Physics, History, and the Privilege of Geekdom

Instead of working on my grad school application (almost started) and/or grant application (which will probably have to consist of more than just “Dear Canadian government, please give me money”) here is a post about why I probably shouldn’t go to grad school at all!

This excellent article by Nicole Ackerman is about women in physics, which is pretty much the exact opposite of every field I’ve ever been remotely involved with, but a lot of it sounds disturbingly familiar. Mostly it confirms many of the things that I’ve suspected since I decided to pursue an academic career: that as a woman in a male-dominated field (and are there any disciplines that aren’t male-dominated? Other than gender studies, maybe, I can’t think of any) I’m going to have to work twice as hard to get half the credit, yet somehow if I don’t succeed, it will be because I’ve got the wrong priorities, or I’m not dedicated, or I’m just not smart enough, goddamnit.

As an undergraduate, I had far more male profs than female profs, and, with a few exceptions, all of my male profs were full-time employees of the University of Toronto (many of them superstars of the history department, with tenure and six-figure salaries despite only teaching one or two courses) while my female profs were mostly sessional instructors, often working at several different universities just to pay the bills. Many of my male profs had children, whereas nearly all of my female profs did not. That’s pretty much a constant in every field: women make less money, are expected to choose between career and family, and so on.

What really struck me about Ackerman’s article, though, was her focus on factors specific to academia, and specifically the gendered socialization of traits conductive to success as an academic. To succeed in physics, apparently, you need to be egotistical, aggressive and tough as nails – traits that our culture actively discourages women from displaying. On one hand, I can see these same traits being beneficial to any academic, because a lot of the time, people just won’t listen unless you argue louder, and more often, and more persuasively than everyone else. On the other hand, I’ve never met a historian whom I would characterize as “tough as nails”. What we are is singularly obsessive.

As part of a forum on the practice of French history in a 1991 issue of French Historical Studies, David Pinkney cited a statement by Eugen Weber that “getting ahead in one’s profession while still being a good husband, a good father, and working in one’s garden” didn’t make for great history; great historians, Weber argued, were “odd balls and monomaniacs”.1 I can understand the sentiment: when I devote myself to a project, it quite literally takes over my life – eating, sleeping and personal hygiene (to say nothing of relationships and mental health) become unimportant.

According to our culture, it is these extremes, and this intensity, that creates what we call “genius”. And, as any misogynist trying to justify the status quo will tell you, genius is a masculine trait. Studies have supposedly shown that men tend towards more extreme ends of the intellectual spectrum, whereas women are more evenly clustered around the middle (I’ve seen MRAs refer to this many times, but was unable to find any actual studies that demonstrate this trend – the Wikipedia entry on gender and intelligence references it, but doesn’t provide a citation). Many take this to mean that men are simply naturally inclined towards these extremes, conveniently ignoring the socialization factor. And socialization is key here: first off, “genius” in itself is very much an androcentric concept – and a recent one at that. Prior to the Renaissance, no great work was assumed to be the product of a great individual mind, but rather the product of a collective (and, in the Middle Ages, often the result of the grace of God, but I digress). The Renaissance brought a shift in attitudes and a growing disparity between cultural perceptions of “art” and “craft”, in which female-dominated areas were marginalized in favour of “real” art, which, incidentally, women were often barred from studying.*

But even if we dismiss the notion that every great idea is the product of a great mind there is still the question of the extreme personality traits required to be singularly focused on a particular subject. And again we return to socialization. Because, as Weber’s clearly gendered language demonstrates (apparently even in 1991 it was difficult to grasp the concept that not all historians are male) men have a real choice about whether to be a good husband and father, or a “monomaniac” focused on finding out everything there is to know about seventeenth-century clerical history, or something. A man who chooses the latter isn’t perceived as a failure of a human being. He can even have the former to some extent, because a neglectful father obsessed with his career isn’t exactly something new in our society. Women, on the other hand, are expected to be all things to all people, which leaves no room for extremes. If you are, like me, obsessively focused on your area of interest, you’re unfeminine, you’re ignoring your biological drives, you’re ugly, you’re a ball-busting dyke, you’re shrill, you’re crazy and so on. Our value in the eyes of society hinges on our ability to be nice and likeable and a whole host of other traits that are about pleasing others rather than ourselves. A woman who fulfills the “mad scientist”, “maladjusted academic” or “unwashed sci-fi fan” stereotype is none of those things. At best, we are a cute aberration. At worst, we are unemployable.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Being a nerd, being an academic, spending your life pursuing your own obsession, is selfish. It’s a career that is ultimately about you, rather than about anyone else. It requires things like leisure time (sometimes decades of leisure time), disposable income (to make up for the periods when you will lack income entirely), and a relative lack of attachment. In an era where women are still expected to work the “second shift” even if they are the primary breadwinners, where women are more likely to live in poverty, and where women are more likely to be caretakers of children and other family members, it really is a privilege to be a geek. I’ve had that privilege so far in my adult life, but I’ve had to fight for it, and I know that in the future I’m going to have to make sacrifices that most men in my field don’t even have to think about. Hopefully it will be worth it.

1. David Pinkney, “Time to Abandon the Pinkney Thesis?” French Historical Studies Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 221.
* I will cite this later. I know that I read this in Merry Wiesner’s Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, but unfortunately I’ve lent the book to my sister so I can’t come up with an exact citation. Hopefully she will give it back eventually.

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