Sunday, April 19, 2009

When We ASS-U-ME

There is a discussion going on over at Dr. Isis in response to a reader who asked how to respond when a senior male collaborator called her "dear" during a phone call. The context given was "Okay, dear. Sounds good."

I responded in the comments as follows:

"Definitely a tough situation.

But consider this, does he also have a tendency to use words like that for his younger male collaborators or students? Like "Kid, kiddo, buddy, son, etc?"

I don't think "dear" is marginalizing, sexist, or any of that. Is it gender specific? Yeah, if a male is saying it, because he would probably never call a male student "dear" for fear of getting labeled as gay. But what if it was a female collaborator or mentor who said it? Would you be offended then? Or would you believe it to be a term of affection?

We really have to be careful with this shit. If you make assumptions about his intentions based on his gender, then you're just as sexist as you imagine him to be. Period. Now, if you make the assumption based on his personality - not sexist. That's why I ask you to consider how you would feel if a woman said it to you. If the answer is the same, then consider speaking up and respond as you would to a woman who used the term.

Also, if you bristle at every pet name someone in academia throws at you, I have to imagine it's going to be a very long, hard road for you. Sometimes a pet name is just a pet name. I call my friends "sweetie" all the time, regardless of gender, and it is never meant to marginalize them. My husband gets pissed when I call him "kid" just like you would have every right to go apeshit if someone calls you "Little Miss." THAT would be offensive no matter WHO said it."

The parts I've highlighted in bold are what I really want to focus on here. 

I understand that in my head I live in this imaginary world where everything is fair and everyone knows the social psychological reasons behind everything and uses that information to make life better for everyone. I get it, but bear with me. 

Intention matters, folks. It's the difference between a Murder conviction and Manslaughter. (Well, there's more to it than that, but again bear with me.)

If a female mentor calls you "dear" or "sweetie" - do you have an immediate problem with that? If not, why not? If she starts calling you "sexy" or "little miss" then we have a whole different sort of problem. 

We can't run around assuming that men are being sexist when they use terms like "dear" to refer to a female. "Dear" is in and of itself neutral. We begin letters with it all the time, regardless of the gender of the recipient. The name that follows it depends on the perceived nature of our relationship with that person. 

When we assume intention using gender as our only evidence, we are being sexist. Making assumptions about anyone based on a group of which they are a member, whether it's men, women, a racial or ethnic group, an age group, etc. is the very definition of stereotyping. 

Some men are sexist. And if a particular man is sexist, a larger pattern will emerge where he consistently belittles and patronizes women he comes in contact with. We can then label him as a sexist. 


You may recall that I recently met with a self-proclaimed feminist department head regarding my possible enrollment in her graduate program. She assumed that, because of my dedication to my marriage and concern for my husband's prospects regarding the move, that I am not committed to my education and career. 

But if I was a male student who was meeting with her who was concerned about my wife's prospects and expressed dedication to my marriage, would she have made the same assumption? Probably not. In fact, she might have done whatever she could to help me figure it out, thinking how nice it was for a guy to be so concerned about his wife rather than putting her second to his career. 

That's not equality. That's not feminism. She made an assumption based on my gender. And it pissed me off. 

I am willing to bet that if the post-doc who wrote the letter to Dr. Isis called out the collaborator on his use of the term "dear" - he would be shocked. If she is truly uncomfortable with it and would be regardless of the gender of the person using the term, she should say something. And if a future female collaborator uses the term, she should say something then, too. 


Mrs. CH said...

I completely agree with you. One cannot assume that the professor is a sexist based solely on the fact that he used "dear" once. The writer even said that he had been quite cordial in their email correspondence. There is no pattern for sexism in that case.

And I also agree that it was sexist of her to assume that he was using "dear" as a derogatory term. Just as it was sexist for the female department head to look down on you for considering your husband's wants/needs. Not all sexism is men versus women.

I'm glad you posted your comment on the thread, because I wanted to say something similar but could not think of a good way to articulate it.

PhizzleDizzle said...

I must say though, I don't like really when anyone but Mr. Phizz calls me sweetie, man or woman. I think it started because I only had two (female) friends who would ever say sweetie, and they would only say it when they were being condescending, like subconsciously trying the soften the blow of saying something I wouldn't like ("Sweetie!!!! Silly, you shouldn't have done that").

Hence, I (personally) associate "sweetie" with condescension. So you bet your ass I would be pissed if a man said it, not that one ever has (besides Mr. Phizz, because he always says it with love :)). I think I am gender neutral on that one - but I do realize that it is hard for other people to navigate the personal minefield that is my connotational experience. I wonder if there is an official term for what I mean by connotational experience. Anyway, I know that's hard so I often give people a pass, unless they are blatantly patronizing me on purpose.

Isabel said...

Since there is no larger pattern in this case that we know of, even if it would still bother the post doc if it was a woman, I wouldn't recommend saying anything. It is too big of a reaction to something very minor, and borders on correcting an innocent but ill-informed person's manners directly; whether intended or not, they are being told that they've done something offensive could leave the collaborator feeling defensive, resentful or embarrassed (even ashamed) or otherwise uncomfortable eg worried about who else have they unthinkingly offended over the years, or about inadvertently doing it again, esp. as it was probably an occasional, unconscious thing. Not worth it.

Psych Post Doc said...

I just want to point out that the original letter writer did not specifically mention that the comment was sexist. I think a lot of people ASSUMED that sexism was her problem with the comment because it came from a man.

Personally, I would find this term rather offensive because I would feel it marginalized me as a professional making me feel as though that person didn't respect me, regardless of whether that lack of respect came from the fact that I was young, female or some other reason.

Treating me in ways that make me feel marginalized is unappreciated regardless of the reasons behind the marginalized comment.

Anonymous said...

@Isabel: "it could leave the collaborator feeling defensive, resentful or embarrassed (even ashamed) or otherwise uncomfortable"

This is exactly how postdoc expressed her feelings. Why is the male professor who calls her "dear" being given the free pass for his uncomfortableness at her bringing her uncomfortableness to light?

Who loses out because of HIS behavior either way? HER. She's the postdoc = lower power/he's a prof. She's a she = lower power/oppressed group.

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