I am quite sure I have never previously had occasion to write the name Wayne Rooney in any situation, but he does seem relevant to the topic of gendered sentences. Hadley Freeman wrote a withering piece last week about how this footballer’s conjugal incontinence is described – and his wife Colleen’s presumed state of mind in the face of it – versus the language used regarding a footballer’s wife (Louise Redknapp) who has walked away from her husband Jamie. As Freeman puts it, the media want to spin this story as
‘Coleen is humiliated, Jamie carries on. Louise is having a midlife crisis, Wayne is just being Wayne’.
One doesn’t have to care one iota about who is behaving well or badly to spot the difference in the way the media choose to describe marital hiccoughs as acted out by the male and female partners, in these footballer’s marriages and much more generally. Always women need to be fitted into some box where they can only be seen in relation to their partner (yes, I know, I’m sticking with heterosexuals here for simplicity); or, as Freeman put it ‘men do, women feel’.
The context may be different. Few academics are judged on their marital high jinks when it comes to progression these days, but presuming the academic world is male by default and actions are defined within a male framework is still all but ubiquitous. If we are to see equality finally be achieved, all of us need to clear out these stale frameworks for thinking about individuals’ abilities and start afresh. Let me give you some examples of ‘male by default’ thinking I have observed in recent years in different situations. Every reader is likely to be able to come up with their own variants without expending too much time or effort.
- Until recently, members of Cambridge University committees were listed as Professors/Drs A, B, C…but where there was a woman a discreet (f) was added after her name to ram home the fact that the establishment had sought long and hard before finding a rare female to stick on the committee; a woman who was so unusual she had to be labelled as such. I had a quiet word with the then head of HR, who responded with exactly the phrase I use above ‘oh you mean we’re assuming male-by-default by doing this’, and the habit was (to the best of my knowledge) amended to (m) and (f) appropriately. No doubt, now we should amend that binary split again, but that’s a different fight for a different person to take on.
- Letters of reference have formed the basis of a recent blogpost of mine, so I won’t repeat that story at length, but letters are so disappointingly often full of ‘men do, women feel’ type phrases. Or, if women dare to do, they are tarred with negative connotations: feisty or in-your-face. Here is a sentence I came across just recently in a reference ‘This was a bit brash, but I couldn’t help but be captivated by her ambitions and confidence’. Could I imagine that being written about a man? Would he admit to being ‘captivated’ by a man, brash or not? It would be hard, I think, to imagine it could have been written about another male. Another writer about the same person came up with ‘She is not afraid to ruffle feathers…’ Doesn’t that just smack of as a gentle woman she has no business ruffling feathers, that isn’t what women should do? When do I read about men in the same terms? The nearest equivalent would be said with some approbation, as in ‘a hot-blooded and dynamic scientist with an incredible amount of energy’. The phrase perhaps amounts to the same thing but with a positive spin (it of course describes a man in the same competition).
- But it doesn’t have to be in formal letters of reference that we see this polarisation of phraseology. It occurs around the committee table too, or rather describing how people perform there. If Professor John Smith gets cross, he is all too often allowed to go red in the face, interrupt others or simply never, never stop talking. He may even thump the table in his irritation. Professor Joanna Smith will usually be afforded far less slack: any sign of irritation and she is ‘feisty’ or ‘not a shrinking violet’. And any sign of tearing up and, oh dear she’s emotional. Unforgiveable! That men can shout and women can’t show their own stereotypical form of emotion without it being held against them is one of the dualities I find particularly galling and damaging. The very word ‘emotional’ always implies a negative response, as in ‘Athene, I can hear you’re getting emotional’ as a way to shut down an argument that my interlocutor was losing, said to me only a few years ago. Despite failing to respond swiftly to that challenge (‘Bloggs, I can hear you’re getting angry’ should have been my reply, but I thought of it far too late) he did not, I’m pleased to say, win the argument.
- Finally, it seems that too often men are given the benefit of the doubt and judged on potential rather than hard outcomes, in order to succeed. If we are moving into a world of ‘responsible metrics’ is there any way we can ensure a more uniform way of scoring actual outcomes versus potential when it comes to appointments to fellowships or lectureships? To give a specific example I observed for an engineering field where a man and a woman, both with patents to their name, were being compared. The woman was scrutinised to see if her patents had translated into commercial cash or at least a spin-out company; for a moment it looked like the man was simply going to be credited with the patents without any further inspection. On that occasion a man around the table spoke up to point out this inconsistency and the rest of the committee shuffled their feet and looked embarrassed that they hadn’t spotted this too. (I should point out, on this occasion I was a silent observer in the room, not an active participant.)
That final sketch illustrates what is needed. People – whatever their gender – have to be alert to the different parsing of men and women’s abilities and the use of different language to describe a woman with exactly the same strengths admired in a man but derided because it isn’t expected in a woman. If everyone around a table were more awake to what can happen – innocently but far from innocuously – then we might move faster towards a truly level playing field. But, we are so steeped in a culture operating within that framework which amounts to ‘men do, women feel’ that for each and every one of us it is difficult to escape its clutches, to spot what is going on and to progress to genuine objectivity.