Next time you go to a meeting attended by men and women, watch the sexual dynamics. They might tell you more than what you hear from the lectern.
I went to a workshop on "Trends in Swedish Family Policy," led by Dr. Rita Lijestrom, a distinguished sociologist from Stockholm. She had some interesting things to say. The session itself was a classic.
There were 31 women and 8 men. Who responded on behalf of us all to the speaker's introductory quip? A man. Who asked the first question? A man. Who left early? Two men.
Someone has come up with the figure that men interrupt women 23 times more than vice versa; I would love to know how this precise number was determined, but I certainly don't question the general premise. In a recent roundtable conference on sex roles, the interruptions came so fast that almost nobody got a whole sentence out.
One woman had a technique to deal with this nuisance: she simply carried on after the interruption, picking up rather ostentatiously at the very word or even syllable where she had been stopped.
Not everyone had her cool, however. A woman commented, "I don't know what gets into us at these things. When there are men around, we seem to let 'em take over. Even when we know them, we sit there and nod and listen, and they talk their fool heads off."
Actually, she wasn't entirely correct. During the first question to Liljestrom, not a question but a lecture and a long one, a woman kept up a running fire of challenges to the guy's assumptions. She didn't stop him, but she made lose the thread, so that when he finished there was just a baffled silence.
Another way men take over a meeting - this was apparent at the sex role conference but not at the Swedish session which was led by a woman, after all - is by namedropping.
A skilled academic will wrap himself in authorities, bombarding his opponent with important names ("as Erich Fromm told me . . .") until she feels she is taking on the entire intellectual Establishment. If her own credentials aren't as elaborate as his (perhaps because of the years she spent putting her own husband through grad school), she is apt to feel at a disadvantage.
She shouldn't. All she has to do is ask the academic what he himself thinks. That'll fix him.
As for the meeting themselves, the Swedish one was a great success. The other one I wil talk about in a minute. The main difference between Swedish family policy and American is that they have one and we don't. In that rational and calm country, family policy is centered on children to the age of 18, when they come under other state policies.
Basic conflicts are dealt with: the conflict with society (unwed mothers, out-of-wedlock children), the conflict over fairness when providing for a family with children and one without, the conflict over divided responsibilities of parents who have two incomes.
Sweden still does not count housework as work. Its working wives still have to work doubly hard, for their husbands generally feel threatened by housework. (When new fathers were allowed time off to care for the baby, only 2 per cent took advantage of the state allowance; after seveal years the figure rose to 10 per cent.) Household chores are still split with a certain insane precision: men do the garden, the repairs, the car; women do the cleaning. Men clean the outside of windows, women the inside.
"In Sweden," said Liljestrom, "husbands have a code, they have to be the provider. And working women have to avoid hurting the husbans' feelings if they get equal pay . . ."
A Swedish woman journalist said afterward that it is a matter of generations: the older men are unreconstructed but their sons have no trouble over quality between the sexes. One got the impression that, for al the forward-looking legislation, Swedes have got no farther than we have in the pursuit of sexual justice.
The sex role conference? Now, that was something else. It started with a keynoter who indicated that "at best," women do a second-rate job in the esoteric affairs that men are uniquely competent to handle, and it went on from there until some women got so mad they presented a rebellious manifesto at the end. The redoubtable Dr Estelle Ramey, as final speaker, put it all into perspective: It's a question of power. Sure, she said, a female junior executive preems and primps and makes up to her beetle-browed boss. But so does a male junior executive. You can see it happening in any office.
Incidentally, in searching for my notes on this conference, I came across a mysterious page I can't place. I must have got so furious I walked out of whatever conference it was. All I have are two lines, an exchange between a couple of Ph.D. colleagues, a man and a woman, on some podium somewhere.
"We will now hear from Dr. Aldrich."
"Thank you, Barbara."
Some say sexism, along with racism and agism, is with us for good, since it is based on the struggle for power. As a veteran handicapper of the human race, I'm not so sure. Men are a little bit like the Spanish Armada, bred to confidence, casually assuming superiority by historical right, relying on past victories of others for their unearned prestige. Fat and sassy. And slow. The classic pushover for a hungry fighter.