Monday, June 07, 2010

Large Lens/Little Lady

A female friend who spent the first ~40 years of her life as a man has long been involved in photography, first as a hobby and later as a professional pursuit. She has lots of specialized photographic equipment that she uses to take photos that appear in books and magazines.

Something that happens to her as a woman but that never happened to her as a man is that people will see her out taking photographs with her professional photographic gear and will comment that she has impressive photographic equipment "for a lady" (or "woman" or "gal").

I have often been accused of seeing things through "a gender lens", but can we also apply this phrase to the people (all men so far, according to my friend) who make "that's a big lens for a little lady" type comments?

These men don't see a person who is a highly capable professional photographer, they see a female using specialized photographic equipment, and that somehow looks odd to them. But what is so incongruous about a woman with a telephoto lens and a tripod?

Somehow they also overlook the fact that she is 6' tall and therefore not a "little" lady, except perhaps to men who want to see all females as small, weak, and incapable.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

A good friend of mine who is a techie/engineer spends a lot of her day job carrying round a hard case of specialist tools. She encounters comments along the lines of "that's a big case for a girl / chick" (or in one memorable case, "that's a big case for someone without a penis") pretty frequently. Always from men.

She now has a stock response: "And that's a big surprise for a small mind".

It stops the comments, and often leads to an apology from the original commentator when he realises what an ass he looked.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm..... What is it about tech equipment (especially something with a long, projecting visage, e.g., telephoto lens) that is comment-worthy when employed by a feminine figure?

Seriously now. It really is frustrating that in this day and age, with the pervasiveness of technology and gadgets into our lives that, to some people, high tech equipment remains incongruent when in the hands of women. I wish this attitude was just confined to a few old fossil men in the general public, but personal experience suggests that other women are likely to feel the same. (And sometimes, very rarely, fellow scientists.)

I would love to hear from other readers - have you received similar "large lens/little lady" comments in relation to the tools you use to do science?

My best anecdote is about when I was held by airport security to explain a largely metallic (and oddly shaped) instrument in my carry-on. Security claimed that I was "too pretty to be a scientist".

GMP said...

This made me think of a good friend of mine who's in a different department. We started at the same time and bonded over new faculty luncheons. She's very sharp, assertive, and successful, and also happens to be girly and pettite. A particlarly annoying colleague of hers is an old faculty member who keeps calling her "little lady". She said several times "If I were 6' tall, he wouldn't call me little lady." Apparently, there's no height limit on that moniker or on being talked down to in general...

Anonymous said...

I find that with camera equipment, EVERYONE is told "ohhh that's a biiig lens you have there"... just with men, the standard reply is "That's what she said!" and it's a laugh. I don't really see this as a good example.

Anonymous said...

I get this comment, but I am actually little. I wasn't questioning the gender lens, because I am actually small. I'm bemused that a six foot tall woman actually gets called "little." Some day, I'll have to send my husband out with the lens and see if he gets any comments about the lens at all.

(I have also been mistaken for a professional photographer hired to take photos)

chemcat said...

Ben Barres, a transgender neuroscientist, reports similar experience when he went from female to male. People would comment to him that his work was so much better than his sister's.
sigh.

Kevin said...

Most likely the men were seeing telephoto lenses as phallic objects and were making crude jests as incompetent pickup lines.

Ewan said...

I have no clue why gender would affect perception of camera kit. But I'm taking the amusing typo - below - as an excuse to post a general 'thanks' note for the thought-provocation of the blog in general.

Typo: I suspect that the woman in question is likely 6', not 6", tall... it was an entertaining mental image, though!

John V said...

Perfectly enlightening and fair, although how many actually called the 6-footer little lady?

Until the last line, which could be read a variety of ways. I disagree that people who comment on the rarity of women using large zoom lens want to see all females as small, weak, and incapable.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

well, at my placement, a women actually told me that female interns were hired purely because there were too much men in the company (cement, though it is true, about 90% of the research teams were men)...though I kind of had the impression that she was jealous that some of the interns (all girls) actually impressed the bosses in a much shorter time than she did...

Now that, I assume is what is known as secondary criticism.

John V said...

On reflection, my previous post was poorly stated and off-base.

1. FSP made generally a fine post for a common case when men impugn women's skills.

2. I doubt many guys call a 6-fter a "little lady". It could happen, but I've never seen it. However, that doesn't affect FSP's point. Also, women photogs with a big bag of gear are a rarity, enough to elicit a comment, but that doesn't excuse diminishing and patronizing remarks.

Michelle said...

My favorite (from campus security at large research university where I was a visiting professor): "This girl says she's a professor."

(This to a nearly 40 year old tenured professor. Please.)

chemcat said...

Dear FSP,

did you see this yet?! http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/08/science/08tier.html?hp

The guy is insane!!!!

FrauTech said...

I got "hot car, for a girl" a few times. I guess it wouldn't have been so hot if a dude had been driving it? I have no idea.

Anonymous said...

I stopped telling people that I wanted to work for NASA when one of the replies that I got from a staff scientist was: "Can you make coffee?"

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to see this in other fields as well. As a young female faculty in engineering I often see emails from people where they refer to me by my first name while in the same sentences referring to my male colleagues as Prof. so and so. I once had one undergrad's parents ask me "Is there a more senior male prof. I can talk to about this? You seem too young to know this."

Anonymous said...

The answer to "can you make coffee" is always "badly", no matter what. It's the best defense. Trust me. Don't let people like that get in the way of telling the world your dreams.

I had this happen to me once. I carry a very large laptop (17") because it's both my laptop and my home computer. I like being able to do everything no matter where I am. Once at a conference a colleague had the same exact laptop and looked at me astonished when I told him I had the same one. He said "But... how can you carry it? You're so small!" My response was to laugh and tell him that's why I work out so much (I do). It's heavy, but it's my work, so it's what I do. No big deal. His problem, not mine.

Bagelsan said...

I doubt many guys call a 6-fter a "little lady". It could happen, but I've never seen it.

Are you, in fact, a six-foot-tall woman? No? Then I'm going to take her word over yours, thanks.

And, to add to the anecdata, I'm almost 150 lbs (and a mesomorph through and through) and I've certainly been called things like "little lady" before. (I'm like, "uh, have you seen my calves?")

Anonymous said...

I would never make a comment like that, but when I see a woman with expensive and complex photography equipment, I am definitely more impressed than when I see a man with the same equipment. In part this is simply because there are currently fewer women in that field than men, and in part because I'm thinking about how she must have overcome some difficulty with stereotypes to be at such a high level in a male dominated field. I bet many (but not all - I admit) of the males who make the 'big lens/little lady' comment are crudely expressing that sentiment rather than suggesting that the woman is inferior and/or should not be in that job.

Surely many women would look at that same woman with complex photography equipment and would also be equally impressed for the same reasons - and I don't think it is a bad thing to be impressed by this. This person is role model.

My point is that we men are idiots when it comes to accurately conveying aloud the true meanings and attitudes behind our internal thoughts. Certainly the comment itself is bad, but on the other hand - if the guy is just trying to say that he is impressed, then that same statement could suggest that the man may be in the process of changing his views toward understanding that women are just as capable as men.

Anonymous said...

@ John V:

> I doubt many guys call a 6-fter a
> "little lady". It could happen, but
> I've never seen it.

These comments don't necessarily have anything at all to do with physical appearance. Once, my mother (then in her forties, and of a generally motherly appearance) got called "young man" by some grouchy old lady... and that is precisely the point.

DrDoyenne said...

Here's my experience:

I use a soil coring device that is large (half meter long), heavy, and definitely phallic in appearance (I even jam it into the ground!!!). I also use another device that is similarly sized.

Whenever I take either of these devices out of their carrying case (a gun case) in the presence of males, within moments I have several males hovering around me making hilarious comments and clearly indicating with their body language that they want to "take possession" of the device.

My male assistant never gets this reaction. I always let him carry this equipment through airport check points--he never gets hassled.

I've also been asked by customs officers in response to my statement that I'm a scientist, "Are you sure?"

inBetween said...

I love this story. This is so freaking true.

I run a field project in a developing country a la the sort that gets romantically portrayed like Indiana Jones. People LOVE to hear my male colleagues tell stories of their field experiences (even if the guy only went to the field once and never ran a project), but not me. People rarely ask me about field stories and I assume that this is because it just isn't as cool if a woman "conquered" the wilds for research -- must not have been that "wild" if a woman did it.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, that happens to me too. By definition, if I do field work in a remote area, it can't have been that challenging if I (a not-rugged looking woman) did these things.

Anonymous said...

I can absolutely relate to the comments about customs agents. I was questioned at length by an agent in Canada about my answer in the "profession" box. She was incredulous and accused me of lying because I didn't "look like a professor". I was too tired after a red eye flight to respond appropriately but even my business card didn't dissuade her from further grilling.

Xanthophyllippa said...

This reminds me of Ben Barres, the Stanford neurobiologist who once had a colleague approach him and comment on how much stronger his research was than his sister Barbara's. The colleague was referring to Barres's OWN work - he's transsexual.