One of the roles I think feminist blogs can play in our lives is what the “Women’s Libbers” liked to call “Consciousness Raising.” While the phrase evokes a coven of Farrah-Fawcett-haired women in an avocado and harvest-gold living room, I think the concept still has feminist legs. In short, we tell our stories about living while female in the world, and over time relate the individual stories to the systemic misogyny of our culture.
What I’d like to focus on today is stories of our professional lives. There are many people who think that while there still may be battles to be fought on the home front and within our individual relationships, the fight to win equality at work is mostly won. After all, nobody would dare to show sexism at work; it could get them fired!
In a comment to my introductory post, AJ writes:
I haven’t experienced too much as a female student in such a male dominated area, but every now and then I get somebody doubting my credibility because I was born with two x chromosomes.
This comment reflects my feelings as well. I have had some great mentors of both genders help lead me to where I am now. I don’t live in a chilly climate, I’m not being sexually harassed at work, and most people I interact with treat me and others appropriately. But the second half of AJ’s comment is telling: “I haven’t experienced much, but…” There’s always a but. And we tend to minimize the “buts,” the incidents that go against our belief that everything is perfectly fine in this beautiful post-feminist world.
Often it’s only in telling our stories that we see how egregious they really are. I was interviewed by a professor of women’s studies as part of a project she’s doing on gender relations in aerospace engineering. “Everything’s great!” I told her. “My gender hasn’t held me back at all. Although, the lab director gets a female junior faculty member to send his faxes when the secretary is out. And guess whose job it is to clean out the lab fridge…” Her eyebrows went up and she started scribbling. Everything is perfectly fine, except when it isn’t.
I have two stories of my own, and then one secondhand story, because it’s just that good.
This is way back in my undergraduate days, my first year of university in fact. My calculus professor was an older man, a metallurgical engineer. He liked to tell stories of the good old days when he was a student. Somehow these stories always got around to how there weren’t any women back then. Example: “I would like to encourage you to work together on your homework. Back when I was a student, all the guys…” (hesitates, looks around uncomfortably) “I mean, back then, they were all guys, see. Not that I have a problem with there being girls in engineering school! In fact, I think it’s great! It’s wonderful! Women bring so much to engineering, they’re so much more nurturing and caring. Engineering needs a softer touch!”
As a student, I was attending a dinner for a professional society in my field, at which one of my friends was going to receive an award. The keynote speaker was an engine designer, who had decades ago worked on a famous, historically important aircraft engine. (Yes, there is such a thing as a famous, historically important engine!) After he was introduced, the first thing he said was “I would like to apologize to the ladies in the room. I’m afraid my presentation has many formulae and graphs and other mathematical details.” And he didn’t stop there! Every time he came to a slide with charts or numbers, he apologized “to the ladies.”
Now, I actually understand where he was coming from. It was a dinner: there may have been non-technical spouses present, and they would have been understandably bored with numbers they were not trained to decipher. And in this older man’s life, the majority of technically-trained people were men. But he failed to notice that the woman who introduced him was… an aircraft engine designer! I was glad to see that she didn’t take this slight lying down. When thanking him afterwards, she made sure to mention that as an engine designer she was fascinated by the charts and numbers, and was glad to see he had included them.
This did not happen to me, but to a colleague. Mary (not her real name) is also an aerospace engineer, and she got her doctorate the same time I did. This may not be relevant, but unlike me, Mary is a “girly girl.” She performs femininity much more than I do, with her expensive haircuts, omnipresent makeup, and feminine mannerisms.
At a professional conference, she went out to dinner with a group. There was one senior professor, a few junior professors, and a few graduate students. She, a student, was the only woman. As is usually the case in this kind of group composition, the senior professor was “holding forth,” dominating the conversation while his academic juniors listened respectfully. The topic of conversation was his daughter’s roommate. Apparently this roommate was very attractive young woman, in this professor’s opinion. She was an aspiring model and actress. Unfortunately, she wasn’t particularly good at managing her finances. So the professor gave her money. “And just so you knowhow truly beautiful this young woman is, I gave her $2000. She was that beautiful. I mean, take Mary here. Mary is pretty. But she’s only worth, oh, about $100.”
I notice now that all three of these stories are about older, powerful men, mostly just bumbling in their attempts to relate to others. The standard response is a shrug. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. We’re just going to have to wait until these dinosaurs retire or die (mostly the latter, since academics tend to never retire) and then we can live in our beautiful post-feminist utopia. There’s some truth to this response. But it’s foolish to deny or minimize these incidents. It lets us think our work is done. It minimizes the magnitude of our accomplisments: not only do I have a PhD, I have one despite being repeatedly (if not constantly) told I don’t belong in this world. The stories are important, because while they seem like exceptions to us, taken together they have a systematic effect.
Your turn. Tell a story about sexism you’ve encountered in your own workplace.
Update, from SarahMC, a pretty shocking thread at Jezebel about workplace sexual harassment.