Sexism and group formation

I got Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment out of the library again, because it’s a book I like with a message I needed just about now. I don’t know how many women in male fields (and no, that’s not a spoiler; it’s clacksed from the very first page, and the title is a dead giveaway too) Pratchett talked to before writing this one. Perhaps no one out of his ordinary acquaintance; the man has a gift for hitting bullseyes about human interaction.

A (minorly spoilery) passage that hit me this read-through:

He looked innocent, so possibly he didn’t understand the raging argument that had just broken out in Polly’s head. A credit to the women of your country. We’re proud of you. Somehow those words locked you away, put you in your place, patted you on the head and dismissed you with a sweetie. On the other hand, you had to start somewhere…

Part of the annoyance of being feminist is having these arguments with myself all the damn time. It’s such an energy drain. Do I call this one out? Did that person mean what was just said, or was it just a brain-fart? If I dig in my heels and howl, am I going to create more heat than light? Will anybody back me up? Why, for heaven’s sake, did that make me so angry? I’m a grownup, and it’s not like I haven’t heard worse before. Why can’t I just let stuff go? How much trouble am I willing to get into over this? Honestly, how much?

Meredith used the word “subtle” to characterize sexism in systems librarianship. I’m going to use the word “insidious” instead, and try to explain why. “Subtle” carries the connotation “intentional” to me, and I don’t believe that’s warranted. I don’t know a single librarian of either gender capable of even thinking anything like that absurd Forbes article (which from me gets no linklove, nuh-uh, no way).

And when I cut loose on CavLec finally, I didn’t get a pile-on in return the way Bess did. Well, I sort of did, actually; I spent a solid month and more answering email with my teeth lacerating my tongue to shreds. But the pile-on wasn’t an outpouring of blatant insult. It was an outpouring of “hey, um, WTF just happened?”

Insidious. The word implies invisible destruction of trust, which to me is just right. I started out, as I think many women of my age started out, honestly trusting that the worst of the struggle for gender equality was over, and that I could and should expect to be treated with courtesy and respect wherever I went. Not because I was a woman, not in spite of being a woman—but just because. Because it had finally been acknowledged that women are, you know, people and stuff.

When you think about it, against the tapestry of history? That’s an amazing trust. The wonder isn’t that it gets broken in some women. The wonder is it’s left intact as often as it is—and not just out of blindness, wilful or otherwise.

The reduction of women’s contributions to sniffed-at footnotes that annoys Pratchett’s Polly is only one insidious way to damage women’s trust in basic fairness. The one I most recently ran into boils down to honorary guyness (and I use the word “guy” rather than “man” intentionally). A woman can be an honorary guy, sure, with all the perquisites and privileges pertaining to that status—as long as she never lets anything disturb the guy façade.

It’s good to be an honorary guy, don’t get me wrong. Guys are fun to be around. Guys know stuff. Guys help out other guys. Guys trust other guys. And in my experience, they don’t treat honorary guys any differently from how they treat regular guys. It’s really great to be an honorary guy.

The only problem is that part of the way that guys distinguish themselves from not-guys is by contrasting themselves with women. Women are the not-guys. It’s an incredibly insidious set-up. When a guy cracks a pr0n joke, he honestly doesn’t have anything against women; he’s just affirming his guyness. Other guys take it so, and don’t think twice about it. It never occurs to the guys that these boundaries are artificial, that there’s nothing intrinsic to women that makes them not-guys, that there are better ways (e.g. group purpose, mutual support) to define a group and the desired characteristics of group members. And since that never occurs to them, pr0n jokes and the like get baked deep into group culture.

Honorary guys, now—some can see the guyness-affirmation for what it is to the guys and let it go. I know some honorary guys who do precisely that. Maybe their trust in fairness remains intact (after all, as honorary guys they’re being treated well); maybe it doesn’t. Maybe some of them come around to the guy point of view, despising women who haven’t become honorary guys. I’ve never quite dared ask.

I’m not that kind of honorary guy, I’m afraid. I’ve paid for it, and I expect I shall again. But at least y’all get to watch me talk through it all.

Mark, then, what happens to temporarily honorary guys who have trouble accepting the typical guy style of group-membership claim. Every guyness-affirmation from every guy erodes their trust, in that specific guy, in the group, in men, in fairness. My $DEITY, do they think about me like that? Heavens, that was disgusting and uncalled-for—do they know how they sound? If they know, do they care? How do these people treat their mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, female bosses, female co-workers? Do they laugh at them behind their backs? Do they laugh at me behind mine? If so, what am I doing here? Do I really belong, or am I just the mascot, just the dartboard, just the token?

Insidious. Let me tell you, insidious. Not least because the guys have no intention of causing these reactions, and no idea they’re doing it. I haven’t even touched the question of fear for one’s bodily and professional integrity, but in the worst cases, it’s real. If I’m in a hotel bar with these guys at a conference, am I even safe? If these guys have power, am I toast if I tick them off? Even though most guys would be outright horrified that any woman, especially an honorary guy they honestly like, would distrust them so.

Now mark what happens when a guy, honorary or not, assails the definition of not-guys as women by asking for the pr0n jokes to stop, please, and now would be nice. Every guy in the place has suddenly had his guyness, his group membership, even the very existence of and justification for the group, called into question. Of course the result is unconsidered defensiveness. How could it be anything else?

And that defensiveness is a serious, sometimes fatal, blow to the honorary guy’s trust in the victory over sexism. Not only will guys crack pr0n jokes, they’ll defend the practice, bemoan losing it as a diminution of group culture; I’ve seen ’em do it. Even though (here’s the insidious bit) it’s not really pr0n jokes they’re defending; it’s group cohesion. And when honorary guys have no more trust left? Well, I’m Exhibit A. Come to your own conclusions.

The story doesn’t end there. Groups blow up, feelings are hurt all ’round, everybody yells and screams, friendships are broken, people are blacklisted, nobody understands WTF just happened, the guys suddenly wonder if they trust honorary guys and if they should, and it all sucks amazingly. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, bled (metaphorically) all over it, wish like you wouldn’t believe that things had been different.

Meredith’s comments have a deeply troubling variation on the honorary-guy scenario; it isn’t only “guys” who use this group-cohesion method, and it isn’t only women who are shoved into the not-us group. I saw this same scenario brought up on a different library blog (I forget which, or I’d look it up); the female techie librarian targeted had the courage to dispute the homophobia with “And if I am [lesbian]?” Good for her. I hope her co-workers felt all due shame.

In addition to the homophobia, though, I want to call out the anti-techism in that anecdote, even though as an outrage it pales in comparison. How many librarians are defining librarianship as intrinsically analog? (Shortly after I was hired, I heard a librarian at MPOW angrily insisting that MPOW needed to hire “real librarians.” I wasn’t sure what she meant by the term, but I got the message loud and clear that she didn’t mean me. Was scary at the time, I admit.) How do we change that group definition without threatening those librarians’ self-concept?

I’m not saying anything here that a passel of sociologists haven’t said better than I ever could. That’s the funny thing about all this. It’s not hard to read about these things. There’s lots out there that would help us break these counterproductive patterns of group formation within our profession and in the larger world. We’re librarians. Why do we not read, why do we not research, when patterns like these damage us?

I have suggestions for worthwhile reading, but this post is too long already. You could do worse, though, than start with Monstrous Regiment.