I recently had an interesting conversation with a colleague from another university. It was a casual talk over brunch where she was telling me about her fear of not being taken seriously by central IT at her new campus because she didn’t come from a deep technical background. As an older, white, male IT director, my head immediately shifted into my lecture on how I’ve often heard this exchange, how IT never understands, and how their default answer is always “no”. I usually stick up for the IT shop, but it never really goes anywhere because IT has pissed everyone off and are perceived to be beyond caring. But before we even got there, she said someone had suggested she bring them cookies, because geeks like cookies. I gotta say, I’ve always been in favor of this approach, because… cookies. And as I said that, she went in another new direction with the conversation, saying that, as a woman, she never wants to be cast as the “mom” in a situation. Our mutual female friend at lunch agreed. As it happened, my 17 year old daughter was also with us, and agreed with both of them.
I hadn’t really heard this “don’t be the mom” reaction before, and I argued back that it might help with a situation that needed different dynamics (the mean ol’ central IT folks always saying no being disarmed by a rush of sugar and consideration from a customer). Of course, I wasn’t listening closely enough, so as the reaction tripled across the ladies at the table, I backed off and heard more. “I can see bringing in food to your employees, but why should I feed a peer?” was the reaction from my library friends. “As soon as I started feeding my friends, they stopped seeing me as one of the crowd and I became more of a Mom,” was my daughter’s thought.
In my eyes, a plate of cookies is such a nice thing to do that I couldn’t see anything wrong with it.
But I see it now. Cookies = cooking = imposing traditionally female gender role = conflict. In fact, talking it through, I wasn’t sure I’d trust a plate of cookies from a guy, where I’d have no trouble accepting one from a woman. I’d assume the guy found them somewhere and was passing them off to me and that woman had made them herself. It’s always so much fun uncovering little pockets of privilege/unaware bias in ourselves…
Ok, that’s a whole mishmash of stuff with no real resolution, but I wanted to get it down before I forgot it. I enjoyed being made to stop and listen and understand another perspective. I enjoyed seeing the synergy that two library professionals and my daughter tuned into because of the way their gender is cast. I enjoyed trying to better characterize the role and reactions that IT gets cast into, and why it all becomes so negative. I also enjoyed hearing a perspective that I didn’t anticipate because my biases are so active in the background of my mind.
I don’t think I have a fix but I can continue trying to understand my biases and keep listening.