“Science is not about conforming to an ideal, masculine or feminine, but instead relies on the diversity of perspective that gives rise to insight. The individuals do not derive identity from the group; the group is defined by the identity of its component individuals. Or, as I phrase it to myself, the point is not whether I think like other scientists do; it’s that one scientist – me – thinks like I do.”
I love this quote from the essay “The Truth is in The Distribution” by Indira Raman. Her article gives a number of liberating insights for women in science based on her personal perspectives, which I found to be refreshing.
In other parts of the essay, she extends the discussion of variability to the range of behavior – good and bad – observed in scientists, relating specifically to the challenges faced by women in science. This part hit home for me, as I had been thinking a lot about the circumstances under which I ascribed someone’s behavior to sexism. These thoughts come across best in the cases of two individuals I had been dealing with.
Case 1 – a young man, fellow postdoc. In informal seminars where discussion is encouraged but usually occurs at low levels, he often interjected to ask the presenter (usually female) a question, but more often, to share a story or concern of his that was similar. In one instance where a fellow female postdoc was giving a practice talk for a presentation at a conference and several faculty members started critiquing her, the male postdoc added in his generic talk advice.
Case 2 – a young woman, research technician. In lab when faced with a problem, she would ask my advice. I would give her advice such as, “I would do X.” She would respond, “I’ll just do X.” What I just said, rephrased to sound like she just thought of it and didn’t need my advice after all. I never heard her do this with a man, including those more junior to me in the lab.
In the first case, my initial reaction was to label this guy a classic mansplainer, and consider how I could talk to him about what he was doing. After some thought and further observation, I recognized that he is just a super-talkative guy who believes everything he thinks is important enough to be said out loud, though he wasn’t typically condescending, and it was just circumstance that made him look like a mansplainer since he was often the only male in the room*. In the second case, my first reaction was to think this was just a really annoying way of talking through ideas. But after thinking more, I believe she is a mansplainer, who doesn’t like any idea unless it comes from her own mouth, but only when the other party is a woman.
So I realized that I was quick to ascribe bad behavior to sexism in a man and quick to forgive bad behavior as a personality trait in a woman, and it is important to consider the individual as only representing him or herself. That said, however… there are clearly patterns of bad behavior, and the range and variability of those patterns are not the only important metrics – the number of women affected by sexism (i.e. virtually all women) is arguably the most important, as was brought to collective awareness by the #YesAllWomen counter to #NotAllMen trends. Therefore, whenever we see sexism at play, even from a small number of men, we can’t simply write it off as individual variability. That is where I felt Raman’s essay was lacking – by accepting that it is a relatively small number of offending individuals making the field more difficult for women, it can indeed be liberating, but it remains essential to act against sexism where we see it, as well as proactively. She does acknowledge that she appreciates these efforts and that is not the focus of her essay.
For my part, I will continue to try to be more judicious in my own evaluations of people’s behavior that may or may not appear sexist to me, remembering the range in people of all sexes.
*Though of course it is valid to consider him (and us) a product of our culture generating this male-typical behavior, making it no coincidence at all that the only man in the room was also the only one who felt like his ideas were important enough to interject.