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.
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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/40004448.)
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.