Man Defends Man, Fails #GirlsWithToys

A few weeks back, the hashtag #girlswithtoys was trending thanks to female scientists responding to astronomer Shri Kulkarni, who gave an interview in which he labeled astronomers as “boys with toys.” #girlswithtoys showed pics and stories of women working with awesome research equipment. It was fun.

But apparently, Kulkarni is in dire need of defense, and so his good friend and colleague Matthew Bailes has come to his rescue. Until I read this piece, I was unaware that Kulkarni had been subjected to any particularly abusive responses. After I read the piece, I am still unaware, but I am more aware that Bailes believes he was and that Bailes believes that his essay is an adequate defense against them. Here are a few thoughts I had while reading Bailes’s post.

Unfortunately for Shri, it was because in an interview with National Public Radio he had described many scientists as secretly being “boys with toys”. Worse, he had said “You’re not supposed to say that”, which indicated that although it might be controversial, he said it anyway – which is typical of Shri.

There are many ways to interpret Shri’s comment, one is that scientists are boys, but as it turns out that is not what Shri meant.

What Shri meant, apparently, is that “you’re not supposed to say” the word “toys,” not “boys.” This matters, because it makes it clear that he’s very aware of and concerned with the dangerous stereotype of scientists not being serious researchers, and not at all aware or concerned with the stereotype of scientists being male.

In a bygone era, such a comment might have left many women scientists annoyed, but not had much of a medium for transport.

The good ol’ days! When men were men and women shut up about it.

But in today’s era of blogs and the Twitterverse it wasn’t long before the hash-tag #girlswithtoys was born, with inspirational images of women doing science with science “toys” of their own. Many were quite inspiring and demonstrated the pride with which these women take their occupation. A very positive response. Indeed it was so popular that it spawned a large number of images and tweets.

Note for ladies: this response is APPROVED.

But then articles began to appear with statements in them such as:

And that’s when I got angry.

Luckily, Twitter, oasis of calling people on their shit, has decided to call Kulkarni on his shit.

Kulkarni may have intended to counter the false assumption that science can’t be fun, but in referring to these scientists as ‘boys’ he erased an already marginalized population of the field: Women.

What Kulkarni fails to realize is that many scientists are also ‘GIRLS with toys’

This response is NOT APPROVED.

I don’t believe that any of these authors talked to Shri for clarification about what he meant – perhaps they felt they didn’t need to?

If his crime was to use the phrase “boys with toys”, and that is your threshold for sexism worthy of some of the abusive responses above, then ok – stop reading now.

At this point, I did stop reading, but only to scroll up the page to find the abusive responses that Bailes cites. I swear, I searched all over the page but for the life of me I couldn’t find one. Did he forget to include it? Was there some editorial mix-up where it was deleted? Because surely he’s not referring to the person saying that Kulkarni unintentionally erased women with his words? If that’s abusive, I have some bad news for Bailes about what it’s like to be a woman on the Internet.

My problem is that I have known Shri for many years, and I don’t believe that he’s even remotely sexist.

That is a problem! Clearly.

But in 2015 can one defend someone who’s been labeled sexist without a social media storm?

It’s only at this point that I realize I’ve fallen into his trap. By criticizing his post, I’ve become yet another abusive woman on social media, attacking a man. Oh for the days of yore, when I would have read his article, been annoyed, and had no outlet for that annoyance but to go bake a cake or something.

Are people open to the possibility that actually Kulkarni might be very honourable in his dealings with women?

I read this in the voice of Vincent D’Onofrio as Kingpin.

If you would like to know what Shri meant, read on.

Shri explained to me that he himself is actually more motivated by the design and construction of “cool gizmos” than the ultimate science. Scientists are not supposed to say that because we get funded by agencies for the science, not the instrument. His reference to boys with toys was idiomatic as in the sense that some astronomers dote excessively on their instruments, see wiktionary’s description of the phrase.

It’s a shame there was no other way to convey that idea without also subtly adding to the idea that science is for boys.

If Shri had said, “some astronomers are like kids with toys”, or “I’m like a kid with a new toy”, would we have all gone back to our day jobs?

Oh! Oh, yes, that would have been perfect actually. Huh.

The Shri I know is incredibly arrogant – but strangely lovable, in part because his arrogance is only surpassed by his scientific talent and his consistency in being completely intolerant to bad science.


(Kulkarni’s Scientific Achievements)


In 1986 I first met Shri at a conference in Nanjing, China. He sat in the front row and energised the meeting, insisting on asking a question at the conclusion of every talk, often prefaced with statements like: “I have a radical theory…”

That’s not a question, and I bet it’s an abuse of the word “theory,” too. But okay?

One night I went out to Nanjing’s only disco with Shri and watched him try to get the band – that couldn’t speak English – to play some rock and roll. When the best they could do was a slow Elvis number he went into the middle of a dance floor and screamed and danced as if they were playing something of a completely different tempo and era.

I bet everybody loved that!

Over the years I’d see Shri at different science meetings. In all of them he’s been incredibly intolerant of bad science and calls it for what it is. He teases entire discipline groups, saying things like: “You people trying to measure dark energy are really wasting your time, the Nobel prize has already been awarded.”

Huh, that almost sounds like it would qualify for someone’s flexible definition of “abusive.”

Once at a large international meeting I gave the last talk in the session and had decided to start with a humorous cartoon describing binary stellar evolution. Shortly after completing my rather long and amusing introduction, the chair gave me a one minute warning and it left me no time for my science as all the previous speakers had run over time! It wasn’t a great talk.

Prediction: the long and amusing introduction was not amusing.

That night Shri said to me: “Because I am your friend I’m going to tell you that your talk was terrible.” It was his way of showing that he cared. Don’t waste your limited scientific opportunities – a valuable lesson.

Huh, that almost sounds like it would qualify for someone’s flexible definition of “abusive.” I mean, Barnes didn’t mean to give a terrible talk. I even heard the introduction was amusing! If he didn’t mean for it to be terrible, it could not have been terrible. Why would Kulkarni say otherwise?

The next night we found ourselves at the conference dinner. Shri noticed there was a distinct hierarchy in the table seatings.

Together we worked on an after-dinner speech that I found myself delivering. I thanked our hosts, but soon explained that the table numbers were non-random. To be seated at Table 1 you have to be either the president of a learned academy, a Nobel Laureate or the descendent of one. Table 2 consists of “those who aspire to be at Table 1”, an amusing, confronting but probably truthful line.

I bet everybody loved that!

(Kulkarni’s Scientific Achievements Part 2)


Shri likes to taunt his fellow astronomers, on his university web page he has a statement that: “Given a sufficiently large telescope, a sufficiently idiotic astronomer can always make a discovery.”

Huh, that almost sounds like it would qualify for someone’s flexible definition of “abusive.”

Shri has no tolerance for mediocrity in science, and won’t take on students he considers only average, as he thinks that they are wasting everyone’s time, including their own.

He sounds great!

It may be convenient for some people who’ve never met Shri to paint him as some incredibly sexist individual that is compounding the issues faced by women in science with off-hand comments like his “boys with toys” line.

I’m not sure if it’s convenient or if anyone has actually done it (citation missing, see above), but it does seem pretty easy after reading all this.

But many of his former female students and postdocs, of whom he is very proud, have thrived in his group and gone onto prestigious positions, and other women recently posted on Facebook how welcome they’ve always felt in his group.

I wonder what a post from one of them would have been like?

In Shri’s opinion, you get places with hard work and achievement regardless of other’s opinions or attitudes. Indeed a long time ago he told me that he is completely opposed to positive discrimination. This initially surprised me, as he came to the US as a dark-skinned foreigner, and I would have thought been subject to all sorts of discrimination, but I’ve come to learn that he is nothing if not consistent.

Talking about how Kulkarni is against “positive discrimination” is a great way to demonstrate how he can’t possibly be sexist.

In my experience, the only thing that Shri cares about an astronomer is their scientific ability and achievements. He couldn’t care less about their sex, race or religion, or what people think about his tact. If you want to impress Shri, do something original, not jump on the latest bandwagon.

Not caring about people’s attributes or feelings is another great way to demonstrate how someone can’t possibly be sexist.

Shri himself might offer the example of his sister as someone who overcame sexism in the workplace.

He might, but would he do it while also saying, “Oh, sorry I said a thing that unintentionally reinforced the sexism that has directly affected even members of my own family”? If so, then that’s cool of him.

Sudha Murthy was a university gold medallist who was disqualified from applying for a job at TATA Engineering on the basis of her sex – “Ladies need not apply”.

Rather than be denied, she wrote a postcard to the head of the company who subsequently flew her down for an interview. After being grilled for hours they relented and offered her a job at which she excelled.

Some years later she took her life savings (of about US$150) and invested it in her husband’s company, Infosys. It is now worth US$42-billion. She became a famous author and one of India’s most generous philanthropists. Google her, her story is an inspiration.

She sounds great! It’s a shame she wasn’t the one giving the NPR interview, but I’m certainly glad that none of the criticisms of Kulkarni have also criticized his sister, because that would be alarming.

The purpose of this article is not to argue that because Shri is a genius he should be immune to criticism, but rather to explain his intellect, scientific impact, and consistency.

Shri’s statements to NPR were more about his own child-like fascination with instrumentation than any deliberate attempt to marginalise women.


Featured image via Los Alamos National Lab on the #GirlsWithToys hashtag.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. With friends like Matthew Bailes, Kulkarni doesn’t need enemies to describe him as abusive.

  2. Before reading this ‘defence’, I thought he was just a guy who slipped up- like the guy who wore that stupid shirt- but now I can see he is an absolutely grade A arsewipe.

    1. I was just going to post the same thing! I don’t know if he’s sexist but this defense certainly makes him sound like an asshole.

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