shermarama: (bright light)
[personal profile] shermarama
Is there such a thing as a consulting feminist? Because I feel like I need to talk to one, on how I got to where I am, and where indeed I actually am, on gender issues. I don't spend a lot of time reading around the topic, and I'm not likely to either, but things come up where I find my experiences of being female, and of being a female that does science and engineering in particular, to be different to other people's experiences. I never felt I had to see a woman playing the drums before I thought I could, or had to re-imagine myself male in order to see myself doing it; the same with science. And I understand other people do, and I don't know why, and I'd like to. Although, I can get right behind a campaign to produce a fairer balance of female characters as role models in children's TV; I suspect I'd like to see a fairer balance of characters so that men are less surprised when women show up doing something. (I'm familiar with that surprise, and it can be a bit tedious at times, but that's about as bad as it's ever been, for me. Energy-consuming but not an actual impediment.)

A couple of times recently in conversations about this sort of thing, people have mentioned my size. It feels plausible to me that it's a factor; several women I know recently agreed that they recognised a description of lava-balling, men spreading their legs unnecessarily widely on public transport, while I didn't. Do men not do it to me because I'm large, or do I think about it differently due to my own experiences of trying to fit in the small amount of space you get allocated on public transport? But while size might have an influence, it can't cover everything. It can't cover whether or not I get an interview on the basis of having a woman's name on my CV which, I dunno, looking back maybe I did suffer from that in the Australia jobs I didn't get interviews for? I'd just assumed they had internal candidates they wanted to put in place, and I don't know how I'd ever know the difference. My name hasn't stopped me getting plenty of other science and engineering jobs, including pretty much every one I've ever had an interview for; have they all just been relieved to see my size when they meet me?

When I was eight, my Sindy doll had a sword and shield that I'd made for her because she was a warrior Sindy, but she still wore a ballerina dress at the same time because, well, that's what clothes she had. It didn't seem wrong to me then, but I can see now how it doesn't fit in the boxes we're told are right. When did I learn about the boxes? Did I know about them then and ignore them? Why have I continued to exempt myself from the pressures of those boxes relatively easily? Is it just because I don't fit in either men's or women's clothes easily, so have had to find a sort of third way? (Even I hadn't started having that problem when I was eight, though.) Why is it that I sometimes do feel those pressures, though? Several times I've taken some pains to find or make a dress or skirt to wear when attending a wedding, even though I literally never wear them for any other part of my life that isn't fancy dress.

And whenever I try to write down anything about this and I just keep coming up with rambling interconnected anecdata along the same uninformed lines. I had a trial singing lesson yesterday, and I got a lot of information very quickly from just talking to someone who had a sense of the shape of the field, of what the options were and how I might fit into them. I suspect the same sort of expert help might answer a lot of the questions I have about where I stand in the world of gender. But it just feels like far too large and complicated a field, full of conflicting theory and a whole lot of bullshit, for there ever really to be any experts, as opposed to people with particularly vocal opinions. And as for getting to grips with the field myself... Yeah. I suppose I just carry on making the trousers and try not to get involved in arguments, which just feels a bit useless. Ho-hum.

Date: 2013-07-14 04:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think the thing is - particularly with the current talk of intersectionality - to be able to recognise that, even though you may not be able to experience something, one needs to recognise what other people say of their experiences as real. To be fair, this has more relevance when the other has experiences you *can't* have e.g. when I am listening to a trans woman's experience of street abuse and name-calling, but I think it should be extendable to the situation where one *could* have had the other's experience, but just haven't.

FWIW, I've not ever had any experience of other physicists treating me as a lesser physicist because I am female; the only thing holding me back there is that I am an enthusiastic physicist but (I thought) not a particularly great one. I have, I think, experienced *non*-physicists treating me as a lesser physicist because I am female, particularly male non-physicists. However, I'm fairly sure that when I was teaching I actually got to interview a couple of times because I was a female, and they wanted to demonstrate a gender balance in their interviewing. Is this just as sexist? I don't know. It could be called positive discrimination.

So, I don't think that your experiences are unusual - I've never had any doubts that I'm a female, but I never really played with dolls to the extent that when a schoolfriend had a Cindy party when I was eight or so, I had none to take along. I always had books and trees, and wanted to be a superhero, so I had comics as well. I think this was because I was a middle child and strangely precocious, but, looking back on it, I don't think my mother had much time for girly things, either. However, I accept that other people had different experiences.

Date: 2013-07-14 04:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I've never had to wonder if people thought me inferior at my job for being female. Plenty of people would be quite happy to tell me so to my face.

Most of the promotions I got in the games industry I had to get by trickery - by submitting work anonymously and winning the job. Then when it was revealed to be me behind the work, if the producer didn't know me they would refuse to allow me on the team until (male) lead artists who did know me made a scene.

The point being... when my work was anonymous and assumed male, they couldn't wait to get me on board, but would change their mind when told "Moto did the work." They'd change their minds because "she's a girl, she can't have done that work by herself."

Sorry, I could write reams of such examples. I suppose the final nail in the coffin was asking a trans friend of mine if she'd noticed any change in the way people valued her work and skills since becoming visibly a female programmer. She became quite sad and said that yes, there was a marked demotion.
Edited Date: 2013-07-14 04:29 pm (UTC)

Date: 2013-07-14 05:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Adding my anecdata to the pile - I have never had issues getting jobs (in web dev); in fact once or twice I've had interviewers say they are glad to have a woman on the team (usually for some BS reason like they think I'd be a "calming influence" or some crapola).

But I get the crap once I've started, usually from peers. It definitely feels worse for me these days, too - not sure if that's just me becoming more intolerant of the BS, or no longer being willing to be "one of the lads" to get by, or because attitudes actually are worse. Current job is particularly awful, but I'm determined to stick it out as I need a long-term position.

Date: 2013-07-15 07:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
What sort of crap do you get, if you don't mind me asking? Direct comments, or uncomfortable assumptions, or what kind of thing?

Date: 2013-07-15 07:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Mansplaining, mostly. E.g. Me: "Ugh, I'm struggling to debug this, I can't inspect the element because when I right-click it it takes the focus off" Colleague: *walks over to desk, grabs mouse from my hand, tries doing exactly what I've been doing, fails* "Hm, for some reason when you right-click it, it takes the focus off". Me: "Yeah, that's what I was say..." Colleague: *has walked away*

That sort of thing. I realise it may not sound like much, but constantly having the fact that you are very experienced completely overridden gets tiring.

Also, I wanted to second what was said above about intersectionality. I know I have a ton of privilege, being white, cisgendered, hetero etc, and I try to remember that & take others' experiences into account.

Date: 2013-07-15 10:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
That's something I don't find I get much, I suppose. Now and then someone being surprised that I'm fine with tools and wiring and things, but relatively rarely - and, as I said somewhere else, I'm not particularly aware of it happening to the other women in my company either. There have been a couple of strange moments recently with one man in particular, who I've been working with for about a year already and who never questions me in matters to do with chemical stuff or research, but for some reason finds it amusing when I do things in the workshop. But there seems to be all kinds of stuff mixed up in that that's not just sexism. He used to be a (small-scale) farmer, so thinks of himself as very practical, as farmers generally are, but given tools he's actually a bit cack-handed - tending to turn the spanner the wrong way first, like, not just the first time you put the spanner to a joint, when you haven't worked out the geometry properly yet, but when re-fastening the same thing you've been working on all afternoon, when the spanner has always gone in the same direction, if you follow me. He can get things done eventually, yes, but it's probably going to get done quicker and better if I do it, so I do, and then he laughs because he thinks that makes me some sort of unexpected female workshop genius. It seems to me to say many things about his world-view, including his ability to estimate his own skills as well as his view of what women can do. And it is a sort of sexism, but somehow a quite innocent one? More that he's never had his assumptions challenged rather than that they're born of misogyny or resentment, and now they're being challenged he seems to be taking it well enough.

The assumption that female means inexperienced is pretty damn annoying, yeah, but I don't run into it much. This may be because I've done quite a lot of hopping around my field, so I'm often working with people with different areas of expertise - they're usually right to assume they know more about something specific than me. But in return I seem to get thought of as a specific expert in something they don't know about, to an almost scary degree. I keep telling people I don't really know that much about chemistry, but I've become the departmental go-to person for it anyway, from questions about safe handling of concentrated alkalis (which I can help with) to detailed grilling about pKa values in polyprotic acids which, frankly, I had to have a skim through wikipedia before I understood the question, and yet that still didn't stop the engineer in question trusting my answer. I suppose he just wanted any sort of confirmation that he was barking up the right tree.

Date: 2013-07-15 07:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
How do you find things in your current job, by the way? I assume universities are generally homes of fluffiness, although I've also run into some quite unnervingly unreformed types in universities too.

Date: 2013-07-15 07:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think the thing is - particularly with the current talk of intersectionality - to be able to recognise that, even though you may not be able to experience something, one needs to recognise what other people say of their experiences as real.
I think I'm happy enough to do that (not that it doesn't take thinking about sometimes) but recently I find myself wondering why my experiences are different, and what that says about me and other people and where we all stand in relation to society and stuff.

(I did have a Sindy but then my sister had loads of them so I think it was bought for me on automatic pilot, and I never wanted any more than the one. In later years she was mainly someone to sit in the Lego motorbike/wing-flier/space-ship mash-ups.)

Date: 2013-07-14 04:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Who knows? Maybe your upbringing was more gender neutral. From the earliest age I was constantly being told, by parents, teachers and other children, "you can't do that, you can't wear that, you can't study that, you can't be that... because you're a girl." Then you switch on the TV and media and books back up everything they've said, and you're left with no examples to build up any kind of counter-argument. Not that an 8 year old is going to have much luck arguing back at adults. This was pre-internet. No Google! All I had was the school library that was very specific on roles. (All Biggles goes to war as I recall!)

I remember vividly trying to argue to be allowed to do technical drawing at school. Even with an architect father backing me up, the school would not allow it, and their only reason was... because you're a girl. Since I got this sort of thing all the time, and got into trouble/detention and received all manner of verbal abuse when I tried to stand up against this, it's hardly a surprise I wished I'd been born a boy!

Date: 2013-07-15 07:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The odd thing is I don't think of my parents as the type to be progressive about anything, and particularly not about gender. My mother still reminisces sometimes about enjoying education, but she stopped after A-levels because my dad said she could either go to university or marry him, so she married him. And even after the divorce, she never did much other than be a housewife.

I was quite stubborn as a child, and did argue back (and got into trouble with teachers for it sometimes) because I knew what I wanted (Lego and trousers) and what I didn't want (anything pink and frilly, anything to do with dressing up and make-up) and I sort of don't know where that came from. I was certainly told that I couldn't have technical Lego, only the sort that you build houses with, because girls don't play with technical Lego, but after long persistence and saving up enough money to buy my own, my dad gave in. It didn't work for everything - I didn't get to do woodwork at school for the same reason you didn't get to do technical drawing - but then my role in chores involved things like washing the car and helping with DIY, and then later on when me and my sister worked in the family business, my sister was a check-out girl and office girl, and I was out on the warehouse floor stacking things and driving pallet trucks. It was just what I wanted to do, and they must have been some sort of progressive to let me. (Though maybe that was a size thing again. At fourteen I was five foot ten and couldn't be fitted into any women's clothes at all, so in my oversized sweatshirts and men's jeans that were getting too short, what else was I going to be?)

Date: 2013-07-14 04:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I was a bit weirded out by the whole "lava balls" thing because, it is a little annoying when someone sits like that... but it's not really a sex thing... men do it to me... women do it occasionally if I'm not concentrating and have had a long day, I find myself doing it, because it's just kind of comfortable to slip into that position. I know it annoys some people so I consciously try not to do it -- but you know what, I'm a big guy, 188 cm 110 kg. I take up a lot of physical space and sometimes I'm not as considerate as I might be, not because (I think) I'm a bad person but because sometimes, you just lose attention and just slump. It never occurred to me that people would take offense to the extent of thinking of the behaviour as some kind of territory grab.

Date: 2013-07-14 05:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'm thinking of articles like this:

It just weirds me out... because you know, I have been sitting on the bus and getting crosser and crosser that the guy next to me was opening his legs wider and wider and taking up more space and I have even been cross enough to "hold my ground" and endure having the guy press his legs against mine just in order that I've not lost ground. Then five minutes later I realise how completely absurd I'm being because you know what, he didn't mean anythign by it... and I've been guilty myself. But it seems lately this behaviour is inducing complete rage in some people.

Date: 2013-07-15 09:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Interesting to hear you say that. This is one of several things I see as not necessarily anything to do with sexism, but I'm often reluctant to say so because it feels like I'm questioning people's experiences if I do. Which is why I'd like to know more about what's going on, to see if it happens to me less, or if I'm less likely to notice it, or less likely to think of it in terms of sexism, and just generally to be able to discuss things like this in a sensible way.

I do wonder if people think I do this to them, and I've just never noticed. (One of the benefits of usually wearing trousers is being able to sit with my legs apart because it's comfy; I can still hear my mum telling me it's not ladylike.) I'm about the same height as you, although I've got relatively more leg than most men of the same height, so the thing I'm most likely to notice getting evils for is sitting across from someone in a four-seat configuration. People seem to think I'm sticking my knees out too far forwards when in fact I'm usually sitting as upright as I can comfortably manage.

Date: 2013-07-15 09:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

I'm often reluctant to say so because it feels like I'm questioning people's experiences if I do

It may well be that there are some men who do do it in an aggressive "I'm going to take up space" way but I've never encountered this and it seems you haven't ever. I just hope that I've never been interpreted as doing that because I genuinely have not. But I have behaved exactly as described in the "evil men who sit iwht their legs apart" rants.

the thing I'm most likely to notice getting evils for is sitting across from someone in a four-seat configuration

Oh yes...this entirely. It's horrible really. The kind of furtive under the table knee rearrangement on trains. It's much more socially uncomfortable IMHO. Also those "shared" armrests which are only big enough for one arm...

Date: 2013-07-14 06:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think the need for role models etc could be down to individual personalities - are you the sort of child who needs reassurance (from parents/peers/telly/whatever) that doing X is ok/'normal', or are you the stubborn kid who does things precisely because it is uncommon or weird, or to provoke a reaction (I was this one as a younger Kat - refusing to do ballet lessons for no other reason than that EVERY other girl in the class did them and I wanted to be SPECIAL), or are you in the zen zone where the actions/opinions of others don't influence you at all? I think it's a rare child that falls into the last category, who can resist going out and buying a Yorkie bar cos that'll show them and OH BALLS I just fell into their trap (etc).

Date: 2013-07-16 06:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Looking back I seemed to be stubborn in that I knew what I wanted to do, or mainly not do, particularly in the case of wearing anything girly or pink, but it wasn't because I wanted to be different or provoke a reaction. I was happy doing the things that made me happy, like reading, and not bothered about doing the things I was expected to want to do, I think. I didn't particularly want to do ballet, but didn't put up any great resistance when I was made to join in, rather than being the only girl left in the classroom when everyone else was in the ballet class. I tried for a while but then they let me stop because I wasn't any good at it, or probably because there were enough of us who weren't any good at it to then justify giving us something else to do.

On the Yorkie bar thing, well, I was already well into my twenties when that marketing ploy came out so it was less of a thing, but I bought them for a while because the chunky shape was enjoyable to eat, and tried to ignore the question of whether that meant I was falling for the marketing or not. As a child of grocers I may have been too familiar with the machinations of food marketing already, though.

Date: 2013-07-16 08:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think that counts as zen! Obviously there is middle ground between all the types I mentioned above and everyone will have had a different combination of experiences. But knowing your own mind at that age AND being able to stick to your guns in the face of peer pressure is pretty impressive, I think.

Thinking about the Yorkie thing - I can't remember a previous ad where the Being Marketed To Men aspect was plainly spelled out compared to any targeted campaigns from their competitors (e.g. Flake was clearly meant to be for ladies in the nip, but they didn't directly say the words FOR NAKED WOMEN ONLY on the advert. Unless that was what the opera singer was actually singing about?). I doubt any other chocolate bar marketers had fluffy inclusive motives either but in the relatively-sane 90s it seemed like branding suicide to openly alienate half your market for NO REASON. Things have got much worse since then - bloody McCoys and their 'man crisps' were annoying me just the other day. And Martine McCutcheon and her probiotic yoghurt. Apparently men aren't allowed to eat yoghurt anymore! Kind of makes you want to put on a grey boiler suit and dismantle capitalism in all its forms, really.

Date: 2013-07-16 09:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
(Where I say 'can't remember a previous ad' I mean ads I saw on telly from the mid-80s onwards - obv there was all your 'BEER: IT'S FOR MEN, YOU KNOW' stuff before that)

Date: 2013-07-17 06:24 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Having looked up the Yorkie bar thing I was reminded of their previous advertising - do you remember that? - which featured a big trucker eating a Yorkie while driving his truck, because it was chunky chocolate for manly men. But it wasn't specified as such as being Not For Girls. In the warehouse, looking at the huge piles of boxes of chocolate snacks of all types it just seemed quite clear that they were all basically chocolate, especially when you could see the companies jostling for the same sub-sections of the market - like when Time Out was launched and it was blatantly Cadbury's attempt to use the distinctiveness of the Flake (which wasn't really a big volume seller) to power a rival to Rowntree's Kit Kat, which had a whole pallet space to itself at the end of the aisle because we sold so many. It didn't really work, but it made for a Flake you could eat on the bus without getting escaped chocolate flakes melted into your clothes, at least.

Date: 2013-07-23 02:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] (from
While I was still at Birkbeck they tried to have a Nestlé boycott and the one exemption they had to make was Kit-Kats, not only was it a significant dent in their sales, it was the thing people complained about not being there. It really is unique. The limited relevance of that is that when the "It's Not For Girls" campaign started, it was my second reason for not eating Yorkies, the first being Nestlé's ownership of the brand.

As for the leg-splaying thing, I hope I don't do this but I had honestly never considered the audience effect until I saw Persepolis, which makes an implicit point of it while comparing restrictions on male and female dress in Iran. If men do do it deliberately it's a very odd way to show off since to me it implies, "oof, sweaty, let's get a draught past 'em". I think it may largely just be not thinking deportment's important, or you know, not thinking generally.

More relevant advertising point, maybe: the "BEER, IT'S FOR MEN" thing, did that shift first with the initial Boddington's ads with Melanie Sykes? It certainly seemed to me at the time that the point of those was "MAYBE WOMEN DRINK BEER TOO", though of course the subtext was "SO MEN, GET DOWN THE PUB IN CASE MELANIE SYKES IS THERE", which for one person I knew did actually occur (and she was in fact drinking pints).

Date: 2013-07-15 09:27 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
"When did I learn about the boxes?"

The boxes are, to some extent, there from birth, instilled by parents and reinforced by advertising (Paul is already talking about how our unborn son will play for West Ham, but I suppose he might get the same shock that my own father did when my brother grew up preferring reading books and writing stories to playing sports). But, speaking as someone who's worked with kids from birth to late teens, I can attest that children will utterly ignore these boxes for quite some time, probably until junior school. Go into any pre-school where there is a range of toys available, and the boys will play with prams whilst the girls play with building blocks and trucks, and vice versa. They don't really care at that age. My (male) cousin has a five-year-old son, and he frequently expresses his distress that his son adores playing with a dolls' house, maintaining that "There is something wrong" with him. His son continues to happily play with the dolls' house regardless of his dad's concern. Scarlett, on the other hand, at seven years old spends more time playing football and video games than she does playing with dolls. Last week I gave her a digital camera and she immediately found how to shoot videos on it, and started making what appeared to be some sort of kung-fu zombie film with the two boys I childmind.

So the point at which children start to cave in to the pressure to conform to traditional norms of gender identity comes much later, around the time that they start going through puberty. Then they are faced with the problem of their own changing bodies and recognition that there are distinct physical differences between boys and girls, and find themselves segregated at school along gender lines.

And at secondary school they find themselves steered in a certain direction by teachers. I recall learning basics of computer game programming in the second or third year of secondary school, but then when it came to choosing options it was almost all boys that chose IT, and the girls chose Office Applications. Now, if I'd been made aware by the teacher "Hey, if you study IT, you could work for a video games company some day!" then I would have jumped at the chance to do so, but (at the time) teachers weren't really interested in steering girls towards non-traditional careers. Combine that with the fact that the wealthiest women in my family work as legal secretaries or accountants, and it made more sense to me (as a thirteen-year-old) to study those subjects (what I discovered later was that offices are the Seventh Level of Hell, and I would rather be broke than work in one). Now, if we'd had proper career guidance and been given more information on what vocational qualifications we could study after leaving school, then perhaps I'd have chosen differently. At the time, it seemed that the school was primarily interested in their own statistics - they wanted to send as many students as possible to university, regardless of what those students ended up studying, or how useful it was to them in the long run when it came to long-term career prospects. So I suppose it was more convenient to the school to just lump the pupils into boxes according to gender than it was to take the time to really make them aware of the scope of options available.

Of course, I'm talking about fifteen years ago, so I suppose it is possible that a younger generation of teachers and changes in gender politics and the curriculum have resulted in attempts to eradicate this problem. I hope so, because Scarlett's going into junior school now, and I'm growing ever aware of the fact that she'll be in secondary school before I know it. My instinct right now is that she'd be better off in an all-girls school, where teachers can't herd boys towards one type of career and girls towards another, because there won't be any boys to herd.

Date: 2013-07-16 07:10 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This is interesting stuff. I was a pretty late starter on the puberty thing, so while a lot of my peers were at a stage of messing around with boys and make-up, it all felt kind of irrelevant to me... and then by the time it became relevant I couldn't buy women's clothes anyway, so maybe there's stages I just never really passed through along the way.

I'd be inclined to avoid an all-girls school myself, but then there's a large range of opinions about that. I know women that went to all-girl schools who say their confidence in technical subjects came from there, from never having to fight assumptions that the best people in the science classes would be the boys, and from never having the excuse to let their own standards drop. Then again I've met people who went to all-girl schools who then spent too much of university working out how to deal with to these strange new boy creatures they were having to be around, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone. I went to somewhere sort of inbetween, a school that had been girls-only that was in the process of becoming mixed, and I much preferred it mixed; that school was shit enough without also missing out on learning how to socialise with half the population.

I doubt careers advice is better purely for somewhere being single-sex - I suspect it's going to depend more on whether there's anyone there who gives a toss about it, or has any understanding of the world outside of teaching. All the female teachers from the female-only bit of my school were quite traditional, had studied nice lady-like things like English or languages and then gone into their acceptably lady-like teaching careers, and so they just didn't know what else there was to tell us about. It was clear I was good at science and should carry on doing something science-related, but beyond picking which of the three standard sciences I liked most or maybe doing medicine, that was about it. If only any of them had even known what engineering was, someone might have been able to tell me about its existence.

Date: 2013-07-15 12:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Might just be useful to go to a group event - a talk or something on the subject? I don't think it's necessary to read anything... Although one book that I found really excellent was called 'Angry Women' by Re:Search, it is interviews with ladies in the alternative scene in the early 90's I think.

Date: 2013-07-15 09:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I have no idea what sort of event or talk would cover what I'm trying to think about, though. And going to lots of events to find out would be even less likely than reading up on it.

Date: 2013-07-16 01:27 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
hello. *waves*

Date: 2013-07-18 06:06 am (UTC)

Date: 2013-07-21 12:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I have no useful insights to add, I just wanted to say I feel like this too.
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