The Departmental War

I was once reading about an intra-departmental war between two female scientists, and reflected on how, if only the contestants had been male, every woman in sight would have described it as a “pissing contest” or a “dick-measuring competition”. In the latter case, women bystanders would never dream of asking whether there was something important at stake in the conflict; they would treat it as axiomatic that the two men were at loggerheads solely for psycho-sexual reasons, and that the dispute was not really about anything except who was the bigger monkey. When the contestants are female, however, women bystanders will not personalise the conflict in this way; not even when one or both of the principals are being so vindictive as to raise doubts about their sanity. How, then, would they explain the behaviour?

This could be an interesting research project. The hypothesis that I offer up for testing is that some women would explain the war between two female scientists strictly in terms of the issues, while other women would detect the baleful influence of Patriarchy – for as long as there was a male university administrator somewhere in the picture, it would necessarily be his fault. On the other hand, not a single respondent would mention PMT, the female hierarchy, the queen-bee syndrome, or any other such “bio-essentialist” explanation, even though such reductive explanations, in the form of “testosterone poisoning” and “dick-measuring”, were automatically applied by the same respondents to any male-on-male conflict. In fact, I would hypothesise further that purely gender-neutral explanations, such as the exigencies of making a career, obtaining grants and so forth, would by female respondents be applied to female players but denied to all male players.

Such a research project might also describe the intra-departmental war in language that carefully concealed the gender of the participants, and then solicit responses; my hypothesis is that modern women would feel uncomfortable about replying at all through the veil of ignorance. Asymmetrical explanation is now so entrenched that female respondents would need to know the gender of the parties so as to know whether they should attribute the conflict to ideas or to testosterone.

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