Monday, 9 March 2015

Sexism in birding

A bit of a change from my usual blog posts now, for some thoughts about something I've never written about here previously, but which is rarely far from my mind. I'd like to preface it with three qualifying statements.

Firstly, when I read about instances of sexism experienced by other women and men (e.g. as documented by the Everyday Sexism Project) I feel pretty fortunate in that throughout my adult life I've experienced relatively little in the way of sexism, with just the odd isolated minor incident now and then. It's rare that I am directly on the receiving end of sexist behaviour, but all the same, I remain moderately aware of the systemic gender equalities that persist in the world today, and as a result am fairly hyper-aware of sexism in my everyday life, directed at me or otherwise.

Secondly, I've been birding with the West Midland Bird Club on their monthly coach trips for six years now and overwhelmingly I've found them a very welcoming and lovely bunch. They are for the most part a fair bit older than me (I'm 30) and for the most part male. It's not a criticism, but I would say that sexism isn't even on the radar for many of them - I don't think it would occur to many of them to behave in a sexist manner, nor to challenge sexist behaviour if they see it. Perhaps a generational thing for some, but I don't really mind either way. I think there is greater awareness among my closer birding buddies, both in the WMBC and elsewhere - perhaps that is partly why I gravitated towards them when I first started birding. I've known them to point out or challenge sexist behaviour on occasion. As mentioned above, I've been on the receiving end of relatively little sexist behaviour in my life, and this is even more so the case in birding - both because many birders are generally a fairly enlightened bunch, and because for many others I don't think it's something that even crosses their mind much at all. Only twice in six years have I experienced sexist comments on a WMBC coach trip, once unrelated to birding, and the other related - to be relayed in its full glory below! On both occasions the comments came from people who weren't regulars on the trips, and I'd like to make very clear that I in no way hold the WMBC responsible, I really enjoy their trips and will continue attending them as long as I'm able! :o)

Finally, I am no fountain of knowledge when it comes to birding - I know a few bits and bobs, and will never stop learning! I certainly don't expect everyone to drop what they're doing and give me their undivided attention while I dispense pearls of wisdom - that is just a situation that would never occur. I generally don't pipe up unless I am fairly certain of what I'm saying, so like most people, appreciate it when others take note. However, once or twice, it's been the case that while birding (not with the WMBC) I've spotted a bird, called it, and been completely ignored, only for a man to call the same bird a few seconds later and everyone to take notice, giving the bloke the credit for picking it up. Lovely.

Anyway, to the incident which prompted me to write this. Yesterday I was out with the WMBC again, on a most excellent trip to the Forest of Dean. While we were watching the Mandarins and other waterfowl on Cannop Ponds, a particular birder, not a regular on the trips, who shall remain nameless (because I literally can't remember his name and have consequently given him a slightly unflattering nickname) was pontificating about various aspects of natural history. At one point he marvelled that 'there's so much we don't know about the natural world.....there's more that we don't know than we do'. No disagreement from those present with that. He then went on to state, categorically, that 'there are only 2 bird species whose offspring assist them with raising subsequent broods'. I exclaimed incredulously, 'what, in the WORLD?!' and he clarified that no, he meant the UK. Seeing as there's so much we don't know about the natural world, I thought it possible that this behaviour could potentially occur in other species but had just not as yet been observed. I suggested that this could be the case, and tried to think of species in which I had heard of this happening, coming up with Long-tailed Tit and Carrion Crow - I wasn't sure if it's been observed in the UK, but was fairly certain I'd read something somewhere about cooperative breeding in Carrion Crows. He huffed and declared in a rather condescending tone, 'I think you'll find that Long-tailed Tits are single-brooded, love'. TEXTBOOK MANSPLAINING!!! I didn't know whether they were or not (as stated above, I am not a fount of knowledge, and it turns out they are single-brooded) but either way, I'm not sure how that would preclude offspring from previous broods from assisting their parents with raising chicks in subsequent years, apparently altruistic behaviour that is explained by the concept of kin selection and which has been well-documented. He then turned to another, male, member of our group and said 'I'm right aren't I, Long-tailed Tits are single-brooded?'. Luckily it was Ray, our group leader, to whom he had addressed this query, and ever the diplomat Ray shrugged and said 'I'm not sure - I wouldn't like to say'.

I don't believe that this nameless birder would have spoken to a male counterpart in the same patronising way - he certainly wouldn't have addressed them as 'love'. Andy M was certainly in agreement, as we exchanged a knowing look and a wry grin directly after the incident, and had a bit of a chuckle about it afterwards. It was ironic that the same morning, I'd had a brief chat with Gary Prescott, the Biking Birder, who was so enthusiastic about encouraging more people of my gender and age into birding, due to our current relative paucity. And it was doubly ironic given that yesterday was also International Women's Day!

As I've written above, I experience sexist behaviour directed at me relatively infrequently, and it is generally pretty low-level stuff, as the incident described above also is. However, although it may seem trivial, an experience like this does nothing for the image of birding in the UK that many people have, of a 'men's club' that is not always particularly welcoming to younger women. It's easy enough for me to roll my eyes and laugh it off with my mates, but I think if I had been younger, if that had been my first trip and I didn't know anyone on the coach, I would probably have found it a bit intimidating. When I told my (non-birder) partner what I was thinking, he suggested that maybe there are lots of young female birders out there, but that they're somewhat put off by organised group trips that are attended mainly by older men, and that they don't see it as something for someone like them. He could be right, and it would be a shame if this was the case as both parties could learn a lot from one another. For these reasons, I will continue to document any instances of sexism I experience whilst birding, and also because, hey - I don't like being belittled on account of my gender. Controversial I know.

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