matter of ethical judgment. Though I suppose it could be considered damaging to men with a micropenis.

      Calling a woman a “whore” is derogatory, it’s based on an ethical judgment, and suggests to all women a matter in which they should behave.

      Can you see the difference now?

  • Dalia A. Conde December 1, 2014 at 3:51 am

    I am sorry but although I follow Pimm’s contributions to conservation science, and I ask him to talk with my students, this is not the first time I hear sexism comments from him or other scientist from his generation. The chosen language is not and excuse, it shows what a hidden cultural background of machismo. I think it is unacceptable the language used by Dr. Pimm and if people will speak truly about the sexism behind in academia, things will go other way. Many of us are afraid to openly say the comments that we have been subject to because many of the old boys group are main reviewers. May of us are afraid of the common reaction: you are exaggerating there is no sexism anymore. So all my admiration to Amanda Stanley for speaking up.

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