The Tender Sensibilities of Men

Female Science Professor has the most wonderful story to tell about a career forum at her university. Organized by a junior female faculty at her school,

There is typically a panel with representatives from various types of academic institutions (small colleges, research universities, medium-sized universities), from industry, and from government agencies. The panel members speak briefly about their jobs and then there is a lot of interactive question-answer time with the audience. After,there is informal social time for additional interaction between students and the panel members.

What's not to like, she asks?

Well, there's too damn many women, apparently. Seems this young uppity bitch has been inviting too many XX's to the panel. And you know what that means. Men, who are delicate, and easily intimidated, will feel uncomfortable. They'll be unable to attend this panel and learn from the representatives with ovaries and vaginas. The mere thought of all those panel members up there, sans penis, is enough to make any man quake in his shoes.

We know all this because a concerned male faculty member took it upon himself to communicate the masculine distress to Female Science Professor. Even though she has nothing to do with the panel.

He was concerned because the forum is "female-dominated". Most of the speakers are women, and of course the organizer is a woman.

I asked him: "Why is this a problem?" Apparently it is obvious, but he spelled it out for me, since I was having trouble understanding: Male students might feel "excluded" from the forum because there are more women than men involved.

This is the point at which I stared at him, stunned. And then I laughed. There were so many possible responses, and not all of them nice.

The good thing about Female Science Professor is she is always ready with a response. And, she is generally able to come up with a response that is reasonable, pointed, but polite. I admire her finesse, and the always useful tactic of asking the moron to explicity delineate his sexist moronocity. Never let them get away with implied stupid remarks. Always ask them to explain what they mean.

But even Female Science Professor could not have anticipated what was to follow.

Opting for nice (as usual), I said: "If I refused to attend departmental events because they were dominated by the opposite gender, I would never leave my office."

He said: "But that's different." End of conversation.

Well, then. Okay. Sometimes they really are that blatant.

Amelie comments:

Of course that's different. Because male domination is normal.

Exactly. If the panel is all XY, and the women point this out, the women just need to learn how to get along in the world of engineering. We can't try to force an unnatural gender balance on the panel; we don't want to lower our standards.

So the women organize their own panel. One panel. There are some women on it! Enough of them to be noticed! Men do not dominate the panel!

Suddenly, men are uncomfortable.

Notice that it is not complete male exclusion that makes the men uncomfortable. It's merely the absence of domination that makes them uncomfortable. Absence of domination in one venue. In that one venue, there are enough women present so that it is noticeable that the men are not dominating the event: this is enough to make the men uncomfortable.

Ah, the tender sensibilities of men.

But this is the sort of thing one must expect if one will insist on organizing events with a strong female presence. There will be some students, male and female, who will be grateful for any opportunity to learn from visiting university, industry, and government representatives, male or female. There will be some students, male and female, who don't respect the authority of women representatives and pass up a chance to learn something of value. And there will be some men - students or professors, but I suspect more likely the professors - who are actually threatened by the women when their presence reaches some critical mass.

At a conference, men can choose to stay out of sessions where women are likely to be in the majority as panel speakers, or where diversity issues are likely to be on agenda (see here). It's harder to ignore when it's taking place right in your backyard, hence the high level of discomfort that can't be managed by just staying away. What's tragic in both instances, is the unacknowledged assumption on the part of the men that difference trumps knowledge.

If you are now getting ready to type your righteous comment along the lines of "then why is it so important for women to have women professors? can't they just learn from men?" please spare your fingers and my eyes. Obviously, women can learn from men. We've been doing it, thank you very much, for a thousand years, despite all the barriers and roadblocks put in our way. The question isn't why can't women learn from men. The question is why do women have to learn ONLY from men. And why is the system so unyielding to women, so relentlessly disfavoring of women, so consistently favorable to men? And how can we change it?

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By igor eduardo kupfer (not verified) on 12 Nov 2006 #permalink

A majority female panel! What is so unusual about that!! When asking men to be on panels I have organized, they are too busy doing 'important' things to participate. When questioned why I had a female majority panel for a particular event, I stated that they were the only professionals willing to take time out of their busy schedules to help out. It seems men are too busy with those career advancing publications, research, or just plain self-centered behavior to feel compelled to provide guidance and advice to younger professionals (unless we pay them to participate - a hefty stipend seems to persuade some of them to leave their office/lab). Even when providing a stipend to some, I have been very disappointed in the content of the presentations. In one case, a special invited speaker noted that he borrowed the slide presentation from a more diversity oriented person down the hall from him. He spent the entire presentation saying 'well you can read what's there' and then telling anecdotes about his 'more important' work to the men in the first row of the audience. Yes, the men came to hear the exalted one but it was a worthless presentation as far as the organizers were concerned.

By SuzyQueue (not verified) on 12 Nov 2006 #permalink

But but but but...

If the men feel dominated and excluded, then they'll leave. And there'll be several women for each man.

Then who will the women marry?

Women totally aren't a problem in science and engineering as long as they consent to stay invisible. When men start noticing that there are women around, they'll be distracted from actually thinking hard and doing science.

Maybe it's an attention-span thing that would be amenable to medication.

This reminds me of one of the major arguments, when I was younger, for why girls could not be altar-servers in the Catholic church at mass. Only boys could be altar-servers, we were told, because girls would be too much of a distraction up there on the altar. Yep. Ten-year-old girls would distract the priests from their ability to conduct the mass. Or the faithful from their ability to follow the mass. Or something.

Of course, now we know the boys were more of an issue for the priests all along.

Then who will the women marry?

We'll move to Massachusetts and marry each other.

By Frumious B (not verified) on 17 Nov 2006 #permalink