Gender unawareness: the benefits of social isolation

Growing up autistic, I was less receptive than most to the subtle underlying pressure society exerts to separate men from women. At primary school, I was bullied horribly by girls and boys alike. But from the age of 11, I attended an all-girls secondary school that prided itself on teaching its students to be leaders. Rarely socialising with my peers, I was never exposed to the social requirement to hide my competence and enthusiasm in the presence of men. Looking back, my loneliness seems a small price to pay for the privilege of a sexism-free adolescence. Of course, I knew that there was something “wrong” that made me less than my peers. But it had nothing to do with my gender.

The lessons I learned in childhood and adolescence bear a stark contrast to the lessons impressed on most girls in their teenage years. In a girls’ school and later at university, I found delight in exploring concepts, helped on as we were encouraged to discuss and develop. Never mind if our answers were wrong or incomplete; I was consistently met with a willingness to explain, to lead me into a deeper understanding.

But in a gendered environment, girls learn that they are expected to be wrong. They learn that unless they have a perfect answer, they should keep quiet or risk ridicule. “Girls talk too much”: so goes the stereotype, implying that women should be careful before speaking to ensure that what they have to say is truly valuable. By the mid-teenage years, some girls would rather present their teacher with a blank page than submit their work so far and ask for guidance. The lessons learned here persist long into adulthood, with women (in my experience) being much more defensive about mistakes and less willing to discuss what went wrong – with a view to what could be improved – than men.

I remember a time when I didn’t “see” gender. Although I grew up surrounded by women and girls, I’ve never been uncomfortable in a working or social environment dominated by men. It served me well in my university studies, and I had no qualms about gender balance in applying for jobs in scientific fields. In the workplace, that’s changed. But not in the way you might expect.

The thing is, from an autistic perspective, I’m now generally more afraid of women than men. In the neurotypical world, behaviours that come naturally to me are often misinterpreted. Both men and women have cautioned me against arrogance, where I suspect they might have recognised (and approved of) confidence in a man. But in face-to-face interactions, I feel like I can trust a man to speak out openly if he thinks I’ve been rude. An open challenge I can face down, or accept and apologise as necessary. Whilst a woman, conditioned to avoid conflict, will keep her feelings quiet and unresolved – and I will never know. This is an observable impact of men learning that their identity and personhood has a value worth defending; whereas women have been socialised to submit, never challenging anything that makes them uncomfortable. The upshot of which is that with a woman I’ve offended unintentionally, I may never get the chance to make it right. With a single mis-step on my part, the relationship is poisoned.

The fact that I’ve learned to “see” gender in the working environment because of these socialised differences does bother me. I try very hard to treat people equally, and I always presume competence regardless of gender. I know that it’s equally possible to have informative, rewarding technical conversations with women as with men. But I’ve found that from an autistic perspective, conversations with women tend to be much less accessible to me, and much higher risk. There is so much more padding and subtext. Getting to the point with someone who’s been taught it’s rude to be direct is hard.

So I find myself fearing a female supervisor. Not because I have a problem with women in authority, or with women in general, but because experience tells me we’ll struggle to maintain an honest dialogue. I fear she will misjudge me, and not speak out. I fear I won’t be able to find her message, hidden in amongst the soft edges. I fear that when I make the inevitable mistakes, I’ll never have the chance to make it right.

(Throughout my life, largely because of my undiagnosed autism, I have learned that my own feelings are subordinate to those of others, and that I should not assert myself or challenge those things which are wrong or uncomfortable. The same lessons learned by every schoolgirl, but on different subjects, and for different reasons. The irony – that I must be afraid of women who have learned not to defend their own interests and expect me to be equally submissive – does not escape me.)

Of course, this fear of perpetual misunderstanding applies to some men, too. But in my experience, there are fewer men who will not speak out in the face of a perceived wrong. And perhaps this is because of how we are taught to relate.

The language of interectionality and feminism is new to me, but the concepts make a lot of sense. It’s interesting to think about the interplay between autism and gender in UK society. I don’t pretend to offer deep or particularly original insights here, but I think I might post around this topic every so often, when I want to explore something new. (New special interest, moi?!) In the meantime, if anyone more experienced wants to recommend me some reading on this I’d be keen to learn more.

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