Thursday, December 07, 2006


Barry wants to be...

I've written before on the importance of what we call things. Whether we refer to “detainees” or “political prisoners” affects — not just reflects — how we view their situation. Whether we call the daily bombings and killings in Iraq “sectarian violence” or “civil war” changes significantly how we think about it. The words we use do matter.

Given that, and appropriate to Monday's discussion of careers, I can understand why people try to enhance how we refer to their work. Calling someone who collects garbage a “sanitation engineer” may be a bit of a joke — rather like the young woman who brings her new boyfriend, the funeral director, home to meet her parents, and tells them that he follows the medical profession. But changing from “stewardess” to “flight attendant” changes our focus on the job to one whose primary function is not to serve us coffee but general attendance to what needs to be done during the flight. Referring to a secretary as an “administrative assistant” not only gives the job a different spin by removing a perception of meniality from the title, but it does more accurately describe the scope of the work.

Beyond that, though, those last two changes also shift us away from thinking that the holders of the jobs must be women. We've come a long way in providing access to everyone, regardless of sex, to jobs and the training required for them. Men can be nurses and secretaries and flight attendants now, and women can be doctors, executives, and pilots, firefighters and construction workers. That's very good. Yet it's still remarkable when a woman becomes the House Majority Leader, or considers running for president. And at a lower level, we still think of certain jobs as ones for men, and others as ones for women.

Some years ago, I saw a quilt kit in a craft store. The kit was for a quilt for a child's bed, and it had the letters of the alphabet, along with boys' and girls' names, and occupations. On the “A” square, it said, “Andy wants to be an Architect”, for example. Other squares said things like “Barbara wants to be a Beautician”, “David wants to be a Doctor”, “Nancy wants to be a Nurse”, and “Tammy wants to be a Teacher”.[1] In nearly every case, the occupation was one we traditionally associate with the sex of that child's name. There were a few that were neutral, but none bucked tradition. There was no “Pam wants to be President” or “Erica wants to be an Engineer”.

Does that really matter? Look at what we're doing, with things like this: from before a child is even in school we're giving the child messages about which things boys do and which things girls do, as we teach something as basic as the alphabet. And the quilt is not unique; these messages are sent to kids every day, in many different ways. We've gotten much better with that sort of thing on television — Grey's Anatomy, for instance, has as many female doctors as male ones (and also places black doctors in positions of respect and authority) — but not everyone is with the program, and that steers our kids, however we might like to think it doesn't, as they make their choices. Yes, it really matters.

I once gave a presentation in which I referred to a hypothetical computer user as “she”. After the presentation, someone in attendance came over to me and said that I had “distracted” him by being “ungrammatical”. He said that according to the rules of English grammar, we use masculine pronouns when we talk about people whose sex isn't known. I replied that in English, at least, it's a question not of grammar but of custom, and that if he could show me that people don't say “the executive [...] he” and “the secretary [...] she”, then I'd agree with him. Until then, I'm going to point out our assumptions and challenge them.

[1] No, I don't remember what professions they had for “Q”, “X”, or “Z”, and they might have skipped two letters, since I think the grid was four wide and six tall.


Ray said...

"Q" for Queen, of course! Which leads to "K" for King. Those are pretty much sex-specific occupations. But given his propensity for breaking new ground, I wonder if Charles wants to be Queen?

Barry Leiba said...

Andy strikes me as more likely for that one, but he's pretty certain never to get there. You'll all be luckier if E-II-R lives long enough that you can just go straight to William and skip Charles altogether.

But, hm, where's a girl's name who could want to be Queen? There's Quentin and Quincy for boys, beginning with "Q". Wait, let's look at the baby name visualization.

Aha: Quinn, which has come into popularity in the '90s and '00s. Before that we had Quiana/Qiana ('70s and '80s), and before that — here we go — "Queen", as a name, which seems to've been consistently popular for the entire first half of the 20th century.

Qi An said...

Qi wants to be a zookeeper.

Grid #24 is for "unemployed" and we can put a big X across it.

Maggie said...

Barry, I've checked your blog every day since I discovered it, but I don't comment very often because I don't like to babble for no reason.

I think it's built into our genome to conform, and especially for women to conform. The man who isn't conforming gets gored by the rhinocerous. The woman who isn't conforming doesn't have any help raising her babies, so they both starve. Neither of those people brings their young to adulthood... bye bye DNA.

So I think it's a hard pattern to break. I want to throw up when one of my Girl Scouts says "OMYGOD, did you see the OC last night..." Barf. Or, "I hate math," or "I looooove going to the mall." I want so badly for them to break those stereotypes, but I think for many people, it's impossible.

OTOH, we've come a long way as a society, despite the offensive alphabet blanket. Artifacts of the sexism that was pervasive in our culture in the 50's are laughable today. There's hope, and there's progress. I just don't know how much of the genetic programming we can overcome. I think those of use that do are an anomaly.

Message to anomalies: spread your DNA. ;-)

Dr. Momentum said...

I can't believe that someone would come up to you and waste your time by telling you he was distracted by your use of a pronoun.

I hope he eventually sought help for his emotional problems.

Mary said...

Nice example of how our stereotypes are reinforced by our expectations for people.

One thing I've often thought about is what we believe people are like set their own expectations for themselves. When little girls hear that that they can be President or doctor or UN ambassador if they want to, it makes a difference because they internalize that belief. I'd written about this awhile ago when the whole Lawrence Summers incident was in the news.

We are getting better at understanding how stereotypes and expectations work and I'd like to see it take hold faster in our society. After all this is one area where the conservative and fundamentalist forces are pushing to undo because it is so disruptive to a conservative and authoritarian worldview. And, oh, it is so much healthier for the human beings who see themselves reflected in our eyes as fully actualized people with a unique value on this earth.