ADHD and other letters: “Hyperactive” or “Inattentive” or “Combined” or “oh god just stop”

When it comes to medical situations, we like labels. Clear labels can shortcut explanations, save time, validate challenges that we face, allow us to access the help that we need, provide information to professionals, comfort us, describe parts of us, and ultimately provide all the blessings of naming the beast. There are downsides to labels, for sure, particularly when they are misused, poorly understood, incorrectly applied, or stigmatised; but when you’re searching for answers, sometimes you get hungry for labels.

Sometimes you want more labels, because more detail is better, right? Except sometimes labels are erected for shitty reasons and in half-arsed ways, and they can lead you down the garden path.

The disclaimer on this post is that:

  • I am not a doctor
  • I am definitely not a psychiatrist
  • And whoa, howdy, I am not a psychiatrist specialising in ADHD.

My one appeal to authority is that I did run these ideas past my specialist, because I wanted to know if I was on the right track, or just doing that thing that I do, i.e. “Yes, Kate, you did read a lot but you know a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, right?” and I figured a professional and a specialist was the right person to bounce these ideas off.

She agreed with enthusiasm (frustrated enthusiasm, for reasons that will become clear).

Let’s tell a story about labels. It starts with gender. Continue Reading

Morning Coffee Feminism: Risk Assessment and Dying in the Park

Content Note: assault, sexual assault, rape, trauma, abuse, violence, rage

I had to calm down before I could write this post. It’s taken about a week and a half since I cracked, crying, unable to stop, unable to believe what so many people seem to think.

I mention this not to demonstrate my emotional fragility (I’m actually in pretty good shape), but to emphasise a point before we go any further: this is personal. I don’t just mean for me – I mean for women in general, or for people socialised as women. It’s personal, and it has a deep, heavy weight to it, one that I didn’t even realise until I finally caved under the onslaught.

But for people not affected by it, it seems to be a thought experiment. A mild sense of discomfort, a desire to play “Devil’s Advocate”, to run the numbers, to make a wry face and look offended. They dive eagerly into the discussion, tossing aside heart-wrenching personal experiences, ripping apart horrifying statistics of abuse and suffering, insisting that they and they alone are the logical ones, the sensible ones, and they demand attention right now.

This makes the discussion inherently unbalanced, right from the start. Continue Reading

Morning Coffee Feminism: “No, it’s okay. I can do it.”

The front brakes on my bicycle were busted, and close examination suggested that I needed to take them apart to fix them. It’s not that I used my bike for commuting – I was thirteen, and I caught the train to school. I did, however, use it for rollicking around the park and getting exercise and having fun, and I wanted it working, so this was a priority for me.

I went inside. “Mum, where do we keep our screwdrivers?”

“Our what?”

“I need a Philips head screwdriver to fix my bike.”

My mother looked puzzled. “We don’t have any screwdrivers.”

It was my turn for a blank, flabbergasted expression. “That’s really stupid,” I said, being an outspoken, slightly bratty, introverted thirteen year old with a very limited grasp of keeping your temper when your parents say things that don’t make sense. “How are we going to fix things?”

There was a lecture about rudeness, but it did not address the fact that it was just stupid to not have your own screwdrivers.

Here’s the background: my parents had been divorced for a year or so at this point. (formally or informally, I forget when the paperwork went through. I don’t think this was something either of them felt the need to tell me about, and that’s quite fair). They had a pretty traditional division of labour back in the early days.

But I grew up with a father who spent most of his free hours mucking about happily in the garage with old motorbikes and other various engineering projects. The idea that I lived in a house without any tools was honestly bizarre. It was as though I’d been told we didn’t need oxygen, we’d just get it from Mal next door. I’d assembled my mother’s gigantic brass bed with only a firm grip and my own double-jointedness, and it occurred to me at this point that a shifting spanner (that’s a wrench to you Americans) would have made the process a little simpler.

(please note that, due to this problem, in my early adolescence I once assembled a bookshelf using one of Mum’s high heeled boots from the 80s as a hammer. I had no personal transport or cash to go and buy tools, and I wanted my bookshelf, damn it, and even IKEA flatpacks tend to assume you possess a hammer)

I called my father and complained that we didn’t have any tools, so how was I supposed to fix my bike?

My fourteenth birthday came around, and my Dad gave me a present.

It was – ta-da! – a set of tools, appropriate for a fourteen year old who had limited applications for them, but perfectly sensible for fixing bicycles (I later learned that they were not really appropriate for disassembling computers, but to be fair, I had taken apart and reassembled my computer case about eight times, including removal and replacement of CD drives, RAM, hard drives and floppy drives, before I finally managed to completely strip the screws and learned that it was important to have a selection of sizes in screwdrivers). One flat-head screwdriver, one Philips-head screwdriver, one set of bull-nosed pliers, one set of needle-nosed pliers, and a small claw hammer.

My mother looked at the tools when I proudly brought them home from my birthday visit with my father, along with the AD&D second edition Monstrous Manual, and then looked at me, and said dryly, “He does know you’re a girl, doesn’t he?”

If any of y’all wonder where my feminism comes from, look ye no further.

My mother did not believe in fixing things, or fiddling with technology. I’d been moved out of the house for about four years before she stopped calling me and asking me to come over and reset the clock on her VCR, and I suspect that’s only because she replaced the VCR with a DVD player, and by that time I had a boyfriend she could ask for help instead (see below).

I played the role of “man of the house” for my mother. I absolutely did not mind. It was more important to me to get things done, and I thought the gender shit was stupid.

As the years went by and I progressed into puberty, my mother would get wistful and start talking about how we should build a collection of perfumes and cosmetics for me to play with. I had literally zero interest in this, to the point where a close friend got really, really insulted because I pointed out that expecting women to wear make-up – and not applying that expectation to men – was sexist (she actually sulked. Quite possibly it came across as me judging her for being interested in cosmetics, and quite possibly she was right, and I was judging her, because I freely admit that at that age I lacked nuance on these issues. It mostly came from the fact that I had no interest in that stuff and I was sick of being made to feel weird for it).

(my eventual curiosity about make-up made more of an appearance much later. Amateur classical theatre had a lot to do with it)

At fifteen, I hosted a sleepover for my friends. One of those friends was a guy. He was not particularly burly (on account of being fifteen), and this wasn’t anything I’d ever really paid attention to. I was hauling the spare mattress into the lounge room so we could all sit around and talk teenager crap in a shared space, when my mother saw me and said, “Kate!”

She sounded quite shocked. Horrified, even. I’d say embarrassed.

“What?”

“Shouldn’t you let [male friend] do that?”

I exchanged a glance with my male friend in question. We both suddenly felt very awkward. Not being attracted to each other – a fortunate thing in a high school hetero-friendship – we pretty much ignored the fact that we happened to be different sexes. He suddenly shuffled and looked as though he were about to offer to take the mattress, and I think I gave him the sort of look that promised evisceration if he tried.

“No, that’s okay,” I said calmly, “I can do it myself.” I actually prickled. Like a spiny hedgehog.

I feel like “No, that’s okay, I can do it myself,” is the catch-cry for my life and for my feminism. And here’s the thing: my mother was perfectly happy for me to pick up the slack, carry heavy things, reassemble complicated pieces of furniture and machinery, handle any necessary computing and the like. This worked for her, entirely, because it got her off the hook and to be fair she had other things to do. She was comfortable with it and, if we’re honest, she sometimes seemed a little proud of me for it (when she wasn’t busy being defensive about the fact that she couldn’t or wouldn’t do it herself).

Unless there was a male around. At that point, it all went to hell, and she began to worry that I wasn’t feminine enough; that there was a pattern of social expectation and that I was not following it. She see-sawed between wanting me to be an independent sort of woman and wanting me to follow the sort of pattern she could relate to and recognise. I think it was hard for her.

But Mum never mowed a lawn if she had a male neighbour she could ask to do it for her.

(I once confided to her that I was considering asking out a boy I liked. She was horrified. “No, Kate,” she said. “You wait to be asked.” I thought about all the boys I knew and how they were just as anxious and shy and nerdy as I was, and I thought I would be waiting a very long time for that to happen. There were no more confidences after that)

The minute I entered an adult long term relationship, it wasn’t me who was being asked to set clocks or repair things – it was my boyfriend. If I was the only one around, sure, I would do, but I was a second choice.

Now, again, to be fair: this no doubt had a lot to do with how she was raised. But the way I was raised clearly taught me that if I waited around for a guy to show up and do things for me, I’d be waiting a long time, and nothing would get done, because we didn’t have any guys at the house. QED. It also taught me that I was perfectly capable of lifting and hauling and carrying and building and, incidentally, reading the freaking instruction manual (RTFM, people). It taught me that these are not things that are demarcated by gender.

The message I got from my mother was this: I was allowed to do things for myself, and I was capable of doing things for myself, unless there was a guy around, in which case I should ask him to do it for me, because reasons. Because I should pretend I couldn’t do it, so I could ask him. Because I should pretend to be less than I am in his presence.

I took her logic – such as it was – to its obvious conclusion, and I didn’t like that conclusion. It pissed me off. It still pisses me off today.

If you’re reading this, and you’re a man, and you have ever wondered why a perfectly innocent offer of help with physical labour has been poorly received by a woman, this is why. There’s a context and a history there.

I’m not saying don’t offer. I’m not saying you’re a bad person for doing it – quite the contrary! I offer to help people as well when I see they are having difficulty. It is nice when people offer to help (true facts). It is true that in terms of muscle mass there is a common female disadvantage, and I have occasionally had to accept that what is a gruelling trial for me will be a minor effort for the bloke who has just offered to give me a hand, even if he doesn’t work out (mutter mutter so unfair mutter). It does still feel like failure to accept that hand, but occasional exhaustion has forced me to do so, with graciousness (because he wouldn’t have offered if I hadn’t been visibly struggling, so kudos).

But if you are offering to help a woman lift something because she is a woman and not because she appears to be having difficulty, you won’t always get a polite response. You might get a very strained, clenched-teeth reply of “NO THANKS, I AM FINE,” because that woman has been raised to pretend she can’t do things, to contribute to a culture that thinks that woman can’t do certain things, to maintain a façade – a legal fiction – that makes no freaking sense, and that is not a good feeling. It is kind of a dirty feeling, and not in a fun way.

If you are offering to help a woman with something technical or mathematical because she is a woman and not because you are personally familiar with the gaps in her personal skill set, that’s a problem, not a kindness. I was in the nerd class with all the other nerds, and there were plenty of girls who were super awesome at maths, so coming out into a world where guys – any guys – would assume I was not able to do maths or science or technical things was a bit of a shock for me, and completely at odds with my experience. It was amazing how quickly I started to buy back into it, too, but that’s another story for another time.

Now, most of us receive these messages about what it is and is not possible/appropriate/normal for you to do as a woman (and there are some pretty toxic messages about masculinity floating around as well, I’m not even kidding). But not all of us get these messages reinforced at home, or by our peer groups, or our schools, or any of the places where we get these messages and ideas and roles imprinted on our brains as a kid.

I felt like a lot of the messages I was receiving were amazingly conflicting. I was reading – as referenced previously – Anne McCaffrey and CJ Cherryh and Patricia C Wrede books where women were kicking arse and taking names. And I was reading Conan and various problematic fantasty novels where women were only existing as temptresses or princesses (so to speak; the virgin/whore dichotomy). I was watching movies were women mostly needed to be rescued and were mostly only relevant if they had a romantic interest. I was watching TV shows where women would constantly get men around to “fix” things, because that was an option for them, and I was playing computer games where, if women appeared, they were usually prizes (80s, early to mid 90s), with very few exceptions (honestly, the first even faintly well-rounded female character that appeared on my radar was Rebecca Snoot, from Return to Zork. I was a PC gamer, remember).

So when it comes to those of us who grit our teeth, and say “No, that’s okay, I can do it,” and have trouble asking for help – it’s easy for people who haven’t felt those conflicting influences, who haven’t had their presumed ineptitude and weakness reinforced at home with weird stereotypes, to say, “But it’s not like you’ve got something to prove, is it?” and mutter about egos and chips on shoulders (sigh).

But sometimes, yes, we do have something to prove – not to you, the observer, but to ourselves. Because those imprints last, and there are still little voices in the back of our heads that are saying, “You should get a guy to do that.” And it doesn’t matter that intellectually we know that’s bullshit; we’ve internalised it at a young age, and it sticks like glue from that point, and now I prove it to myself, over and over, easier each time and with a little glow of pride, that yes, I’ve got this, and I don’t need a guy to do that. It makes it hard to ask for help because that little glow, that little “I proved it again!” victory, and the opportunity to smack that gender-norm-reinforcing voice in its stupid metaphorical face – those things are good, and they feel good.

They feel empowering.

And by the way, I did fix my bike, and I do still have those tools. I treasure them as recognition from my father that sometimes you just have to get shit done, and you can’t wait around for someone else to do it, regardless of gender.

“He does know you’re a girl, doesn’t he?”

He does. And he knows I’ve got this.

Morning Coffee Feminism: Tell me a different story

My addictions to various computer games, science fiction and fantasy stories, and similarly themed TV shows are probably best explained as a love of narrative. I love stories. All the stories. Tell me stories. Say “Once upon a time.” Say “The night was dark and stormy.” Say “So sayeth the Wise Alaundo.”

I don’t care how you start it. Tell me a story.

I was an 80s kid. Computer games in the 80s were not what you’d call inclusive, and I picked up on this pretty early on. I noticed that women were the bikini-clad cheerleaders in the same way that I noticed they seemed to need a good deal of rescuing. I picked up on this because I was a girl with nerdy interests and I got the message pretty early on that these things weren’t for girls. They were for boys. And I thought that was stupid.

I liked “for girls” things, too (I had My Little Ponies. I had Barbie. More importantly, I had Barbie’s horse). I just didn’t really care. I sometimes felt self-conscious about it, when I was too young to know what “self-conscious” meant. Sometimes I felt silly for liking girl things – because we are constantly told that girl things are crap – and sometimes I felt silly for liking boy things – because, well, I was a girl.

We’ll come back to computer games in a minute, but let’s deviate into another “for boys” area first.

I read a lot of fantasy and science-fiction from a young age. I read a lot of Conan when it may well not have been age appropriate (and I will always love my Dad for not giving a shit), and while I wanted Conan to win his various battles, I also wanted him to be nicer to the ladies, because he didn’t seem to be very nice to them, and they wanted him to be nicer (look, I was eight or nine. Some nuances were lost on me).

I read a lot of Anne McCaffrey, and say what you will about her narratives in the current context, at the time I was reading novels with female protagonists who were kicking arse and taking names and riding dragons and running spaceships and that was amazing. One of the first fantasy novels I ever read – before I even read any Conan – was Azure Bonds, which was a TSR fantasy novel in the Forgotten Realms setting. It was about Alias, a female sell-sword who wakes up with a strange tattoo and no memory, and wackiness ensues. Alias is a genuine hero. Her inherent “hero-ness” turns out to be a part of the story, but that’s a little beside the point. I loved that book. I still love it. It’s silly and it’s fun and the characters are great. Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb, you guys started something when I was six.

It never occurred to me to think that the depiction of women in fantasy and science fiction in this way – as opposed to the way they turned up in the Conan novels – as any kind of weird liberal feminist agenda. People were telling stories, and they were telling the stories they wanted to tell, the stories that caught their hearts in flight, the stories that got them excited.

Tell me a story.

So the fact that people now seem to be distressed and angry that issues of gender, sexuality, racial diversity and identity, and otherness are being explored in science fiction and fantasy, and that this is to the detriment of the human race and human nature and “blah blah I’m a freaking idiot blah” – I mean, it’s a surprise to me. Because I was born in 1981 and I’ve been reading this stuff since I was a kid, and where the fuck have you guys been this whole time?

Anne McCaffrey as a starting point, sure, but also Octavia Butler. Ursula Le Guin. Using stories the way they should be used, to explore ideas and people and the human condition and science and the future and imagination and how we change, and what are the edges of ideas and self and what does it all mean… Science fiction frequently involves explorations of the alien, and I can’t imagine a richer opportunity for picking up ideas of otherness and tribalism and running with it.

Honestly, guys, what have you been reading? Where have you been?

In the last ten years or so, I’ve seen some tremendous work coming out of science fiction and fantasy in this area. These ideas are snowballing. There’s a great avalanche of what if coming out of these narratives, and now they’re not just being told from the perspective of Captain Macho Straight-arse Whiteypants, and not to disparage the Captain – he’s a great guy, honest – but getting the perspective of other characters too, who exist, and who read this shit as well, and who are perfectly capable of kicking arse, taking names, riding dragons and running spaceships – that’s good. That’s fantastic. That can only make stories richer.

Tell me a story.

And also in the last ten years, these stories are popping up in computer games as well, the narrative medium that is really interactive and can see me trapped in my study like a sleepy housecat for days on end (not really. I’m also addicted to gym. I have to leave, work out, and come back to the game). Suddenly, games have female characters who aren’t bikini clad princesses, characters who are just human; they have characters who aren’t just straight; they have characters who aren’t just white (and, in another leap of progress, aren’t just tokenistic stereotypical representations, but actual layered people. Less Orientalism would be nice too); and although it’s pretty rare, they even very occasionally have characters who aren’t cis-gendered.

It’s still hard to find these games. You do still have to go out of your way to look for them. It’s still worth getting excited when they turn up. And I’m still shitty that no major Assassins Creed title has a female protagonist option, because I love the hell out of those games (one of my Arts majors was Classics/Archaeology. A game where you can climb all over the Hagia Sophia? SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY). It’s much, much harder to find these things in games than in books.

But there’s all this pushback, and frankly, from my perspective, it’s weird. It comes back to this odd sort of nerd culture gatekeeping, this strange childhood tree fort with a “No Gurlz Aloud” sign on the front. I love Calvin and Hobbes as much as the next person, but remember how Calvin’s a kid? Maybe he shouldn’t be our litmus test for adult behaviour.

I get cross sometimes when I read a story and it’s full of what I feel is shitty politics and depictions of women as stupid and weak and hysterical. I am pretty good at vetting my reading these days, but sometimes, yes, I do pick up these novels and end up wanting to just vomit. It makes me angry.

You know what I might do?

I might write a bad review. I might write on this blog about it if I think it’s particularly toxic bullshit (good lord, I’m still cross about J.R. Rain). I might be inspired to add new angles and ideas to the next story that I write.

You know what I won’t do?

I won’t try to “game” writing awards, or throw tantrums because the general zeitgeist is becoming more inclusive and the wider audiences of the world are responding well. I won’t threaten anyone with murder or rape, even if they’re authors of books I dislike and think are actively harmful, and the same applies to people who write and produce computer games that piss me off (and there is plenty to piss me off in a lot of modern games, still). I’m a pretty extreme pacifist that way. Nuts about it, really.

I might get table-flippingly mad, but I won’t actually flip tables, not least because there are only two tables in my house that would fulfil basic table-flipping requirements, and if I flip them I will damage some expensive household items.

I won’t try to erase people from stories. I won’t try to fit them back into a shape that never really fit them in the first place, just so that they won’t confront some of my preconceived ideas. I need my preconceptions challenged. It’s the only way I’ll learn. It’s the only way I did learn, because I had to learn this shit too (that’s an entirely different and more shameful blog post).

I do not understand why people are angry that we are including more. You will still have the option of reading books about Captain Macho Straight-arse Whiteypants; he’s always going to be there, and books about him still do explore ideas and can still be good books and can still win awards for being very good books. You’ll still have the option of playing the Captain in various computer games – in fact, you still have to actively work to try and play someone who isn’t the Captain. It’s just that now, if you wake up one day and decide you might like to not play the Captain or read about the Captain’s perspective; if you decide that there are some other characters you’d like to play or read about; well, now you can.

Now you can say, tell me a different story.

Morning Coffee Feminism: It’s my name

On the way back from gym, I parked the car at the top of the driveway and got out to collect the mail. Water bill – no problem – misdirected mail – uh huh – and what’s this?

On the front of the envelope, I see this arrangement of details:

[Husband’s name] and Kate [Husband’s surname]

[address]

A wave of frustration hits me. I open the envelope and find out it’s a Christmas message from our estate agent. Since they are the agency that sold us our house, they should have an excessive amount of detail concerning our identities (and, at one point, our financial situation).

Just in case you aren’t aware or haven’t picked up on this, I did not change my name when I got married. I saw no reason to do so. It is my name. I feel very strongly that marriage did not change my identity and so there was no reason to change the label. Other people feel differently, and that is perfectly fine. Some women – and men – like to change their names so their family feels like more of a unit, and that is entirely fair. Some women find the change of name romantic, or enjoy the tradition for whatever reason, and that’s their choice. Some don’t like it, but give in to social pressure, thinking they would like to have the same surname as their child (although there is no legal requirement that a child’s surname match its father’s). That last one is, I think, a real problem; not the idea that someone would cave to social pressure, but that the social pressure exists in the first place.

Changing my name seemed like a lot of work for no real reward, and involved the sacrifice of my own name, of which I am very fond and to which I am quite attached.

If a telemarketing company calls and I answer the phone and they refer to me as “Mrs [husband’s surname]”, I hang up. Sometimes I will do them the courtesy of informing them that this is not my name, and maybe they should do their goddamn research next time, and you know what? Even if it were my name, I prefer “Ms” (whether I am married is really not the business of a telemarketer) or “Dr” (because I freaking earned it).

I can’t say this strongly enough. It’s my goddamn name.

I did not keep the agency’s little fridge magnet calendar or their brochure. They went into the appropriate disposal receptacles before I even backed down the driveway.

Yet, these people actually have the information about me, and my name. My name is on the loan documents, the applications, and queries. It’s all over it; and yet they were too lazy to check. I don’t care how many of these things they send out; getting someone’s name right is actually quite important.

You might think I’m overreacting, but identity, particularly an identity you have chosen, is important. I didn’t choose my name, but I chose to hold onto it.

If this happened to men – if someone assumed, just per social tradition, that they had changed to their wife’s surname – that would be considered insulting (or humorous, or both). If it happened to women who got married and went to all the trouble of changing their name (or the few men who do this also), it would be once again considered insulting, and no doubt frustrating considering the amount of detail-changing involved.

I publish papers under that name. Should I ever get a novel out, I’ll publish that under that name also. I apply for jobs and grants under that name. That’s the name I have on ResearchGate, on Facebook, on LinkedIn (alright, I haven’t updated that last one in a very long time).

It is my name.

It is not a whim. It is not a minor thing.

I am not “Mrs Husband”, for fuck’s sake. I could have chosen to be, but I specifically chose not to.

I think I will be calling the estate agent. They will probably think I’m overreacting, but that’s not their call either.

Morning Coffee Feminism: Large Dogs

“Really?” he asked. “What breed of dog would you get?”

“A rottweiler,” I said, surprised by the question. I’m sure I’d made no secret of my preference, and I knew he loved the breed also.

There was silence for a moment. “Are you sure?” he asked, looking as though he were trying to fish more tactful words out of the air. “You need to be very strong-willed…”

I blinked. Had he met me?

“…have a lot of force of personality, you know… strength…”

If you’ve met me, you’re probably not labouring under the delusion that I lack personal stage presence, and if you’ve spent any time with me at all, you’re unlikely to think I’m anything other than strong-willed.

I like phrases like “strong-willed” and “determined”. They sound so much better than “stubborn” and “plants her feet like a recalcitrant yak.”

My guest – who knew, and knows me, very well – refused to meet my eyes, and it was at that moment I realised: this wasn’t about whether I could command an audience on stage or look stern at a puppy. This was about my sex.

But we didn’t say that. It would have started an argument.

 

***************

“You treat that dog as a child substitute.”

I glanced across at my dog, who was happily flopped on the paving, his leash hooked onto a post. Since he was tied up, the other end was hooked to his harness, rather than his collar, because if he tugged at it, I didn’t want him to give himself an accidental correction.

“I don’t put children in correction collars,” I pointed out.

After a brief digression of black humour, I returned to the point. “I also don’t have them sleep in crates, leave them outside in the rain during the day, or kick them out of the house when they misbehave. I admit I haven’t had the opportunity, since I don’t have a kid, but I can promise I wouldn’t do these things. I also wouldn’t insist a child sit before coming inside, or wait for an invitation before coming up on the couch, or stay in a fixed position while I prepare food.”

“Yeah, but-”

“No, wait. Are you absolutely sure that you didn’t decide that, because I was female, I was going to treat any dog I got like a child? And are you sure you didn’t decide that ahead of time, and interpret every action I take in light of that? Because that’s called confirmation bias.”

There was silence for a moment. My conversational companion sipped at his wine. “Yeah. Okay. That’s a fair point.”

I only won like that once. The next time we had this conversation, he completely denied it. It would have destroyed his belief that mostly what women want out of life is to have babies, and somehow they’re incapable of viewing pets as anything other than babies. And if only I wasn’t so happy with and interested in my dogs, I would be absolutely trying conceive some potential offspring right now.

 

***************

I used to spend some time on a rottie enthusiast forum – I mostly lurked and just read things. I didn’t post. There were some really good tips and lovely people on there. Also, some absolute rubbish.

I remember being really affected by one extremely long conversation where a man insisted, at length, that women just didn’t have the force of personality to manage large dogs like rottweilers. They needed a man’s touch. I can provide links if anyone wants to watch the carnage that followed from numerous female dog owners and handlers.

This just in: you don’t need to be able to lift the dog – if it comes down to a need for physical control, all you need is leverage. Very small people can have leverage, and dogs don’t usually know how to work around it. If you’re getting to the point where you’re a big strong guy and you’re relying on that to control your dog, you have a serious problem. Furthermore, despite reports of dogs being sexist, I’ve found just as much anecdotal evidence going the other way. I think it really does have a lot to do with body language and confidence, as well as patience and determination, and these are not specifically male traits.

Furthermore, I’ll just link you through to The K9 Company again. There’s two women on the front page. The taller one? That’s Cat. She’s one of our trainers and runs the business with her partner, Brent. The delighted rottweiler there is Zooka. He’s honestly the best trained (and perhaps one of the most loved) dogs I have ever met. He is Cat’s dog.

If you want to tell Cat that women can’t handle rottweilers, be my freaking guest. Just let me know ahead of time so I can track down a flak jacket, because I don’t want to get injured as I enjoy the show.

 

***************

Post. “Morning coffee feminism” is a new blog post series I’m starting up, basically telling short stories about times where sexism and gender essentialism has impacted my life. They’re mostly what are called “micro-aggressions”, the little things that just start to add up like crazy over a lifetime. I was just going to write one post but it was reaching novella length, so here we are! Feel free to share your own experiences or opinions in the comments.

You are not stupid. Please stop saying that you are.

A personal tale of stereotype threat

One of our collection managers was showing me how to use the digital camera. We’re not talking a point-and-click here; this was some sort of Nikon, with a herd, maybe even a plethora, of lenses; this was shades and remote flashes set up in the photography room for the purpose of documenting specimens.

I’d been shown how to use the setup a few years previously, but since I hadn’t used it in the intervening time, my memory of the appropriate settings and icons had faded somewhat, and I’d asked Dave to take me through the basics again. He kindly found time to do so.

I felt guilty, since the collection managers are always busy, and I dislike interrupting people, especially very busy people. So I babbled. Like an idiot.

“Sorry about this,” I babbled, “I’m just really stupid with cameras.”

Dave just smiled and shook his head, and after he’d left the room I stared at my tray of specimens and I had a moment. A capitalised Moment. A goddamn epiphany.

What. The. Fuck. Kate. I snapped at myself. What the fuck did you just say?

I did a media production subject in undergrad. I’ve developed black and white film. Silver nitrate and I have hung out like buddies, if one of those buddies can permanently stain the skin of the other. I didn’t pursue media production (although it did play an indirect role in me switching from Creative Arts to Science, but that’s another story). I didn’t reveal a heretofore unknown talent for the captured image like a beautiful photographer butterfly emerging from a wannabe novelist coccoon.

But I know how a camera works. I’m not stupid with cameras. Apertures, exposure time, depth of field – all those concepts make perfect sense to me. It’s just that I don’t remember what the icons on the dial represent relative to the kind of photos I would like to take, and that’s an issue of memory, not an issue of stupidity.

In fact, even if I hadn’t previously been taught about those concepts, that would be a case of ignorance, not stupidity.

This wasn’t the first time I’d had such a moment, but it was the first time I’d really, really noticed myself doing it.

I’ve noticed other women doing it.

I did my PhD in a university lab that, during my time there, was comprised entirely of women. Apart from some teething issues with a bullying R.A., it was a great work environment, and I still consider them close friends and some of the best people I have ever worked with.

Let us be clear. These are all highly intelligent women. They were all doing PhDs in science. They were all capable in a laboratory environment.

There was so much apology, so much self-deprecation in regards to their abilities, that it was no wonder a bully found fertile ground to play with it all in those early days.

I’m finding it a little hard to write about real people without making generalisations and naming names, so understand that the following stories are broad strokes.

I used to think I was dreadfully stupid at chemistry. I managed to scrape an H1 in the last required chemistry subject for my degree, so clearly this wasn’t a logical position. It took four months of work as an analytical chemist at CSL Pharmaceuticals (I was temping between finishing my Honours project and starting my PhD) to realise that the chemistry I was doing was just some basic maths and measurements, and once I realised that, suddenly it got easy. Chemistry is – or can be – an extremely complex discipline, but I wasn’t doing it at that level. My first year undergrad was actually sufficient to get by for the tests I was running.

This meant that by the time I started my PhD, making basic stock solutions held no fear for me. It took the uncertainty in the eyes of a colleague to remind me that, prior to working at CSL, I would have been really nervous even about putting together TE buffer (dead easy to make), let alone the phenol-chloroform-isoamyl mix (even easier to make, technically speaking, but with a significantly higher chance of burning and fuming and generally doing oneself harm).

It was really common for my colleagues to constantly put themselves down and second guess what they were doing – but they knew how to do these things. They never actually screwed it up. It’s one thing to get confused about picomoles vs nanomoles (10,000 pmol is the same as 10 nmol, but given the price of the fluorescently labelled primers and how rarely I use units with “pico” and “nano” in front of them, I do double-check), when tired after a couple of twelve hour work days. It’s another thing to panic and decide that you can’t deal with it, when demonstrably you can.

Since the branch of genetics that I work in is heavier on analysis than it is on lab work, we would spend some time over coffee musing over analytical options and approaches. There was often a chorus of, “I have no idea about some of that stuff,” and for the first year or so I was just as guilty as everyone else. And yet, a few sips into the first cappucino, we’d be tossing alternative approaches and limitations back and forth like pros. Which we were. Pros. And then I got some confidence. I looked around me, and realised that I actually seemed to know what I was talking about a good portion of the time, and I stopped apologising. I was willing to be corrected on analytical questions, but I stopped apologising for not knowing everything, and I stopped acting as though I knew less than I did.

I bought a textbook at a conference a few years ago: Wakeley’s Coalescent Theory. I understand the basics of coalescence, but I wanted to really get my head around the nuances of it. I got through about a chapter and a half and gave up, since one summary integration formula followed by pages of “As you can see from this summary formula” made me feel stupid and miserable.

It wasn’t until last year that an expert in this field mentioned the book, and said that, as an introduction for biologists, it wasn’t one, and really it was something to read through after you’d gone through this other book. I just didn’t have the background skills to get through Wakeley, and since the blurb raved about what a wonderful introduction it was to the subject, I decided I must be stupid.

Why is that the first option? Why isn’t the first option that perhaps you lack the background knowledge – or even that you have the background knowledge, and you actually know what you’re doing, but that society has told you for so long that women don’t do maths and chemistry, and the moment you hit a wall, your determination falters for a moment, because what if you really are trying to fit the round peg in a square hole, what if you really shouldn’t be doing this?

And even if you know better – you know that there’s really no gender in how this is done, and honestly, you get furious at feeling this way, because you know what you know, but the minute there’s someone in the room who might stereotype you, you start to falter and panic – because you’ve heard how some men talk about the women they work with, and you know how easy it is for you to end up in a box for one slip-up, one mistake, one faulty assertion – and you panic, and now you’re more likely to make those mistakes.

It’s called stereotype threat.

I am demonstrably not stupid. I actually have a pile of evidence, on hand, that I can supply to prove my lack of stupidity. I have no idea how intelligent other people will be, and I can’t make any assumptions as to where I fit relatively speaking when I meet someone (and it’s best not to do that sort of thing anyway), but having that evidence there reminds me that I am actually not stupid.

None of the women that I worked with were stupid. Most of them, at some point, said that they were. I ranted about the issue one time over coffee with one friend. She went quiet and thoughtful. The next time I saw her, she said, “I’ve been paying attention. I do that all the time.”

Do what?

Apologise. Tell yourself you’re stupid. Tell yourself you don’t understand those things anyway. Because it’s perhaps easier to lower all expectations – within a conversation, or within yourself – than to try, and have some trouble, and then feel like everyone who told you that you couldn’t do science because you were a girl was right.

And it’s not just the scientists that I’ve worked with in the lab. It’s the older women, family and friends of the family, that I know, who back away and say, “You’re so smart. I could never understand all that stuff.”

Yes. Yes, you could. Stop selling yourself short. You are more than this.

But how do you fight a message that someone’s been getting their whole lives? You can’t. You just have to wait, and watch until they challenge themselves. Watch that delight as they realise, in some shock, that they are actually not stupid. Sure, it would have been nice to realise that forty years ago, but better late than never.