2015-02-20

Sex, Hacking, and Politics of Unicorns

I tend to try to deal with socially awkward situations using humor. It's a self-defense mechanism designed to prevent escalation in otherwise tense situations. So, when a well-meaning co-worker commented that my success as a woman in a male-dominated industry is a great testament to my capabilities, I replied that the real heroes are all the left-handed people who have succeeded despite their obvious disadvantages.

This response was obviously not delivered in seriousness, nor was it designed to be a constructive mechanism for dealing with the misunderstanding. The idea that the original comment could be misconstrued as an assumption that I must be 'better than average' as a woman in order to succeed among men probably didn't occur to the person who said it. The idea that this statement would be very awkward if applied to a racial minority probably didn't register, either. Likewise, issuing a reminder that my chosen profession has less to do with my sex than with my interests could have been offputting and taken as an unwarranted defensive reaction. But, while humor builds an interpersonal bridge in response to this misunderstanding, it doesn't resolve anything.

But, I am frustrated for my male colleagues who have been told that their failure not to single out my sex during meetings is a gross breach of professional etiquette in the world of modern gender politics. The obligatory "and gal, sorry about that, Heather" is intensely frustrating to me. Not only have I now been singled out to be stared at like an obscure specimen in a jar, but you are left to feel awkward about whether or not you and I are square. The positive side of this is, perhaps this awareness of my sex forces you to challenge unconscious biases that may exist.



The idea that this is necessary bothers me. As humans, we will likely always latch onto things that make us different from one another. Not only is this a valuable tool for exploring who we are as individuals, it's often easier to find things that make us different than to find ways we are similar. We frequently take similarities for granted because similarities are safe, and differences are dangerous. Since time immemorial, we've used differences to establish an "Us" and a "Them" for survival.

The unfortunate side effect of this is, our interactions with those who are different from us are shaped by the assumptions we make regarding the nature of something we don't understand. When these assumptions are used to justify a designation of superiority in relationships, we run into problems.

Some will assume that whatever a majority group expects is the only right way, and unless a minority group conforms to those expectations, defining that minority group as inferior is justified. But, we shouldn't need to be intolerant of differences outside of social rules that are designed to preserve order (don't kill people, don't steal from people, etc.). The kinds of things that matter in a professional context (differences in communication methods, problem solving approaches, intellectual capability, or work styles) are never simply categorized by genetics. Nor can all generalizations be applied fairly to all members of any group. Our need to put complex beings and concepts into oversimplified containers cripples our ability to work with them effectively. Evolution and our ability to co-exist in diverse societies require us to examine multiple potential approaches to problems; so, we cannot afford to allow these differences to determine absolutes of superiority or inferiority.

Others treat any attempt at universal acceptance that fails to emphasize a minority group's Very Important and Fundamental Difference as an attempt to force homogeneity upon the group. Aside from the bizarreness of this sort of extreme reaction, this type of insistent emphasis upon difference encourages people to latch onto difference, and does very little to prevent people from assigning inferiority or superiority as a result of that difference. Using similarities to build the bridges of tolerance does not mean that everyone must be the same. Rather, we foster empathy to emphasize that differences in things like race and sex shouldn't determine superiority or inferiority, especially in professional contexts.

Fortunately, despite all this emphasis on difference, we also have a simultaneous need for acceptance within our selected identity groups. I guess this ridiculous contradiction keeps being human interesting. If we tap into this need and expand the definition of our chosen identity group to a broad enough scope, we should be able to examine ourselves and others equally as possibly flawed parts of a larger group rather than as impeccable islands of irreconcilable difference.


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