What Function Does Denial Serve?

The incomparable Hermitage has compiled the responses to her She-Woman Baby-hating carnival extravaganza!  There are many fine questions, with many excellent answers from the esteemed panelists.  I have learned tons from reading the responses to the questions.

This question in particular caught my attention:

3. What can we do when other women deny there are problems being a woman in science?

What to do indeed. Micro Dr. O recommends staying out of the way of that bitchy female greyhair, and looking for allies elsewhere.  Dr. Sneetch sez women in her field are mean, meaner than the men have ever been! And crazy too.  So there's two votes for fighting misogyny fire with misogyny fire.

Professor in Training observes sagely

Remember that there are also those that deny that Doritos are good for you. There are idiots everywhere.

She recommends you go on your way and concentrate on being a role model for the next generation.  Good advice!

KJHaxton reminds us to be strategic: put away the soapbox, focus on solutions not complaints, and bide your time until you've amassed power and status...then set to work on that institutional transformation.

GeekMommyProf rephrases the question:

When I read this question, I asked myself when was the last time anyone in real life (except my husband and perhaps a close personal friend or relative) actually took my concern to heart when I complained that I suspected someone had slighted me professionally because I'm a woman. The answer is -- I cannot remember.

She discusses what leads people, men and women, to dismiss individual incidents of bias, and recommends surrounding one's self with "supportive people of both genders" and moving on.

NicoleandMaggie say blame the patriarchy!

I totally agree.

While the patriarchy is indeed to blame, and denial comes from all quarters,  it seems to sting more when it comes from other women in science. One expects them to express some solidarity, or at least to be somewhat cognizant of their own condition, or at the very very least not to be actively functioning as apologists for the oppressors. But if the U.S. Republican party is able to muster up enough gay members to create the Log Cabin Republicans, then it ought not to surprise any of us that some women in science will remain – even throughout their entire careers – stubbornly, actively, willfully ignorant of the real facts on the ground for all women in science.

The question for me has always been, in what way is that denial functioning for them? What purpose does it serve for them?

I can't speak for all of them, but when I was in denial about the situation for women in science, that denial helped me think of myself as really unique – one of just very few women able to do this d00dly science stuff! And since I was sooooo unique, why, you could hardly call me a woman at all – I was really more of what you’d call an AlmostD00d. Which was far preferable to being a woman. To maintain my unique and therefore AlmostD00d status, it was important that there not be too many other women doing what I was doing. This all made it nearly impossible for me to develop friendships with other women in my field, or even to see senior women scientists as competent and worthy role models.  The denial also helped me keep on loving and admiring ALL the science d00ds around me, since I identified so strongly with them.  (Note that a healthy relationship with other men as human beings does not involve worshiping them as d00ds, but does involve getting to know them as individuals and liking them or not as individuals.) I had my head ass-deep in the patriarchy, and was a real asshole to other women as a consequence.  Men could rain shit on me 24/7 and I would still sing their praises.  (See: The Parable of the Wise and the Foolish Engineers.)  As Muriel Barbery writes in the The Elegance of the Hedgehog, "if there is one thing that poor people despise, it's other poor people".

So, to sum up: denying there are problems for women in science facilitates d00d-worship and belief in the self as an AlmostD00d, both of which stem from disparagement of women and loathing of the self for being a woman.

What can you do when other women deny there are problems being a woman in science? Feel sorry for them. Teach the young.

And now I insert a small plea: let us put to rest the myth of vampiric senior female scientists feeding on the fresh blood of a junior woman's hopes and dreams. Let us close the book on the tall tale of  the snarling wowolf who wounds us as no mere man ever would or could.  You have been ill-treated by senior scientists; hurtful remarks have been flung in your direction by colleagues.  When these things are done by women, and we ascribe the doing of them to their gender,  we are engaging in misogyny.  Yes, women deny that sexism exists; yes, women are subject to sexist bias in making hiring, evaluation, and promotion decisions.  If a woman who is a scientist treats you poorly, it is either because she is having a bad day, is an asshole, or because she is in the thrall of the patriarchy that has taught her to despise women.  It is not, however, because she is a woman.

Do not expect women to be your allies because they are women; do not depend on the love and support of all women to maintain your ego and belief in yourself; do not ascribe either the giving or withholding of sisterly support to the fact of womanhood rather than worldviews and belief systems. Sisterhood is powerful, but so, alas, is the patriarchy.

19 responses so far

  • Zuska says:

    My horrible senior woman scientist stories:

    I once had an opportunity to meet a really, really distinguished senior woman engineer in a professional setting where I was feeling really nervous. I wanted to make a good impression on this person and hopefully gain her as a mentor. At this first meeting, I felt she was incredibly standoffish and downright disinterested in me. It seemed she did not care for me at all and I felt blue, as I thought the mentoring relationship would not happen, and even if it did, would I really want it to, as this person seemed so uninterested in me. Well, the relationship did develop, and later on I came to find out that she was actually very interested in meeting me, but had developed a very formal personality as a way of dealing with the exceedingly male dominated field she was in. In later meetings, we had a very different way of interacting, and became very close. If I had written her off after the first encounter, I would have missed so much.

    I had opportunity to meet another very distinguished, very senior scientist, someone who had written on science and feminism. This person was condescending and rude, and uninterested in making time to speak with me. I met with her on two occasions and the experience was the same each time. I later heard that she behaved that way to people on the ladder beneath her. This person has climbed quite successfully in her career. She has made a career out of feminism and science, but appeared to me less interested in doing feminism in science. Nevertheless, her work has had a significant impact for many, many women scientists. She did not seem interested in mentoring individual women scientists, but rather had her sights on restructuring a big piece of her profession. She's been relatively successful at it. I've known other people who seemed able to handle both the individual mentoring and the profession-restructuring at the same time, so I'm not offering that as an excuse. Just saying, this person didn't seem capable of or interested in both.

    Morals? First impressions can be deceiving. And not everyone wants to be your mother mentor.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    One of the classic functions of denial is allowing us to fool ourselves that we're in control. That shit may happen to others, but that's their fault -- if I don't screw up (and I'm awesome enough that I won't) then there won't be brown stains all over me and mine.

    Keep believing that the game is fair (if harsh) and you can stay complacent right up until it's your turn to be the Random Horrible Example of the Month. And then, if you try really hard, you can convince yourself that you've learned and It Can Never Happen Again.

  • scicurious says:

    Thank you Z, this is a really great perspective to understand!

  • jc says:

    One horrible senior woman experience:

    I was on my way to a small meeting, and had an extra day in town. I looked up a very decorated woman scientist and asked if she can meet me for lunch. She's gotten awards for mentoring in a large woman scientist organization. Ever since I joined the organization, she was the one person I wanted to meet. I wanted to ask her advice on work issues and career development.

    Ok, so big day arrives. We go to lunch. I had written her an email beforehand explaining some things I want to pick her brain with so I expected to get some suggestions for solutions. SHE TOLD ME TO MOVE TO A FOREIGN COUNTRY! She pretty much went off on me, telling me that people are losing their jobs in this economy, millions of people are unemployed, and that I should be grateful I have a job. I sat there stunned. I barely ate my food. After a few minutes, I told her that she is not helping. She then started throwing things out there, all of which I have already done and/or were no help to my career. I was coming to her because I needed new options and connections. At the least, I was hoping she could connect me to other women in my field. Instead, I felt like I was being scolded for being a child who knows to clean her room and who she thought needed to be reminded to clean her room. Exasperated, I walked her through what I have tried over the years. This and that, that other thing, done that thing 15x, and I went through my progress on each thing I did (I talked to this person, I applied for that job, I know that director, etc) and she kept telling me that I hadn't tried hard enough. If I'm still breathing, I obviously haven't tried hard enough! I emotionally and mentally shut down at that point. When I left, I thanked her and wrote a thank-you note for her time.

    She was as unhelpful as the men in my organization for my career development. It was more disappointing to me because of her experience with mentoring women and receiving awards for it. The only thing I can think of is that she is good with older women. I think it's very hard for some older folks not to treat young women like children. We're all taught very young to treat women like shit.

    One horrible senior man experience:
    I went to a meeting where a man who publishes on feminism was there. The minute his name clicked in my brain, I realized I had read his stuff. Here's a dude I want to meet. We also have some research in common, so I thought I would tell him that I work on blah blah and I read something of his from a few years back. I sit down with him, tell him I work on blah blah too, and he says "I don't work on blah blah." I tell him I am 100% sure I have read a blah blah paper of his. He tells me again that no he doesn't have a paper on blah blah. I was fairly certain he did, and wanted to yell Dude, I know you have a blah blah paper! but I didn't. If I could have whipped out his paper, I would have! He said very sternly that I was wrong, turned to another person sitting nearby, and proceeded to have a conversation with them as if I were invisible. That was that. I went to the hotel that night, googled him, and sure enough, there was his blah blah paper. Very disappointed in the way he treated me. I haven't read anything of his since.

    Since women are very far and few between, we tend to remember shit from That Woman. We tend to forget or blend together all the shit from Many Men. The shit from That Woman becomes a headline because of the rarity of women. It goes back to Women Murder Too line (with the example any dipshit mentions: the movie Monster about Aileen Wuornos). Everyone can always name 1 woman for anything against a sea of men. Corrupt CEO: Martha Stewart. Tea Party nuttiest nutter: Michelle Bachmann. I see this one alot lately: Worst Rep: Maxine Waters. If you are a successful woman, you might as well put a target on your ass. You are gonna SUCK at everything worse than any dude because the expectations are far higher for women. I realized my expectations of the senior woman mentor I met were higher than I had of dudes who regularly disappoint me with their paternal and clueless crap. I wasn't that surprised about the dude who blew me off, that happens all the time.

    • Kea says:

      JC, was the woman in the same field as you? In my field, it is absolutely essential to consider moving overseas, even without taking economic difficulties into account. This may be hard for an American to swallow, but for most of us that is the reality and it may even be considered a bonus in some sense, that travel is one of the job perks.

      • jc says:

        Yes, she is. She is not an academic, and has never been a prof. And no, going overseas makes no difference in my field. I remembering telling her that I turned down postdocs in several foreign countries because it did nothing for my career. I went to meet with her specifically to ask her about non-academic options.

  • gerty-z says:

    Great post, Zuska! I couldn't agree more that it is sometimes too easy for us women junior faculty to complain about senior women that don't treat us "right", and blame it on the fact that they are old AND women. But why are the senior women held to a different standard than the senior men? Thanks for making this point.

  • LadyProf says:

    Totes agree, jc.

    In my opinion all the advice you read about how to dress is another species of denial. Same old illusion of control. I'm no fashionista but I have an interest in clothes and keep an eye on what colleagues, male and female, wear. It does NOT make a difference.

    Past a certain limit it would matter: a halter top in the classroom, for example. But the range you see on campus--from snazzy to dowdy, loose to tight, tidy to dusty--has zero effect on a woman's career. If we shut up about that dress-for-success line, then we might have to think about the real impediments and boosts in academia.

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:

    Thanks Zuska. That helps me, a lot.

    I never thought to feel sorry for those who deny the problems - I really didn't think about the degree of self-loathing inherent in such an perspective. Not that I haven't been there myself, but between life kicking my butt and hearing stories from other women whom I respect and trust, I can't deny it now. I also blame the patriarchy, but it's hard to not blame the person standing in front of you some days, at least for me.

    I've been lucky thus far that the women I've asked for help have done a wonderful job. I hope this continues to be true for me, but I don't expect that is yet every woman's experience - until it is, I have a job to do. We all do.

  • HFM says:

    I'm fully aware that senior female scientists are people too - and they may be rude for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with sexism. But there's a sizable proportion of them who are still AlmostDoods, as you put it...and if I see it, I'm going to keep that person at arm's length, because I don't trust them not to pick a fight with me in order to maintain their doodly credentials.

    What I've seen is that an AlmostDood gets attached to the choices she's made. If you're too girly, or even AlmostDood in a different way, you're bad and wrong; if you're too similar, you're competition. If you're not as talented, you'll make her look bad by association; if you're more talented, she'll look bad in comparison. There's no way to win, and she's going to try to stomp you regardless.

    Certainly, they aren't all like that, and I don't assume they will be. But I'll admit to being a little wary. I'm used to the condescension of RealDoods, and I know how to deal with it. But I'm not sure what to do with the AlmostDoods, besides whacking them with a clue-by-four, and if they're senior I may not be in a position to do much whacking.

  • Awesome post, Zuska! I have always felt that the "pulling up the ladder" thing is greatly exaggerated if even true at all. Just another example of holding members of an underrepresented group to a different standard.

  • Science Professor says:

    I haven't experienced this with any senior women, perhaps in part because there aren't many (at least, not many who are senior to my middle-aged self), but I have experienced quite a lot of sexism-denial by young women. If it hasn't happened to them, it doesn't happen. We oldsters are hysterical feminists fighting ancient imaginary battles.. or something. The difference is, of course, that it's the examples of mean senior women, who may have more power or influence, that people remember, and therefore these incidents may have more of a sting, as you say. The most important point of all this, however, is the one you eloquently make: That if a woman scientist treats you poorly, there are lots of reasons why that might be so, but the reason is not because she is a woman.

  • Kea says:

    Gee, those advice links all suck.

    Well, at least in my field, there are no women to talk down to me. There are a few women in related research areas (in theoretical physics in general) but I don't have anything to do with them. Besides, I am unemployed so everyone can ignore me. As for not complaining ... excuse me? I went for 25 years before making complaints and then one day I noticed that almost nothing had changed. It is your DUTY to complain, even if you get thrown out. Ah, but that's exactly why they play the game, isn't it? Career before conscience; only way to fit in.

    So, if you only care about yourself, ladies, here is what you must do to stay in science: (1) vocally deny the existence of sexism in academia today (2) profess strong family values (yes, being childless counts against you big time) (3) make sure that all your research papers fall under the umbrella of a BigBoys club of some kind, eg. string theory (4) don't be too industrious or helpful or competent; try to be more 'ordinary' (5) never, ever, be rude to a young golden boy, no matter how effing sexist he is etc.

  • GMP says:

    I'm a bit late to comment, but just here to say this is a great, very insightful post!
    I am a recovering AlmostDood and I can vouch that there is a significant dose of self-loathing and mysoginy in believing yourself to be one.

  • Cara says:

    If a woman who is a scientist treats you poorly, it is either because she is having a bad day, is an asshole, or because she is in the thrall of the patriarchy that has taught her to despise women. It is not, however, because she is a woman.

    God yes THANK YOU ZUSKA.

    • Change says:

      Yes. Exactly this.

      My roommate complains about her female boss and says she'd rather work for a male boss than for a female boss anytime. I tried once, unsuccessfully, to explain. I'm not going to try again. (Yeah, I give up easily.)