Wednesday, October 28, 2009

notes from the {gendered} revolution

I don't like talking about gender politics.

It's not because I'm not interested. It's not because I don't see the value of engaging with social issues tied to gender and identity. It's not because I don't have tons to say about these issues.

It's because most of the time, I feel marginalized by the rhetoric of gender, identity, and belonging. I feel like this rhetoric is talking about someone else--it certainly doesn't represent my values, needs, or beliefs. And I hate feeling marginalized. I hate feeling unnoticed. So I'd much rather not show up to the conversation than feel like nobody's interested in my needs.

Let me try to explain why by backing up a step to explain why I'm writing about this issue at all.

It came up in a conversation about a recent seminar with Leah Buechley, an educational researcher who directs the High-Low Tech research group at MIT's Media Lab. Buechley's recent work focuses on computational textiles, and a big chunk of her focus is on embedding conductive thread and circuitry into clothing.

There's sewing involved. And when sewing gets mashed in with computation, smart people start talking about gender.

Though I'm going to argue below that the typical conversation about sewing, computation, and gender is marginalizing for some people and therefore problematic, this is in no way intended to discount the important work that Buechley and others are doing. It's no secret that women are actively avoiding the field of computer science; indeed, one of the more prominent studies in this area is a project at Carnegie Mellon University, where 1995 statistics indicated that women made up only 8% of the entire incoming class of computer science undergraduate majors. After four years of intensive interventions, that number increased to 37%--a roaring success from one perspective and an ongoing failure from another.

Add to this the fact that during the course of this particular study, women changed majors or transferred out of Carnegie Mellon at more than twice the rate of men--30 percent of women changed majors or transferred, compared to 12% of male computer science majors.1 Carnegie Mellon, remember, is renowned for its computer science program, and admission into this program and graduation from it are presumably a source of great pride for students.

The numbers are even more dismal for graduate programs in computer science. Take a look at the steady numbers decline: Women make up 27% of master's degrees in computer science and 13% of PhD's; they constitute 7.8% of computer science and computer engineering faculty and 2.7% of tenured faculty in the same field.2

So, yes: The struggle is real. The issue of gender equity is salient and important. And the work of people like Buechley is essential to interrogating the ongoing gender gap in the most gender-biased field we have. Not only that, but anyone who knows me knows I like nothing better than a good equity battle.

So why, when a group of us were discussing how Buechley's computational textiles work addresses gender disparities, did I get so uncomfortable? Why was I praying for the conversation to drift off into some other topic?

I think my discomfort was mainly because of the rhetoric of gender politics--specifically, the assumptions that undergird issues of gender, equity, and inclusion. They are assumptions like the following:

  • Women often prefer balanced lives (so they don't stick with computer science, a field that values total immersion).
  • That (female) researcher must be childless (or unmarried), because otherwise she'd never have the time to do that kind of work.
  • Women generally don't like competing with their colleagues (so they're less likely to get research funding and tenure).
  • Women often don't like to argue because they worry about seeming pushy, arrogant, or aggressive (so they're less vocal in academic or intellectual debate).

I am, it appears, a traitor to my gender.

I don't doubt that the above assumptions are true for the majority of women3. They just don't happen to be true for me. And to be clear, this isn't about my age (32), marital status (single), or family status (childless). This is about the generalizations that get reified through statements like the above. This is essentialism at its most benign and insidious. Women are like this; they tend to want that; they make decisions because this.

I'm not like this; I don't want that; I don't make decisions because this. But try saying that out loud some time and see how far it gets you. After a sufficient amount of time, you have two choices: Either try to figure out what's wrong with you, or try to figure out what's wrong with the rhetoric.

Because it's easy, smart people tend to lump people into one of two gender categories: You're either female or you're male, and if you don't align with the values assigned to those categories, you're probably the exception that proves the rule. Because I'm argumentative, childless, and more rational than emotional, I'm a 'less feminine woman'; and in our culture, 'less feminine' acts in opposition to 'woman' such that the very phrasing of that description struggles against itself for meaning.

(For the record, I think the same is true for some men. If you want balance, time to raise your kids, or to be liked even at the expense of your career, then you're a 'less masculine man' with the same struggle inherent in the phrase.)

Too often, strangely enough, liberal feminist rhetoric only adds to the problem. Women should be free, they say, to raise children, to enter traditionally male careers like law and computer science without fear of marginalization or harassment, to make decisions informed by both intellect and emotion, to cry--even at work--without fear of looking weak. And they're right. Of course they're right.

But women should also be free to adopt traditionally male mannerisms without fear of seeming 'less feminine.' They should be free to walk how they like, to talk how they like, to dress and study and write how they like, without fear of the double penalty of being both not-male and not-feminine-enough.

Gender, after all, is an identity continuum and not a duality. This should go without saying, though it does at times bear repeating.

And the fact that this post has, ounce for ounce, taken me longer to write than anything else on this blog is more telling than anything else (and even still, I fear I haven't conveyed myself successfully or completely). It proves just how much I hate gender politics, and how important I think it is to talk through exactly why.

1. These stats come from a fantastic study by Jane Margolis, Allan Fisher, and Faye Miller called "The Anatomy of Interest: Women in Undergraduate Computer Science." (Women's Studies Quarterly, Summer 2000, pp. 104-127. Accessible with subscription at

2. Spertus, Ellen (1991). "Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?" MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory Technical Report 1315, August 1991.

3. And note that I'm tackling these issues from the perspective of a white woman; I couldn't even begin to address how the assumptions, values, and discourses about 'how women are' marginalize nonwhite women in exponentially intense, insidious ways.


get away from e said...

it's like meta-feminism or something. or meta-gender politics.

or meta-ism, anyway.

Jenna McWilliams said...

or ism-beta?

get away from me said...

i'd support launching it for a test run, yes.


Anonymous said...

That's why intersectional work is to important: a lot of the work being done on gender presentation, gender identity (including my favorite theory goddess, Judith Halberstam's work on female masculinity) is being done in queer/gender circles rather than feminist circles (and yes, second wave feminism was hampered by assuming women=white middle class women as the default/norm).

On the other hand, I've learned over decades that just because I do identify with and perform in ways that are traditionally defined as masculine doesn't mean that males in the field (and I'm in ENGLISH) are willing to acknowledge that in any way!

Jenna McWilliams said...

Ok, and do I make peace?

Anonymous said...

exist as you are and fight the fight by being and becoming.

Jeffrey Kaplan said...

You are leaving out some aspects of the Assumption Conversation that need to be included. Women (and Men) prefer balanced lives. Fields like CS attract a certain kind of man for a reason. The work blows, and is way beyond highly immersive, it's orthodoxy. Like the Yeshiva bachelors who are rewarded for studying Mishna and Gemorra until they fall asleep, as are the hackers who stay up all night working on a code or a "Macro" rewarded, either socially or solely.
I think you need to look at how many academics in CS have families and children compared to software developers.
Academia is itself a marriage to your field. If men could have children, there would obviously be more parity in higher ed. Unfortunately men cannot carry children (except the Governator in Junior).
I totally didn't catch the competitiveness comment in class so I can't hit that one, but it flows into the next point...but these are Generalizations! Biased unfounded generalizations! These types of gender bias fits in with race bias and religious bias. So don't sweat it.
Now I'm all for equality in the workplace/academia but men and women are different, no question about it. Saying they have the same natural roles goes against all of evolution and darwinism. Every species on the planet has gender specific roles stemming from biology and anatomy. These aren't bad things. However political correctness is extremely important, hence the work we do now is increasing public, intersectional, and neutral gender domains.
Except bathrooms, keep those separate.

nkschool said...

I think the issues are being confounded here a bit and I am sorry if you felt that I was implying that being feminine was somehow connected to bearing children. My question centered around the issue of time restraints so I will try to explain myself further here.
Being "feminine" or "masculine" has nothing to do with marital status, interest in crafts, rational or irrational behavior, whether or not you are augmentative or compliant or whether or not you have children. Being feminine has been defined in many ways by many people in many cultures and will surely continue to be debated as long as there are people in academia to debate it. For me, though, it is a personal identity decision.
I entered computer programming during a time when I was the only woman in my class, taught mathematics while fewer than 25% of those teachers were female and I now work in construction as a side-line. That does not determine my state of femininity. Part of the time I wear dresses and hose (such is the case every Tuesday when I have to teach in an elementary school), the other part I wear work boots and dirty jeans with sweat dripping off of my face. Am I not feminine just because I have a jack-hammer in my hand? I think not.
Likewise, having children does not make a person "feminine". I agree with Jeff that if men could physically have children, many would. I totally agree. But the biological fact is that they can't. Why is this important? Once again, it has nothing to do with being feminine and everything to do with time.
Technology changes so quickly that even a two week vacation can put you behind when you return from work. Bearing a child often takes women out of the ranks for 6 weeks or more. Some women, unfortunately, have complications which compounds the problem. If they decide to breastfeed, if they are single mothers, if … There are so many factors related to time and support that make it difficult for a mother to compete in fields that are so vibrant and competitive. Men who place their wives and children above work are also at risk. Like Jeff said, it is a marriage to the field.
I have invited my own daughters to join this conversation. My youngest is in her thirties, never married, has no children (does have ferrets), has been in the computer industry for over a decade and is very feminine even in her work boots that she wore with her prom dress. Her insights into the rigors of the CS field are quite revealing.
Jenna mentions "argumentative" as a trait for not being feminine. Ask the nearest 10 people who they believe to be the most argumentative and they will likely point out both males and females - some may even point to me. 
Finally, Queen Latifa is the one that showed me that being sexy is a personal attitude, not the way you look. If I think I'm feminine or masculine, sexy or plain, smart or dumb, I am - even if no one else believes it. it's only an opinion anyway.

Ereshkigal said...

Mom pointed me over here. She's in this same class with you. I've worked at ISPs and email-related fields for the last 10 years, but started in tech support. I'm about the same age as you, no kids, never married. The key for me was finding my own definition for femininity.

I'm outspoken (brash and argumentative, mulish), more logical than emotional (robotic, uncaring, mannish), driven (aggressive, pushy), good at what I do (arrogant), you name it.

I also go get my nails done, have my legs waxed (when I actually bother to care enough to show off my legs), dye my hair, wear lipstick, and know which pieces in my wardrobe to wear when I'm having a low self-esteem day.

Choosing to work in male-dominated fields doesn't mean you can't be feminine. Like everything in life, it's a balancing game. You can be as feminine as you choose to be. The first step is defining what feminine really means to you. Most of the things that you listed as being feminine haven't been in mine for years. You can have a balanced life and be in computer science, if you work at it. There is more to being a woman than raising kids, playing nicey, and keeping your mouth shut. Define your world.

Jenna McWilliams said...

This is fun! If by 'fun' you mean 'difficult and wrenching and Jenna would rather just go back to bed but she knows how important these conversations are.'

I'm interested in the fact that this conversation has focused on 'femininity'--though I didn't convey this point well in my post, this term is one of those things that seem not to apply to my concerns. Though I do spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a female academic, a female blogger, and so on, I don't think much at all about femininity, unless I'm thinking about ways to subvert the rhetoric of femininity. I do think our society assumes that struggling with female identity is approximately the same as struggling with femininity--and for me, it's not. I'm not interested in figuring out what 'counts' as feminine; I don't particularly care what my childlessness tells others about exactly how feminine I am.

But "being female" is so often equated with "being feminine" that we've lost all awareness that a distinction between the two notions exists. So much discourse around these issues assumes, either tacitly or explicitly, that what women want is to feel feminine even when they're doing things that aren't traditionally feminine.

Femininity is a social construct. It's an identity game used for centuries by men and women to maintain the social order and keep everyone--male and female--in their place. Why in the world would I want to engage with a construct designed for the purpose of oppression?

Our culture has been very, very good at conflating sex and gender--we would do well to remember that one is about 'natural' differences and the other is about social constructs that get presented as 'natural' differences. Remember that a desire to be 'feminine,' much like a desire to be 'masculine' is not innate or biologically based in any way. It's something that got built into us by a male-dominated society that needed ways to make sure men stayed on top.

Which brings me to another point: that we fall far too easily into the dualism trap of assuming that sex and gender are the same thing, and that there are therefore only two gender categories. Jeff, of course it's true that men and women possess certain basic biological differences, but to say that men and women are different, no doubt about it, and that women and men by their very nature therefore need and want different things only reifies the assumption that there really are only two genders--man and woman--and everyone fits squarely into those two camps. Sex and gender are not the same, though we prefer to think that they are.

Jeff, you write that "political correctness is extremely important, hence the work we do now is increasing public, intersectional, and neutral gender domains."

I want to make it clear that the work around gender is not, in my view, about political correctness--especially since that term has picked up so much negative connotation. ('We have to be careful what we say so the ladies, the gays, and the black people don't get offended.') I don't want political correctness; I want to change the rhetoric so that people like me can feel like the rhetoric is focusing on our concerns as well as those of other men and women.

Have I mentioned that I hate talking about gender politics? One of the reasons I hate it is that it's such a personal issue for so many people, and it's so easy to hurt people's feelings. And I don't want that. I think the struggle with gender and identity is intensely personal while simultaneously mortifyingly public, and I want to finish by expressing my deep warmth and gratitude toward everyone who has commented on this thread.

Anonymous said...

Two things: On women arguing with emotions (even tears):

And "I hate prescriptive feminism"

On why we can do this however we want to.

Melissa said...

To reference Laura's first link, I think the most applicable statement from that post to this one, is the following (and related to the discomfort, you, Jenna, may feel in discussing such matters):

"Of course it's important to be self-aware and manage one's emotions during an argument, but I think pretending as if the issue you're arguing about has no personal significance or emotional resonance is actually a disempowering and, of course, inauthentic place to come from. My power these days comes from combining both intellectual rigor with emotional authenticity."

Ereshkigal said...

This took me a lot longer to write than I thought it would and it took me places that I haven't been to in years. It was a lot harder to write than I thought it would be and I had to step away for a bit. Hopefully you'll find something of wisdom in here that you can use.

If Mom was going to judge anyone about being childless, she would have done so with me long ago. Or she would have judged me for wearing combat boots to prom. We did have a rough patch when I shaved my head completely the first time, but that was more than 20 years ago. She's not your typical old lady, even if we did have to shock it out of her.

There is certainly a distinction between femininity and being female. I agree with the link that Laura provided on prescriptive feminism. I do the things I want to do when I choose to do them, sometimes just because I can and there is great freedom in that. I'm not going to stop doing something because it's too masculine or because it's too feminine. I do the things that I enjoy and that enrich my life.

To me, to avoid making a choice because it's traditionally seen as "belonging" to females or to being feminine is just as harmful as making a choice because it defines you as more female or more feminine. It undermines your search for your own identity. Either way, your choice is dictated by someone else and not your own needs and desires. You allow someone else to define your world and who you are instead of taking control of your life.

When you spend so much time weighing what other people's ideal of female or woman or male or man you are, you'll always find that you fail somewhere. You are not going to be feminist enough or too feminist or too male or too female. You will never be the ideal that you're trying to define. You will never be a stereotypical female in any culture, any more than you will ever be a stereotypical male. You have to find a way to be comfortable in who you are first before you'll be able to come to internal peace.

For some people, that means switching genders. For some others, that means finding ways to love the body they were born with even if the society they're in says that it's the lesser gender. As long as you let someone other than you determine what actions are right for you, whether it's what is "normal" in this society or railing against what's "normal" in this society, you are going to be at odds with your identity.

I used to fight against being feminine and female. Anything that indicated that I was female was out. My emotional landscape was a nightmare and my life was unbalanced. Making peace with myself was the most terrifying thing I have ever done. No one is more critical of you than you will be. No one can come up with anything more hurtful than what you will say to yourself. I had a hard time reconciling what I saw in the mirror and what I wanted with the stereotypes of "what a woman wants," "women don't," "women aren't," etc.

After a particularly bad year, I knew I needed to find balance in my life. There was no turning to religion, or the bottle, or anything like that. I turned to what I do best, data analysis and started working on it logically. In the end, I had my plan and I followed through with it. I found that if I let someone else control my ideas of me and my thoughts on who I should be, there will be no peace for me. My being a woman, being feminine, being female are all on my terms. My identity has to be mine alone. I make some minor adjustments based on situation (I can't go naked into work or they'll fire me), but I base them neither on someone's idea of controlling me nor someone else's ideas or hatred of the man keeping me down.

Flourish said...

Jenna, I think you can guess that I sympathize with your statement that 'I don't worry too much about femininity' - if anything, I think I'm even louder and more brash than you, on top of being physically dude-sized, which doesn't get enough attention (when the mens' clothes fit you better than the ladies', it is probably going to have an effect on how you end up doing gender-presentation...) but honestly I don't spend a great deal of time going MAN I'M REALLY REPRESENTING AN ALTERNATIVE MODE OF FEMININITY HERE, YEP, FEMININE, FEMININE, WATCH ME BE A LADY.

Anyway, the rhetoric of gender politics you're bringing up seems very, um, non-queered. I guess I've been living so long with folks who are trans or genderqueer that it seems strange to me to have a simple and naturalistic view of the two genders as a dyad.

The other part of this, it seems to me, is that those assumptions require a sexist society to make them tick. Women "prefer balanced lives" in comparison to men because men are told by society that they aren't supposed to be focused on a balanced life - they're told that they either should be frat boys or obsessives over their work, but never primarily family men. Female researchers must be childless/unmarried because there is still a struggle over who does the work in the home, because the chore balance is still unequal for a variety of reasons (neither of which are solely women's or solely men's problem). Women generally don't like competing with their colleagues because women are not encouraged to be competitive in the same way as children, and women are seen as pushy, arrogant and aggressive when they are vocal, in many cases.

Will there always be women who tend towards what we now consider stereotypically feminine? Sure! And I don't want to discount women who agree with all those bullet points: just because one's experience and identity is a product of the society in which they grew up doesn't mean it is an invalid or "not real" experience or identity. But it does mean that the focus needs to be at least as much on the work of alleviating these fucked-up social pressures as it does on "OK, women are just magically Like This, let's see what we can do!"

Because if we assume that women are just magically Like X, instead of assuming that women would naturally inhabit a spectrum but are subjected to pressures to inhabit one end of that spectrum, we only end up looking at one piece of the puzzle - and a piece that can be really alienating for those who aren't Like X.

Jenna McWilliams said...

What does it mean when people's comments are longer than the post they're commenting on?

Ereshkigal and Flourish, I think you've both hit on something that I've been circling around in my reflections on this issue: the queerness factor. Being queer (and queer-friendly) means the question of how feminine (or masculine) someone is is just so far beside the point that it's not even worth asking. Women prefer balance and having time to raise the kids? What about a transgendered woman who chooses not to shave her facial hair but wears lipstick and mascara? What about a woman who shaves her head, wears combat boots, and dates men? The minute we start considering people who cannot be included in any dualistic understanding of gender, we have to rethink the very terms of the conversation.

Jenna McWilliams said...

...but why does it always take that kind of reminder to get us to rethink the rhetoric of gender?

Ereshkigal said...

I could have given you an like "Follow the rainbow to the circle of dreams and the bus will take you to the satyr's Kroger." *g* It's the best I could do at summing up 10 years of socially complex conversations on short notice. When I reread the shorter versions, they just sounded to me like inconsequential head-patting. You deserve better than that. The questions of self-identity and how to find inner peace and balance deserves better than that. (The balance that I refer to is internal emotional balance, not balancing work and kids and those things that persons born with snoobs and pointy-inny bits supposedly want.)

I have a friend right now (system administrator) who is going through surgery because she decided that the bits she was born with were the wrong ones for her (male->female). What has been most interesting to me is how few people in our industry have made negative comments on her changing gender. Usually what I hear is a variation on "I still don't like her, but at least she's tolerable now. I have no clue how you get along with her." The few negative comments that I did hear about her switching genders were vehemently beaten down by some of the same people who really detest her personally.

Julie said...

Way too late to comment, and way too many really insightful things have been said to fairly add on. But I just have to say, Jenna, that you are right on target when you point out the intensely PERSONAL nature of this type of discussion. Interestingly, while you feel marginalized by talk of being feminine/having kids/etc, I feel, almost embarrassed in the academic context, to admit that I have a husband and a kid. What does that even mean? I feel like a huge set of assumptions about conservative values and beliefs and commitment to work come alongside "being a mother and/or wife" and, in my mind, most of them are distasteful or just plain wrong. On the other hand, I never once THOUGHT about marrying my husband or having a kid in the context of "now I am fulfilling a feminine role in society." They were things I wanted intensely, things they make me feel fulfilled. So does this mean I;ve been so deeply brainwashed by society that I'm unable to ascertain the implicit imprints it has made in my life?

I don't know. But I do know that having a kid and being a grad student can feel a bit schizophrenic at times, but usually in a good way.

But, for the record, I am so, SO, SO not "feminine", in the primping, shopping, home-decorating, sewing sort of way. But I LOVE being a mom.

I love what someone else said. We each just make our own paths.


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