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Aunt Pythia’s advice

January 11, 2014

Aunt Pythia woke up this morning wondering what to wear now that the bipolar vortex is showing its warm side. Something flannel, obv, but what exactly? Believe it or not, this kind of quotidian conundrum is how Aunt Pythia gets warmed up (har!) to answer your lovely questions. Please, enjoy Aunt Pythia’s advice, and don’t forget to:

think of something to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

My husband and I both have Ph.D.s in the same STEM subject from the same university, so educationally we are on the same footing. His career has progressed to tenure, and mine has not. Every time I even hint that I might have been mistreated because of my gender, in terms of invitations to talk or grant applications, we end up having an argument.

He claims to be feminist, and I suppose his rational self is, but the implicit bias is there and he finds it very difficult to act to counter that or even talk about the issues with me without getting angry at me. How would aunt Pythia conduct these discussions at home without a fight? Or should I just not even bother bringing gender issues up with him?

Implicit Bias at Home

Dear IBaH,

Super hard problem, and I have a ton of things to say about it, having worked in the same math department with my husband in two jobs. But first I need to mention that I met my husband when he was being offered professorships and I was still a grad student, so we didn’t have the same exact problem. Still, we had enough.

For example, I experienced an enormous amount of bullshit, especially in my Assistant Professor job, at the hands of my husband’s colleagues. Outrageous shit, which at some point I will blog about. And it was extremely difficult to talk to my wonderful feminist and supportive husband about that treatment, because these people were also his colleagues and he wanted so much to like and be liked by his colleagues.

After much retrospection and many years and jobs later, I’m here to explain what happened there, at least from my perspective. The key phrase to keep in mind is cognitive dissonance. It means you have two opposing sets of beliefs and, since they don’t make any sense when put together, you get really upset when someone tries to bring up both things. And I mean REALLY upset, as in irrational and angry.

When you challenge the fact that he’s being offered good jobs and you’re not, he can’t actually think clearly about it, because the key fact for him is that he’s being offered good jobs and that’s something he’s been working towards for half his life or more. He knows it’s a good thing and therefore cannot be a bad thing. The fact that you’re not getting these nice offers can be a bad thing, considered separately, but he will have a huge problem connecting that bad thing to the thing he knows is good.

And I’m not trying to trivialize the guy, I really think what I’m saying is true at a deeply emotional level.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that my marriage improved 100% on the “supportiveness” front, when I took a job in a place my husband didn’t work. At last, when someone said something sexist, dismissive, and humiliating to me, my husband could take my side unfettered. I had my supportive husband back, and it didn’t take me long to see why. He had no stake in those assholes liking him, so he could hate them with me and for me. In fact we even developed a fun ritual, where I’d complain about a colleague or a situation at work, and he’d immediately say, “Go tell those guys to SHOVE IT!!” in a gleefully violent way. It was so much better than wondering if I was crazy.

My advice: if I were you I’d try to give him some understanding on this point, because his ego is on the line. That’s not to say you shouldn’t talk about it, you should. Just understand that he is protecting another thing which is very very important to him.

Also, he’s very likely to be perfectly reasonable about how other people get treated poorly. Get him to read this article, for example, about hidden biases. Make sure he treats his female colleagues and students really well. Make sure he sticks up for women in general. Appreciate and encourage his feminism in other manifestations.

One last thing. I don’t avoid fights at home. I mean, I don’t go looking for them, but I certainly don’t avoid them. If you think there’s a specific thing you could ask your husband to do or not do that would help alleviate this problem, by all means talk it through with him. I’m not sure what that would be though, because it wouldn’t make sense for him to refuse to give a talk or to suggest you instead – both of those would be weird. The problem here is that it’s a systemic bias thing, and your husband is not directly in control of it, and neither are you. It’s really frustrating but that’s one reason it continues to exist.

Having said that, in the future when you or your husband is in charge of a seminar or hiring, you should by all means talk through who you’re inviting to speak and why, or who you’re making offers to and why, and make sure you’re not propagating the same biases that were used against you. That’s about the best approach I know of.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What are your thoughts on offering blow jobs or another form of sex in exchange for doing extra work around the house? Note – I am assuming everyday work is already split more or less evenly (which I know is not reality), so we are only talking about an extraordinary chore or two, such as cleaning out the basement. I’m also assuming this is more motivating for men, which obviously won’t fit every case, but probably is a reasonable supposition.

We asked some friends, and the pattern of responses was amusing. Most of the women we’ve asked said they would never offer this (or would feel guilty about doing so) because it was demeaning to the man. Every single man was totally onboard, thinking it was an excellent idea.

So is this an acceptable method of encouraging chore doing?

OK, I’ll Bite

Dear OKIB,

In terms of “acceptable”, I’m very open minded, as you might have guessed. What could possibly be the negative externality of such a deal? If everyone involved is happy and nobody else gets hurt, then do what you want, it’s a free country. For me it’s all about whether the plan will work.

One caveat to that. I’m wondering if the blowjob (or the other form of sex) is something that is normally withheld? In which case I’d feel weird saying to go for it, because I’d feel weird about the withholding part. But maybe that’s just me. Or maybe it’s an in between, special occasion kind of sex act, which I can totally dig.

For now let’s assume that blowjobs (or the other form of sex) are not normally withheld. Then my guess is the guys just get a kick out of having made such a deal. They might figure that, if they don’t agree to this deal, they’ll end up cleaning the basement anyway with nothing to look forward to. Yes, I totally get that.

It might even make the entire cleaning process somewhat titillating. Who knew Hefty garbage bags and work gloves could be sexy?! Probably someone, actually, there are all kinds of people out there.

It seems to me that the only reason not to go for it would be if the woman’s discomfort at demeaning her husband – a discomfort which is not shared by the husband – overwhelms her desire to get her basement cleaned quickly and happily by an eager spouse. I highly doubt this possibility! I know from personal experience that women love a clean basement way more than is rationally explicable.

Conclusion: I see this plan working. Please report back.

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What can I say to people who assume that I need to have a baby, and have one now? I am a woman in my early thirties, and have been married for a few years.

While my husband and I would welcome a child, we have decided to take life as it comes to us, and are happily engaging in many activities for personal and professional fulfillment that we know we would have to cut back on once a child enters the picture. When asked if I have kids, or plan to, people take ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ to launch into all sorts of unwanted details about their own lives, implying that all I need to do is try harder, pray harder, or turn my husband into my baby-sex slave. (Not that I would mind the last one if he did so on his own, but it seems demeaning to make such demands.). And gasp, I better hurry, because, you know, that ticking clock!

Do you have any short witty comebacks to end such discussions? The best I have so far are “it’s none of your freaking business” and “Gee, I really like to plan ahead for major events and to have all of my key positions covered. I still have some openings for 3am feedings and diaper laundry, which would you prefer?”

Maybe Baby

Dear Maybe,

First of all, don’t discount the baby-sex-slave role for your husband too soon. It’s really much better than it sounds. And don’t assume something is demeaning to your husband without checking (see above)!!

There are two things about human nature that will not end just because you wish them to: people interpret ambivalence as an opportunity for advice, and people want kids. Maybe there’s a third, which is that people want you to want what they want.

In any case, your ambivalence, which is showing up loud and clear in your letter, is getting you into trouble. If you really don’t want advice from nosy outsiders, then I suggest you train yourself not to display an iota of ambivalence. Examples of what you can say:

  1. Oh, my husband and I don’t want kids.
  2. My husband and I do not wish to be “breeders.” Then send them here.
  3. We have pets, and that’s already too much work.

As soon as you say “we don’t want kids yet” then the whole ticking clock door will be opened, so hold yourself back. As soon as you say “we’d welcome a child” then it opens the door to the problems with passivity and possible IVF treatment starting tomorrow.

But if you say “we don’t want kids” and leave it there, then only the pushiest people will have something to say back, and then you can just repeat it or you can say, “actually, I’ve never wanted kids and neither has my husband. It’s something we completely agree on, and that’s nice.” Case closed.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia


Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. Christina Sormani
    January 11, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    Dear Implicit Bias at Home,

    Math Babe’s advice really hit home for me. My husband is not at my job, but I have great guy friends at work who get upset if I mention sexism at our job (but are super supportive when I mention something that happened elsewhere). I find one way to handle the cognitive dissonance issue is to concede at the beginning that someone mistreating you probably means the best but is inadvertantly treating you in a sexist way.

    In fact, I think most sexism is instinctive and not meant deliberately. Its hard not to just say “he’s a jerk” but I think ultimately sexism is handled better when people can think of it as a sin that needs to be avoided despite the temptation and confessed at least to oneself. Of course some people embrace sexism and own it, but a lot of little pieces of sexism seem to add up to a lack of a tenure track job. So getting guys on board to help and sympathise is important.


  2. cat
    January 13, 2014 at 8:37 am

    I re-read the IBAH response and I am not sure you made it clear. Its not just about the husband’s stake in being part of the social fabric. At some level they both know if a well qualified women is not getting good offers it means the men are not competing on a leveled playing field and this means the men are not as qualified as they could be. This hits peoples egos on two fronts meaning they didn’t win their jobs fairly and the implications that their wives are more qualified then they are. It is most likely their wives are more qualified then they are as most women have to be twice as good to beat out a male candidate.

    Men not liking their wives being better at things then they [Men] are is pretty universal. You have you work cut out for you if you want your husband to acknowledge the inherit biases in society also extend into his workplace and apparently to him as well.


  3. cat
    January 13, 2014 at 8:55 am

    Dear Maybe,
    When my wife tells me these stories I always ask her “why are you friends with assholes?” I can’t think of a different term for people who make another feel bad about their life choices.

    I am gladdened, more then is probably healthy, that she is turning the table on these people by answering with, I am paraphrasing, “We can’t have kinds, thanks for bringing up an incredibly painful and personal issue.” The conversation quickly changes topics.

    Also invest in finding couples who are in the same boat as you. Speaking from experience you will be hard pressed to find other childless couples in your 40’s. Raising kids is a huge investment in time and resources, as it should be, and so your friends who start having kids will be busy.


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