During much of the 20th century, many people bore the label of feminism proudly, as the movement for gender equality became seen as an important struggle that we should all support. But for some reason, the label seems to have fallen into some disfavor recently, with even people who strongly believe in the goals of the feminist movement shying away from calling themselves that.
This recent article by a female scientist describes how a male colleague that she had worked closely with suddenly became distant when, in the course of a casual conversation in which she commented on the stereotype of scientists being portrayed as men, she acknowledged that she was a feminist.
She wondered what she should have done to deal with his recoiling and she describes what she sees as four possible options.
- “Nothing. It was his problem. All I said was that I didn’t like the stereotypes about scientists. I didn’t say that I hated all men—or whatever else this colleague believes I believe, even though I don’t. I have too many other things to worry about right now without trying to salvage this annoying situation.”
- “I should have done more than I did, but without making any unreasonably heroic efforts to convince him that I am not a scary, man-hating, humorless zealot. Would it have killed me to try to talk to him about his reaction and try to put him at his ease? And then, if that didn’t work, oh well.”
- “I should have done whatever I could. I should have tried to show this colleague that it’s possible to be a self-proclaimed feminist and yet be a friendly, sane, effective colleague. I thought I had done that, but clearly it wasn’t enough. This issue is too important to shrug off. We shouldn’t let unreasonable biases continue if there is even a chance of a positive change.”
- “I should have backtracked and lied. I should have picked up on his anxiety and sought to calm his fears, even to the point of lying and saying that I was certainly not a feminist. Or I should have found a euphemism for the term. Or I could have explained that I was just commenting because not all scientists wear lab coats. What’s with all the pictures of scientists in lab coats? And wearing goggles! Then we would have laughed and continued working together as we had been.”
As she rightly points out, “This is not just about feminism. It’s about any “ism.” The broader questions are whether, and how, to preserve a working relationship that is seriously affected when one colleague is upset by the point of view of another, on an issue that is relevant but not central to their collaboration.”
I have taken option 1 when it comes to my atheism and think that it makes sense for feminism too. If (as she states in option 3) one is a ‘ friendly, sane, effective colleague’, which one should strive to be irrespective of anything else, then I think one has gone as far as one should go in accommodating the prejudices of others.