Today is International Women’s Day. So what fits this better than a blog post about „strong women“? In universities, as in so many other fields, we still lack women not only as lecturers, professors and persons to relate to, but also as representatives who show us: it is possible!
So, therefore, every woman in such a position should actually please me; I would have to give priority to virtually every course led by a woman, every lecture by a female speaker, and thus give every woman one chance more. Many of my friends also appreciate having the opportunity to take a course or write a paper with a female lecturer rather than with a male lecturer. They feel better understood by her, more supported than by him. Others may even have had negative experiences with male lecturers.
But then why do some of my friends and acquaintances still say that they prefer to have male professors and supervisors and that they „never liked“ or „simply can’t deal with women“? Of course, I can’t speak for everyone; however, I felt the same way for a long time and a few weeks ago, during and after an exam situation, I realized what this was about, what disturbed me about some women in these positions and what expectations on my part might have interferd with the relationship from the very beginning.
The situation was the following:
After an examination in which I showed myself to be convincing in terms of content but somewhat uncertain in my appearance, I received these separate feedbacks from the female examiner and the male examiner:
She: „As you know, we women often have the problem that we think our opinion is not important enough, and so it happens that we hold back in our speaking, become quieter and sometimes revise. You have to work on that.“
— actually not such a wrong point, it certainly applies to many — and to me in some situations. (It would also be beyond the scope of this article to go into the structural problems behind it). Also, I’m sure, the statement she made was certainly meant to be motivating and, with feminist ulterior motives, supportive. But it just didn’t quite fit …
He: „I believe that when you speak you maybe want to weigh up all the possibilities beforehand and don’t rush to decide on a statement for which you can then be criticised. That works with writing. But when presenting paper or in exams like this you have to be convincing. After making an argument, it can then be discussed. There will always be criticism. But it should refer to the content and not the way of expression.“
— and he hit the bull’s-eye with that!
So what did I become aware of in this situation?
In this case, it is not a question of criticism based on my identity as a woman, but it is a situation in which both are trying to help. In the one case (with him) he referred to me as a person and not to my gender (as she did). I wondered afterwards whether I would have taken her comment differently if it had come from a man: Of course! The first thought would certainly have been: „how can he …?“! Because in this case — it is probably obvious — there is a blatant paternalism. But that’s just it: in the other case it is just the same. Just because she is a woman, and — as I said — certainly intended it benevolently, it is no less (pater-/) maternalistic and patronizing. That is, in her attempt to help me, by referring to my weak points in articulation to me as a „woman“, she missed out on the the actual problems.
To clarify: of course I am not claiming that men would not carry out this generalization in this way or that forms of discrimination and the downgrading of actions due to gender attributions would not take place. (That would be too good to be true!)
At the beginning I spoke of „representation“. On the one hand, this is based on the fact that one identifies with the other person in a certain way. In this case the identification happens among other things through the category „woman (at the university)“. On the other hand, such a category can never be completely representative. And this is exactly where, in my opinion, the reasons for my „dislike“ or „reluctance“ lie:
- Women in positions of power have the opportunity to „exploit“ this and define the category of „woman“ — which has already led to much discussion within feminism over the past 100 years.
- I try to identify with women in leadership and power positions. This can only fail. But in the course of this, I set just as high (feminist) expectations for my female lecturers as I would set for myself.
- Female lecturers try (hopefully! but experience shows, however, that unfortunately this is not always the case …) to give their female students support and to help them overcome the hurdles they have experienced themselves. But with that the expectations they have of the students also rise.
What is the problem with preexisting expectations? They are usually disappointed because they cannot be fulfilled.
Looking back on my school and university days, I think I avoided female teachers or lecturers because I did not want to be disappointed. By them and by me.
Having said that, I hope that I will not suffer the same fate as my lecturers and that my seminars will be equally enjoyed by all students. We should meet all lecturers (etc.) with the same expectations. Otherwise, we will maintain this separation even further. But the reason of representation of women in universities, the existence of female persons in visible roles, i.e. „strong women“, is to establish this as a taken-for-granted fact and not to question it. In my opinion, this only works if we appreciate their existence (which is still noteworthy), but do not treat them as special or different.