Thursday, September 04, 2014

Come On, Give Us The Names, Senator Gillibrand!

This is the current storm in the teacup of US gender politics.  Or the teacup in the storm, depending on how you view the case of what Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) wrote in her new book Off The Sidelines and what happened then.

Her book states that several (male?) senators made inappropriate comments about her body, her weight and her looks:
“Good thing you’re working out, because you wouldn’t want to get porky,” Gillibrand revealed a senator said to her in a story in People.
“Don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby,” Gillibrand said another senator said to her.
“You know, Kirsten, you’re even pretty when you’re fat,” Gillibrand added another senator said to her.
Now at least a couple of Beltway Boyz want her to name names.  If there are no names, it didn't happen.  And if she is not willing to name names why put the stuff in her book in the first place? What if these were Democratic senators, and Gillibrand is protecting them?  What if she is trying to "pull a Hillary on us" (a move named after Hillary Clinton) by implying that she's going to be the brave girl who will climb into the old boys' tree-house, and also into power, while the old boys aren't allowed to defend themselves.

All this is boring (Would you name someone who has a lot of power over you or with whom you need to work closely in the future?  But might you still not want to point out stuff about the culture in which people in the US Senate work?) and impossible to prove or disprove without more evidence.

But the events are still worth examining.  For instance, the demand for naming names is aimed at Gillibrand, not at the unnamed senators she writes about.  This suggests to me that Gillibrand is not believed.

That took me on a detour to an article which uses transgender people to learn more about gender roles and the reactions to someone's gender:

Ben Barres is a biologist at Stanford who lived and worked as Barbara Barres until he was in his forties. For most of his career, he experienced bias, but didn’t give much weight to it—seeing incidents as discrete events. (When he solved a tough math problem, for example, a professor said, “You must have had your boyfriend solve it.”) When he became Ben, however, he immediately noticed a difference in his everyday experience: “People who don't know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect,” he says. He was more carefully listened to and his authority less frequently questioned. He stopped being interrupted in meetings. At one conference, another scientist said, "Ben gave a great seminar today—but then his work is so much better than his sister's." (The scientist didn't know Ben and Barbara were the same person.) “This is why women are not breaking into academic jobs at any appreciable rate,” he wrote in response to Larry Summers’s famous gaffe implying women were less innately capable at the hard sciences. “Not childcare. Not family responsibilities,” he says. “I have had the thought a million times: I am taken more seriously.”

Bolds are mine.  It's a detour because the idea of women having less authority, the idea that women are questioned more and believed less readily is one which rings a very loud bell in my own experiences. *

But it's only a detour, because the Gillibrand example is about something different than the questioning of her expertise as a politician, and one could argue that to suggest that a group of eighty male Senators (out of a total of one hundred) contains at least three guys who make inappropriate comments to women smears all the men in the Senate.  At least it gives each of them a probability of 0.04 of being the kind of guy who talks about a woman's porkiness.  I wouldn't worry about that probability myself.

Onwards and upwards, my friends.  Suppose that these events did happen.  Are they just examples of how men talk to each other, innocent quips not intended to mean anything?  I read that comment somewhere.  Let's try it out.  Imagine a heterosexual male senator telling another heterosexual male senator:  "You know Bob/Jim/Bill, you're even pretty when you're fat."  Or:  "Don't lose too much weight now.  I like my boys chubby."

Or do a gender reversal on those comments by assuming that the recipient is a man and the commenter a woman.

The first of the three comments linked to above might pass those sieves or colanders.  The other two certainly would not.
*I'd like everybody to be equally questioned.  It makes me very prepared and guarantees that I fairly rarely spout on stuff I know nothing about.  On the other hand, it takes a lot of time and the hurdles of disbelief really get tiresome as the decades roll by, not to mention wondering what opportunities all this has made me miss.