Friday, October 10, 2008

Overreacting to sexism? Recalibrate your definition of "overreact," my friend.

After my various posts and follow-up posts about the more subtle gender/culture discrimination that occur because our objective standards are not so objective, I have had various people tell me that I am overreacting. These people say I think about gender too much, in ways that are too extreme, etc.

People may feel this way because I chose to focus on more subtle forms of gender discrimination rather than the more obvious ones. To show that discrimination is a "real" problem, I have compiled a list of more obvious gender discrimination, ordered from most egregious to least:
  • When I was an undergrad, a (much older, grad student) project partner spent most of one work session talking about our "hot" female professor and how he could not pay attention to any of her lecture. The same partner said that in fact, he had trouble listening to any woman he found attractive. (Um, so are you not listening to me or are you telling me you find me completely unattractive?) The same partner, when we first became partners, asked me if I had any cute friends he could date.
  • When I was working at a sort of freshman advising table at Harvard as a senior with a male classmate, one male student in line allowed people to cut him until he could seek advice from my fellow adviser. (According to me, there were no discernible differences between the two of us except for the fact that I am female*.)
  • When I was a teaching fellow for an introductory computer science course, there was a male student notorious for disrespecting the female teaching fellows. He would do things like avoid seeking help from female teaching fellows at office hours and generally show disrespect and doubt of their abilities. There was also an incident where he was upset at having a female (and foreign) project partner and left her at least one harassing voice mail.
  • This was worse when I was younger, but male friends would always try to tell me how to do my homework. Male peers also like to offer to debug my programs. Don't you have better things to do with your time?
  • When I was accepted to a math/science summer program, a male peer commented that he supposed it helped to be a girl**.
  • As a senior in high school I considered going to MIT but was discouraged by almost everyone I knew. (I applied to MIT early action and was accepted.) The most sexist of the discouragement: a father of a friend told my father that "MIT is no place for women." So I went to Harvard instead, and now I am at MIT for grad school. (Count it?)
  • When my mother tells people I want to do research in computer science, various (old male) friends comment on how surprising it is because I don't seem like the type who would be successful in such a field. What does that even mean?!
  • Teachers, family friends, and relatives have all tried to talk me out of doing computer science. What they say ranges from (when I announced I was premed) "Oh good, I always knew you wouldn't keep doing computer science" to (when I announced I was going to grad school for CS) "Really? What a waste of a pretty girl like you. Are you sure that's what you want to do?"
Imnsho, all of these are equally harmful manifestations of sexism. I am not overreacting when I say that women should not have to put up with this sort of discrimination. Ever wonder why more women don't stay in computer science? (Probably not, since you probably take it as given that women just don't have innate interest.) Start here, and then maybe you will understand the previous posts***.

* By various objective standards I was more qualified because I had taken more relevant courses, had more teaching experience, had various interesting industry experience, and done more kinds of research.
** This is one of the reasons I am adamantly opposed to affirmative action for the purpose of balancing numbers. Reversing past injustices requires much deeper societal changes rather than lowering standards too late in the game. Though most programs don't lower standards, those who do really hurt the groups that are supposedly benefiting.
*** This is mostly targeted at the white male computer scientists who asserted I was overreacting.


DLG said...

These are all trivial, mostly delusional examples of feminism. You're making a bad case for a real problem.


(the cynical asshole but it's okay because i'm democratically mean to everyone)

DLG said...

i stand corrected. i meant sexism.

imagine i'd just said it right the first time.

Jean said...

Hi David,
Being a cynical asshole is not as effective when you get your terms wrong and when I don't care about your unfounded claims.


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