Changing the Patriarchy (Perhaps)

I’m afraid this is going to be a derivative blog. Derivative because I’m prompted to write it due to two recent articles I’ve read, but I’d like to turn their ideas into the world of academia. The first was in Saturday’s Guardian by Hadley Freeman in which she said many things that will strike a chord with at least some readers. For instance:

‘I’d been waiting: waiting for someone to give me permission to start writing…’

Doesn’t that sound familiar to those who should be writing a thesis or article but somehow just go on and on reading before they feel confident enough to put pen to paper? Or, remove the word writing, and it describes a much wider range of activities: permission to apply for a new job or to walk out of some tedious committee perhaps. We sometimes need external validation that what we want to do is ‘permitted’, a point I made in the more mundane sphere of asking questions at seminars in an earlier post.

Now so far I haven’t mentioned gender, but Freeman goes on to say

‘I don’t know if this is a specifically female quality, but I have yet to meet a man who has worried he’s not good enough for a job he’s been offered, whereas I have yet to meet a woman who hasn’t.’

I certainly recognize that sense of ‘help!’ when some new opportunity lands at my feet. The ubiquitous feeling of impostor syndrome sneaks up again. But that anxiety on the part of women does seem fairly generic in anticipation of what might be. Just this past week, a male scientist said to me about two women who were contemplating taking on new and important roles in his organisation but very anxious over whether they had sufficient time to do the jobs properly (and to their satisfaction too I’d surmise):

‘I can’t help feeling the fact that they are women is relevant. If they’d been men, they’d accept the role and worry about the time they were able to put into it later.’

After hearing that just a few days ago, the message Freeman gave simply reinforced that yes, there probably is a gender difference here. And it is the women who may be holding themselves back, no doubt because they’ve been socialised not to push, not to feel supra-confident, by their upbringing. They need good mentoring and good sponsors; it may be more important for them than for men because of their background.

Which brings me to the second article: this time it’s an interview I was pointed to through Twitter, between Sean Illing and Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne, about misogyny but also discussing the socialisation we are all impacted by. I have only the interview to go on, not having got hold of her book yet, but I was struck by the definitions she gave distinguishing sexism and misogyny. Illing says

‘I always thought of misogyny as an ideology: a body of ideas that exists to justify social relations. But you argue that this is sexism, and that misogyny is better understood as a moral manifestation of sexist ideology’

with which Manne agrees. Further, Manne says

‘I think most misogynistic behavior is about hostility towards women who violate patriarchal norms and expectations, who aren’t serving male interests in the ways they’re expected to. So there’s this sense that women are doing something wrong: that they’re morally objectionable or have a bad attitude or they’re abrasive or shrill or too pushy. But women only appear that way because we expect them to be otherwise, to be passive’.

That all makes sense to me, although one of my Twitter followers objected to the way Manne defined sexism. I don’t want to dwell specifically on the semantics, but I do feel that that attitude towards women who break the mould is very prevalent. Think of Hillary Clinton or Mary Beard (see, for instance, the attack Harvard’s Nicholas Taleb subjected  the latter to, described here). They get attacked for daring to be outspoken on subjects they are very well-informed about. It is not seen, by the establishment patriarchy, as acceptable and hence they need to be pushed back into their place, often quite viciously as Taleb did over Twitter, egged on by others. But, if I bring it back simply to the academic world I personally work in, I can see the same attitudes at work all too easily. Indeed, in the way some of my colleagues have reacted to me as I have moved up the ladder.

I can think of one particular colleague who was very willing to talk things through with me when we were both relatively junior. I was struggling with a young family, certainly not aiming to push my career anywhere very fast, whereas he was definitely on a high-flying trajectory. But I think he found me a useful sounding board and perhaps I was, not necessarily consciously, flattering his ego. (Was that what I was socialised to do?) But a few years later, once I was able to work in a more concentrated way and started to get interested in the political currents around me in the department and wider university, suddenly I became – it would seem – a danger. I got very different treatment from him, to the extent that he would publicly express his irritation and put me down. I well remember a comment he made loudly at a drinks reception, so that everyone could hear, paying me a very double-edged compliment about being appointed to the RAE2008 Physics panel when he was not. You could watch the other attendees’ jaws drop at what was clearly a quite unnecessarily aggressive remark. And so our interactions went on for some years. I was clearly regarded as ‘too pushy’ and ‘doing something wrong’ to quote Manne.

So, what is to be done? Manne is somewhat stumped by this, as no doubt we all are. If misogyny was easily dismantled I’d like to think it would have happened by now. She concludes by saying

‘What would need to change is for men in positions of power to accept that women can surpass them without having wronged them.’

That sentence reinforces what many men appear to fear: that if women are to come into their own it necessarily will be at their expense. This was the conclusion of a study reported last summer in the Harvard Business Review

‘These findings help show that sex discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace is a way to assert power and control. Traditionally, being the breadwinner is an important part of men’s — especially married men’s — gender identity, and when that role comes under threat, men assert their masculinity in other ways.’

In other words, the only way matters are likely to change is if society collectively adapts what masculinity means, away from what seems largely to be labelled as ‘toxic’ masculinity towards a belief that men and women genuinely are equal, even if not identical. That’s a big ask!



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