Wednesday, May 9, 2007

competitive feminism?

I was waiting by the hallway printer this morning, trying to coax one of my old papers out of its leisurely innards. The paper was printing slowly enough that I got to skim each page before the next one emerged. This was a two-year-old paper that I was third author on, so as I read I came across occasional scientific facts I didn't remember. In this vein, I stumbled across something that was extremely cool and tied into research I am doing now. I chuckled at myself, rolling my eyes at the fact that information I had been hunting for was sitting right in one of my own papers. Clearly, my memory sucks.

One of my least favorite grad students, DramaGirl, was walking by at the time. She shot off some "You look amused" comment (she has, in the past, criticized me for looking happy while in grad school, so alarm bells should have gone off right away). Since the comment sounded harmless and even friendly, I replied, without thinking, "Yeah, it's just sad that I can't remember what's in my own papers."

DramaGirl has now informed the other students in her year that I am a bragging little snot, so enamored with myself and the fact that I've published sooooo many papers that I like to flaunt the fact that I can't even remember what I wrote.

When I initially heard this I felt awful. I don't like people with inflated egos and would hate to get one myself. After all, who was I to toss out such a comment? Didn't I think about how it sounded, or that I was insulting her, or...

Then I thought about it again. It's not my fault that I've published a few papers (not really "soooo many" in my book), and since when is publishing someone's fault?? True, I didn't think ahead before I opened my mouth but hey, if a professor or an older student had said it it would have been fine. And it's not my job to accommodate her insecurities - professors call students stupid, for gods' sake, so her angst about someone else's publication record is definitely not my problem.

This girl has groused to other students about how she used to be "the best" student around here because she had a couple published papers, but now I had come along and was "beating her" by having more published papers and "competing with her" by coming in as early as she does.

Yeah, it doesn't make sense to me either. "The best"? "Beating her"? What is this, third grade? Do I get my name on the blackboard with a star next to it if I publish another paper? This level of competitiveness and cattiness is quite foreign to me. There are not a finite number of department Ph.D. issued every year. If I come in at 9AM that doesn't prevent her from coming in at 8:30AM. And our subfields are about as different as they could be, so it's not like we'll be competing for advisers, postdocs or jobs. As far as I know, she's smart, a hard worker, and a better student than me. It's our personalities that rub the wrong way. She hits an alarming number of behaviors or personality traits that I just do not click with (some of which I'll certainly talk about in the future), so I mostly try to avoid her. Unfortunately, one thing she does which I hate is seek out excess drama and conflict, so she does NOT try to return the favor and avoid ME.

DramaGirl is a Feminist, as she will readily and eagerly tell you. When her old adviser suggested she do more analysis and wait a while before publishing, he was being sexist. When our summer students stats came in and were largely males, she bugged individual professors about going down the waiting list until they found a girl who wanted to come here for the summer. At the same time, accomplished or assertive females who aren't her are "bitches", dorks who work too hard, or "playing the gender card to get ahead" (that's a direct quote). I am completely convinced that, had I been a male student, she would not have gotten pissy and spread this information around.

I'm not the feminist police - I hate hearing that women who wear skirts, shave their legs, or give blow jobs are "fake feminists". But labeling yourself a feminist because it makes you sound politically aware and then putting down other women to make yourself the most accomplished girl in the room makes her, at the very least, a damn poor feminist. Despite DramaGirl's feminist self-identification, she carefully parses her world into "male" and "female" categories, and only appears interested in making sure she's at the top of the "female" pecking order. It's some perverse kind of feminism I see once in a while in academia - she tries to make herself the most accomplished female around on the theory that, the next time a department is looking for a "token girl", she's first in line. Never mind that this reinforces all those damn notions of tokenism and "women" being a separate, lesser applicant pool that gets dipped into out of charity - this is how her world works.

(hey, I can be jealous and competitive with the best of them, but I'll go after the males too - the minute I read Anne of Green Gables and watched Anne studiously compete with Gilbert Blythe all through her schooling, I've had me a role model :P)

Either way, I now like her even less. And the net result has been me thinking that, if everyone is going to think I have a huge ego, I might as well work on cultivating one - they'll get to be right, and I'll get to practice my self-promotions skills well before I have to start applying for postdocs!


ScienceWoman said...

I know women like this. They can be so frustrating!

Kate said...

Yay, internalized sexism! And by 'yay,' I mean 'yuck.'

Twice said...

A female visiting professor in our department has had to suffer through some similar comments from one of our female colleagues. It really is infuriating and petty.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry you have to deal with this terrible person. Maybe this humor article will cheer you up: "How can I use feminism to my advantage?"-The Onion

Good luck!

Jenny F. Scientist said...

Oh my goodness. No, I don't think that's feminism, unless it suddenly becomes a competitive sport where one only gains points by putting other people down.

It reminds me of that thing where some accomplished women see themselves as exceptions, and everyone else isn't working hard enough. Way to participate in one's own oppression!