25 February 2005


oh, the profusion of bruising conversations i have gotten myself mixed up in this week. last night was the worst: standing on a street corner in a snowstorm, progressively losing both the feeling in my extremities and the argument. i was so pissed off at the end of it that i called laurel for coaching.

here is what i have decided: i'm not going to have anymore conversations about myself. this is not a referendum about whether i'm fit to be an academic, whether i should adjust to it or whether it should adjust to me. this is not an issue about my behavior in workshop, or the format of the workshop, or some piddling departmental reform. it is too big and intractable to speak of in these ways.

to start this off on a more general footing, let's try a little tree. as follows: either you observe gender (or other) stratification or you do not. if you do not observe it, well, then we have an empirical debate. but assuming you do observe it, you must then decide whether or not gender stratification is ok. this is mostly equivalent to deciding where gender stratification comes from. (from God => ok. from nature => ok, perhaps. from socialization/culture => probably not ok. from centuries of active oppression => not ok at all. and so forth.) assuming for the moment that you observe it and feel that it is not justified per se, then you must choose whether or not you are going to try to fix it.

the total menu of choices, then, is as follows: do not observe; observe and endorse; observe, do not endorse, but fail to act; observe, do not endorse, act.

in the context of academia (just for example), it is difficult not to observe gender stratification. obviously, the situation is better than it was thirty years ago. obviously, progress is still occurring in some departments and some disciplines. some individual departments are at parity. however: in my department, in my workshop, in my experience, the people who do the majority of speaking are men. the people who do the majority of teaching are men. this is not a comment on those men, or even on our workshop in general. it is not a normative observation, and it doesn't need to have any normative content or any particular etiology. that's just the way it is. gender stratification is observed.

what does it mean to "observe and endorse" gender stratification? one possibility is obvious: you believe that women are innately inferior and that, in consequence, we should expect to observe stratification. or perhaps you believe that preferences are exogenous, and women are simply expressing a preference for less involvement with academia. (this is larry summers' "mommy track" argument.) whether you are actively engaging in gender discrimination or you simply believe that these choices are all given, you are endorsing the stratification you observe.

before moving on to the [observe, do not endorse] branch of my little tree, a bit of a side note about innateness arguments: i think it's stupid to argue that there are no innate differences. i also think it's stupid to argue that there are enough innate differences to account for all the stratification we observe, or for all the variation in stratification that we observe. my sense here is that 'innateness' is a tool of the lazy and comfortable: we don't know what we can do to solve the problem we see, so we will place responsibility with "nature."

anyway. most of the people that i know in academia fall under the third category: observe, do not endorse, ignore. this occurs for a variety of reasons, some of them respectable and some of them not. there is the "i, myself, am not acting sexist" argument. there is the "we can't do anything at yale poli sci to change your social history" argument. there is the "we can't do anything at yale poli sci to change princeton poli sci" argument. what all of these responses have in common is that they recognize the bigness of this problem and...run screaming in the other direction. because the problems come from elsewhere, the responsibility for fixing them must lie elsewhere as well.

take, for example, the fact that my workshop is dominated by male voices. no one is shouting women down, or failing to listen respectfully when women do speak. ("i, myself, am not acting sexist.") there are a number of women who speak regularly, forcefully, and articulately. this tends to be bandied about as evidence that there is no stratification, without reference to the relative numbers of women in the room. proportionally speaking, however, stratification is a fact of life. so what could we possibly do? we could try a different pedagogical tack, either with the aim of making women more aggressive or with the aim of making the conversation as a whole more inclusive. of course, folks i've argued with are right to point out that this wouldn't change the way things are done in other places ("can't change princeton") or the reticence that many of us bring to the table ("can't change your social history").

these arguments -- that the problems come from elsewhere and cannot be solved here -- are powerful, to a point. it may well be true that in the here and now, i will have to learn to be louder if i want to get by, because things are not going to change overnight. on the other hand: if we recognize continued stratification as a problem, and we see that this problem is occurring here in our department, i believe that there is a case to be made for trying to change things.

if you are a woman in this environment, at a certain point "observe, do not endorse, ignore" becomes observationally (and emotionally) equivalent to "observe and endorse."

the question now is: what would "observe, do not endorse, act" look like?