Male chauvinists take note: a gaffe is more trouble than it's worth

Alice Wu reviews three recent high-profile insults against women and the predictable flurry of denial, apology, defence and resignation that follows, and says enough is enough

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 June, 2015, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 June, 2015, 9:00pm

I need a new binder to add to my collection of those that are full of insults to women. At least three men have got into trouble this month - one for trying to be funny, one for trying to be nice, and the other for trying to be mean.

Nobel laureate biochemist Sir Tim Hunt claimed he was trying to be "humorous" at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul last Tuesday, when he tried to explain his "trouble with girls". "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry," he said.

And we thought it was bad enough 10 years ago, when former US Treasury Secretary and then Harvard University president Lawrence Summers hypothesised during a conference that the under-representation of women in science could possibly be explained by innate differences between men and women. A decade on, we are supposed to laugh when we are told that there's just too much loving and crying with us women, so much so that we're impeding advancements in science.

Needless to say, not too many people, including women, are finding the idea that labs should be segregated by gender funny in any way. And, despite being a woman, I'm definitely not crying over Hunt having to resign from his position at University College London for what he said.

But I feel sad about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "despite being a woman" gaffe. What propelled Modi to add the oh-so-patronising clause to his praise for his Bangladeshi counterpart, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, is anyone's guess. Why couldn't Modi just be "happy" about Hasina's "zero tolerance for terrorism" and praise her courage without tripping over her gender?

What is truly sad, though, is that Modi's visit was a much-needed dose of good news for the world and the world of diplomacy. Modi and his host, Hasina, were able to accomplish something that seems impossible in today's conflict-ridden world - resolving long-standing border disputes against a backdrop of increasingly out-of-control rhetoric over border disputes in the region.

It could have been a shining example of the merits and hard work of active engagement in the face of knotty relations and contentious issues. But, no, Modi had to ruin it with just four words: "despite being a woman". Though the words were offensive, it's important to consider that Modi probably did mean them as a compliment. But perhaps that is the reason why many have found his gaffe uber-offensive.

We are used to men belittling women out of spite, like what former first minister of Scotland Alex Salmond did when he lashed out at UK Minister of State for Small Business and Enterprise Anna Soubry earlier this month. Not only did Salmond call Soubry "demented", he managed to throw in "behave yourself, woman!" in his tirade.

The real trouble with male chauvinists - both the men and the women - isn't that women have to put up with the put-downs dressed as jokes, or be condescended to, whether in praise or in rebuke. It isn't that there are women who should know better than to condone, defend and enable a caveman mentality in the modern world.

The real trouble with them is that they continually get themselves into trouble, and trouble the rest of the world with their denials, "sorry if anyone is offended" apologies, and resignations.

The smarter and easier thing to do would be to throw away the caveman's club and look past the gender of a person - whether they're in lab coats, declaring their zero tolerance for terrorism, or disagreeing with you.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA