On Thursday, we got Stephen Hawking's answers to a Reddit AMA session organised earlier this year. The physicist mainly responded to questions on AI, but one offbeat response was rather more stuck in the past than the future.
Asked "What is the one mystery that you find most intriguing, and why?" Hawking responded, "Women. My PA reminds me that although I have a PhD in physics women should remain a mystery."
Hawking is a great—perhaps the greatest—scientist of our times, but he gets low marks for that uninspired answer, even if it was made in jest. But is it sexist? One of my colleagues agreed the response was lame and outdated, but questioned the issues behind this common trope of woman as "mysterious." Here's a few reasons why it's not cool.
The most obvious problem with the general sentiment that "women are hard to understand" is that it massively generalises people based on their sex. It lumps all women together as one singular category, and implies that it is their femaleness that makes them such a mystery. It follows the troublesome and pervasive idea of women as exotic or "other" (while men are usually the default main characters).
In this lies a kernel of another sexist trope: the idea that women are not as rational or logical as men.
The reality is, of course, that women are not a separate species and both men and women are all pretty mysterious to each other, because we're all different: people are mysterious. That's not to say that sex and gender don't play any role in our own unique characters, but they're not so overriding as to allow humans to be categorised simply into Mars vs. Venus. We're more like individual galaxies, each with various similarities and differences. Defining men and women only by their sex or gender, and suggesting that this distinction is discrete and fixed, forms the basis for myriad sexist stereotypes.
Here's a dead giveaway that this particular statement is sexist: You rarely hear it with the sexes reversed. The sentiment that "men are such a 'mystery' to women" just isn't a trope in the same way.
For this reason too, the fact that it's a "joke" doesn't mean it's not sexist. It's only a joke because it plays on a sexist trope, and propagating it just works to further ingrain and normalise the underlying sexist notion (Hawking himself has said pretty much the same thing before, in a 2012 interview with New Scientist).
But why is it sexist? Can't "mysterious" be a compliment? In this case, it clearly is not. At face value it could seem that way, the suggestion being that women are complex beings, and men are too stupid to understand them. Hidden under that thin veneer of self-deprecation, however, the obvious subtext is that women somehow function fundamentally differently to men on the level of thought and understanding, the implication inevitably being that women are inferior in this domain.
The male speaker does not come off the worse in this exchange; no one would seriously suggest that the problem is Stephen Hawking's intelligence. Rather, it's only a step away from the more openly dismissive, "Women, eh? Who knows what goes on in their silly little heads!" Women are the problem—but this problem can't be solved, not even by the world's greatest physicist.
It's possible to be a science legend and make a sexist remark.
In this lies a kernel of another sexist trope that's particularly grating in the context of the science and tech world: the idea that women are not as rational or logical as men (and that's why they're impossible to understand).
And as one Reddit commenter posting under the name Saguine pointed out, suggesting that women are a problem to be solved, just like the physical mysteries of the Universe, is in itself objectifying. It follows the popular pickup artist-style thinking that women are some kind of prize to be won by working hard enough: that by doing enough research, or working out, or memorising The Game, you can crack the code and "unlock" the secret of all women, that most intriguing mystery.
That's something that no man can do, not even Stephen Hawking, because that's just not how human communications and relationships work.
Let's be clear: Stephen Hawking is a great scientist. His contributions to physics are impossible to overstate and he's a person I respect very much. He's hardly the first person to make a tired sexist joke and it's hardly the worst example of such.
But that doesn't mean that we can't or shouldn't criticise examples of the everyday sexist remarks that lead to continued discrimination in science, tech, and society in general, especially when their highly public nature means that their impact will be magnified (this particular AMA was massively hyped and has the backing of two major brands, Wired and Nokia).
It's possible to land a spacecraft on a comet and make an ill-advised wardrobe choice. It's possible to be a science legend and make a sexist remark. And it's possible to acknowledge issues as they arise, move on, and stop these sexist tropes persisting in future. Hawking could perhaps start by watching a little less Big Bang Theory.
XX is a column about occurrences in the world of tech, science, and the internet that have to do with women. It covers the good, the bad, and the otherwise interesting developments in the Motherboard world.