I’m a misogynist, get me out of here.
International Women’s Day was a bit of a relational minefield for me this year. Whilst I openly support feminist ideals, and am marginally vocal in the fight for parity in science and conservation, I’ve recently come to a bit of a realisation.
I am a female misogynist.
I was made aware of this by my friend of nearly seven years, so you can imagine that at first I resisted the idea, or assumed she was exaggerating an unconscious bias, which I am by no means alone in having. But she knows me so well I couldn’t deny the argument she wove; she was right. Misogyny is a sliding scale – I’m by no means a woman hater, but can no longer ignore my prejudices. So I’m tackling this head on, which means looking at events in my life where I believe I’ve suffered from sexism and, more importantly, where I believe I may have contributed to sexism towards others. So this blog won’t be a reiteration of the statistics of gender inequality in the sciences and sexual harassment, or another piece on women’s needs in the field (topics covered far more eloquently than I could by Lucy McRobert and my hero Anne Hilborn) because I can’t offer anything new. Instead I want to share some thoughts on the everyday and not-so-everyday (but less obvious) sexism in this already difficult-to-navigate discipline.
I’ve always been quite (possibly unusually) strong. At school, when a rugby coach visited to encourage girls into the game, it was me the teacher picked to demonstrate the tackle bag – “use Rebecca, she’ll be good at this”. He was right; I still play. I ran away from my Brownies group after being repeatedly criticised by Brown Owl for not being ladylike enough. I’m now vehemently averse to organised fun with groups of women I don’t know. Other ‘Tomboys’ will know that if negative feelings towards you as less of a ‘girl’ follow you through school, and even uni, it can be pretty miserable at times. So naturally, I first came to the conclusion that this is where my prejudices came from! Phew, I can leave that behind. But the more I think about it in a day-to-day context, the more I realise that my career in conservation, and in particular fieldwork, has been reinforcing my biases.
When I left university and started to plough through unpaid internships, I invariably ended up doing a lot more fieldwork. I started to find that all of a sudden, the physical traits that used to single me out as weird became useful, meant I was trusted with tasks others might not be and, critically, often got me in to the Lad’s Club (which, due to my Brownies-related trauma, can feel more natural). I’m not saying that these ‘traits’ are in any way inherently male (I believe that male and female traits, even physical ones, are largely a product of culture not biology), but that they are generally valued by men, and perhaps to a degree unwanted by women.
We like the things we’re good at. I liked being good at fieldwork. I’ve valued my ‘male traits’ (such as strength) highly, and so have those I felt I needed to impress. I’m happy to say this doesn’t extend to traits such as hard work, intelligence, curiosity which are in no way gender-influenced. Unfortunately, the point my friend was making is that this bias can impact the way I treat other women. Sometimes this manifests as resentment, when I feel like I can’t be sure another person can do a job in the same way I can because of their gender. Sometimes, as a weird form of chivalry, where I feel the need to carry other women’s equipment or take over a strenuous task. Whether it’s a well-meaning hand with their dive gear that they don’t actually need, or passive aggressive interference with an unfinished task, it’s sexism. But no one had ever called it that before – my gender was a screen for my sexism!
In my thoughts since, I’ve really come to appreciate the spaghetti-junction of an issue that is sexism in the field. I remember once kind-of being fired from an internship with an NGO I shan’t name. I made a stand with two others on the treatment of the volunteers, which didn’t go down well. My female colleague was subsequently told she would be finishing her contract without a reference. I was given 24 hrs to book a flight and leave. My male colleague, however, was driven to a ferry port and dumped without a backward glance. Horrendous behaviour aside, why did our punishments differ? I’m still confused as to how I should feel about this.
In my most extreme reflection, I’ve had to admit to something quite drastic, which occurred at a time when I was made aware of an accusation of sexism (potentially an issue of assault) by one volunteer towards another on a conservation project. I remember this thought barrelling through my head before I could stop it: “Well, these overseas volunteer projects can be pretty sexually charged…” I wasn’t excusing the incident, but I was attempting to rationalise it. I despise that I was even capable of that thought. I wonder how much of that thought was borne of the types of environments I have worked in for the past 10 years in conservation. Of the types of dynamics that exist in the field: characterised by close-quartered, strictly hierarchical and physically demanding conditions that can feed patriarchal culture and maintain unconscious biases.
My point is that had I remained oblivious, I would probably have carried on as I was, unknowingly reinforcing gender stereotypes in the field environment and the disparities that come with it. All the while, extolling the virtues of feminism in the rest of my life. Whilst I do believe my newfound self-awareness lends me a rare perspective from both sides (yes, I do still suffer from sexism, despite my guns) I’ll also admit that I haven’t necessarily been great at figuring any of it out yet. So then how can I expect anyone else to be?
So now, as a self-aware female misogynist, I would advocate that everyone (everyone) in the fieldwork environment undergo a bit of self-reflection. I’ve no idea what this will reveal on the individual level, but one thing I know is that making the issue visible is a good first step. If you haven’t engaged with the Everyday Sexism project yet, then do, and bring it in to the context of fieldwork. If you recorded all experiences of sexism over one month, what do you think you would see? Looking beyond obvious discussions like physical needs, sexual boundaries and fair recruitment (which are still very necessary and unresolved) to the less visible things that we do every day; would you have shared this before? Would you be comfortable sharing it in a group? A mixed-gender group? With colleagues? Perhaps try it. See what you can do beyond the big picture narrative that often dominates days like International Women’s Day. I’ve selflessly kicked things off for you by oversharing on the Internet…