The difficulty in challenging boys-only reading clubs is that when it comes down to it, this is as simple a form of affirmative action as you can imagine. In the face of a lack of reading achievement, this is a laudable initiative. At least, if I am going to argue, as I do, that the reason that science is sexist is simply because it is sexist, in the sense of gender inequality tending to reinforce itself through the propagation of stereotype, then I have to be receptive to initiatives that challenge the status quo, right?
I think this is logical. It is also the bit that makes me uncomfortable, and sometimes, rather queasy. There is no way, as a woman in science, that I want to be in the position of arguing for special measures to promote women in science. This makes me profoundly uncomfortable. On the other hand, what are we supposed to do, in order to effect change? Wait for men to make the case for us?
The only way to even approach the argument is to make it clear that it isn’t about you. This is hard. I had dinner with a departmental visitor, a few weeks ago, who casually tossed out “of course, it’s a lot easier for women academics” in the middle of a conversation about career options, while I had my mouth full. I stared at my plate until the conversation took itself elsewhere. Should I have said something? I’m sure it wasn’t directed at me: the problem is, I have trouble forgetting off the cuff comments of this sort.
One of my favourites dates back a couple of years: I was on a committee discussing possible names to put forward for various research awards. A woman’s name was mentioned; it turned out she had already been given the award several years previously. “Oh yes,” opined an elderly member of the committee, “women always get these awards about five years earlier than they would if they were a man”.
There are things that you can’t unhear.
There was no evidence for anything of the sort. And for once, there were half a dozen women in the room — but none of us said a word. The mere possibility of affirmative action is sometimes used — I think unconsciously — as a way of silencing anyone who has the potential to benefit from it. It may be unintentional, and it may be innocent — it is still a huge psychological hammer when you get hit with it.
So the problem with affirmative action, if I am to summarise? It devalues the achievements of individuals. It reduces personal satisfaction and motivation, and can lead to division and ill-will. It hurts most the people that it intends to help. And it may, for all that, be a necessary evil.