Saturday, October 02, 2004

Merited Misandry

When I was a very young undergraduate studying Science, I read Evelyn Fox Keller” Reflections on Gender and Science”. This was a classic volume of the 70’s, that problematised Baconian models of scientific discovery in relationship to the sexist nature of gendered social relations in the lab. To put it simply, women’s minds and women’s bodies were described and studied as separate, aberrant and pathological “objects” of science, medicine and psychiatry, while the majority of leading scientists and doctors were men. The nature of the university supported this because most student in the ‘hard’ sciences were men, and also even in the biological sciences, where equal numbers predominated at undergraduate level, numbers of women tended to plateau out at postdoc level – most women researchers being left at lower academic, research assistant, teaching assistant level.

Anyway in student feminist circles I definitely felt like a brave, bold pioneer in a ‘non traditional’ field. All the other women were doing women’s studies and getting to write essays on Liz Grosz and Luce Irigaray while I was trying to splice genes with creationist bible bashers. OK it wasn’t always that bad, in science students were pretty aware about the social relations around them. Other female students all sighed and clucked about stray sexist comments made by (male) demonstrators, and male students at least seemed to mouth the right sorts of concerns about possibilities for women pursuing careers in science. Maybe it was just a strategy to get laid. Hell, it worked!

Fast forward a decade and I decided that I should be doing essays on Liz Grosz and Luce Irigaray since that’s who I’ve been reading in my spare time for ten years. I start a serious reading and writing habit, and wax literal about all that fine Irigiraian notions of dissimilating in the enemy camp of male dominated philosophy. Lots of well written words about slaying angels and the inner struggle of the female writer marginalised by the very structures of meaning.

This is so successful I write my way into a PhD. So1 here I am in academic land and with a postgraduate library card and an APA I reckon I’m unstoppable. No more ignorant boyos to flirt and dissimulate to, lots of women and men to have serious philosophical discussions with, instead of inanities uttered between writing down silly numbers or trying not to spill biohazards in my hair.

Arts research is largely conducted on a solitary level, but the gatherings, seminars, conferences are, presumably, where the professional networking occurs, the chatter, gossip, exchanges, job rumours, publication projects are lubricated by the beverage of choice and the randomly fecund ping-pong of chatter. Evelyn Fox Keller wrote about this, and stated that they occur in science and yes they do exclude women. No one has written lately about how much they excluded women in other disciplines. Feminist theory waffles all about semiotics and the problematic of designating a gendered subject. What is the subject? What is gender? Apparently it’s all in flux, kinda of like a thing you can make up on the spot and the utterable intelligibility of such aint just confined to the genitals. Gender is a state of play. Woo hoo!

I have found the latter ideas really really good. Especially in bed, or en route to the bed, in various bars at around 3am when picking up options are getting slim. Latex casting can work wonders, and girls (or guys) never leave the house without a false moustache, a wig and several genitalia tucked away in your purse. You never know when they can come in handy. (damn! I said I wasn’t going to discuss dating tips!) Back in the ivory tower, things aren’t quite so queer and forward, kind of back and behind, or back of beyond. I’m often reminded of the old days at the country, when I strayed form the ladies lounge at the pub. Marginalisation is such a loaded word, that trying to write about it without sounding accusatory is difficult. So I’ve tried to describe it in terms of everyday experiences.

This paragraph specifically refers to the life experience of bespectacled, asthmatic, uncoordinated, flabby or skinny individuals (or any gender) whose level of engagement with compulsory school sports was less than Olympian. If you are an active and successful member of the varsity sporting fraternity you can skip this bit. Remember how you felt during team selection (when you were the handicap) school sports carnivals (when detention felt preferable) change room before and after PE, PE itself? Suddenly the appearance of trackies, joggers and scungies changed the social order so that you who reigned supreme in the classroom spelling or maths quiz felt the pangs of the subaltern.

This paragraph specifically refers to the life experience of those whose experience of international travel has gone beyond Fairstar cruises, Kontiki Package tours, student exchanges to English speaking countries, or backpacking circuits. If this doesn’t fit your life history, you could probably ask one of the many students on campus who are migrants or international students from a non English speaking country. If not, just hunt down your nearest diagnosed Aspergers sufferer. Have you ever had the experience where you are stumbling along in a social setting, and suddenly you realise that you cannot understand a single word that is being said, and you say something that you think is right, and everyone stops and stares at you and you suddenly realise that you haven’t got the slightest clue about what you should do or say next in order to establish harmonious social relationships?

If you have never experienced the above, and would like to try it, then I’d suggest donning some form of prosthesis or attire that would identify you as female and walking into a postgraduate research seminar. If the patina of backs gets monotonous, walk towards a gap and listen in to whatever conversation is occurring try saying something polite and engaging. There you can witness the scintillating pulse as the conversational lull ceases, comes to half a second of complete silence before a male starts a completely different conversation and the lull resumes. This little experiment can be repeated during chaired seminars. If the chair allows you (iterably intelligible as female) to speak, do so, and note the response. If this isn’t enough, try greeting your colleagues while traversing university thoroughfares, and enjoy your own awkward facial tics and arm flapping as you try to disguise the futility of unreciprocated gestures and smiles as a brief outbreak of eczema.

Outrageous! Appalling! Is she paranoid? I hear you cry. No I’m not, and I personally invite you to conduct the experiments yourself across a number of faculties and departments. My own experience is that Arts is actually once of the worst offenders. Science and Engineering maybe patriarchal boyo techie boring areas, but they are also grounded in an implicit sense of practical contingencies. Women are still often doing most of the crap jobs in such disciplines. The crappy but necessary jobs. Rule one for high falutin success, make sure the poor sucker whose shoulders you stand on is a happy team member. So my theory is that the group collaborative research environment of the shared laboratory gives these guys some idea of how to behave. One that isn’t necessarily shared by the theoretically savvy sensitive new age guys in Arts.

Now I may come across a some kid of hardcore bitchy feminazi, but you’ve gotta admire my witty writing style and I urge you to continue! Tears and whinges aside, I am still utterly perplexed at this behaviour, directed (not only at me but other female students), from iterably intelligible heterosexual men. I assume these guys go off and whinge about the inadequacy of their sex lives? Actually I am fucking sure of it. The one or two who deigned to talk to me (admittedly only as undergrads) certainly did. So I’m going to publish tips for the lonely straight guy volume one, right here:

Practice how to have conversations with women, which involve both of you talking.
Even if you never socialise with women, you can develop these skills with the women you encounter in your professional lives, like your postgraduates students, researchers in your department and the one or two female academic staff.
By learning how to listen, smile and respond to what women are saying, you will learn to interpret women’s social gestures, this knowledge will increase with experience.
You can use your knowledge of how to communicate with women in your personal life.
Communication, eye contact, interest: chicks love that shit, you’ll win every time.

Just to fend off accusations of heterosexism, I’ll add that heterosocial skills can benefit us all. Even radical homosexual separatists have family members of the opposite sex not to mention the odd tradesperson, retail assistant etc. So I reckon acquiring skills for communicating with the opposite sex can benefit us all. In the meantime, what’s the survival strategies for the poor gals like me? I’m really not sure. I have mixed with a large variety of men and women in many different circles outside uni, both male and female, and the sort of autistic intransigence I am currently encountering is really pushing my aquired social resources to their very limits. I’ve tried doing the blokey drink buying palchick thing. Failed. Flirting. (sipping wine, fluttering eyes and giggling) Failed. Doing the anorexic male ego mirror thing. (OK, not quite anorexic, but I sucked in my gut, and asked vapid flattering questions in a high voice). Failed. Wearing a skirt and cleavage . Failed. Wearing a jacket and tie. Failed. Did the maternal “tell me your problems”. Failed.

So for the time being I’m staying away. I go to other seminars, test the other departments, other faculties, I flit and flutter and flan in the rest of the world where I seem to have infinite success in comparison. But these arenas are not my profession, they are not my research area. I’m like the foreign visitor who entertains from sheer novelty, and I’m entertained back. The problem is that I like my own research area, I believe in my discipline. Interdisciplinary play is all fine and dandy, but I really do want to teach and write in my area. It is the one that makes sense to my ideas and my career.

So what am I to do, if I can’t communicate with other researchers in my field? Change fields or change sex? I guess if I got diagnosed with breast cancer, I could entertain the latter option. Get the radical double masectomy, start taking T. But while they are only threatening my career and not my life, I’d really like to hold onto my beloved secondary sex characteristics. So what do I do? Feminists have written about the sexism of my discipline for longer than I have been alive, it still hasn’t changed the fact that for me, right now, it is bloody hard being a woman in my field. Worse still the problem isn’t only the men, it is the women. There are women researchers in my department, I’ve even heard rumours that there may be another PhD student, but where are they? Who are they? What are they doing? They aren’t coming to seminars, they aren’t lounging in the corridors or haunting the library. They’ve probably missed out on an office, hate the seminars as much as I do, and are more than likely juggling other jobs and social responsibilities that come with adulthood and femaleness. So the cycle continues.

I wish I could propose a solution or suggestions to this. “Oh yeah, a postgraduate women’s network” “ an e-list” “more women’s studies networks”. Sounds like more bloody work, and I suspect that like me, most women researchers and students are already snowed under with extra jobs, extra responsibilities, both paid and unpaid. So I’m going to put the onus on the men in my discipline. You know who you are. If you don’t, ask yourself when was the last time you listened to a female colleague speak for more than 5 minutes when she wasn’t giving a paper or discussing YOUR life or YOUR research? Then I am writing about you, and I suggest you modify your behaviour. Ask other men how. Believe me, plenty of them have learnt. If you don’t change, I will continue to hate you, and one day when I get my bloody doctorate, I’ll get a gun and shoot you. Yes you. It’s not reasonable but isn’t this reason enough to change?

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