In the wake of Nobel laureate Professor Tim Hunt’s ironic comments on women in science, a draft article entitled “Falling in love and crying in the academic workplace: ‘Professionalism’, gender and emotion” has been circulating in social media.
The challenge that this type of article faces, that this one doesn’t quite overcome, is that it/they end up reinforcing the gender stereotypes they ostensibly set out to oppose.
I used to challenge students to imagine a world where the words (and concepts) “man” and “woman” didn’t exist, and we were all just people: some of us with brown eyes, some with blue, some of us left handed, some of us right, some with vulvas, others with penises, some capable of bearing children, some better at lifting heavy objects--no absolute, mutually exclusive binary categories necessary. Intellectually speaking we don’t “need” the categories “men” and “women.” The intent of this “thought experiment” was to show the intellectual ease with which gender difference could be erased and to demonstrate how, in the abstract, gender is a fragile and superficial concept.
However, the fact that students never show much interest in the project of gender-erasure shows how culturally attached we are to this dichotomy. If I pushed the discussion, eventually a fastidious female would vociferously declare: “There is no way I want to share a bathroom with a bunch of smelly guys!” End of discussion.
The problem isn’t that gender differences and stereotypes exist, the problem, as Judith Butler would point out, is that these differences and stereotypes are policed and enforced. There is a difference between a stereotype and a prejudice. A stereotype is an extreme or rigid form of assigning type (“stereo” means “hard” or “firm”), but it usually has some basis in fact when applied in general to a large group of people. A prejudice is assuming and insisting that a stereotype applies to any and all individuals of a type or category. It is a gender stereotype that men are physically stronger than women. It is a scientifically verifiable correlation that, on average, people with penises enjoy more muscle mass than do those endowed with vulvas.
The problem begins when this generalization is enforced on an individual and we tell John that he is failing as a man because he is not stronger than the average woman, and suspect Mary of not being a real woman because she is stronger than the average man and, of course, John and Mary cannot be a couple because she is stronger than he is; nonetheless John could get a construction job, but Mary can’t, etc, etc. As a society we extrapolate, police and enforce these stereotypes.
How do we get beyond stereotypes and prevent them from devolving into prejudices? it is too easy to say that stereotypes and prejudices are products of ignorance. We are all ignorant and prejudiced in varying degrees. In a world of Twitter, instant messaging and an up-to-the-minute news cycle we are constantly being called upon to “pre-judge,” our sympathies and outrage being called upon long before anything approaching a comprehensive knowledge of the facts is possible. The only solution is to question and to withhold judgment until a sufficient number of facts have come our way; to rigorously apply our reading skills and logic to the facts available, and then to cut the world some slack without slipping into apathy.
The other solution when facing stereotypical differences is to consider other possible paradigms, other axes of comparison. I admired that in “Falling in Love and Crying in the Academic Workplace,” the author, Rachel Moss, at least temporarily shifted the discussion to “professionalism.” Falling in love is unprofessional, mostly because the root of the word “amateur” is “amour,” “to love.” Even in the study of theatre and drama I have found ample reason to prefer amateur productions and performances over the professional, though the value system runs in the other direction. It is not without reason that we describe prostitution as a profession. It has its rules, and one of them is not falling in love.
In my research I have tried to talk about some of the same differences that Rachel Moss discusses in her article. I tried to talk about them as the differences between oral and visual cultures (following from Havelock, Ong and McLuhan), and when that didn’t quite work I turned to what John Vernon called “garden” and “map” culture. Ultimately we have to admit that what we are talking about is “human” culture versus “machine” culture and our society shows an ever increasing admiration for humans who behave like machines.
On that note, a concluding word about Tim Hunt. Apparently he has two daughters who love his cooking, but I’ll bet he’s seen the girls cry when he criticized them. His wife, Professor Mary Collins, was once his student. So when he said the trouble with girls in the lab is that “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you” could he have been thinking about himself and his wife? What an amateur!