Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Sexism redux

I wasn't going to post on the Lawrence Summers fiasco because so many other bloggers have and have done so quite eloquently, but given my own recent personal experience with sexism--my own and others'--I felt compelled to comment. What really prompted me though, was a Echnide's post on the matter and the resulting commentary, which is thoughtful and polite unlike some others, which I haven't seen.

I have to say that it is utterly chilling to hear about people taking difference and turning it into better and worse. Have none of these people taken feminist theory 101? Oh, probably not. Too many science requirements. On the first day of feminist theory (and this would actually go for ethnic/cultural studies as well, any study of difference), you learn that basically people have a tendancy to take the differences between men and women and determine which characteristics are valued more than the other. Sometimes this is conscious and sometimes not. And the results are usually that any characteristics that are male are better than the female characteristics. E.g. being physically stronger is better than not; being taller is better than not; being aggressive is better than not. As you can see by my examples, many of these characteristics and not exclusively male--some women are taller or more aggressive. But society often negates these characteristics when they show up in women; they become bad.

I think a lot of sexism and racism is very subtle now and leads thoughtful people like my colleagues and male scientists to assume that it doesn't exist anymore. But it does.

Some personal examples:

People rarely ask Mr. Geeky about the kids. They ask him about his work. I get asked about the kids. (Both men and women do this and it infuriates me because I have always worked and Mr. Geeky and I are truly 50/50 parents).

I only had one teacher encourage me to do Math and Science (thank you, Mr. Chandler) and everyone else pushed me to do English. Honestly, who knows where I'd be if someone had really supported my efforts in math and science.

My daughter is already--at 5--encouraged to play with dolls more than to play video games and do math. We're constantly trying to combat this. We do math quizzes at dinner and in the car. My son plays video games with her. I dread junior high.

At my recent conference, the split between men and women was pretty even, until you went to sessions geared toward "decision-makers"--CIOs and the like. Then, it was predominantly men--and white men at that.

Once, Mr. Geeky noted that the men with stay at home wives seemed more productive than the ones without. He said he felt a little weird about being home for dinner every night and a little jealous of their seemingly endless free time, but that he would never want me to stay at home just to make him more productive. It would make both our lives less fulfilling, he said. This may sound more sexist on his part than it was. It spawned an interesting conversation about productivity and the family unit. Yeah, we're disgustingly geeky.


One of the thoughts I had regarding the 80-hour work week (which is common in the IT field, too) was that in the sciences and the IT field, whether you work 80 hours or not is more visible than it is in the humanities where you might do a great deal of work at home and no one knows whether you've been working or taking care of the kids or juggling both. If you're in a lab running experiments or hacking around on a server (which can be done from home, but most people don't do it that way), you're visible and people know if you're there or not. Students see you; colleagues see you.

The 80-hour work week is ridiculous no matter what field you're in. Mr. Geeky has the occasional late night, but it's usually at home. And I, too, pitch in frequently in off-hours, but we both only do it when we want to without letting it interfere with family life. I think science would survive and perhaps even be better if we allowed the 80-hour work week to die.

The thing that infuriates me about the whole assumption about women in science is that it's obviously a complex issue and it seems--based simply on the few blog posts I've read--that women are quite willing to explore many reasons why this might be--social, genetic, flat-out discrimination--whereas men tend to say that a) there must be a genetic difference because b) there is no discrimination anymore; we fixed that already. There are exceptions, of course. It's just something I've noticed.

Anyway, this wasn't quite the thoughtful post I'd hoped for, but really, it's hard to post about something objectively that you basically live every day.