Respect for Female Herpers

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

I thank the dozens of women that provided me with first-hand accounts and anecdotes of  any sexism, discrimination, or harassment they have experienced in the hobby, and for the even more that shared stories with me privately, for fear of ridicule or retribution.

Discrimination is a delicate, nuanced subject. Sometimes it's overt and aggressive, of course, but in most cases it is subtle. A tone, a gesture, a glance avoided, or a comment made in passing. Blink and you may miss it entirely. But discrimination builds over time, each new incident layering over the last until the discriminated feels the frustration build with each new insult. The Descriminator in turn may not even be conscious of how their actions are being perceived, or even that they are being received as slights at all. And when frustration meets the oblivious, tempers flare and miscommunication abounds.

What I wish to communicate today, riding on the coattails of the current state of affairs in the world, is to present that frustration calmly and clearly through the voices of several female keepers in a way can shed light on this issue and perhaps make people, both men and women, reconsider how they treat female keepers in this hobby. Yes, I said men and women because discrimination is not an exclusively male offense; all humans have a tendency to disregard women and/or hold them to different standards than they do for men, often totally unconsciously.

Women Judged More Harshly, Considered Less Competent

There are plenty of studies that show the disparity between how males are viewed versus women, in a variety of contexts. For the sake of brevity, I will only mention a small handful of them here. One study, for example, conducted on college students looked at email communication between students and their professors (sometimes professor genders were manipulated) and then those emails were rated on various parameters. The results showed that (perceived) female professors were judged more harshly for the same mistakes and were addressed by their professional titles less often than male professors. (Knutsen 2014)


Another paper found that in a group of men and women together, such as a jury group (the setting for the study), when men expressed anger they found that they gained influence over the group, but that when women did so, even when making identical arguments, they lost influence and even credibility over their peers. (Salermo 2015) Men are continuously found to be more influential in a group of people (Carli 2001) but it's curious to see that men are particularly more resistant to letting themselves be influenced by women and girls; while women will typically be more open to influence from a fellow woman, men are not so easily persuaded unless "women temper their competence with displays of communality and warmth." (Carli 2001) That is, men are going to resist taking the directions of a woman unless she camouflages her authority and proficiency with traditionally female qualities, like speaking softly, warmly, and gently. In positions of leadership this can be an extremely tricky obstacle for a woman, who is generally regarded as less credible and less socially skilled as an influential agent than a man of the same background and qualifications (Carly 2001)

This is all to say, we are comfortable listening to women as long as they don't seem sound too qualified, matter-of-fact, or assertive. 

A General Lack of Respect

So how does this all affect us in the herp hobby? The unfortunate fact is that the same problems of discrimination that many women feel in other professional or personal circles are the same problems that many female herpers and hobbyists experience daily. Women with years of experience are not taken seriously oftentimes by other keepers, especially if these can defer to a male keeper instead. Essentially; between a male keeper and a female keeper of the same level of experience, aptitude, and competence, individuals will usually assume the male has more credibility and authority on a subject. 

"I have sat in my own groups and watched as members converse with men and take their advice over mine, even though my comment came first saying virtually the exact same thing. There is an issue in this hobby." - Elise
"When I am with my husband and I mention we have snakes, they turn to him to ask questions initially (until I start answering them). If he mentions them first, I get basically ignored or even asked how I feel about it- but I'm the one who got my husband into snakes!" -  Lauren 
"I have been teaching my nephew some of the stuff I have learned about raising reptiles. He and I have a great love for it. He is 16 and I am in my thirties. People will defer to him about reptiles before even considering asking me. Even though I am the more experienced I am disregarded most of the time." - Amber

I've experienced this often enough myself, especially on Facebook groups where your full name and profile photo are in plain view, instead of the anonymity the forum provided. When people can easily identify you as a woman they, both men and women, tend to treat you as less of an authority than they would a keeper with a male name, or a gender-neutral name. 


"I literally make any and all attempts to leave my name off of any faceless transactions. I 'type' with a masculine tone and leave out anything that can be construed as female so that I get equal treatment. Otherwise they get really ignorant, don't take you seriously etc..." - Sarah 


And what is perhaps even more offensive is that many keepers seem to be less inclined to help a women keeper with questions, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if that female keeper fails or makes a mistake thanks to the lack of help and support.  

"I bought a Caiman lizard from a gentleman and even though I paid for it completely and for all her supplies, the breeders still only really responds to my ex's texts about the lizard. I could message him with questions and he won't get back to me but will call my ex right away to explain and help." - Jennifer
"I have experienced a decent group of men who are not willing to share breeding information or even being references for female breeders. In my case, I am starting a business that's kind of herp related and every time I try to talk to breeders or people in that "group" they always shut me down and say I could never do it or I'm not capable of doing it when they have male friends the same age as me who have done something similar." - Lexi

Even highly-skilled or educated women keepers are victims of this prejudice. As a biologist myself I have often contemplated leaving work in labs altogether thanks to the lack of respect from male peers and clients and the contempt from other women coworkers. We work hard for our educations and our careers and fail to reap the benefits that men inherit so easily in the same position or circumstance. In my personal experience, I have often given advice that was unpopular until a man agrees and starts to echo the same advice; then it is readily accepted, even though I am a biologist and the man usually has no professional background in the subject.

"I am a herpetologist who works at a zoo and people will ask questions to people I'm with when I'm in a group if they are male instead of me. If it is brought up that I rehabilitate reptiles and do a lot of field work, I'm automatically assumed to be some sort of assistant instead of the main researcher...It's really frustrating to be a professional and be looked at as like a child who's really excited instead of someone that strives to put huge effort out scientifically. I've noticed though that females always seem to just directly ask me." - Courtney
"I’ve also been told “I’m not taking advice from a little girl” ...I was the elected chair woman for my local reptile society and have qualifications in the Animal sector and my specialty subject is animal behaviour. So I have plenty of experience! It’s not like I don’t know what I’m talking about" - Hammie

Unwanted Sexualization

The other undesirable consequence of being a woman in a predominantly masculine hobby (although more on this later) is the unwanted sexual attention it seems to attract. Whether this is simply a symptom of life as a whole for women or because the ownership of exotic animals carries perceived implications that attract it, I cannot comment with any certainty. But I suspect that like in so many industries, women are constantly bombarded with unwanted sexual attention and enjoy diminished credibility based on their appearance/attractiveness. This section will be more heavily male-centered, although indeed, I've also watched women say plenty of lewd things to men online.

"I posted a video when I first got my baby chameleon and I had a comment saying that he would be dead in a week, because a girly girl like myself will end up killing him due to painting my nails and spraying perfume!! Needless to say, my chameleon is thriving. Something I see a lot, it's fine for men to have other hobbies. Ex: cars, guns whatever. But as soon as I have a "girly" hobby such as makeup and fashion, I'm somehow incapable of caring for my exotic animals" - Emma

I once posted a photo of myself with some Parson's chameleons in situ in Madagascar, with the dorkiest happy-kid smile of my life, and totally covered up thanks to the pouring rain. This photo was picked up by a hot-women-herpers Instagram account and received almost 9 times more likes than any other photo I have ever posted. I was a little appealed that I was picked up by such an account when there was nothing sexy about the photo, and moreover that my trip to Madagascar to see chameleons in the wild was getting recognition only thanks to my perceived "hotness." I am not alone in this complaint.

The original photo in question
Sometimes relatively harmless sexual comments turn into unwanted advances or photos. I received many complaints about "dick pics" and men wanting to trade sex for animals during my call for experiences and anecdotes from women. Some of these were directed at minors! It should go without saying that no woman wants to receive an unsolicited photo of genitalia, regardless of how wonderful or attractive a person thinks they are. While everyone loves receiving compliments, there is a really obvious line between a harmless, polite compliment and a lewd remark about a woman's rack or butt. This is common sense, and anyone that claims to be unsure that it's "safe to say anything anymore" really needs to reevaluate their manners. 

Women should be free to share photos of themselves and their animals on public forums without receiving uncomfortable or creepy attention. I've seen plenty of photos like mine, where nothing particularly sexy is taking place, that get bombarded with uncomfortable messages as if these photos were an open invitation for something more. Below are just a few of the comments women wrote in with:

We are also quite often sexualized. When we post photos of ourselves with our reptiles, the comments by men are usually focusing on our physical appearance before the animal is even mentioned. This happened to me...since I entered the hobby." - Elise
"I had to leave a chameleon group on FB because one of the admins kept commenting on my boobs and the boobs of my dear friend. So sick how men think they can just say whatever to us." - Dani 
"I had a guy who said he could get me the reptile I wanted but instead of paying him in cash he wanted me to pay him in sexual favors [and outlined what he wanted me to do to him]" - Logan 

Even well known chameleon/Facebook personalities that people would usually consider to be highly respectable and reputable have the seediest reputation among women when asked in private. When I asked for stories I received many of these accusations, but this article was not meant to persecute any one person so I will not delve into this deeper. I say this only to illustrate that it's the people we least expect that might be the same kind of offenders we are discussing now. The breeder or keeper you respect might be the one sending disgusting messages to women in private. It is not too much, in my humble opinion, to request that people treat other people with dignity, respect, and manners. On the other hand, such offenders should be weary of continuing their behavior, as it only takes one brave woman with proof in this digital age to come forward for things to get very difficult.

Going Forward As a Community


Born a herper!
Women are not a minority in this hobby. As much as it might seem that women are a small part of this predominantly-male community of herpers and hobbyists, women make up about 44%* of reptile groups I inquired. This is no small percentage! So to feel as though we do not belong in this hobby or have enough of a presence in it to make meaningful contributions is absolutely false. We are diverse, with different levels of education, experience, ability, and skill set to offer the hobby. All of us need to recognize our own prejudices when it comes to communicating with each other and strive to be better and more open-minded about who we listen to. To take care not to disregard one person while praising another for the same information. To not celebrate one keeper but minimize the contributions of another because subconsciously He is seen to be the better authority than She. To not treat women as sexual objects that can be harassed. 

We need to be careful, all of us, that we do not frustrate women keepers so much that they choose to leave the hobby, as this will hurt all of us. Because every time there is a discriminatory incident that frustration builds and builds, and the woman either actively fights to make things better or chooses to leave. I've seen plenty of highly experienced female colleagues become so disenfranchised with how they are treated that they leave the community and take all their experience with them. It is a tragedy to lose what could be decades of herp experience and outreach because a woman feels excluded and marginalized by other keepers. 

This is a task for both men and women, together.

All of us have to be careful that our biases don't cost the community its female keepers. That those gestures, slights, missed eye contact, or dismissive remarks of subtle discrimination don't keep piling on that frustration and cost the community experienced women and enthusiastic newcomers that the hobby needs and thrives thanks to. 

References

Knutson, Roger E. (2014, June) Student Assessments of Professor Effectiveness. Retrieved February 5, 2018 from Minnesota State University, Mankato, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, https://search.proquest.com/openview/1daa9a3e4e04a59b411e81ec30fad1c7/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y  2014.

Salerno, J. M., & Peter-Hagene, L. C. (2015, December). One angry woman: Anger expression increases influence for men, but decreases influence for women, during group deliberation. Retrieved February 5, 2018, from http://psycnet.apa.org/buy/2015-39675-001

Carli, L. L. and Eagly, A. H. (2001), Gender, Hierarchy, and Leadership: An Introduction. Journal of Social Issues, 57: 629–636. doi: 10.1111/0022-4537.00232

Carli, L. L. (2001), Gender and Social Influence. Journal of Social Issues, 57: 725–741. doi: 10.1111/0022-4537.00238

*Averaged from various results. All 7 large reptile groups inquired reported numbers between 42 and 46% of female membership. 

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