As I have discussed before, the community of bloggers I try and keep up with has been a tremendous resource for me to learn much much more about feminism than I had previously known or even considered. I'm not proud of how easy it was for me not to think about the issues women regularly face in science, academia and society, but I had the privilege of being insulated from those problems. I figured if I wasn't contributing to the problem directly, I was doing my part to help.
I like to think of myself as being less naive these days and more proactive. I've tried to address several things I can control in my work environment and made a number of concerted efforts to promote female colleagues and students. In many small ways this has paid off, but I also realize I'm hardly scratching the surface.
Nothing has brought that quite to the fore like a conversation I had while traveling not long ago. I was discussing the representation of women on a particular high-profile committee with a male colleague and in his explanation for why there were so few, he produced such a mind-numbingly sexist argument that I thought I had been instantly teleported into a bad after school special (if they had ever done one on sexism, that is, and not smoking). The more his explanation wound around the Pole of Stupidity from whence it started, the more I thought there was sure to be a punchline. There wasn't.
But in retrospect, what bothers me the most was my reaction. There I sat, basking in the sulphuric stench of a monologue that could basically be summed up as "Ya know, girls just aren't as smart as men." and the self-content look of someone thinking "I read that on the internet, so it must be true" and how did I reply? In previous conversations with women who related similar offenses they had to suffer through, I was always able to suggest a witty response to put that asshole in his place! These jerks need to be embarrassed! And here was my chance.
I had little to lose but some social awkwardness. No one was going to call me a ball busting bitch, shrew or harpy. I had little to fear in terms of career consequences or being black balled and what was my pithy retort? I managed "you can't really believe that." before changing the fucking subject. That's right, with the opportunity to dismantle a blatantly false argument taken directly from the oldest warehouse of the patriarchy, I froze and redirected the conversation. Way to help out.
Dude. Fuck. Sigh.
The benefit I see from this encounter, however, is that I am now slightly more prepared to be broad-sided by ignorance. I am a little more ready to respond in a way that lets the person know I think they are full of shit without putting them on the defensive and making an enemy. I may not have a handbook of witticism at the ready, but at least this is making me think about how I would counter the absurd in the future. Maybe it's not a silver bullet, but it's a step.