Normally this is a space where I want to discuss race, but I also would occasionally like to branch out into other areas of social friction, including gender. As I've mentioned before, exploring feminism was how I first was exposed to the online anti-racism community, and as a woman sexism is something that I experience first-hand.
On this majority-male crew, I hear quite a few sexist comments, usually phrased in the form of the pseudo-ironic joke. And although I don't generally laugh at these jokes, which run the gamut from the Get-back-in-the-kitchen variety to rape jokes, I don't voice my displeasure at them either. As anyone in an oppressed group knows, it is exhausting and generally fruitless to be the person who is the constantly-offended Language Police. People may modify their behavior in front of you, but this doesn't help to change their behavior or to help them understand why their (to them) harmless comment contributes to our culture of oppression.
Also, they will then complain about you behind your back, giving you a reputation for over-reacting, and then no one will listen to what you are actually saying or consider the reasons for their behavior. So although it is difficult, I try to hold my tongue until I can make a cogent point that someone might actually listen to.
Anyway, the "jokes" aren't what I wanted to complain about today. No, that would be the psuedo-chivalry.
I work in archaeology, a moderately physical field. There is a federal law stating that any construction project with federal funding - roads, dams, pipelines, wells, etc - must first provide an archaeological survey in the affected area so that no important cultural resources will be destroyed during construction. Therefore, there is a small but robust community of archaeological firms who are contracted by the construction companies to provide these surveys. There is a certain amount of pressure to complete these surveys as quickly as possible, and so contract archaeology puts pressure on its workers to work as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality of work.
In my job, I dig holes. Through rocks, through roots, through clay - whatever is in my way. In certain phases of the archaeological survey, I carry a shovel and a screen through the woods (we screen all soil through 1/4 inch mesh screen so that we can find any possible artifacts). We dig holes about 50cm in diameter, 20cm into the subsoil. These holes can reach anywhere from 25cm to over a meter in depth. After taking measurements and notes, I move 15 meters forward and dig another hole. I do this all day.
The comments that bother me the most at work aren't the sexist jokes, but the sexist implication that I'm somehow less capable at doing my job than the men on my crew.
Let's take a brief detour here so that I can say very clearly that I do understand that men, in general, are physically stronger and faster than women. However, I think that the difference is greatly overstated in our society based on the capacity of women to build up their strength. A female Olympic body builder is stronger than most men. A female Olympic sprinter is (much) faster than most men.
In archaeology, I do certainly dig slightly more slowly than many men on the crew. But within my capabilities, I put in as least as much effort as does everyone else, and my participation on the crew doesn't affect the overall completion rate of the project in any meaningful way. I can't dig as quickly as the fastest men on the crew, but I know that I dig more quickly than some of the men on the crew. I end up somewhere in the middle, as do most female archaeologists.
This post is based on two comments made by men on the crew. The first occurred a few days ago, when we were very close to completing a site and were working hard to finish by the end of the day. I was excavating with two men in one large unit (1x1 meter square), while another unit was being dug by three men and one woman. (We don't usually have so many archaeologists to one unit, but they were the last two remaining on the site and so everyone was pitching in to get them done.)
In the other unit, the three men were screening dirt (a less physically demanding job), while the woman, 'Mary', was digging the hole (a more physically demanding job). The woman in this instance is a tiny person, but a capable, experienced, and physically strong archaeologist.
After looking over and seeing this, 'Eric', one of the men I was working with, said to the other: "Three strong guys over there and she's the one in the hole."
Eric may have meant two different things by this comment.
1) "Mary shouldn't be digging because she can't dig as fast as the men."
2) "Mary shouldn't be digging because those guys should be protecting her from the work by doing it themselves" (i.e., they should have been chivalrously doing physical labor so that she doesn't have to.)
I know you can't really convey tone of voice over the internet, but Eric did not mean "Wow, look at Mary digging that hole just as well as the men could!" His comment was definitely implying that Mary shouldn't be digging. I suspect, but can't prove, that he meant that the men should be stepping up to do the work for Mary (option #2).
The second instance happened two days ago, and was directed at me. My boss in the field is a Crew Chief, and his boss is the Principal Investigator. The PI on this project is often in the field with us, and at the end of the day yesterday our PI, 'Steve', walked up to where we were finishing our testing. We were about a half mile from the cars, and had all of our gear with us (shovel, screen, paperwork).
Each archaeologist carries their own screen, which weighs probably about 10-15 pounds and is quite awkward to maneuver. It's hard to describe, but the easiest way to carry them is to kind of sling the screen part over your back and hook an arm through the legs to support it.
As we were walking towards Steve, he said, "Can I carry anything for anyone?"
Of course, no one replied.
While walking past him, Steve looked directly at me and said, "Can I carry your screen, Lady Instructor?" (Almost typed my real name - this anonymity stuff is hard!)
"No." I said sweetly, "I've got it."
Steve then looked at the man behind me (who I know has a harder time keeping up with the crew than I do), and said, "I'm not offering to carry your screen."
And then I carried my own equipment back to the cars and I got there first.
The point I'm trying to make here is not some meaningless tripe about how any woman can do anything just as well as any man. A woman will never never be the fastest Olympic sprinter or hold the overall world record for weight lifting. But I can carry my own damn screen. It may be just a little more difficult for me, but I can do it. There is no reason for anyone to offer to do it for me when I have not demonstrated any diminished capability, when I have always been able to keep up with the men in the crew (and, in fact, surpass at times some of the men).
If I can't do the job as well as the men, this will be used as justification for the belief that women can't do a moderately physical job as well as a man can (this job is really more about stamina than overall strength, and it isn't that intense - none of us is exactly a professional athlete).
However, if I bust my butt and work faster than the men, this will be used to mock the men I'm working with. "You've only dug three holes? Lady Instructor's on her fifth!" This may also be intended as a backhanded compliment for me, but instead of just telling me that I'm doing a good job, it must be pointed out how the men are falling behind me - a woman!
In both of the instances described above, Eric and Steve were not making silly sexist jokes and they weren't trying to be offensive. In fact, they are both good guys and they were earnestly trying to be nice. Eric would have offered to dig the hole for Mary, and Steve did offer to carry a bulky, awkward piece of equipment for me. They both had good intentions and I do not mean to infer that they are bad people in any way.
Nor do I intend to excuse their behavior, which was sexist. Chivalry comes in many forms, and at its most innocuous is just a man holding the door for a woman, or pulling out her chair. People - men - trying to be nice. But chivalry is rooted in the belief that women are lesser beings who need to be sheltered and protected by men. When Eric or Steve suggest that they should take over physical labor from women in the workplace, they take away both respect and valuable work experience from those women.
Dude, this is my JOB. We're not on a date. And furthermore, if I expect to be treated like an equal, I should put in equal work, and make every effort to perform equally to the men that I work with.