Friday, September 11, 2009

The Plural of Anecdote is not Data

The topic sentence of this blog is a direct quote from an esteemed female MIT faculty member, and she said it so glibly that I almost missed it. How true indeed. The plural of anecdote is not data. And yet, there is power in anecdote.

Tonight, some girlfriends, our respective guys, and I went to a one-woman play but an MIT math graduate explaining her experience in the math program 20 years ago. The play, Truth Values, is running in central square until the 20th, for those who are interested. The audience was jam packed with MIT PhD types, and a brief discussion after the play was really interesting - which is where I heard that quote.

The actress & playwright caricatured the many types of interactions she had with fellow students and faculty as she, one of the few women in the program, proceeded in their studies. The sexism she described had a sort of insipid, banal quality to it - of the sort that inspired a strong response, but somehow failed to merit it. Particularly in that time, comments about procreation choices to a young woman were expected, though insulting, while now, at a minimum, they are officially not meant to be asked. 

The whole play and discussion led me to reflect on domains outside of our great alma mater, edifice of wizened old men and their 1930s sensibilities. In my daily life, I am very often the only woman in the room. My new CEO, a strong female leader, has shaken things up for me dramatically by providing another feminine voice. In a sense, she's given me much more freedom to be feminine, but at the same time, together, we seem to draw much more attention to our girliness. Now, I go to the bathroom in a group. Before, I just snuck away, hoping no one noticed the tampon I slipped in my sleeve.

Still, as I reflect on the play, I recalled my experience last week at the trade show, where booth babes were common and still, precious few women filled the show floor. My colleagues, bless their ever-teasing hearts, called it Lilac's Bachelorette Party, as I was hugged (and occasionally more) by colleagues almost continually at the booth. Some were long lost friends, whose affection I welcomed and reciprocated. Some took liberties that were far in excess of what our relationship warranted. While I grimaced and pulled back, I can't say that I actively rejected anyone - nor do I believe anyone was left with the impression that I might have been uncomfortable. Nerds are not that astute. 

But, how was that any different from the woman in the play, documenting her reluctant compliance with bringing the cookies for so long - or her lack indignation at the comments on her biological clock? It is just easier to play along - and I did. 

I wonder whether my colleagues tease me because the men in question were so far from appropriate. Or, whether they'd respect me more if I had read them the riot act or shoved them away. Or whether they even think that I would be struggling with the question of how to respond at this deeper level. 

And then I recall that my boss, in all her strength, was also hugged by everyone that came by. I wonder whether all were welcome... 

It's easy to make up stories for how you'd act, were it to happen again. It wasn't egregious. It rarely is. No one grabbed my ass or called me names. Subtle. Insipid. Often obtuse. It's easy to say you'd fight fire with fire - we all would. But, what if the assault is merely a tea light? It takes delicacy to put that out without getting soaked. 

1 comment:

Kim said...

I love that quote. But I don't think your prof made it up. I've heard it before.