Not Every Woman Is A Spokesperson

By: Majken B. E. Christensen, Astrophysicist and KIF board member

Danish Women in Physics, KIF, is working to create awareness on women in physics. We shed a light on current issues that women in science encounter, and we hope this will make women feel less alone with their experiences and possibly trigger a debate.

Many of us find ourselves having a discussion with men about gender equality in science. Is there really a problem in science? Are women being discriminated? What even is the deal with women? ‘The subject is irritating, especially for women; and it is not new’ (de Beauvior, p. 1, 1949).

These are some of the questions that women often encounter, and end up being held accountable for. This asks of the individual woman to take the role as spokesperson and argue on behalf of her gender to deliver proper evidence that there indeed is a gender issue in science – both on salary and hiring terms but also in the daily work-life which affects many women.

This is a problem, not only because it drains the individual woman, but because it indirectly establishes a requirement for women to master almost lawyer-like rhetoric in order to get an accept of their experiences. And the experiences are exactly that: theirs. Regardless of what anyone would think.

When the subtext favors the man

Some men might experience that women get tired, hostile or even discouraged, when they try to understand the gender related problems. Why can’t women just explain their experience, so the men can assess their opinions?

This is the core of the problem. The subtext in the above is that in order to be established as a problem, a man needs to approve the justification of the problem. Whether or not a man will be convinced of any gender related issue now relies on one single woman. She is being held accountable for communicating the best argumentation in this debate. Instead, this should rely on the man’s capability to seek information or simply trust, what the woman is experiencing.

This leads to a new problem: women get tired. For years and years, women have been underpaid and discriminated, not only in physics but everywhere. Women get tired, because for years and years they had the same dead-end discussions with men asking the same questions, so the men can assess their often opposite opinions. And every time the result is the same: women are questioned if their experiences are really valid.

This creates a spiral of discouragement for women. And this discouragement comes out as anger, self-doubt or even as a hand waving goodbye to the physics community.

Daily reminders add up

I know a female physicist, who buys her electronics online to avoid the tiring encounter with a male sales personnel in the electronics shop, who insist on explaining what a GB is. Or women who do not wear makeup at science conferences to avoid being seen as ‘unscientific’ and treated as a lower level scientist than they are.

I know women who do not wear dresses to avoid unwanted sexual attention from men at science institutes. I know women who have been harassed, bullied or simply been evaluated negatively just for being exactly that: a woman.

But what I consider one of the worst parts is not the harassment from single narrow-minded men. It is the daily reminders that women are worth less. The objectification, the patronizing, the ‘mansplaining’ that women put up with. Every. Single. Day. It adds up and creates a feeling of being misplaced, not wanted, not capable and not worth as much as a man.

White male privilege

It is easy for men to suggest “equal opportunities for all”. It is easy for men to state they support women’s rights. White men already have both opportunities and rights.

It is easy to make heroic statements, that everyone should have the same as them – but it’s hard for men to give up what they have, so women can have it too. Because it involves sharing some of their privileges.

White men have the most privileges in the world. The vast majority of white men do not experience daily harassment that remind them that they are worth less than another group. They do not experience being put in back of the line. They are not objectified. When they speak, people listen. Because they are white men.

This is why it is unfair for men to demand an almost trial-like argumentation from the people, the women, who are the actual subjects of discrimination. As if the whole gender debate relies on men’s approval that there actually is a problem.

Women should not have to dedicate their life to explaining to every man they encounter, why gender issues are real, and why these issues are problematic. It is indeed also the men’s job. They have the privileges, they have the opportunities, and they even have the voices that society listen to.

Actions speak louder than words

The best we can do to create an equal community and even society, is to back up words with actions. This, perhaps more than ever, especially goes for men. This fight should not be taken by women – it should be taken by the majority.

Call out misogynist behavior. Demonstrate. Ban communities and committees that do not treat the genders equally. Let the community know, that sexism and unequal behavior is not accepted.

If you experience mistreatment or discrimination and want to share your story with us, reach out via mail@kvinderifysik.dk.

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