11 March 2018

Gender issues dividing colleagues

I had lunch with the usual suspects. There was a race coming up! Two of us (not me) would run it so it was an interesting topic. We discussed how a race route is actually measured. One of the chaps, Brian, mentioned that's just done by a man with a wheelie device. One of the ladies, Meg, added 'or woman'. I fully agreed! I am quite fed up with that activities are so often thoughtlessly attributed to men. But Brian wasn't having any of it. He said he was using 'man' in a strictly gender-neutral way and we shouldn't make a fuss about it. Meg wisely answered we may be a bit fed up with hearing every day that it's OK to only mention the men and that we shouldn't make a fuss about it.Brian was still not having any of it. I was surprised! He otherwise strikes me as so wise, but telling women whether or not they should mind if they feel sidelined strikes me as not being very wise. I think you are on slippery ice when you tell people what they should and should not feel marginalised by, especially if you belong to the demographic that has historically been doing the marginalising. Not because you should feel guilty about the collective activities of said demographic, but because it's so easy to not see the incessant battering with such in themselves small incidents from your lofty position. If someone who stands somewhere from where you can see things you can't see tells you about the view, should you really dismiss what they say, even though they have the evidence and you don't? But Brian said that as a white, middle-aged (and, may I add, straight) man he was fed up with feeling like he was blamed for everything that was wrong in the world.

Meg saw this wasn't going anywhere, and brought the discussion back to racing, but I wasn't ready to give up. This was Brian, would he really stand by his statements if he thought about it for a bit? But he apparently did. And I know it was a minor incident but well, you have to start the conversation somewhere. I remembered someone on the radio recently saying 'the world and his wife' and being right pissed off about it. But if I don't speak up, who will?

I decided to see if we could finish the discussion later. I popped into his office. Brian thought I came in to apologise; he was happy with that. But I wasn't; I wanted to figure out where his standpoint came from and make sure he knew what I meant so we could either agree to disagree or even agree, but not end the conversation at loggerheads as we had done. But me not coming to apologise turned his mood. He got cranky, and soon after, angry. He said language was language and it originated in less enlightened time and that was nothing he could do about. I didn't quite agree. Language changes! Because of the people speaking it. He wasn't having it. And then he also said something that struck me as rather peculiar; he claimed that anyone who hadn't realised that women are being favoured for literally any job going was an utter fool (or something to that effect). I was surprised and asked him what data he based that statement on. Clearly not data I've seen. But he didn't volunteer any data source but got angrier. I saw this wasn't going well and suggested we leave it at this. To my surprise he didn't take that offer but kept ranting, including ranting about that he didn't have time for this and wanted the discussion to stop. It was rather unpleasant. I saw another way out when he said something about 'manning the barricades' and I acknowledged his clever word pun. That might bring things to a light-hearted end! But no, even that set him off. Time to skedaddle, even with the discussion not being over. Even though he kept ranting until I was out the door (about me better leaving, I admit) I left. I was very upset.

I went back to my office, shut the door and went back to work, but with turmoil churning under the surface. I like Brian! And yes, I suppose women being fed up with being sidelined might lead to men being fed up with having it pointed out to them they take up too much space. I see that! But I don't see why we can't discuss that at a quiet tone. Yelling at people tends not to help. Doesn't strengthen your case either.

I think what is happening here is that as a straight white man he was so used to having way too much of the cake he felt threatened when his piece started to get smaller and smaller, even though I don't think it's anywhere near representative now. I mean, if women are so blatantly favoured, would politics not do anything about it? Men outnumber women 2:1 in parliament; a law to stop us pesky women (and whoever else is not  a straight white man) should pass without problems. And where is the data to back this female advantage up? I sometimes have a look at peer-reviewed literature what the latest is on the topic, and I haven't quite seen anything to support his view. Au contraire, to be honest. I can only make assumptions here; not keen to engage in such a discussion again. But it's the best explanation I have.

Anyway. A bit later there was a knock on the door. It was Brian! He came in to apologise. I think he stands with his viewpoints but he had realised that his aggression had been too much. I was so glad to hear him say that! I felt a lot better. And by the look on his face, so did he. We may not have managed to exchange data in a civilised way in an attempt to convince each other, as one should be able to expect from scientists, but at least it ended well on a personal level...

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