Thursday, October 19, 2006


Learned Helplessness, Male Privilege and the Habits of the Lab-Dwelling Grad Student

So, at long last, I've started on the project, which will theoretically involve some high-flying neuroscience, but for now consists of me reading papers and learning the basics of proteomics: running 2d gel electrophoresis. Specifically, this involves me running in circles around the lab, asking everyone where everything is (every lab has its own idiosyncratic rules about chemicals and flasks are kept. They also have totally different rules about safety. What goes in the fume hood, for instance, and when to wear gloves. I'd like to know by how much these differing traditions affect the end result of the experiment. A study idea for the future, perhaps?), and then forgetting where I am in the protocol, weighing in the wrong amount of buffer solute, and starting the process over again. Frustrating, but I assume everyone have been in this position, so this is not a terribly original observation.

What does interest me is the different approach that postdocs and other lab "seniors" take in teaching beginners.

I'm being taught by a postdoc who is very supportive and takes a very active role in demonstrating correct procedures and warn me about potential mistakes, and who is always present in the lab while I'm there. The two other grad students who started on the same time as me, however, get a completely different treatment; their postdoc leaves them in the lab, to figure our everything on their own. If this lab was the first one I'd worked in, I would just have shrugged. Fair enough; people are different, some are more helpful than others. However, based on my previous experiences in other labs, I have another theory.

In the lab where I did my master's thesis work, I was also taught by a postdoc. Just like now, I recieved a lot of help and support when I was getting started. Both postdocs were women; so am I getting extra attention and hep because I'm a guy? Comparing my experience with that of female grad students (like the two I mentioned above) suggests that they do not recieve the same amount of help and are expected to "fend for themselves" more frequently. My girlfriend, also a neuroscience grad student doing a lab-intensive project, never got the assistance I did from her (female) seniors. What's going on here?

To begin with, there may be something about my character that predisposes people to help me out more. Some kind of helplessness perhaps, or a sad puppy-dog look. Perhaps seeing me standing there, lost among reagents and eppendorf tubes, like a big baby, women are compelled to help me by the sheer force of that mythical "mothering instinct". It's an interesting possibility, especially since this helplessness is completely invisible to me. I'm constantly trying to minimize the need for other people to do things for me, since the situation makes me uncomfortable. And surely, the "mothering" tendency would apply to helpless women grad students as well?

Could this whole situation be a case of "male privilege"? Is there a bias in society that results in men recieving more attention and support than women? There are studies that support this. In America, for example, having a daughter as a first child increases the probability of divorce, men spend more time with their children if they have sons, and households with sons spend more on household items. These differences in investment (emotional as well as financial) point to daughters being valued less than sons, across a number of parameters. Does this difference then lead to males having a competitive advantage?

On one level, it can be argued that all the attention and pampering provided to men leads to them being weaker and more dependant on external support than women, who are forced to make do with much less from the start. However, this is an unconvincing argument; men don't only start with this advantage, they go through their whole life cusioned by it. Thus, men do not actually need to compete with women on equal terms; they are shielded from competition by both men and women who perpetuate this pattern of privilege. Most men, of course, aren't even aware of their special status, and thus, become greatly agitated and offended when presented with evidence to that effect in feminist discussions. To my mind, this intrinsic sublimation of privilege is the primary reason why men at large fail to have constructive dialogues with feminists.

It will be easy enough to make sure people stop helping me. But to help them realize how they're maintaining a skewed society is much harder.

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