I guess I’m sort of a feminist. My partner makes fun of me because I like movies/stories with “strong independent female” characters (think Hunger Games, Wonder Woman), which gives you a small idea of my character, ha. I strongly believe that STEM can benefit from and therefore need more diversity (although undecided about the best way to get there). I try my best to support the female-oriented student orgs at my school (we just started a new org this year which is going great, and managed to get funding for a couple of students to travel to a national conference).
Recently, I traveled to an academic conference, and there were two gender-related incidents that I was uncertain about. So I’m writing down some thoughts about them, and turning to the blogosphere to help me interpret them.
1) The over-zealous student?
The professional organization I’m part of usually organizes a lunch / workshop at these conferences to bring people together. At this particular conference, there was a lunch, where a few well-established female profs talked about their professional path. Their tone was mostly positive and talked about the challenges they faced and how they overcame them to reach their current success.
During the Q&A, a PhD student brought up some of the issues she’s faced with her colleagues, who tended to discount her ideas because of her gender, and some other discrimination that she’d faced. (I wish I could remember the exact issues she mentioned, but I don’t think she was very specific.) The tone here was a fair bit more negative and critical of the lunch, implying that they had glossed over the current state of things.
Later, I had the chance to get dinner with her and some other people (including her advisor), and asked her about her points and for more specific examples. I mentioned that I couldn’t really relate (since I’ve mostly had a positive experience) but wanted to know more about her experience and the kinds of issues she’d faced. She started going on a long and vehement diatribe that basically alienated everyone at the table, including myself. I had wanted to hear her side of things, but it just got… one-sided. My friend sitting next to me, who has pretty conservative views, was barely holding his tongue.
Was she right to be so angry? On one hand, I’m sure she has good points, and things are really not all sunshine and roses. I had a pretty good experience during school, but I believe there are serious issues, especially in industry or when working with people who may be less sensitive to these issues (unfortunately, if I may make some blanket generalizations, in my experience it tends to be foreigners who have a more traditional view of gender roles). On the other hand, her rant was not really helping convey her message, and seemed to reinforce the stereotype of a “crazy feminist”.
Personally, I think a rant may be necessary to show the depth of her feelings, but it was also out of place. I guess I’m saying the tone has to be right. People can be passionate about certain topics, but alienating others, especially those who are likely to support her, is not the right way to go about it.
2) The sexist analogy?
At the same conference, there was a panel with ~200 people in the audience. Each panelist presented for about 10 minutes individually before the audience Q&A. During one of the panelists’ presentations, he started explaining a technical concept with an analogy: “The cloud [technical concept] is your wife, your kids are the applications, and you are the the channel. Your wife is making a whole bunch of demands, and your only job is to satisfy her and her demands.” (Paraphrased as best as I can remember.) This analogy was repeated throughout the talk.
Is this analogy sexist? On one hand, it was clearly meant to be a joke, and the analogy was the reverse of the usual “male household leader”. On the other hand, it spoken to a room of 85% men, possibly alienating the remaining 15% women, and created the stereotype of a bossy, controlling wife.
Personally, I interpreted his words in a negative light, and I couldn’t really concentrate on his technical content after that. I think it’s the kind of joke that could be told to a smaller group of friends, but not to a 200+ audience at a public venue. My liberal male friend was horribly offended and immediately started group texting about it, and our other female friend agreed. Meanwhile, my more conservative friend was noticeably silent. Who is right here? Am I being over-sensitive, and there’s no need to be so politically correct? Or was was this really an inappropriate analogy?
Any thoughts on how to interpret the above situations? Have you ever been in ambiguous situations like these?