Culture really is the water we swim in: America, France, sexism, and sexual politics

Johanna Kollmann’s recent post, “Sexism is not funny, let’s stop laughing argues what its title implies it will argue, and she uses these examples:

A talk at a conference showing girls in bikinis. An API presentation from a sponsor featuring ladies in bras. A demo at a hack day with a slide of women in underwear. A business model canvas workshop using a strip club as an example to illustrate the tool. These are just a few examples of casual sexism I’ve experience at (tech) events.

But where does sexy end and sexism begin? I too am against sexism (who isn’t?), but most Americans appear to find women in limited amounts of clothing sexy; take a look at most women’s magazines in the grocery store next time you’re there (or, better yet, look through a bunch of Cosmos: a woman once suggested I do it, and I found the experience highly educational). Men’s magazines mostly feature sexy women in limited clothing, and women’s magazine’s mostly feature. . . sexy women in limited clothing. Sexism in tech and the workplace are real problems, but I don’t think a slide with a woman in underwear is a good example and arguably detracts from larger problems.

France_1Beyond that comparisons between the U.S. and France are often dubious, but reading Elaine Sciolino’s La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life made me rethink some of the issues Koll describes. Sciolino writes, for example:

The game of the sexes also extends deep into the workplace. In the United States, the mildest playfulness during business hours and in a business setting is forbidden; in France, it is encouraged. In American corporations, men are told routinely that they cross the line when they compliment a female employee on the color of her dress or the style of her hair. In France, flirtation is part of the job.

Sciolino’s experiences in the French workplace appear to be mostly good. It might be that the U.S. and France are too different to compare, but I also don’t think that the asexual approach implicitly endorsed by Kollmann is right or even practical. In addition, much of humor and personality are bound up in sexuality.

There are also a couple of larger notes: one is that, at the time I read La Seduction, I figured it was just a throwaway book, but I find myself referencing it surprisingly often. Even books that seem like throwaways can turn out to be influential, and no one really knows what those books will be in advance. You have to do the reading, or not do the reading.

France_2In addition, sexism is also one of these important topics that brings the worst out of many user-voting sites (like Hacker News, where I found the link), because it’s a) broad, b) important, and yet c) has a large political and social dimension that makes knowing the whole problem space impossible. Sometimes user-voting sites work well (the top HN comment is substantive and links to actual research), but often people talk past each other, or don’t closely read what the other person writes.

In Richard Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Feynman recounts this anecdote: A Princess says to Feynman that “[. . .] nobody knows anything about [physics], so I guess we can’t talk about it.” He replies:

On the contrary [. . .] It’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance—gold transfers we can’t talk about, because those are understood—so it’s the subjects that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about!

One sees this tendency over and over again. Nobody really knows anything about sexual politics in the workplace, or social problems, or macro economics, so we all have opinions that can’t easily be disproven. The problem is frequently worsened by ignorance.

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