On sexism, with humour

By Aimee Whitcroft 13/06/2013 5


A friend of mine just posted a quotation up on her Facebook feed and I thought it so good I figured I’d share it with you all. Well, to be fair, I read it, and then went and found the full thing, some of the first part of which I’ve retyped from the Google Books version I found 🙂 Feel free to read the full version, embedded at the bottom of this post!

But first, a few words. Yes, in case it wasn’t obvious, I am absolutely a feminist (and was before I knew about feminism, and then still during the time when I thought I wasn’t due to being taught entirely the wrong things about what feminism *actually* is, and finally again officially when that misapprehension was corrected by a brilliant English teacher in high school).

And how is a subject like this appropriate for a predominantly science/tech focused blog? Well, because – and very, very unfortunately – sexism is still a major issue in the science and tech fields. Thankfully, it’s been noticed and people are doing a great deal to try to redress the imbalance*, but such things take a long time and, well, many people still don’t actually understand what the problem is.

I proffer this, with good humour 🙂 And, once you’ve read it, think about how you see women scientists and technical people written about, time and time again.

Spoiler alert: they tend to conform to the below and, in doing so, massively fail The Finkbeiner Test. Perhaps something to keep in mind next time you’re reading or writing about a female person’s achievements 🙂
From Dorothy Sayers’ 1947 essay “The Human-Not-Quite-Human“:

Probably no man has ever troubled to imagine how strange his life would appear to himself if it were unrelentingly assessed in terms of his maleness; if everything he wore, said, or did had to be justified by reference to female approval; if he were compelled to regard himself, day in day out, not as a member of society, but merely (salva reverentia) as a virile member of society. If the centre of his dress-consciousness were his cod-piece, his education directed to making him a spirited lover and meek paterfamilias; his interests held to be natural only in so far as they were sexual. If from school and lecture-room, Press and pulpit, he heard the persistent outpouring of a shrill and scolding voice, bidding him remember his biological function. If he were vexed by continual advice how to add a rough male touch to his typing, how to be learned without losing his masculine appeal, how to combine chemical research with education, how to play bridge without incurring the suspicion of impotence. If, instead of allowing with a smile that “women prefer cavemen,” he felt the unrelenting pressure of a while social structure forcing him to order all his goings in conformity with that pronouncement.

He would hear (and would he like hearing?) the female counterpart of Dr. Peck (Dr. Peck had disclaimed adherence to the Kinder, Kirche, Küche school of thought) informing him: “I am no supporter of the Horseback Hall doctrine of ‘gun-tail, plough-tail and stud’ as the only spheres for masculine action; but we do need a more definite conception of the nature and scope of man’s life.” In any book on sociology he would find, after the main portion dealing with human needs and rights, a supplementary chapter devoted to “The Position of the Male in the Perfect State.” His newspaper would assist him with a “Men’s Corner,” telling him how, by the expenditure of a good deal of money and a couple of hours a day, he could attract the girls and retain his wife’s affection; and when he had succeeded in capturing a mate, his name would be taken from him, and society would present him with a special title to proclaim his achievement. People would write books called, “History of the Male,” or “Males of the Bible,” or “The Psychology of the Male,” and he would be regaled daily with headlines, such as “Gentleman-Doctor’s Discovery,” “Male-Secretary Wins Calcutta Sweep,” “Men-Artists at the Academy.” If he gave an interview to a reporter, or performed any unusual exploit, he would find it recorded in such terms as these: “Professor Bract, although a distinguished botanist, is not in any way an unmanly man. He has, in fact, a wife and seven children. Tall and burly, the hands with which he handles his delicate specimens are as gnarled and powerful as those of a Canadian lumberjack, and when I swilled beer with him in his laboratory, he bawled his conclusions at me in a strong, gruff voice that implemented the promise of his swaggering moustache.” Or: “There is nothing in the least feminine about the home surroundings of Mr. Focus, the famous children’s photographer. His ‘den’ is paneled in teach and decorated with rude sculptures from Easter Island; over his austere iron bedstead hands a fine reproduction of the Rape of the Sabines.” Or: “I asked M. Sapristi, the renowned chef, whether kitchen-cult was not a rather unusual occupation for a man. ‘Not a bit of it!’, he replied, bluffly. ‘It is the genius that counts, not the sex. As they say in la belle Écosse, a man’s a man for a’ that’ — and his gusty, manly guffaw blew three small patty pans from the dresser.”

He would be edified by solemn discussions about “Should Men Serve in Drapery Establishments?” and acrimonious ones about “Tea-Drinking Men”; by cross-shots of public affairs “from the masculine angle,” and by irritable correspondence about men who expose their anatomy on beaches (so masculine of them), conceal it in dressing-gowns (too feminine of them), think about nothing but women, pretend an unnatural indifference to women, exploit their sex to get jobs, lower the tone of the office by their sexless appearance, and generally fail to please a public opinion which demands the incompatible. And at dinner-parties he would hear the wheedling, unctuous, predatory female voice demand: “And why should you trouble your handsome little head about politics?”

If, after a few centuries of this kind of treatment, the male was a little self-conscious, a little on the defensive, and a little bewildered about what was required of him, I should not blame him. If he presented the world with a major social problem, I should scarcely be surprised. It would be more surprising if he retained any rag of sanity and self-respect.”

Yes. Yes. A thousand times, yes 😛

Well done Dorothy! Sadly, not much seems to have changed since then in many ways, but I _do_ think we’re getting there as a society, and with the help and attention of people across the gender spectrum, including men 🙂

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*With initatives like Rails Girls Wellington, for example, which I was lucky enough to get to attend over the weekend. And many, many more initiatives, including the Ada Initiative and, less formally, more and more companies actively seeking to hire women in technical roles such as coding.

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I might add I’ve generally, gleefully, and even aggressively ignored or contravened societal cues on what it means to be female; even so, some strange stuff still snuck in (thankfully, not around my abilities or what I’m capable of, but dangerous, damaging, insidious and extremely deeply ingrained nonetheless). However, that doesn’t mean the battle still isn’t one to be joined willingly , and I freely admit I’ve been fortunate in many of my experiences (so many have not).

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5 Responses to “On sexism, with humour”

  • When I got into computing I was in awe of my big sister who did it both better and firster, but I often suspect that my having gone further in the field is primarily due to an accident of gender.

    Now whenever I get the opportunity I actively encourage young women into a career in programming, endeavouring through positive discrimination to make it an easy choice and a comfortable career.

    I do sometimes wonder in the process whether this is perceived as sexism, in some odd way, but if I can make it purely about the fun involved in making bytes change and pixels move then perhaps it can be entirely genderless. I’m not sure what else I could do.

  • I think your Dorothies are one & the same 🙂 She was a great writer & Lord Peter is one of my all-time favourite fictional detectives.