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Walk a mile in a man’s social media shoes

It has been an exciting time for me. The article I wrote, ‘Walk a mile in a man’s social media shoes’, published at ABC The Drum on July 8, 2011 created a definite stir, something I honestly didn’t expect.

What surprised me was the overwhelming and very positive response I received from both men and women, equally, saying that the article resonated with their own experiences and/or has made them think and reflect on their own interactions with this gender filter in mind. Many men have happily admitted to me that perhaps I was pretty on the mark with my ‘Twitduel Rules.’

I would like to thank everyone who contacted me about the story and has given me their personal insights. This kind of interaction about posts or publications is what all bloggers and writers most want. Thanks also to Dr. Cordelia Fine for kindly allowing me to quote from her book, ‘Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences’ Please read it, you will not be disappointed.

I was interviewed on the radio station, 4ZZZ 102.1FM in Brisbane on the news and current affairs program ‘Brisbane Line’. The very talented Stephen Stockwell was the interviewer and you can listen to the unedited audio of the interview here:
Radio interview with Amy Mullins on Gender, politics and social media

Walk a Mile in a Man’s Social Media Shoes

We all know how the famous saying goes; “If you want to understand a person, walk a mile in their shoes.”

It sounds corny and it’s pretty much stating the obvious, but it is an important truism.

If I want to understand an intellectual concept or a public issue I can study abstract theories, read articles and pore through books, but nothing is a substitute for experience. If you want to have a revelation, you have to live it and that’s what I inadvertently did when I became a “Twitter man”.

When I opened my Twitter account @Get_Shortened a year ago yesterday on July 7, 2010, I was intending to use it as a way of bridging the communication gap between my newly established blog, Get Shortened, and the people who I hoped would be interested in its content and what I wanted to debate.

It was not a tool to promote the author (myself) or to create a personal focus; actually it was intentionally the opposite. I set out to be an anonymous blogger.

I didn’t share my age, gender, occupation, how lame I thought the contestants on MasterChef were, that I was in desperate need of a coffee or that I was having a productive day. To me, all of that was needless distraction.

I wanted to steer the reader’s focus to the criticisms and arguments I was making on my blog about issues I considered to be of public importance. I set out to do this in a manner that was as objective as possible. The ideas, reasoning and evidence were more important than my personal opinions and should be able to stand alone if I was fulfilling the academic principles I had learnt at university and taken on as my own.

I was, and still am, interested in finding the truth in an issue by analysing the primary sources (political speeches, interviews and policy documents), understanding the political context, sifting through the endless amounts of secondary commentary and subsequently figuring out where the gaps and/or inaccuracies are. In a small way, I wanted to rectify the serious lack of intellectual scrutiny of public policy as exemplified in the media’s coverage of, and hollow public debate during, the 2010 federal election campaign in Australia.

The blog and my Twitter account were a synchronised stream of my criticisms and explorations of the Australian media and federal politics. The only problem with leaving an identity vacuum is that people tend to fill it, something I had not foreseen. And so, with a Twitter avatar of a cartoon man resembling Bill Shorten, my blog’s namesake, I was now assumed to be a bloke.

“Thanks mate”, “cheers”, “how are you dear Sir?”, “thanks bud”… These were the mildly gendered terms I was suddenly faced with. It certainly caught me by surprise but in keeping with my “be anonymous, the author is unimportant” manifesto, I used gender neutral language in my tweets, also something I prefer to do in everyday life.

Yet it wasn’t being referred to in blokey terms that got me thinking about gender. It was when I started having heated arguments over a variety of topics in Australian politics and got to put on my “man shoes” that I was hit in the face with a harsh and disheartening reality.

It turns out that if you’re a man having an-all-in political debate on Twitter with another man, there are certain codes of conduct for this gender exclusive duel. Note: Not every male will partake in one.

THE RULES:

Always maintain a stiff upper lip
Don’t get angry, but personal slings are allowed
Remain aloof and unaffected by witty insults
Never lose face
Your pride is always at stake and it is most important
Power is up for grabs, and is the reward
Don’t ever admit absolute defeat even if you realise your argument is flawed
Be overtly rational (assert your ‘masculine’ qualities)
Metaphorically butt heads with supreme Alpha-male confidence
Only another man can increase your public respect by partaking in this privilege.
Oh, and remember to have a laugh about it later.

I had the most glorious fun duelling as a man, with another fairly prominent man, in the #auspol Twitter world. This was in the very early stages before I had even realised there was a gender exclusive game, let alone the rules of the game. We were arguing quite heatedly over the oft disputed political bias of Kerry O’Brien when he was still headlining for The 7.30 Report.

A few impressive insults were flung my way, every argument I put forward (in favour of O’Brien’s impartiality) was bitingly scoffed at, my political adeptness and perceptiveness was questioned and mocked and you know what? I loved every moment of it.

I was astonished and pretty darn energised and invigorated by it. My utter enjoyment of such an intellectual and personal grilling, besides the fact that it even occurred, caught me by absolute surprise. Being taken aback, my response was to deflect the negativity as I don’t believe in engaging in intellectual conflict that becomes personal.

I won’t name my fellow dueller because directing blame is never productive, but a significant time after this duel occurred, when I had outed myself as a female, I was told by someone who knows him well that he would have been “horrified” to find out he had been arguing so passionately, scathingly and proudly about politics with a woman.

Given another chance I have been assured that he would never give me the honour of partaking in another such Twitduel because he now knows my true gender. And that’s a real shame. I didn’t expect to hear that and I must admit, I was a little bit hurt.

This experience opened my eyes to the more subtle sexism that is often not perpetuated maliciously, but rather creeps in as a response to entrenched social and cultural gender norms and stereotypes.

After this particular duel, I paid closer attention to the intellectual debates on Twitter between men and women and I noticed something very off-putting that confirmed my suspicions.

Women who I respect and admire, especially a few journalists, made some brilliantly perceptive observations on issues in Australian federal politics that would rarely be encountered in the public sphere. Yet, they barely got a mention by the other prominent men in the Twittersphere and I wondered to myself, had a man said that, would it have gained more praise or have been taken more seriously? From what I have seen generally, yes it would.

Dr Cordelia Fine, an Australian academic psychologist and writer published a book in 2010 entitled, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences. It is a well-written, sharp-witted, thoroughly researched, engaging and academically principled book on the topic of gender and neuropsychology.

In it she dedicates a chapter to how men and women’s professional abilities are perceived through a fixed and subtle lens of sexism. Fine provides some interesting anecdotal evidence and a case study among other things:

“…even today, the evidence suggests that it would be a shrewd career move for a woman to disguise herself as a man.” People who have transformed their identity in this way – namely, female-to-male transsexuals – report decidedly beneficial consequences in the workplace. Ben Barres is a professor of neuropsychology at Stanford University, and a female-to-male transsexual. In an article in Nature he recalls that ‘[s]hortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.”

And,

Similar stories cropped up in a recent interview study of twenty-nine female-to-male transsexuals. Kirsten Schilt, a Research Fellow at Houston’s Rice University, interviewed the men about their work experiences both before and after their transition from women to men. Her study reveals that many immediately enjoyed greater recognition and respect. Thomas, an attorney, related how a colleague praised the boss for getting rid of Susan, whom he regarded as incompetent. He then added that the ‘new guy’, Thomas, was ‘just delightful’ – not realising, of course, that Thomas and Susan were one and the same.

Let’s not ignore though that on Twitter I have seen women in debates with men on Australian politics say some outrageous things, displaying a level of ignorance and lack of understanding that I would never have got away with as man. Yet they were not called out for it, their public intellectual reputation was not challenged and they would never have been given the honour to be cut down to size Twitduel-style.

There was a failure to engage by men just as they did before. The first situation because of the woman is “out-of-place”, perceivably masculine objective insight and the last situation because the woman fulfilled gender expectations. Her arguments were written off as mere “opinions” originating from an emotional place, when really they were just ill-conceived intellectual arguments.

There seems to be an unspoken rule in life, that is exemplified by my experiences on Twitter, that men must tread on eggshells around women, dare they briefly put them on a pedestal or upset them!

The science suggests that there is no biological difference between the male and female brain in terms of intellectual capabilities. What hampers both sexes and creates inequalities or perceived differences comes from the sexism we allow to perpetuate socially.

Fine eloquently writes that

“…when we categorise someone as male or female, as we inevitably do, gender associations are automatically activated and we perceive them through the filter of cultural beliefs and norms. This is sexism gone underground – unconscious and unintended…”

This kind of sexism doesn’t come from a place of malice or intent, hence it is much harder to see and change for the better.

On sex differences, to put it simply and somewhat crudely, the only difference between a man and a woman is that a man was born with a penis, a higher level of testosterone and the ability to impregnate a woman, and a woman was born with breasts and a vagina, a higher level of oestrogen and the capability to bear children.

Gender is a truly fluid concept that has been rigidly imposed socially on humans for structurally pragmatic reasons that, whilst they simplify societal structures and interactions, also enforce inequality and discrimination.

Since revealing myself to be a woman, I have missed being treated like a bloke. I miss not being expected to get excited about my new hair colour. I long for my blog posts to be read without the reader’s perceptions being coloured by my age, level of life experience and gender. But what I really miss is having an impassioned and thoroughly critical argument with another man, puffing out my intellectual chest and stalking around in my Italian leather “man boots”.

Given the chance again, I would not decline an offer to walk a mile in a man’s shoes.

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