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Do Women Get to Be Experts?

Do Women Get to Be Experts?

Jill Richardson

Was that sexist? Did he treat me that way because I’m a woman? Or would everything that just happened be exactly the same if I were a man?

Those are familiar questions for women. For as many times when you can know for sure you’ve experienced sexism, there are so many more times when you can’t be sure — but you wonder.

For me right now, most of the questions are coming from my new job. I’m in grad school for sociology, but I’m an avid hiker and backpacker when I’m not studying. I decided to take a part time job at an outdoor gear retailer.

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Is this thread open to mansplaining?

Hope you’re joking EdsNote. If NOT, re-read the essay: you might learn something about women’s experience of being regularly INVALAIDATED—even when we talk about OUR OWN LIVED EXPERIENCE. (Sorry-in-advance if I sould like a “humorless feminist”–but, the experience described in the essay is very REAL & ONGOING—even from PROGRESSIVE men… having it trivialized is maddening. Which is what your comment suggested).

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Even as humor your comment trivializes the article.

Thanks anyway!

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I was joking.

Not my intention at all.

I understand and I apologize for being flippant. As someone who has been stigmatized for mental health problems, I would react as you did if someone trivialized an article on mental health. My intention was to see if anyone might get a grin, which I frequently do on all topics (when I’m not flat-out deptressed). In this case, I was too hasty.

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“When I advise a customer that the gear they’re buying is unsuitable for the hike they’re planning, or that the hike they are planning will be unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst, they often don’t believe me.”

Use of a plural pronoun for a singular person suggests the intent is to be gender non-specific. The implication appears to be that it isn’t just males who are being skeptical.

If a strapping, outdoorsy man were to suggest to a woman who is short and looks young that she was purchasing the wrong gear or planning too ambitious a hike, would his advice be uncritically accepted, or would there be questions about whether he was being patronizing, or whether he was in any position to gauge her physical capabilities given his very different physiology?

“Do I just look like a silly little girl who couldn’t possibly provide expert advice about backpacking? Or would they equally blow off a man giving the same advice?”

You sound like a silly little girl for obsessing over it. Men routinely have their opinions blown off, including in areas where they have some expertise, sometimes by women who have less expertise, sometimes specifically because the opinion comes from a man. The difference is that when people reject our opinions or advice, we don’t get all insecure about it.

And if someone insists on buying ill-advised gear from us, you know what we call that? A sale.

I dated someone briefly in college who used to say something similar, she seemed more concerned about sexism that was subtle and you couldn’t tell vs a blatant case and my thought was if it is subtle, it isn’t that bad. This essay sure seems to fall in that category.

When I was a volunteer park ranger one summer I was talking to a short older (65 maybe) female hiker explaining that the hike she wanted to go on was ardouus (more of a scramble at 2000 vertical ft per mile). She started to get pretty annoyed with me when she thought I was treating her differently but relaxed when I explained that this is the speech I have to tell everyone and she is free to go and we recommend bringing a full 2 liters of water even though it is only 2 miles out and back. We had to litter carry out some people who got dehydrated but she did fine of course.

Jill, although I’m a man, for a different reason I experienced something similar to what you mention.

When I was very young, I used to practice body building, and I was getting bigger and bigger. From being a thin 119 lbs hardgainer I got to 159 lbs of body weight, lean! My bench press went from my usual 90 lbs to my personal record of 290 lbs! Then the accident happened. Doing heavy deadlifts very poorly for weeks, I broke two bones in my spine and messed up a few other things in it. Goodbye to my first passion and totally loved sport.

I went from totally active to totally sedentary, and back to my 119 lbs and thin arms and body. And not because I had used drugs before! Just because for a LONG time I couldn’t do anything physical anymore.

I had to satisfy my passion though. So, not being able to workout anymore, I started studying. Do you know that kind of studying, so intense, passionate, constant, and committed that puts you on the right track and allows you to also discern between common mistakes (even mainstream) and the rare golden stream that guides you to the real thing and results? Well, that one.

Over the years, one by one, I luckily found the best experts in my country and the world in general, why the commonly used techniques don’t work on most of the population and what does really work, the science behind physical exercise for muscle mass and strength increase, and the scientifically-sound training techniques.

So I could also identify the best Body Building federation in my country, which science and methods are conceived on “normal” people and work for everybody, instead of just working for the champions who have a very rarely “blessed” genetics (and use anabolic drugs on top of that), methods which punctually fail to work with the general population and in most the gyms throughout the world. So, I attended their courses, studied hard, got examined and got my Personal Trainer certificate.

However, speaking of biases: when it comes to personal training, people “expect” to be coached by the “big guy” full of muscles. When they saw a thin and weak guy wanting to advise on how to become big and strong, nobody trusted me. Oh, they had no idea about how much science and results they were giving up. As they had no idea that, the big guy, exactly because he is a big guy, most likely will be unable to make them big and strong. Because the big guy is so thanks to his incredibly lucky genetics and most likely thanks to the addition of anabolic steroids and/or growth hormone. Which means he could get big by playing chess. So, he has no idea on how to make normal and DRUG-FREE people big and strong, because he never went through that kind of struggle.

I wasn’t strong and big not because I didn’t know how to become strong and big, but because I was injured. And that was the very reason why I knew very well how to make people big and strong: since I couldn’t do it to myself anymore, I had to find a way to compensate. Hence the extensive knowledge.
But people couldn’t see past my appearance (and their bias).

So, I know the feeling!

However, we have to be careful! There are two points in your post I’d like to invite you to look under a different perspective than the “usual/common” one (speaking of defeating biases).
Please, bear with me for a few more minutes (thanks for your patience!).

1) Women / Men differences in "skills"
The very fact that women rights advocates exist now proves the fact that, until a few years ago, women were treated differently than men for millennia. Actually, since the beginning of human history!
Science knows now that our skills depend very much on our brains, nervous system evolution, etc.
For the sake of this topic, let’s put aside the ethical aspect of the issue, it’s not what I’m talking about now. I’m only talking about biology. So, let’s forget for a second if it’s “right” or “wrong”.
Like everybody knows and agrees on this planet, women were always treated differently from men (since the beginning of the world): they were stuck at home running chores and growing kids, while men were roaming the planet, and their bodies evolved and were naturally-selected in that way for millennia.

All of the sudden, in the last 50 seconds (in evolutionary terms, even the last 50 years can be considered like seconds) the world started waking up and “artificially forcing” women into different types of works requiring different types of skills: those which have always been “reserved” for men, beyond home chores, cooking, growing kids (which, by the way, is the most difficult job in my opinion).
It’s as though humans, who for millennia evolved by making artifacts, all of the sudden decided to become professional banana peelers like apes: sure we can learn, but, I mean, apes have been peeling bananas since they’re… apes. Their brains, bodies, and hands are evolved for that. Are we sure humans could in a few seconds equal apes in peeling bananas and acquire all the subtle nuances of this art?
I know, peeling bananas is a silly example (and maybe apes aren’t even good at that),but please take it just for what it is: a metaphor.
In conclusion, we’re “artificially” forcing women into jobs, roles, and skills that they were never allowed for millennia. Yes, sociologically, ethically, it’s fantastic. But, sadly, biology doesn’t jump-cheat just because something is socially appealing. Space exploration and colonization is the perfect example: it would be wonderful. But, sadly, biology doesn’t care. We didn’t evolve in space, so, we’ll undergo radiation poisoning and microgravity complications for millennia. We can’t force our bodies to function normally in space “politically”.
In other words, if an employer (which can be a woman!!) simply happens to select a man instead of a woman for a certain position, in certain countries, he might get in trouble with gender quotas or similar policies and regulations, and it might be difficult to prove that the employer simply “detected” more suitable skills for that particular job among the male candidates.
So, the conclusion of this point is: are you absolutely sure that, with all the other factors being identical, a man and a woman would perform identically in any kind of job requiring any kind of skill, no matter how differently male and female evolved for millennia?
Or, in other words: yes, for sure there is a bias in people’s minds when they approach a woman doing things that previously were mainly considered a men-thing. But, are we sure that that’s a bias and not a biologically-motivated thing? Are we sure, having everything else identical (training, time, effort, etc., imagine two magically cloned lives, just with opposite sex), a woman would perform a particular task identically to a man, or a man would perform another particular task identically to a woman? (because that biological thing I mentioned applies to both cases: it can very well apply to a dad, for example, claiming of being identically skilled in raising his kids as a woman, despite several millennia of biology telling him a different story).

  1. A bias or a motivated expectation?
    The second point I’d like you to analyze from a different perspective covers biases more generally. It is about this paragraph you wrote:

And when we do this, we don’t see ourselves as sexist. Although our impressions of other are colored by the biases we all hold about race, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, and so on, they feel so natural that we don’t think we are biased at all. When people are biased but unaware of their biases, it makes it very difficult to discuss or change those biases.

Your words seem to imply (correct me if I’m wrong) that all “biases” are certainly such, and that any pre-expectation associated with “race, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, and so on” is certainly wrong and a bias.
What concerns me in reading those is that, subconsciously and unintentionally, they might imply that human beings are like cars or computers that came out of an automated factory, all identical and identically programmed. But they’re not. Human beings are like “natural” sponges: they’re all different and they all “absorb”. Absorb what? what’s around them! Especially infants’ and adolescents’ psyche, which are very moldable.
So, are we certain everything is a bias?

Just a couple of examples here.

a) Bob leaves his home, located in his little provincial town of his little country, and starts exploring our large world and its large cities, meeting people of all races.
Bob sees John, who is from a different race, looks different, of a different color, having different traits, and different skin.
Because John looks different, Bob thinks: “who’s this guy? he might be rude, let me stay away from him”.
What’s the reason why Bob doesn’t trust John? Because it’s all about that!
Is there a reason? Or is it just because John looks different?
Bob knows nothing about John and his culture or race. All Bob knows is that John looks a little different. Than Bob has NO REASONS to not to trust John. It’s a bias. It’s racism.

b) Let’s go through a different scenario. I’ll use another silly metaphor, just for the sake of our exchange.
John belongs to a particular race. In his race, the deeply rooted culture is to eat pasta every day. They are fed pasta since they’re babies. They’re taught everything about pasta. They grow with pasta in their hands and playing with dough. And… we’re sponges, remember? So what do these guys “absorb” all around them since they’re kids? Bob knows that very well.
Bob sees John. He notices that John belongs to that particular race of pasta-lovers. Bob thinks: “mmm… John is from that race? He must eat pasta on a regular basis”.
Is that a bias? Is there a “reason” behind Bob’s “Expectation”?
In other words, is Bob’s expectation motivated or not?
In this case, it’s not a bias. Why? Because it is motivated. There is a well-known “pattern” in John’s culture. And the pattern is that that people eat pasta.
So, yes, for sure there can be exceptions. For sure Bob might have met one of the few individuals in John’s race who don’t eat pasta, in which case Bob’s expectation was mistaken. But it wasn’t a bias. Indeed, this guy hating pasta was an exception. Why? Because there is a relevant pattern among John’s race members.
We’re not cars. We’re not computers of the same model. We’re not robots with the same operating system version. We’re all different, and we’re sponges, Jill. So, there can be different habits/patterns (and there are) among different races or groups, and they can spread over time because newborns will “absorb” those behavioral patterns from their surrounding environment. We’re not robots.

Now, take the “eating pasta” behavioral pattern example, and apply it to any possible pattern that occurs among any identifiable group, race, or culture. It can be negative, neutral, or positive, it doesn’t matter.
You see a guy from a race, and you think: “most likely, this guy tends to do X”.
Is that “X” made up? Then you’re biased. Maybe even racist.
Is that “X” motivated by a pattern in that guy’s race? Then you’re not biased and you’re not racist. You’re just making an observation. It’s the guy’s race to have “motivated” you in doing that given its pattern on that particular thing. Whether X is a good thing, a negative thing, or a neutral thing.

So, let’s be careful to shape our thought and to shape other people’s thought as if every possible “expectation” is infallibly a bias and no race or group of people of any kind offers any reason/pattern to motivate any “expectation”, judging and calling “racist” or “whatever-ist” any possible kind of pre-expectation. That judgment, indeed, can also be a “bias” already, as the guy might have had “reasons” to have that pre-expectation.

What do you think?

Thanks for reading!