Monday, May 30, 2011

Well Behaved Women

What do the following two situations involving different women in different jobs in different countries have in common?:

1. A quotation by Christine Lagarde, French minister of finance and a contender to be the next head of the IMF, in Maureen Dowd's column in the NYT on Sunday:

.."people were not particularly nice to me and the media was very keen to point at mistakes or being too blunt or not using the politically correct phrases. I did what I always do. I just gritted my teeth and smiled and got on with it.”

2. From an article in the NYT on Saturday, about men having crises while grilling meat and calling the Weber Grill Hotline for help:

“Quick, I need to talk to a man,” he says curtly.

For Ms. Olsen, 67, it was yet another caller insisting that no woman could possibly grasp a grilling issue.

With 14 years on the job, she calmly but firmly explains that she will be able to handle the problem. If the man is especially upset, she suggests, “You might want to grab a beer — and just listen for a while.”

..

Ms. Olsen, who was widowed at 51 and has pictures of her grandchildren on her cubicle walls, does not rattle easily. “I’m good at what I do,” she said. “I don’t cry” — unlike some of her male callers — “though I have thrown a headset.”

Both women are confident in their expertise, remain (mostly) calm even when men are hysterical and behaving badly, and do their jobs. At least one of them might even make history.

I have never particularly liked the bumper sticker quotation: Well behaved women rarely make history (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). I appreciate the essential point -- women shouldn't just go along to get along, be quiet, not make waves etc. You have to get out there and stir things up to effect real change. The suffragettes made history by not behaving well according to the norms of their time. Etc. But there are different ways to interpret what is meant by "behaving" and what it means to "make history".

Many women collectively make history by doing everyday jobs, like serving in the military (as it is appropriate to remember on this Memorial Day in the US). The hope, of course, is that if enough women routinely demonstrate their expertise and skill, even in jobs that are historically the exclusive domain of men, there will be more career opportunities for more women and less discrimination and harassment for all.

That's the general idea, anyway, and I like to think that women like Ms. Olsen, by calmly and professionally displaying their awesome knowledge of grilling technique and technology (for example), are changing the minds of the men, one by one. Perhaps with time, those who say "I need a man" (a sentence I briefly considered for the title of this post) when calling for help, won't say or even think this. And then isn't it possible that this change of view could extend to attitudes towards women in other aspects of life?

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you regarding the L.T. Ulrich quotation... My personality is naturally "well-behaved", but I have always been encouraged by the mentors in my life to be more "assertive", "agressive", even "controversial", in order to have my voice heard. I'd rather just be me, and still be heard and respected. After all, there are plenty of successful men and women out there who are soft-spoken and polite.

I appreciate the efforts of every woman who has had to battle to earn respect, and I hope that in the future we can all fight a bit less and just be.

Anonymous said...

I would say that your general notion of civility is an excellent. I believe that the Committee on the Advancement of Women in Chemistry (COACh) call this notion remaining "relentlessly pleasant". I hope that you are not saying that we should always just grit our teeth and take "it". I think there are ways of pointing out inequities and clearly sexist behavior while still remaining civil. I most urgently hope that you are not advocating silence in the face of egregious behavior for the sake of "making it" against all odds.

John V said...

I tried and failed to find encouragement for woman's quest for equality in those articles.

Lagarde sounds more like Palin than Hilary Clinton - eschewing knowledge for action, concentrating on fashion rather than substance, calls Esther Williams "plumpy"(!?), climbing the ladder working for rich friends and corporations - check the comments on the article.

A battery of women answering calls about how to grill meat also invokes images of women in poorly-paid, dead-end jobs specializing in cooking, a traditional female trap.

But it's great for you to keep pushing for progress.

Female Science Professor said...

Anon 9:54: No, I am not advocating silence. I am making the point that historic change can happen slowly and quietly by the everyday work of many different women.

John V - If you look closely enough, I am sure you can find much to object to in the life of any person, including these two women. But note that Ms. Olsen, the grill expert, had an even lower paying job before she got her present job. The point of the article is that grilling meat outdoors is a traditionally male activity and that's why the men calling the help line don't want to talk to a woman. But they have little choice because, as you note, the help-line is likely a low pay job and therefore something that women do.

Anonymous said...

I see the parallels with academia. Some men don't want to talk professionally to us women scientists and engineers because they don't believe we have any real expertise (we can't do math, we are just there for quotas etc.). Then sometimes they have to talk to us, and maybe even listen, and when they do, some find that we do know something, perhaps something interesting. And then, slowly, perceptions change, maybe.

John V said...

If you look closely enough, I am sure you can find much to object to in the life of any person, including these two women.

re Lagarde - I'd like to think women can advance by their professionalism, not their shoes, rugs, and distain for knowledge, à la Palin.

re Olsen - my only objection to her is it's too bad she doesn't have a much better job commensurate with her skills.

Anonymous said...

John V - "my only objection to her is it's too bad she doesn't have a much better job commensurate with her skills."
You might want to think about how that's written - you object to her? Or to the system that results in her being in that position? Just noting that the writing makes it seem like you're blaming the person doing the best she can with what she's got.

Women shouldn't have to shout to be heard - more people should just listen.

Anonymous said...

Not to pile on John V too much.. but the full "plumpy" excerpt is:

"What else would you expect from someone who became a synchronized swimmer on the French national team after watching Esther Williams movies as a girl?

“She was a little bit plumpy, which was lovely,” Madame Minister says of the ’50s movie star,.."

So Lagarde was inspired by Williams, and thinks she was lovely.

This post isn't about promoting Lagarde to be head of the IMF, or of anything, it's about "making history" without being Joan of Arc.

John V said...

I may as well get defensive, although I should have been more clear.

my only objection to her ... was intended to be read as I do NOT object to her, despite FSP's statement that I did. Obviously, she took the best job available. Someday I'll learn irony does not work in forums.

As for the plumpy remark, I google-imaged Esther Williams, and she is NOT plump, she's slimmer than today's average. From listening to my daughter whine about her own imagined deficiencies in slimness, I thought it a tone-deaf and revealing remark to include in a portrait of a successful woman. Just emaciated is not slim enough for some fashionistas, and many have eating disorders because of such distorted ideas.

Female Computer Scientist said...

concentrating on fashion rather than substance, calls Esther Williams "plumpy"...
...I'd like to think women can advance by their professionalism, not their shoes, rugs,...


These statements suggest you hold women to a higher standard than men. Do you eschew men in high-profile roles who talk about watching football games, drinking beer, and gambling at Vegas? I don't think these activities advance male professionalism one bit but plenty of high-powered men engage in these activities.

John V said...

These statements suggest you hold women to a higher standard than men. Do you eschew men in high-profile roles who talk about watching football games, drinking beer, and gambling at Vegas?

Good point, it's probably valid to some degree; I likely share more pastimes with men than women, and should think twice before judging.

However, gambling seems an ill-conceived affliction to me, and drinking seems unisexual. Some unwarranted gender stereotypes may be lurking behind this discussion. Weaving sports into political discourse is usually clichéd and an indication of forced logic, particularly when applied to warfare, but you were just referring to spectating.

I meant fluff over substance, and many men are insubstantial as well.

Kea said...

In my field (theoretical physics) where there are still essentially zero women (and even fewer who count) one is damned if one does and damned if one doesn't. 'Misbehaving' according to the norms of the patriarchy (eg. by being sexy) is perfectly acceptable, but actually having an opinion of one's own is most certainly not tolerated. In such fields, the only way women obtain jobs is by either (i) demonstrating first class ass licking skills (ie. behaving) and demonstrating no great talent, or (ii) sleeping with the right man, or having the right daddy (misbehaving?). In fact, I cannot think of any exceptions, and that is with a very broad definition of the field. If I narrow it down to my area of expertise, there really are precisely ZERO women with jobs in the subject.

Anonymous said...

WRT Lagarde: I don't know much about her, but I would point out that it's awfully hard to judge a woman's competence from a news article. Some journalists will cheerfully ignore the smart things coming out of a woman's mouth, then print her tangential comments about fashion and the state of Esther Williams' backside. If a woman pulls a Palin and proudly flaunts her ignorance, you can't blame the media for that, but a merely "soft" presentation isn't always her fault.

Anonymous said...

Why are we even judging the competence of these women? They both seem to be good at their jobs. Isn't that the point?

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:54 has a very good point - as an example FSP's recent blog on an article done on her which focused on her charming manner rather than her awesome science. I had a little university piece done on me last year which I read before it was published and sent the author changes to correct some factual errors. I pointed put that the changes I made were to correct small errors - things I did not say and s/he misinterpreted. It was published with most of those errors intact. We hope the media portrays people accurately but really they have a lot of discretion in whether they do or not. In the course of a long interview things are probably said that were off-topic or said in what was assumed to be the gaps in conversation. Those things can be made to appear like the dominant comments made by the interviewee.

EliRabett said...

Kea: Lisa Randall

John V said...

From Googling more, maybe I was hasty - it seems the Lagarde complaints are more ideological than competence-based. She does seem impressive, thanks for the gentle comments.

The press, of course, is variable - last week I found 4 errors in an interview after they posted it http://www.livescience.com/14351-seismologists-manslaughter-earthquake-predictin-laquila.html and they were willing to correct them, and even propagated the correction to other news outlets. But then FoxNews incompetently paraphased my words http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2011/05/27/italian-scientist-charged-manslaughter-failing-predict-earthquake/ so my friends were asking did I really say that? (No.)

Soupy L said...

Just a small point:
I don't have this information at my finger tips, but I believe the "Well behaved women rarely make history" quote is taken from an article about the Puritan women of budding America - so the quote has really been taken sorely out of context all over the place. I imagine that sentence is followed by some sort of "however".

Anonymous said...

FSP...are you living in cloud cuckoo land? How can you not know that Lagarde also publicly denounced men as being hormone driven and declared how they should be driven out of the boardroom?

Does this kind of blatant feminazism not disturb you? If demanding that men should be kicked out of the boardroom purely on the basis of their gender is not discrimination, what is?

Female Science Professor said...

Just to keep it simple, this is what I wrote about Lagarde (and Ms. Olsen, the grill-master):

Both women are confident in their expertise, remain (mostly) calm even when men are hysterical and behaving badly, and do their jobs. At least one of them might even make history.

I hardly think that is a general expression of support for everything Lagarde has ever said and done.

Kea said...

Eli, sorry, but although I think Lisa is a reasonable physicist, her theoretical prejudices have basically been proven incorrect now (only experiment can judge - and string theory and its offshoots are out) so I don't count her amongst top end theorists.

Anonymous said...

Kea, you did not specify that the women had to be "top end" in your original comment. You said there were ZERO women. I am sure there are not many, but is your ZERO for "top end" women or for any women? I am not in this field at all, so have no clue.

Anonymous said...

Ms Olsen, when confronted with the "I need a man!" demand from the hysterical male, should have passed the phone over to a male colleague who could spend a minute listening to Hysterical Male and then inform him that the best person to help him is Ms Olsen and pass the phone back to her.

this is not because Ms Olsen needs a man to affirm her worth, but because people like Hysterical Male will not take her seriously on her own terms not unless shown by one of "them" (i.e. other men) that she really is better.

Anonymous said...

Kea's comments about theoretical physics are offensive. Aside from Lisa Randall, who was already pointed out, let's not forget Ann Nelson, Mary K. Gaillard, Helen Quinn, Glennys Farrar, Ruth Gregory, Sally Dawson, and others who aren't coming to mind at the moment, not to mention several extremely promising junior faculty and postdocs. It's true that there aren't as many women in the field as one would like to see, and that there are elements of sexism lingering far longer than they should, but it's incredibly offensive to suggest that the women who are successful in this field owe it to who they slept with or to ass-kissing.

Anonymous said...

Yes, so nice to see all the nonexistant/"ass-kissing" female theoretical physicists in my own university. And as for Randall, she's not a REAL physicist, after all, you know...

The goal posts get moved once again.

John V said...

Persuant to the subsequent day's post, once again the commenters on FSP prove to be effective in countering serious but off-base posts - much better than simply deleting contention.

The FSP blog rules.

Cara said...

I think quiet competence and loud, headphone-flinging irritation both have a perfectly valid place in the discourse, depending not only on the personality of the individual but on however she darned well feels like handling the idiocy at any given time.

Since, you know, we feminists believe women are actual individual people and all that.