Monday, September 24, 2007

The Gender Lens

Every once in awhile, someone writes or tells me that I am seeing things through the gender lens. I have probably used those words at some point too.

I have a feeling that only women are told that they see things through the gender lens. What exactly is the gender lens? To me, the gender lens brings things into focus. Most people who use the phrase, however, seem to believe that this lens causes distortion, and therefore, because my vision is obscured or skewed, I am likely to interpret a remark or incident as sexist.

In fact, I do ‘see’ sexism quite frequently; that is true. When you have been told directly and/or indirectly nearly every day for more than 20 years of a career as a female science professor that you are not as serious, intelligent, mature, interesting, technically skilled, quantitative, creative, or professional as men with equal or lesser talents, you do start to get the impression that sexism is pervasive.

If there is a gender lens, it is like an excellent (although perhaps unstylish) pair of sunglasses that lets one see things clearly even in harsh light. Those without such glasses are squinting into the glare and unable to see some very obvious things. I highly recommend a pair of gender lenses to those who are unable to see sexism even where it is rampant and pervasive. They don't make you see something that isn't there -- they just let you see.

23 comments:

Tall Girl said...

My mother, aged 77, told me she received a visit from the curate at her church, who was keen to get to know her. He asked what degree she did at Oxford, and she told him English. At which point he remarked that this was a good subject for a woman. She told me she had to tell him off!! He rapidly back-pedalled, saying it was something he had heard recently from one of his other parishioners, and he could quite see how it was not an acceptable remark...

Dr. Bad Ass said...

Everyone sees through the gender lens. Just different genders. And which one has historically been able to back up its lens with power? that's right.

TW Andrews said...

Given that the overwhelming majority of sexism is directed at women, it's shouldn't come as any surprise that they're the ones who most notice.

Part of the problem is that most men--and even some women--treat any mention of a sexist incident in isolation. And it's probably possible to concoct a reason other than sexism for any single incident (though some such explanations would necessarily strain the bounds of credulity). At some point, however, they need to be seen in their totality, and the single explanation that accounts for them all ("It's the sexism.") has to be the leading hypothesis.

avg prof said...

This is the part that makes me pause:

nearly every day

In my own work life, I do see it, but maybe like, a few times a year. Perhaps my discipline is really progressive (I doubt it. It has amongst the lowest female numbers of any STEM field, somewhere around 5-6%). Or maybe I see it so often I don't even notice it?

Kate said...

I think my gender lenses were already fused onto my eyeballs at birth. I don't only see things almost every day; I feel like I see things on the hour, every hour.

flyingwalrus said...

Let me add some perspective here, since my 'gender lens' comment a few posts ago may well have been a trigger for this post. I'm a woman physisict and it's not uncommon to run up against sexism, the more blatant episodes of which I sometimes narrate in my blog. Like the last conference I attended where I kept being mistaken for an 'accompanying person' not once, but on multiple occasions.

But more often than not, I prefer to respond by giving the offender the benefit of doubt - sure, they are likely to have been consciously or unconsciously biased - but so am I in several other spheres, so why leap to judgements about their intent. This is why I queried whether perhaps some events might be selectively viewed through a 'gender lens'. Instead of attempting to interpret people's motives in exhibiting such bias, I find it more productive if this goads me to prove my physics worth, thus ensuring the offenders are less likely to make the same thoughtless assumptions about women the next time.

Rosie Redfield said...

Every time we accept genuinely gender-biased actions without comment (part of what flyingwalrus recommends) we make it easier for people like avgprof to continue believing that such actions are rare.

The problem of course is that we often can't tell the extent to which any particular actions was influenced by gender bias. As tw andrews points out, we are only sure about bias in its totality. So maybe the only 'fair' corrective measures are ones that address this totality, such as affirmative action.

Drugmonkey said...

If I'm a man and I advocate for women...

If I'm white and I advocate for people of color...

If I'm a straight and advocate for gays and lesbians...

If I'm an old prof, black, gay and a woman and I advocate for young white straight males trying to transition in science...

...is my vision obscured or skewed?


or don't you fight against discrimination against "others"?

PhysoProf said...

One of the pernicious assumptions that underlies a lot of patriarchy denial is that sexism requires intent to discriminate. Sexism arises as an inescapable consequence of the patriarchal structure of society, and the specific intent of any particular individual is irrelevant to the question whether their actions reinforce patriarchy and are, thus, sexist.

lost clown said...

What physoprof said.

Plus if they are doing it unintentionally and don't know any better, wouldn't this be a great time to bring the situation to light for them?


And drug monkey: I will start advocating for white straight males in science if it ever becomes a hostile environment for them which they are discouraged from because the prevailing belief is that they just can't do it.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Wow! So concisely and eloquently put. I love it.

ElijahAO said...

To deny that sexism exists would be naive, and I would never suggest such a thing.

Unfortunately, this is clearly a human condition, and it is not limited to any specific group of people, I don't think anyone is immune from it.

Put more generally, sexism is bias. Bias is when you have particular opinions about some group of people, and you then apply them to the individual.

We clearly know that if a man assumes any of the things that FSP has experienced and has blogged so eloquently about, that he is behaving as a sexist. However, it is exactly the same thing to assume that a man will behave in a sexist fashion, and tell him so without first understanding that individual.

This happens with race every day. The only solution to this entire problem is to simply treat people as individuals. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, as well as attributes that are both like and unlike their common groupings.

It is impossible to attempt to cause people to stop making generalizations. Generalizations exist because they generally fit. People categorize things in their brain. It's the only way that they can possibly survive. They see hundreds of people every day, many of whom they do not know. It may or may not be unfair how they categorize individuals, but the human brain will not stop making these assumptions.

Bottom line, everyone has to do what they can to work honestly and lovingly with individuals. Jumping to conclusions is the very problem that FSP and many women face. It isn't a solution to jump back in response.

Ms.PhD said...

Nice analogy, and nice post. Thanks. A little ray of sanity and insight in my otherwise phony day.

I'm with Kate- I was born this way, and I see them almost every hour.

And tw andrews is right: in aggregate, you can't miss the trend.

I'm not sure if I understand what physioprof is saying. I think the intent of the individual IS relevant, since sometimes there is consciously malicious intent, and that is genuinely a lot worse (as flyingwalrus points out) than the product of ingrained bias in a person completely devoid of awareness.

I agree with ElijahAO in general- I definitely prefer to think of people as individuals. I think that we all should and that this is the only solution.

Usually when we complain about certain men on our blogs, it's because we know them and they've made their racist, sexist opinions loud and clear to us.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about you today as I was at a faculty meeting with a Dean and two Assoc. deans. One of the assoc. deans was a woman, she was as new to deanhood as the other assoc. dean. Every single time she tried to speak, she was interrupted by one of the men. She didn't seem bothered by it, nor did it stop her from trying, but by the end of the meeting he had heard very little from her. That was in part because of the topic of the meeting, which was more in the domain of the mail sub-dean, so I think ordinarily I would have not thought much of it. But there is absolutely no excuse for her being interrupted so many times and so soon into what she was saying, and think I have you to thank for my new clarity of vision.

Although I think there is something to be said for the peace of mind that comes with blinders -- and I do think it got me through grad school in engineering -- these things ought to be acknowledged.

I wonder if being so sensitive to these issues, you are also sensitive to "the racial lens."

JoAnne said...

Yep, nearly everyday. No question.

Drugmonkey said...

lost clown the point is one of strategy and specific to the "you are always playing the X card" dismissal.

it is harder to dismiss one who advocates for "other" on the basis of self interest.

there are two strategic implications, first that advocating by the "in crowd" is always a good thing. second, that perhaps we should be advocating for all the downtrodden, including "other" than ourselves. admittedly it takes some faith to believe that one's efforts to address discrimination against other than ourselves will come back to our own benefit. I have such faith. I do what I can to advocate for "other" than myself.

in the case of biomedical science careers one category of the downtrodden are the young attempting-to-transition scientists. yes, many of them are white males. one might say that helping young white males is counterproductive to the goals of women and minorities. I say that the hurdles that are in place blocking the younger scientists from moving forward fall disproportionately on women and minorities. Thus anything that is done to address transitioning for deserving younger scientists will also help with gender and ethnic diversity.

EcoGeoFemme said...

Everybody needs a mentor to make it through all the transitions and difficult times in their science career (and life in general). White males often find those mentors easily, which is why they don't need special advocates. It's the minority groups that have such a hard time finding mentorship. That is why we need to build these women-in-science communities.

May said...

I whole-heartedly agree.

avg prof said...

Hey. About this:

Every time we accept genuinely gender-biased actions without comment (part of what flyingwalrus recommends) we make it easier for people like avgprof to continue believing that such actions are rare.

Is it BAD that I believe such actions are rare - or at least rare in my own experience? Personally, I would rather experience such actions infrequently as opposed to nearly every day. I would also rather not feel like I am or should be on the lookout for sexist behavior all the time, because I am certain it would get in the way of my normal working relationships.

Perhaps my ignorance is bliss in this case? I rarely feel hindered by my gender despite its rarity in my discipline, and I rarely feel like it's an issue at all. Maybe I am living in my own little fantasy land, but it works for me.

Zuska said...

Yes, being unaware of sexism around you is bad. It may be more pleasant to be unaware, but being unaware is part of how institutionalized sexism is able to perpetuate itself. It depends upon people remaining unaware and thus non-oppositional to what is taking place.

Ms PhD, I agree that intentional sexism is a very bad thing. But what PhysioProf is saying is that it is not the only, or even the most prevalent, type of sexism. Much sexist behavior is unintentional, but that doesn't make it less sexist. It doesn't make it any less needful to point it out and ask for it to be corrected. People are not always completely mindful of the ways in which they are sexist, of the kinds of sexist beliefs they hold in their minds and upon which they operate. When you call them on it, they say, "but I didn't mean it! I didn't intend to offend anyone!" as if not intending to offend anyone excuses one. It doesn't. It also doesn't mean you should get a guilt complex about it - just that you should strive to understand what just happened. This is where people get hung up - you point out unintentional sexism or racism and guilty feelings cause a defensive reaction that gets in the way of any positive change taking place.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your blog. It is written in an intelligent and persuasive language. My question is, how do you promote change? We obviously feel the need to be "better" at our jobs, more organized, more well informed etc... Has this produced results or exhausted us? We would have expected science to be a refuge of objectivity. This blog clearly points out that is not the case.

Anonymous said...

Everyone should be focusing on who is the best in their field instead of "advocating" the advancement of any "type of person. How about the "best" type. American science is going down the tubes along with many other industries because for too long the popular idea has been to lend a helping hand in important fields to those less qualified. If we want America to truly be great lets worry about our great people regardless of their gender, or appearance.

Jessica said...

I do feel the sexism a lot. I am a graduate student in physics and I didn't really hit the sexism wall until I went to graduate school. In undergrad, I felt generally like I needed to be better than the guys to be considered as good as them, but I was better than them so I didn't think much about it. Another woman in my undergrad department would ask me about it several times, but I didn't feel the same way she did. Now, that I have been more educated, I understand what she said. Sadly, she is no longer in physics. In graduate school, the instances of sexism were abundant. One of the guys in my year and the other woman helped me through this a lot. I recall going to the other woman and asking her the same questions the woman from undergrad asked me. I hated the way it felt, I felt like I was crazy for even thinking that was what I was experiencing. (It made me think more of the undergrad's dilemma. I imagine it to be just as hard for her as it was for me.) The other male student was hispanic and was familiar with dealing with those kinds of issues. I'm not sure where I would be without them.

After having my eyes open to this, I started learning more about feminism and how it is expressed in our culture. Several of my male peers weren't aware of a lot of the issues that women experience in general or were hostile to it. I heard comments several times a day in this regard, most were just ignorant. I can't dislike them if they don't really know any better. Sometimes I would try to explain it to them, sometimes I didn't. There is one in paticular that stands out. He would actively argue against feminism. I tried so much to help him understand from a different perspective, but there were a lot of things he just didn't get. One of the comments he used against me was my "seeing sexism." Because I looked into it more, I'd see it more. He used that to degrade my experience. It doesn't feel good to be trivialized in that manner. Even if I don't notice it so much, doesn't mean it doesn't still exist. We can't see electrons, but we know they exist. People can go their whole lives not knowing what an electron is, but it doesn't change reality. This statement of his bothered me and hurt me far more than anything else he said. I'm glad to see that other people have experienced this and see it for what it is. It helps me feel better about my own experience. Thank you, FSP.