Professor Bettina Bock reflects on the cow quote controversy: ‘Jokes about women are rarely harmless’

Was Resource guilty of sexism when we drew attention with large print to a joke about 28 silent ‘ladies’? We asked Bettina Bock, professor of Inclusive Rural Development with a particular interest in gender and diversity. ‘As a society we have apparently decided that we find jokes about women acceptable.’
Photo: Stijn Rademaker/Hollandse Hoogte

The quotation ‘It can be quite nice to be surrounded by 28 ladies who don’t talk back’ prompted a complaint from 47 readers and a heated discussion on Facebook. Why do you think that was?

At first I thought: this is one of those typical Wageningen jokes: a bit banal but definitely not malicious. It even made me smile. On the other hand you have to remember that a joke like that is rarely harmless because it ridicules a group of people. By making a joke of it, you sanction and confirm the unequal position of the group in question. We don’t always stop to think about that in our society. If you constantly repeat the stereotypical image – in this case of women talking too much – you reinforce that image and the inequality again and again.’

 By repeating a stereotype, you reinforce the inequality 

Don’t we just need to be able to take a joke?‘In the course of my career I’ve heard enough sexist jokes. I know those guys by now and I usually can’t be bothered to get worked up about it. But I am in an independent position as a professor. Young colleagues sometimes feel unsafe in their workplace because of those sorts of jokes, and that is the last thing you want. The university doesn’t want it, the staff don’t want it and the jokers themselves don’t want it. I think anyone who speaks out against it is brave, because they often come in for a load of criticism. And sadly, that reinforces the idea that you’d better keep quiet because otherwise you’ll be harassed even more.’

A lot of women laugh at jokes like this one.‘That’s because we have already internalized the ridicule of the stereotype. This reminds me of an advert for Always sanitary wear. In the clip called Throw like a girl, boys and girls are asked to throw a ball the way a girl does. Up to the age of about five, girls throw normally. When they get older, both girls and boys throw in an exaggeratedly clumsy way, in line with the stereotype they have internalized: girls can’t throw a ball.’

I found the joke about the silent ladies amusing too. Does that make me sexist?‘People don’t like being challenged about sexism because they think “I’m not like that”. But you don’t have to be a sexist person to reproduce and reinforce a sexist stereotype. You might ask yourself why you consider such a joke harmless. You would probably react differently if the joke was at the expense of a different group of people, such as refugees. It’s quite likely you would find it inappropriate. As a society, we have apparently decided that jokes about women and homosexuals are acceptable. And in fact, that everyone should find them funny and not make a fuss about them.’

 The position of women at WUR is not great

But don’t we run the risk of taking political correctness too far if we can’t accept such jokes anymore?I don’t think so. I am currently working as a guest professor at the University of Cornell in the United States, and I am struck by how sharp they are here on equality and diversity. Every new member of staff watches a 45-minute video on sexual discrimination. The film explains what you should do if you encounter sexism and your responsibility as a teacher to protect your students. Here the rector responds personally to every incident and openly expresses her disapproval, because equality is one of the university’s core values. I think WUR has the same values, but compared with Cornell, we don’t draw attention to them or take responsibility for them as emphatically. I think we in the Netherlands and at WUR sometimes underestimate the importance of this.’

So there is still much to be achieved?
‘Absolutely. The position of women at WUR is not great. When it comes to the number of women professors, we are lagging behind. In recent years, WUR has made more effort to increase the number of women professors and of foreign scientists. But there is still not much awareness of the importance of equality in day-to-day interaction.’

In number 13 of 7 March, Resource published an interview with a student who wanted to go into farming. When talking about milking the cows, he said, ‘It can be quite nice to be surrounded by 28 ladies who don’t talk back. This translation of the Dutch quote did not go down well with nearly 50 students and staff, who sent a complaint to the editors. They called the joke ‘humiliating and sexist’. ‘The quote is based on the normalization of female subordination in the agricultural sector. (…) Wanting women to not talk back means wanting women to not speak up for themselves.’ After consulting several of the signatories, Resource decided to ask a professor who knows a lot about gender to reflect on the issue. Even though she is on sabbatical in the US, Bettina Bock was prepared to do so.

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