Why Gender Still Matters

Yesterday, I heard a news piece about how Marissa Mayer doesn’t think gender matters in the tech industry. Now, the pull quote in the segment didn’t really make it clear what she meant by that, but the news source where I heard it was presenting it as Mayer saying she didn’t think gender was an issue in the advancement of people in the tech industry. It called to mind this question sent to “Dear Prudence” a few weeks ago, where a woman was complaining about feminists in her workplace getting all upset when she said she didn’t experience any different treatment based on her gender. It might have been heartwarming except that the young woman asking the question titled her question “Excessive Feminists” and seemed to think that because she was too young to get passed over for senior positions and hadn’t had anyone make sexual overtures towards her that that meant she wasn’t treated differently because of her gender.

There was also a generally dismissive tone, as if she felt like these “excessive feminists” were making a big deal out of nothing to foster a false sense of camaraderie. Don’t even get me started on Prudence’s reply. The idea that a 20-something who hasn’t experienced what fits into her narrow definition of gender discrimination should not invalidate the other women as “obsessive grievance-mongering” feminists. And it’s almost funny how naively the writer brings up that there just happens to be “too few [female] candidates” without really reflecting on why that is. It’s like just because we’ve made progress in the treatment of women in the workplace, people think it’s fixed. It’s not like it’s the 60s anymore, right? You should be happy your boss doesn’t pinch your ass and call you a hot tomato, darling. And that’s the problem.

The problem is that women are constantly being told to lighten up when they experience something that leaves them with a bad taste in their mouths, professionally. I’ve found that, particularly in experimental science, people tend to being a little looser with the rules of professionalism. People will make off-color jokes in a lab that you wouldn’t make in an office setting, perhaps because the fact that we’re wearing jeans and a polo shirt makes this less of a professional setting than those suits in their corner offices. It’s not sexual advances, or even flirting, but it’s not appropriate.

But we are professionals. And it matters that what a male colleague might find hilarious a female colleague will file away in her mental file with a note that you find something deeply disturbing to her to be funny and maybe she wants to avoid being in a private, vulnerable situation with you. Or it matters that when you call your younger female colleague “sweetie,” you’re telling her you think of her as below you, in part because of her gender. Or when you say you’re “always happy to help out a pretty young girl,” you’re implying she’s less than capable or that you’re giving her special treatment that has nothing to do with the job you’re both hired to do.

Because the thing is that we’re getting this all the time. And it really hurts to get it from the people we respect and work with well. When someone I like makes a sexist comment without even knowing it, it just reminds me how far we have to go. It reminds me that even though I have a PhD in physics, if the people who know me make gendered assumptions about me, how am I ever going to get to a point where I’m not assumed to be the secretary by the sales rep at the company I’m contacting? Or how is that engineer who mansplains my own project’s requirements back to me (incorrectly) ever going to learn that that’s just not okay? And it grates.

The Real Katie is right: it’s a million barbs. It’s like nettles or crumbs in the bed. Not always dangerous, but damned annoying. And cumulative. It gets to the point where you end up snapping at the person who you like and respect because they happened to be the most recent in a string of offenses. And, yes, you know they were “only joking,” but, no, you’re not going to “lighten up.” Sorry, not sorry.

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