Glass ceiling? More like a brick wall

February 2, 1996

Robin Dunbar's arguments (Grey natter, THES, January 26), like those of Geoff Miller whom he cites, are persuasive. But they have a blindspot with regard to their implications for women, especially women in the academy. If the public discourses of "politics, art, literature, music, perhaps even science, are really forms of male advertising and sexual display" then so, surely, are the discourses of the academy in which we try to work together.

And if this is the case then these forms will necessarily have a built-in mechanism to expel those they require as observers, not as participants. It is not so much, as Professor Dunbar suggests, that women are less motivated than men "to engage in - and especially succeed at - these activities". Rather they come up against a built-in resistance to their participation in forms whose very design they threaten to upset - at least until they can be comfortably identified as post-menopausal and/or sexually inactive.

I was confronted by this brick wall particularly forcefully at a conference I attended in England last summer. Seeking to talk to a (male) American scholar whose paper I had particularly liked I positioned myself accordingly in the informal groupings at tea. He was talking to a (male) British colleague who apparently made some general inquiry into the state of affairs in American universities. Raising his voice slightly, clearly intending me to hear, he lamented that they were full of "competitive females". He could not have more effectively communicated his message: females who are competitive are undesirable as females. Either be female or be competitive.

Perhaps we should stop talking about the glass ceiling and start talking about what Professor Dunbar suggests may be a more suitable phrase - the leks effect.

MARGARET TUDEAU-CLAYTON Faculte des lettres, Universite de Lausanne, Switzerland

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