Trippingly on the Tongue

I’ve always liked the poetry of metaphor with its imagery revealing nuances hiding shyly in the background. Words alone sometimes convey their meanings too narrowly, whereas metaphors allow imagination to roam more freely, only loosely tethered to definitions. After all, depending on the context of its use, meaning is often reliant on Weltanschauung. Such is communication; language is only the messenger.

Usually one can imprison meaning, of course -confine it in a cramped little box from which, should it ever escape, it would cease to be useful. Indeed, it would be a Pandora’s box from which it escaped. And yet, even there, what remained inside after all the mischief and malevolence had escaped, was Hope. Maybe that’s what metaphors are: unexpected colours leaking from behind the bars… Liberations.

Of course, metaphor is value-laden as well as culture-dependent. One society’s metaphors do not always translate into that of another -hence the difficulty of truly understanding and appreciating the poetry of another nation, especially if it must be converted into a different language. It made me wonder whether there may be similar disparities with gendered interpretations of metaphor.

There was an interesting article in BBC Future a while ago that caught my eye: It made me realize that there are many ways the genders differ. Of course, it may be that when we hear an unusual expression for the first time, we (either sex) cling too firmly to denotative -definitional- aspects of the words for interpretational safety, when the more imaginative and unexpected connotative sense is what was intended all along. And it’s in the connotation -the metaphoric significance- where we differ…

For example, what is a ‘glass ceiling’? ‘Originally popularised by Gay Bryant at the height of the feminist movement in the 1980s, it’s a widely used term today that describes an invisible barrier that keeps women from occupying executive positions. The metaphor suggests that women should aspire to ‘break through’ the ceiling – but the problem is that it describes only the women reaching up, rather than, say, the men that are peering down from the top. This arguably places unfair responsibility on women to smash the ceiling, rather than focusing on the role of men in creating and maintaining it.’

There are other metaphors in use of course, often involving glass -presumably to convey the idea of invisible barriers to movement for women. So, the ‘glass cliff’ which depicts the idea of  ‘how senior women are often hired for risky and precarious roles at times of crises’ and therefore making them look bad if they fail to succeed. Or, the non-glass example of the ‘sticky floor’, which describes how women often feel stuck in low-wage jobs where career ascension is unlikely.’ 

But, handy as they are in explaining often complex topics, metaphors -in these contexts anyway- tend to oversimplify the problems ‘offering only a specific angle or viewpoint that isn’t the full picture.’ They confine us to viewing the world through a narrow aperture -a spotlight that illuminates only one small part of the stage. ‘“Women are the effect to be explained,” says Michelle Ryan, a psychology professor at the University of Exeter. “We never talk about men being overconfident, we always talk about women being underconfident. And we never talk about men having privilege or finding it easy; we always talk about women finding it difficult.” Ryan believes that the metaphors we’re using to describe women at work reflect the world’s androcentricism [sic] – our insistence that, even in 2017, we consider the male experience as “the norm”’

The issue is not entirely one-gendered, though. There is the concept of the ‘glass escalator’, a term occasionally applied to men in female-dominated industries that ascend to upper ranks more quickly than women. And yet, as Caren Goldberg of Bowie State University in Maryland points out, metaphors are employed when there is an “exception” to the rule or gender stereotype.’ So in the example she cites, it was applied to a male nurse (in a predominantly female dominated profession at the time) and implied that he probably chose nursing because he wasn’t able to get in to medical school.

‘The obvious upside of any these metaphors, however, is that they highlight social phenomena that might otherwise remain invisible and therefore impossible to resolve. But in order to address the circumstances that lead to women being held back, and men rising seamlessly, it shouldn’t be forgotten that metaphors simplify complexity.’

In an admittedly convoluted way, it reminds me of a woman I met the other day at a bus stop. I suppose I only met her by default, really -nobody would stand beside her because she was exhibiting a rather odd behaviour -probably Tourette’s syndrome, I’d thought at the time. She would be standing quietly at the curb, and then suddenly bend forward and seem to be vigorously cleaning and polishing something above her. This would last for a few seconds, often becoming more and more frantic, and then subside, leaving her once again peaceful, although by the look on her face, perhaps not content.

She was in her thirties, I would guess, and dressed quite respectably in a blue pant-suit, with a spotless white blouse and short stubby earrings that would be unlikely to achieve any unwanted momentum during her seemingly randomly timed tics. Her auburn hair was sensibly short and her makeup intact as far as I could tell. Apart from her odd movements, she seemed like a typical business woman on her way home from work.

And, when she moved beside me in the now-disrupted line up, she smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said -hurriedly, I thought, in order to explain herself before she was once again overcome by the movement. “It’s just my latest tic…”

At that point and without any obvious warning, she launched into another bout of scrubbing something invisible over her head. I tried to pretend I didn’t notice, but she wasn’t fooled.

“I think stuff at work must have kicked this one off,” she said and then blushed.

“What do you mean?” I asked, genuinely interested.

She stared at me for a moment, perhaps wondering if it was something appropriate to confess to a stranger at a bus stop. Then her smile returned briefly before the tic arrived again.

“They’re all used to me at work,” she explained when she was able to. “But the boss isn’t.” She risked a sigh to indicate her frustration. “I mostly just repeat words to myself so they’re not as disruptive. But occasionally a movement takes over, and that’s what he doesn’t understand… Or like. I think he wonders if I’m actually mentally handicapped, or something.

“Anyway, even though I’ve been working there as an accountant for almost ten years, he’s never promoted me. I’m well regarded by my colleagues, and they’re almost all men…but…”

I could see a sudden change in her face as she leaned over the curb and the tic began again.

“But my friend Amrita thinks it’s just the glass ceiling that’s holding me back,” she said, once again in temporary control. “And yet, I’m not certain that reassures me…”

Her bus pulled up suddenly, and she stepped onto it like any other passenger, and was gone. I saw her smile at me through the window when she found a seat though, and I nodded in a friendly recognition of what she’d shared with me. But, like her, I’m not sure her friend was right -ceilings are not the only battles.


A Feminist Resurgence?

Women’s Liberation -that’s what we used to call the women’s movement when I was a teenager. It sounded like a good idea to me, even though I didn’t really know what it was all about. Girls had always seemed to bring out the best in guys, so I was all for it. I still am. But I have to confess I never dreamed there would be a fifth column. Feminism v. anti Feminism? I didn’t even know there were two sides to the issue until the Cat thing surfaced:  I have to admit that the humour sucked me in…

Like most men, I know only some of the basic facts about the Feminist movement. For example, I know about the three waves: the First one got women the vote; the Second was the Sexual Revolution of the sixties; and the Third one… Uhmm… Maybe I’ve got it wrong, but I think it tried to make us all the same somehow – apart from genitalia everything else was culturally engendered. I suppose that all three are all equally important, but it seems to me that the first two were progressive –goal-oriented- while the third was…well, speculative at best, ideological at worst. A dogma.

As a male who loves and respects women, that last wave sort of washed over me. I always thought we made our own paths through life according to our unique talents and motivations. Where there was discrimination, we challenged it; where there was misinformation, we educated; and where there was something for which we were not suited, we adapted. Life is compromise –for both sexes.

But I fear I am embarking upon a road where even angels fear to tread –male ones, anyway. I mean no harm, and I take no sides, but I am truly baffled. The Movement, as I understand it, was an attempt to redress the obvious inequalities in societal attitudes to women. Such things as voting rights, education, safety from violence and equal pay for equal jobs are obvious. They needed a voice –time on the dais. What was perhaps swept under the cultural carpet, however, was a woman’s right to have a say in personal things: life style, contraception. Abortion. The right to make an informed choice when something affected her. And not just a right –rights have a habit of disappearing aux moments critiques– but a mechanism of enforcement. Laws that work. Feminism was a boon: not only did it lay the ground work for legal protection, but by dint of its strident voice, made it heard by those in power.

But rights must also extend to those who disagree. And as a movement ages, it risks a continuing evolution of the needs of those it was originally intended to serve. It risks having to justify itself to its adherents. In other words, it risks having to change along with them. And, increasingly, this does not necessarily entail cultural or political confrontation so much as cooptation: if the other side has something valuable, or is doing something worthwhile, make it look as if it was your idea all along… and then make it your own.

Times change. When I first started in practice as a specialist in gynaecology, I had the good fortune of having a female colleague as partner in the office. But it was a time of assumed misogyny, I’m afraid. A time of confrontational politics and patients. The prevailing wisdom seemed to be mistrust of male doctors. Mainstream Feminism was struggling through the brambles of disparate ideologies –some were conciliatory and accommodating while others were, well, reactionary and contumacious. I was young and inexperienced in the specialty and the times were aflame with societal struggles.

“The tables are turned, eh?” one of my recalcitrant patients said after refusing to be examined. She had agreed to see me when my partner’s waiting list became too long and her pain too great.

I sighed, closed her chart, and sat back in my chair. I didn’t know what to do.

I could see a worried look creep onto her face. “Look, I’ve told you my problem and you’ve seen the ovarian cyst on my ultrasound… Why can’t you just book me for the OR?”

I smiled bravely. “I suppose I could, but if you don’t trust me enough to examine you, why would you trust me to operate on you?”

She thought about it for a moment. “Well, you delivered my friend’s baby…”

“From the doorway?”

Her eyes narrowed for a moment, and then she laughed. “You turn tables back, too, eh?” And with that she got up and walked into the examination room. “Changed my mind,” she said and closed the door behind her.

A reputation is only as good as the first mistake; an ideology only as relevant as the experience it serves. I am a feminist if it serves my patients; I reserve the right to disagree if it does not. But I live in hope that I have misunderstood, and that evolving feminism is still as relevent and as crucial for society as ever. And I can wait -will wait- as Shakespeare advises: “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”