Saturday, March 8, 2014

Seductive Outliers

The seductive outliers come in different forms.

There's British pop star Lily Allen, who told an interviewer, "Feminism. I hate that word because it shouldn't even be a thing any more. We're all equal, everyone's equal so why is there even a conversation about feminism?"

There's Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, ascending the political ladder and demanding respect.

There's the science professor who told me it has never been difficult for her to be a woman in science, nor was it difficult to have children and then return to academia.

There's something to celebrate in each of these cases--these are women who have made it. These are women who are at or close to the pinnacle of their fields. These are women who have influence and power.

And yet they are not the norm. They are all white. They are all straight. They all have some form of class privilege. They have bucked the trends to come out on top. So what do we do in these kinds of cases where there is much to celebrate about their individual accomplishments, but there is also the danger of erroneously generalizing about the experience of women in these fields at large?

Let's drill down into the case of the professor. I was surprised and delighted to hear that her career as a science professor has been a fulfilling one. She told me that she has not felt that she has faced barriers due to her gender, she has not felt less than as a female scientist, and she is proud that she took time off to raise children and then was able to come back into academia without issue. Further, in at least two of the STEM departments at her college, female professors actually outnumber male professors. All this is amazing, and such a boon to the female students studying science at her college--it means that they see many different models of women in science, and may be more likely to pursue a degree and a career in science than if they were taught exclusively or mostly by men.

And yet, her experience and her school are nowhere close to the norm. This fall, the New York Times Magazine published an extensive article, "Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?" and the first thing it mentions is a study showing that when presented with female and male candidates with the same qualifications for the same job, (both female and male) physicists, chemists and biologists were significantly more likely to hire the male candidate. That then makes it unsurprising that only 14% of physics professors in the country are women, and percentages of female professors in other STEM fields are not much higher.

It reminded me of what my partner B., also a scientist, says about her experiences studying and working in science: She has been passionate about various forms of science since she was a child, has always excelled in science and math, and really nothing was going to stop her from being a scientist. Yet she notes that for other women thinking about majoring in or careers in science, the experience of being one of three female students in engineering classes, or only having male advisers to choose from, or constantly second-guessing yourself about speaking in class because female students speak so infrequently, it could be very easy for talented women who like science but are also interested in other fields to just decide that the STEM route isn't worth the hurdles.

The outliers are so seductive because they would make it so much easier. If we could just accept Lily Allen's assessment that we've achieved equality, if we could just extrapolate Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi's success as proof that women have just as much political power as men, if we could see the science professor's experience as the changing of the guard in STEM fields, we would be done, right? We could just praise the women who did the good hard work in the '60s and '70s, and we're off the hook as a culture. (And of course, note that this 'it's-all-good-now' analysis conveniently leaves race and class off the table.)

But the truth is, practicing feminism on a daily basis is hard, even for women. It's so easy to insult women in our culture, it's so acceptable to trivialize a woman's appearance or intelligence, and call her "crazy" or a "bitch" instead of actually debating her perspective analytically or philosophically. Even in this essay, the low hanging fruit would just be to hate on Lily Allen as a person rather than elucidating how her dismissiveness of feminism erases the challenges that the majority of women in this country still face, even if it is her valid personal experience that she has been able to do all the things she's wanted to do, regardless of her gender.

Because if you're really a feminist, then you don't throw women under the bus to benefit yourself, or to benefit your feminist line of reasoning. So I do not want to minimize cases like the science professor or Nancy Pelosi, I want to celebrate them. But I believe that it is possible to celebrate the outliers, while calling attention to what they are--incredible, motivated, lucky, talented, brilliant women who have successfully navigated systems that are not set up for them to succeed.

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