Saturday, January 19, 2013

It's a guy thing

It's been a few weeks since Michael Shermer made an off-the-cuff remark that was eagerly seized on by the A+ crowd. However, the witch hunt is still going strong, so I thought I might as well put in my two cents' worth.

Shermer obviously doesn't need me to defend him - his record as an ally of competent, capable women speaks for itself, as does Ophelia Benson's blatant dishonesty in quote-mining and strawmanning him. I'd just like to offer my perspective on what is or isn't a "guy thing".

Benson (and PZ Myers et al) know very well that no-one is claiming that "doing thinky stuff" is exclusively a male domain. However, when it comes to organizing conferences, and in general to being active in a movement and making stuff happen, there are two styles of leadership.

Style One is to step into the spotlight, take charge, issue commands, and generally be top dog. It takes a lot of ego and self-confidence, as well as energy and commitment.

Style Two is more indirect. It's all about networking, making connections, building coalitions, and often working behind the scenes as you seek to lead by influencing an organization rather than trying to control it.

The first style is a command-and-control approach which is oriented vertically on a hierarchy of power. In a corporation, for example, you have the CEO, the executives, directors, managers and so on. The second style is horizontal, based on a network of peers rather than a hierarchy.

Which style is better? That's the wrong question. Both styles are needed, and complement each other. The thing is, while there are men and women represented in both styles, I've observed that in general, more men than women gravitate to the first style, and more women than men gravitate to the second.

This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing - it's simply a fact, and to call it sexist (or call anyone who draws attention to it, a sexist) is just plain stupid. You can argue over whether there is an evolutionary-psychological explanation or whether men are just socialized by society to put themselves out there more than women - that may be an interesting discussion to have, and I think both factors probably play a role in explaining the difference.

However, if you want to engineer society to force equal outcomes in this and every other human activity, I highly doubt that it's possible let alone desirable to do so. I agree with Harriet Hall: you should remove unnecessary barriers and then let the chips fall where they may. I would go a little further and say that you should go the extra mile to identify talented people in historically under-represented groups, and encourage them to participate, so you get the benefit of their talent.

However, tokenism does nobody any favors. Giving prominence to an unqualified speaker just because she is a woman (who is adept at playing the victim card) is insulting to qualified women, to women in general, and to the audience who paid good money and were cheated.

The radfem dogma that gender is nothing but an arbitrary social construct is not only false and unfounded, but harmful to both men and women. As I've said before, if A+ wants to micromanage every detail of every conference, let them have their own little safe-space echo chambers and leave the rest of us alone. Men and women of good will can work together to achieve great results. It's not a guy thing or a gal thing - it's a decent human being thing!

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