• April 17, 2014

Fear of Feminism

Would a feminist by any other name be as sweet?

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Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

A year or so ago, I worked on an administrative project with a university employee (not in my department). We seemed to work quite well together. We met frequently, we got things done on our joint project, and we got along fine. Or so I thought.

At one point while working together on a task, we encountered a media portrayal of graduate students and professors in the sciences. The images depicted an ethnically diverse group of male and female students, but all the science professors were white men in lab coats. I told my colleague that such stereotypes annoyed me and had, over the course of my career, made it more difficult for me to be taken seriously as a scientist. I said that in a casual, conversational way, without really thinking about it.

I didn't think I was saying anything particularly radical, and yet my co-worker seemed shocked. He said that he had no idea that I was "like that."

Like what?

That I was a "feminist." I admitted that I was indeed such a thing.

From that point on, my colleague seemed less and less comfortable working with me. The frequency of our meetings fell off sharply, and he preferred to communicate by e-mail rather than face to face. We had been on a first-name basis, but after that moment, he addressed me as "Professor."

I am well aware that many people—men and women—dislike "feminists," although their discomfort often stems from a misunderstanding of feminism. In the case of my co-worker, though, I was perplexed. I guess I thought that many people disliked "feminists" in the abstract, but if they met a "nice"(-ish) one, they would change their views (as is common in other cases of anxieties about people with different backgrounds or views).

Hadn't this colleague and I worked together effectively and amicably enough for him to re-evaluate his apparent deep dislike of feminists? Apparently not.

I wondered if my offhand but revealing comment about stereotypes of scientists crystallized everything that he didn't like about me. Perhaps it had been an effort for him to work with me from the start, and now he could put a label on why. I can be quite clueless about interpersonal interactions, but I had seen no hints that he was unhappy collaborating—that is, until my feminist outbreak. And to this day I fail to see how my casual comment could cause such discomfort. We had successfully navigated conversations about our different views on religion, our educational choices for our children, and our own very different backgrounds. Why was feminism such a deal breaker?

(A relevant note: My colleague is not in a science, technology, engineering, or math field, so I don't think he felt personally attacked by my objection to the stereotype of science professors as men in lab coats.)

I have heard many people—male and female—preface a comment with "I'm not a feminist but ...," and then complete that sentence with a point of view completely in line with feminism. I am certainly not the first to note that those who have sought to demonize the term have been remarkably successful, even convincing people that they are not, and would never want to be (or know), feminists.

In any case, for decades I have refused to concede the term to those who redefine it in unjustified ways. I do not hesitate to call myself a (shudder!) feminist. And yet, I wonder: When my colleague expressed shock and dismay at finding himself working with one, what if I had said: "Oh no, I'm not a feminist [unsaid: according to your incorrect definition]. I'm a [friendly-sounding term that means the same thing as feminist but doesn't have the unfortunate baggage]"? Is there such a term? Could an attempt at redefinition have preserved a working relationship?

I am skeptical that a synonym-for-feminist approach would work. I can't imagine that the "damage" done by my comment about white men in lab coats could have been undone by a bit of redecorating.

So what's a feminist to do? Is it even possible to convince the feministophobes that their anxieties are unfounded? Should I have essentially written off this particular working relationship as a failure? Clearly my strategy of being a friendly, familiar face of feminism is insufficient, although I think that, over the years, it has not completely failed, either.

This is not just about feminism. It's about any "ism." The broader questions are whether, and how, to preserve a working relationship that is seriously affected when one colleague is upset by the point of view of another, on an issue that is relevant but not central to their collaboration. What, if anything, should I have done once I realized there was a problem?

  • Nothing. It was his problem. All I said was that I didn't like the stereotypes about scientists. I didn't say that I hated all men—or whatever else this colleague believes I believe, even though I don't. I have too many other things to worry about right now without trying to salvage this annoying situation.
  • I should have done more than I did, but without making any unreasonably heroic efforts to convince him that I am not a scary, man-­hating, humorless zealot. Would it have killed me to try to talk to him about his reaction and try to put him at his ease? And then, if that didn't work, oh well.
  • I should have done whatever I could. I should have tried to show this colleague that it's possible to be a self-proclaimed feminist and yet be a friendly, sane, effective colleague. I thought I had done that, but clearly it wasn't enough. This issue is too important to shrug off. We shouldn't let unreasonable biases continue if there is even a chance of a positive change.
  • I should have backtracked and lied. I should have picked up on his anxiety and sought to calm his fears, even to the point of lying and saying that I was certainly not a feminist. Or I should have found a euphemism for the term. Or I could have explained that I was just commenting because not all scientists wear lab coats. What's with all the pictures of scientists in lab coats? And wearing goggles! Then we would have laughed and continued working together as we had been.
  • Other ideas?

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker. Her blog is http://science-professor.blogspot.com.

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