Friday, October 29, 2010

Earlier this month there was a furore here in New Zealand that resulted in one of the hosts of a popular television breakfast programme resigning after firstly suggesting in an interview with the Prime Minister that the next Governor-General of New Zealand should look more like a New Zealander than the current Governor-General, Sir Anand Satyanand, who was born in New Zealand and is of Indian ethnic origin, and secondly creating a diplomatic incident by making jokes about the Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit’s name.

Among the many opinion pieces that appeared was one by Karlo Mila, who is a New Zealander of Tongan/Pakeha (European) descent. She recounts the story of how she was welcomed into the coolest group of girls in the class at secondary school only to have one of its ringleaders say ‘I’m so glad there are no Maoris in our class’, then turn to her and add, ‘Sorry, Karlo, if I offended you? I didn’t mean you, of course.’ Karlo describes how quickly her thirteen year old self responded ‘I don’t mind. Why would I care? I’m not Maori.’

It reminded me of a quote from Elizabeth Blackburn :
"Someone once asked me how I did it as a woman," Blackburn recalls. "I said something that surprised even me at the time: 'I disguised myself as a man.' I had not really realized until that conversation that that's what I was doing. At the time, I didn't think of it as a sad thing, but it is sad."

Elizabeth Blackburn, UCSF
DISCOVER Vol. 23 No. 11 (November 2002)
And, indeed of my own response on being asked how I had coped with a predominantly male work environment: ‘Once I had been accepted as a good bloke there were no problems.’

Clearly, this is not as straightforward as denying that you are a woman, although one may hear the occasional approving comment ‘But you are not one of those women.’ I believe it has more to do with a tacit acceptance of male as norm, for example, an uncritical acceptance of the proposition that you have to stay late to do science, a proposition described by Blackburn in the same article as ‘the biggest pile of crap’.

I suspect that some of the antipathy that some women express towards organizations or events with the word ‘women’ in the title stems from having gone to considerable effort to fit in their male dominated workplace and not wanting to blow their cover.

I do not see a problem with adopting a more masculine style if that is more effective. I do not see that as being any different from saying ‘S’il vous plaĆ®t’ and ‘Merci’ when in France. I think it is more about having to behave in ways that are not comfortable. As one of the post-docs quoted in the Discover article put it "It's just, you've got to be this person that I don't want to be in order to be successful as a scientist."

This is why programmes such as Springboard and, at a different level, Suzanne Doyle-Morris’s “Beyond the Boys’ Club” are so important: they are about being successful and a woman rather than being successful despite being a woman.

We also need to articulate what needs to change and engage men in conversations about how to bring change about.

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