C’est Quoi Le Probleme Avec Les Etudes du Genre? (A Post in English)

That is the question asked by Rue89 regarding the skepticism with which French social scientists treat gender theory. This skepticism has several reasons, the main one being that gender theory (1) is seen as coming from the US (how ironic in Simone de Beauvoir’s country), (2) it reeks of identity politics which is anathema to French politics and social sciences, (3) it is perceived as politics more than science, and (4) the whole thing is too feminist and too queer (as in queer theory).

I disagree on all counts. As mentioned above, gender theory is by no means an American invention. The question of gender is central to sociological analysis as it is at the root of social structural and institutional arrangements in the form of patriarchal systems. Similarly, this is not the same as identity politics. Women are not a minority. They are one essential component of the human species. Also, gender is pervasive, from the most micro interactional level to the macro global level.

Want a few examples of the centrality of gender, misogyny, sexism, androcentrism and patriarchy? Follow along:

First stop, Guatemala where women are tired of being groped in public transportation, so, cities have stated women-only buses and subway cars. Because, as everyone knows, women’s bodies are public property, so, the only solution is to segregate women rather than sanction the perpetrators. And Guatemala got the idea from Mexico where the same thing has been happening. And none of this is limited to Central America:

“Harassment of women in public places, such as streets and transport systems, remains a serious problem in many nations. Known as “eve-teasing” or street harassment, public harassment can be an issue in any country. To combat this type of harassment, which generally includes unwelcome sexual advances and physical contact, criminal codes should make such conduct a crime.”

“Eve-teasing”?? Really? Anyway, for more gendered violence goodness, read the whole report (it’s not long). These forms of violence are as diverse as they are global. I like Lebanon’s initiative:

More on the symbolic violence front, this may seem trivial and ridiculous but it is significant:

“According to the BBC, the Amateur International Boxing Association is advising women boxers to wear skirts. The President of the Association, Dr. Ching-Kuo Wu, argues that it allows viewers to tell the difference between the men and the women.”

This goes back to the age-old issue of women and sports and how the two together make some men highly uncomfortable… in 2011. Note that the same demand was made of female badminton players irrespective of the fact that skirts might be not very practical in both sports… actually, in many sports. Can you remember the last time such demands were made on international male athletes? Yeah, me neither.

If let’s not forget the brave new world of Web 2.0. We have all been told how very democratic it is, questioning everything, challenging expertise, left and right. Well?

“The sheer volume of sexist abuse thrown at female bloggers is the internet’s festering sore: if you talk to any woman who writes online, the chances are she will instantly be able to reel off a greatest hits of insults. But it’s very rarely spoken about, for both sound and unsound reasons. No one likes to look like a whiner — particularly a woman writing in male-dominated fields such as politics, economics or computer games. Others are reluctant to give trolls the “satisfaction” of knowing they’re emotionally affected by the abuse or are afraid of incurring more by speaking out.”

We have all been aware of that ever since the Kathy Sierra fiasco. Every feminist blog is constantly under a barrage of vile, misogynistic puke. Currently, three British newspapers are running a series on the misogynistic abuse on the Internet. Case in point:

“You come to expect it, as a woman writer, particularly if you’re political. You come to expect the vitriol, the insults, the death threats. After a while, the emails and tweets and comments containing graphic fantasies of how and where and with what kitchen implements certain pseudonymous people would like to rape you cease to be shocking, and become merely a daily or weekly annoyance, something to phone your girlfriends about, seeking safety in hollow laughter.

An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill and urinate on you. This week, after a particularly ugly slew of threats, I decided to make just a few of those messages public on Twitter, and the response I received was overwhelming. Many could not believe the hate I received, and many more began to share their own stories of harassment, intimidation and abuse.

Perhaps it should be comforting when calling a woman fat and ugly is the best response to her arguments, but it’s a chill comfort, especially when one realises, as I have come to realise over the past year, just how much time and effort some vicious people are prepared to expend trying to punish and silence a woman who dares to be ambitious, outspoken, or merely present in a public space.


Many commentators, wondering aloud where all the strong female voices are, close their eyes to how normal this sort of threat has become. Most mornings, when I go to check my email, Twitter and Facebook accounts, I have to sift through threats of violence, public speculations about my sexual preference and the odour and capacity of my genitals, and attempts to write off challenging ideas with the declaration that, since I and my friends are so very unattractive, anything we have to say must be irrelevant.

The implication that a woman must be sexually appealing to be taken seriously as a thinker did not start with the internet: it’s a charge that has been used to shame and dismiss women’s ideas since long before Mary Wollestonecraft was called “a hyena in petticoats”. The internet, however, makes it easier for boys in lonely bedrooms to become bullies. It’s not only journalists, bloggers and activists who are targeted. Businesswomen, women who play games online and schoolgirls who post video-diaries on YouTube have all been subject to campaigns of intimidation designed to drive them off the internet, by people who seem to believe that the only use a woman should make of modern technology is to show her breasts to the world for a fee.


I believe the time for silence is over. If we want to build a truly fair and vibrant community of political debate and social exchange, online and offline, it’s not enough to ignore harassment of women, LGBT people or people of colour who dare to have opinions. Free speech means being free to use technology and participate in public life without fear of abuse – and if the only people who can do so are white, straight men, the internet is not as free as we’d like to believe.”

Needless to say, the objectification is pretty crude:

“Susie Orbach, a psychotherapist, psychoanalyst and writer, said: “The threat of sexual violence is a violence itself, it’s a complete violation and it’s meant to shut the people up. It’s hateful and it raises the question, what do these men, or the people who are doing this, find so threatening? Is it that they feel attacked in their own masculinity and therefore sexuality in this violent form becomes the way that they establish a means to cover up their fragility by bringing their own vulnerability onto these women?

“If you set women up as sexual objects which society has, no matter what we are doing, that makes women into objects rather than human beings and what you create is a situation in which women who then stand up and make arguments about things, terrify these men who have no access to real women and so they beat them up in the terms in which they’ve been offered by society, which has nothing to do with the content of what they are saying. Women are supposed to be sexual objects, we’re still not supposed to be thinking, feeling, complex human beings. It is due to the continual representation of women as just beauties, the attempt to reduce women to a surface on which we project sexuality. So we’re not real people.”

I agree with this but spare me the “poor self-loathing men” routine.

And, of course, there is an enormous amount of denial about the levels of misogyny on the Internet. The rationalizations are never-ending (“everybody gets abuse”, “women are too sensitive”, “feminists are asking for it”, etc.). The point is clearly to silence women.

Then, there is the all-time favorite practice of mansplaining which never gets old:

“Yes, it’s true that guys like this pick on other men’s books, and people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered.

Men explain things to me, and to other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I mean. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.

This syndrome is something nearly every woman faces every day, within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence, one from which a fairly nice career as a writer (with a lot of research and facts correctly deployed) has not entirely freed me. After all, there was a moment there when I was willing to believe Mr. Very Important and his overweening confidence over my more shaky certainty.

More extreme versions of this syndrome exist in, for example, those Islamic countries where women’s testimony has no legal standing; so that a woman can’t testify that she was raped without a male witness to counter the male rapist. Which there rarely is.”

Getting to more structural and institutional aspects, it is not much better with a persistent glass ceiling and rationalizing myths that help sustain it:

Myth #1: It’s mainly a pipeline problem.

For the past two decades, the assumption has been that as we reach the point that entry-level cohorts are equally gender divided, those cohorts will in due course yield equal numbers of women and men at the top. We found, however, that even with their very first job after MBA graduation, women start from behind when it comes to level and pay—even after we controlled for prior work experience, industry, region, and other factors. And not only do women lag men at the outset, but over time, as careers progress, they experience less steep rises in both organizational position and pay. Amongst this group of MBA grads, “giving it time” only widens the gap that starts from day one.

Myth #2: Women’s relative progress just got a boost from an economic downturn that hit men harder.

Some news media have proclaimed the current downturn to be a “mancession” since waves of layoffs have disproportionately affected male workers. In this bad news some see a silver lining for women, expecting it must mean a smaller gender gap. To the contrary, however, in the realm of high potentials we found senior executive women hit hardest by the downturn. Nineteen percent of the senior women we tracked had lost their jobs due to downsizing or closure versus only six percent of senior men.

Myth #3: To the extent there’s still a gap, it’s because of women’s choices.

We often hear it argued that the uneven accomplishment of men and women is not due to any unfairness but is only the natural outcome of women’s lesser ambitions, or their decisions to throttle back on their careers while their children are young. That was a theory easily tested as our high-potential group included many women and men who explicitly aspired to become CEO or reach similarly high office, and who did not have kids. Even among these subsets, women lagged men from day one.

Ernst & Young Chairman and CEO James S. Turley has talked about how important it is to ask women about their aspirations. “When I hear someone say that the woman doesn’t want that job promotion, I cringe. Most times they’re wrong. Did she really say it? Or did someone say to her that she doesn’t want it? There’s a huge difference between ‘do you want this job?’ and ‘you don’t really want that job, do you?’ Or, even worse, the question isn’t even asked. It’s a silent problem. Asking begins to address the problem, and how we ask matters.”

Myth #4: With more mentoring, women will be better prepared to take on the top jobs.

Good mentoring is undeniably valuable to junior managers trying to learn the ropes of an organization—but our research shows it is certainly not a golden ticket. High-potential women actually have more mentors than men, yet the promotion and pay gap persists. A closer look reveals that men’s mentors tend to be more senior, putting men in a better position to receive sponsorship.

A sponsor is someone with clout who actively advocates on your behalf at the decision-making table, putting your name forward for promotions and highly visible opportunities. As Gordon M. Nixon, president and CEO of RBC, puts it: “We’ve all had mentors who have offered advice, but sponsors are the people inside our company who have helped us get to senior levels.” Sponsors are, he says, “what you really need to succeed.””

More broadly, the revolution is still stalled:

“For the past eight years, we have been working to address an important question: Why has the gender revolution seemed to stall? Our review of data from a range of sources suggests that during the 1990s, our society’s substantial progress toward general gender equality was indeed slowed, stopped, or even reversed on any number of fronts, including employment, earnings, occupational and educational segregation, gender attitudes, housework, and political office holding.


Our first inclination was to look to structural changes –shifts in demand for women’s labor through occupational restructuring, changes in politics and social policy, or shifting family patterns or religious restructuring. But in most cases the timing of the shifts and even their direction was wrong. The lack of a ready structural explanation of the mid-1990s shift has led us to develop a different explanation –the rise of a specifically antifeminist backlash in the popular culture— as the most likely
reason for the shift.

We argue that what has been occurring is not a reversion to the gender traditionalism of the 1950s, but the rise of a new cultural frame that we call “egalitarian essentialism.” This frame combines support for stay-at-home mothering with a continued feminist rhetoric of choice and equality. We believe this cultural explanation is also consistent with the broader pattern of gender changes that also shifted in the mid-1990s. The “egalitarian” part of egalitarian essentialism refers to the ascendant notion that women and men are and should be treated equally. They should have equal opportunities in education, the workplace, politics, family and so on. But in seeming contrast, “essentialism” implies that women and men are in some ways fundamentally and inherently different, men being better at some things and women better at others. Thus, egalitarian essentialism holds women and men should be “allowed” to exercise choices that enable them to maximize their own abilities and potential, but their perceptions of that potential are tempered by essentialist notions.

Egalitarian essentialism represents a melding or synthesis of previously conflicting cultural notions into a single hybrid ideology. The reaction of the 1990s featured several new themes, a different “package” of ideas that together created a new cultural frame to mobilize anti-feminist forces. This new frame may have been more effective than the earlier, traditionalist resistance precisely because it combined elements of both traditional familism and feminist egalitarianism.The emergence of this new frame warrants close attention.”

Eve-teasing, mansplaining, rape and death threat as well as egalitarian essentialism are all variations on a same theme: box women in, discursively, professionally and culturally. And it is all dreadfully effective.

So, what’s the problem with gender studies? It might force a society / intellectual community to examine issues it would rather not consider.

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