Queen Bees, Old and Young
Yesterday I attended a talk on gender and science. It was a very frustrating experience, because I had been looking forward to the talk. But the speaker, a senior administrator who should know better, made it a difficult and trying experience. About a third of the slides in the talk were dense data tables scanned from publications. Projected on the screen, the type was so tiny you could not read a thing on them, at least from where I was sitting in the audience. The speaker kept saying, “Well, you can’t read this, but it doesn’t matter, because all you need to know is…” All I need to know is, why are you wasting my time showing me slides that can’t be read? It is disrespectful to your audience to not care enough to take the time to create real, readable and informative slides that summarize your research. Also, I can read your slides as well as you can. Please don’t read them to me. Potential speakers take note: do not do this to your audiences. Some good advice on giving a talk: I hope that’s not behind a paywall.
At any rate, in the question and answer period, a young woman raised an issue one often hears – that of senior women who not only don’t mentor junior women, but treat them harder than their male counterparts. I will admit to having encountered a few women like this in my past, but I’m also aware that the opposite exists: young women who absolutely insist that discrimination and bias are a thing of the past, who seem unwilling to think about the structural features of institutionalized sexism. They’ll even go so far as to defend white male privilege when you raise the issue. Here’s part of what I think is at play in this.
Many of these young women have a hugely ambitious desire to be Teh Awesome in science, at the same time that they suffer from a hugely suffocating fear that maybe they are not only not Teh Awesome, but are Teh Stupid. They want to be accepted and anointed by the powers that be, who happen to be white guys. They tell themselves they are not like other loser women. It’s a bit like “passing as a man” e.g. a “real scientist”.
When you are struggling with all that, you have a lot invested in defending powerful white males as really cool dudes who totally love you and will help you out in your career and could NEVER be sexist or racist because they are such nice guys and awesome scientists and science is objective and all that. You must deny the sexism you may personally experience or that is all around you because you don’t want to believe it will affect your career You want to believe you will work hard and be rewarded accordingly.
Being a woman is no guarantee that you will respect other women and/or realize that feminism has some valid points to make. There are powerful forces that reward you for identifying with the oppressor. And let’s face it: it’s not like coming into feminist consciousness makes everything happy and shiny. False consciousness is bliss.
Or not. Because as depressing as it can be to contemplate sexism, it can be quite difficult trying to navigate life without a theoretical framework that explains the shit going on around you. I speak from experience. Here’s something I wrote several thousand years ago as a graduate student (published here), a few months after discovering women’s studies and the explanatory frameworks it offered.
I had convinced myself, or been convinced, that I was special because of what I was doing, and that other women who weren’t striving to be engineers or “hard” scientists were just wimps who weren’t trying and weren’t as good as me…But you spend time trying to neutralize your ability, to soothe the egos of male classmates; yet you know that you are still excluded and so you tend this secret little anger inside of yourself. And because there are more women in, for example, engineering than there were twenty five years ago, your status as “exceptional” is distorted. Yes, it’s normal for women to do this, we encourage them to (or at least don’t discourage them) but, no, we’re not going to treat you “just like the boys”. You’re not equal – your classmates resent you, female friends find you a mystery, males in social situations are intimidated by you. So you get lonely, and then you take comfort in the idea that you’re “special”. Society creates a category, you move into it; then you have certain experiences that reinforce and perpetuate the category. You really begin to believe you’re different and superior, at the same time that you feel different and inferior. This effectively blocks you from uniting with other women, having any sense of solidarity, and from doing anything to change society. [emphasis added]
This is why I can empathize with the queen bees. Because I used to be one, and I remember how it feels.