Wednesday, April 18, 2007

It's not as simple as we'd wish.

Today somebody sent me yet another article on why men and women are so different.

These things always irritate me, since I think it's not interesting to discuss. It's not a point worth making.

To me, gender is like choosing teams for playing a kids' game like Kick The Can. You know, people are randomly assigned to teams in the order you show up. Every other person gets a red shirt or a blue shirt. You end up being a girl or a boy just by the dumb luck of having arrived at a blue or red moment.

To me, this is essentially how biology does it. Okay, maybe some sperm swim faster than others, but really you're an egg until you get a second X... or a Y.

And let's just assume for the purposes of this argument that it doesn't matter what Mom ate that day or how old Dad was, that it's essentially a 50:50 chance which one you got.

That is how I feel most of the time. I play for the girls team because that's what card I drew. I don't feel any great loyalty to women. Just today at lunch I felt more in common with the guy sitting next to me, not saying much, than I did with the two girls who were yammering on about shopping for dresses.

But because I play for the girls team, and because of the way I've been treated because of it, because I wear the red shirt and that is all anyone can see, I do sometimes feel oppressed by the Male Majority, especially in science.

I say Male Majority because I find it's a provocative term. The other day I heard someone use the phrase White Majority in a meeting, and I found myself sit up very straight and ask, WHAT??

But nobody knows if you feel more black on the inside than you look on the outside, or if some days you feel totally asexual, like cerevisiae. And other days you think, well actually all yeast are female, we call them all mothers or daughters! So there!

So although the article I was reading today seems to think (and, case in point, show) that it's a pipe dream, I still do wish we could all just do what we do, and not talk so much about how men or women do it. Not worry so much about putting people in little boxes to make it simpler to understand why individuals have different interests, different strengths.

I've had a number of students work with me in the lab, and they had nothing in common. One was good with her hands, another was good at math, another was terrible at it but asked great questions about biology. I can honestly say that, except for the few who typify the stereotypes, most everyone I've ever worked with, at every level, was his or her own person. Whether it was a him or a her.



At 10:50 PM, Anonymous Meredith said...

Excellent points- especially in your last paragraph. I've had the same experiences with people in labs- gender had absolutely no bearing on their strengths & weaknesses at the bench or computer when it came to carrying out research or formulating ideas and testing a hypothesis. Maybe, however, I might have seen a slight difference in how ideas are presented by males and females- I think males are more apt to be more outspoken and confident as compared with their female counterparts (at least at the student level); again, that's a generalization. But you are correct- when it comes to research skills, I haven't seen any appreciable difference between the sexes when it comes to learning/aptitude in the various scientific disciplines, and I work in a very interdisciplinary area, that involves biology, chemistry, & physics.

At 8:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I still do wish we could all just do what we do, and not talk so much about how men or women do it. Not worry so much about putting people in little boxes to make it simpler to understand why individuals have different interests, different strengths."

Ms. PhD, this is the most hypocritical thing I've seen from you. You constantly say "men suck" and make broad, sweeping generalizations about the gender. You constantly complain that you have it so much harder as a woman, without mentioning that, hey, its hard for all of us in science, man or woman. You think that men are handed things that they don't work for, while women work twice as hard for half as much reward. Your blog is incredibly interesting and well written, but if you're going to complain about men as your enemy, why write something about how everyone should be seen as the same, when you clearly don't see it that way?

At 9:28 AM, Blogger physics*chick said...

Or how about if we could acknowledge, and embrace that there are some differences between men and women (even if those are based on experiences in our current society... without getting into the nature vs. nurture argument). Then beyond that we have to see that as individuals there are huge variations in perspectives, past experience, natural talents, etc.

At the same time as I don't like being singled out as "the woman" (in a still very male dominated field) I hate the idea of having to pretend I'm not.

At 9:49 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Merdith, my point is that I think whatever differences there are, are mostly cultural, or at least exacerbated by upbringing. We train girls to behave a certain way, just as we train boys to behave a different way. Pink and blue toys, and so on (see earlier posts on that topic). I think it's mostly not the case that we're so different as people like to argue.

Anonymous, as you chose the appropriate quote, I would expect you to understand that's the whole point of this post. I WISH we didn't have to talk about it. But we do. That's why I have this blog.

I've written extensively, and plan to continue to write, about how science is generally screwed up and it's bad for everyone.

As for how I 'clearly' see it, I think you might be projecting a little of your own wishes onto how you want to see me. My point is that it's not that simple... and neither am I.

physics*chick, I can't embrace it. I've tried. I like diversity, but I prefer it when genders are all mixed up. I love how gay society takes the whole thing and turns it all upside down and says, why can't we pick and choose the parts we like and leave the rest? There should be more than two boxes, and none of them should have anything to do with science careers!

I'm not saying you have to pretend not to be The Woman. It's part of who you are, and you can embrace whatever parts you like. I don't wear pants every day, and I enjoy that I have the choice to wear a skirt. My point is that sometimes it does feel like that is all anyone can see about us, and I wish it didn't obscure everything else we bring to the table, but sometimes it does.

At 5:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

AlexA (sorry can't remember my google password so I'll have to be officially anonymous).

I don't really mind the assumptions people make about you from your gender, clothing, accent, size etc. I recognise that it can be a problem for initial contact but it doesn't take long to subvert these pre-conceptions. And consciously doing that allows you much more control over how people perceive you.

Defying expectation is an impressive thing.

At 9:09 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Great attitude. But one of the big issues I discuss a lot on this blog is that most people won't give you the chance. If you don't meet them, you can't confront their expectations. They've already written you off based on your name, or gossip.

At 12:40 PM, Blogger Holly said...

YFS - I really enjoyed this post. You write well. I too wish it weren't so but wishing won't make it so. That's why I really appreciate all of the effeorts people make to prompt real changes in the way science is done. Like you, I think this issue is not just about female scientists but also anyone who struggles to make it in science without being at least a middle-class, white, straight, male. Being shut out of that network is the seriously vexing part.

At 9:02 AM, Blogger Mary Witzl said...

When I was a kid, I hated the way you had to be either one thing or the other. If you a girl who was interested in sports, say, then you were butch. If you weren't, then you were either a klutz or hyperfeminine; there were no shades of grey. Girls who hated shopping and weren't interested in make-up were automatically suspected of lesbian tendencies; girls who liked to read were bookworms, etc.

I've got daughters now, and I think that the whole gender issue is a little easier for them. No one has ever told them that they can't do something because they are girls. I'd just like to see them try...

At 6:19 PM, Blogger lady macleod said...

In two of my former professions I was the solitary female among males in male dominated fields. It had positive and negative repercussions. I think whatever your view, it is important to talk about it. Get it out in the light, and perhaps understanding will emerge and from that a better day.
Good post.

At 11:37 PM, Blogger H4736 said...

I enjoy very much the struggle for all to be viewed free from gender stereotypes. And I love how you mention that gay people have done much to foster this open-mindedness about gender.


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