A little tokenism.

This was written a couple years ago, then put aside. I’m publishing it now as part of my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series.

I lived with a woman for a couple years. I’m single now, for reasons that will emerge.

Once we were doing the New York Times crossword together and my girlfriend wondered aloud about the origin of the phrase “honest Injun”. I speculated that it started with an Indian on a variety-show stage avowing his trustworthiness to a white man – thumping his buckskin-clad chest and declaring in broken English, “me honest Injun!”

When my girlfriend snorted at the racism of that imaginary skit, my eyebrow went up slightly. That eyebrow movement contained a number of half-formed thoughts. Was it racist to imagine an Indian speaking broken English? Or trying to convince a skeptical white man to trust him? Ordinarily I would have put aside these heretical questions for later consideration, but my eyebrow betrayed me. Damn my naturally expressive face! Now we had to have a long uncomfortable argument about it.

Most days she was as willing as I was to steer wide of these conversational pitfalls. But sometimes, in order to verify that I wasn’t a total Cro-Magnon, she found it necessary to test me. She was almost always unhappy with the results. Like on the question of whether I was or wasn’t a feminist.

I was too inarticulate, but I should have said in reply to my girlfriend’s probing that as I see it there are two contradictory and logically incompatible streams in modern feminism.

The first stream, which I generally endorse, is the idea that women have something distinctive to contribute to the various spheres of life which were once closed to them. This is the line of feminist thought that says, If women ran the world, they would put a stop to war. I’m not sure this particular platitude is true, but the idea behind it is sound. Women and men have, on average, different priorities, interests, and aptitudes – more different in some areas than others. Often the female viewpoint will illuminate a problem in a way that would never have occurred to a man – and vice-versa. Sometimes this different angle of illumination is helpful. Sometimes not. There may be times when it’s harmful – that is, when tilting too far toward the female or male viewpoint actually reduces the ability of a group to see a problem accurately. But it’s hard to generalize about when and how each viewpoint will be helpful or harmful, especially since men and women will arrive at different conclusions about what constitutes help or harm.

Perhaps, then, the fairest and safest method of organizing the world would be the feminist ideal of equal representation in every field. In some areas the added female or male perspective will hinder operating efficiency, but in other areas it will enhance it, and the result should be a wash.

But this strategy isn’t without risk. Suppose that men are likelier to make bad decisions about child-rearing. If in that case we insist that fifty percent of nannies, pediatric doctors, and day-care operators be male, the result might be generations of maladjusted children. Or suppose that women are even slightly worse than men at waging war. A half-female military might perform perfectly well in peacetime, but in the event of a death struggle with a competing empire, its competitive disadvantage would be quickly revealed. Gender parity might modestly improve outcomes ninety-nine times and fail catastrophically only once: that’s a failure.

As I was saying, that’s the stream of modern feminism I agree with. The other and, I think, far less defensible stream is the one that says there are no innate differences between man and woman, that any apparent differences are socially constructed, that those artificial differences are baleful to our collective happiness, and that any deviation from a 50/50 sex ratio must be corrected in the interest of eliminating those baleful differences.

So if little girls prefer playing with dolls, and little boys with transforming robots, the girls should be made to play with transforming robots and the boys with dolls. The children may be less happy with their toys, but this unhappiness is a consequence of their unconscious adherence to the gender roles imposed on them by our sexist society. If we force children to play in a gender-neutral manner, they’ll grow into adults less inclined to harbour and enforce sexist assumptions, and the next generation of children will happily select gender-neutral toys of their own free will.

As you can probably tell, I think that’s nonsense. But more than that, I hope it’s nonsense. I’m no more eager to live in a world where girls and boys play with the same toys than I am to live in a world where Frenchmen and Russians speak the same language, or where Indians and Chinese eat the same foods, or where you and I think the same thoughts. If every group were identical there’d be no point getting to know anyone new. Group differences are interesting for the same reason that individual differences are interesting.

Now, if men and women do think alike, any gender imbalance can only by explained by the corrupting presence of sexism. If women are underrepresented among mathematicians, it must be because A) the academy is deliberately or unconsciously hindering women from advancing in math careers, or B) because math teachers are deliberately or unconsciously discouraging girls who would otherwise be interested in math, or C) because girls themselves are absorbing sexist stereotypes about their supposed inaptitude for math and thus not bothering to pursue it as a career.

If A, B, or C is true, then one solution is to artificially create more women mathematicians in order to undo our damaging stereotypes about girls and math. Artificial is probably the wrong word, because I don’t mean to imply that they won’t be real mathematicians, only that they’ve been assisted down a career path they might not have been motivated to pursue on their own. Let’s call them, non-judgementally, in vitro.

Once a sufficient number of in vitro role models is established, the theory goes, the next generation of female nerds will no longer be subtly discouraged from pursuing their love of numbers, and the innate sameness of male and female math aptitudes will be revealed.

But what about the possibility that D) girls tend not to pursue mathematics because they’re not all that interested? I won’t say it’s because they’re bad at math, although I assume being interested in math makes it easier to become good at it. (I wouldn’t know, being both bored by and bad at math.) On the other hand, being good at something tends to help one develop an interest in it; interest and aptitude are linked in a mutually-reinforcing way.

This is why the in vitro solution could be damaging if it turns out (as I suspect; and as I suspect many feminists, deep down, also suspect) that D is the real cause of the dearth of female mathematicians. Prodding students to pursue math careers they’re not all that keen on may not be in their interest.

However, I think a certain amount of in vitro sex integration – tokenism, if you will – is beneficial in nearly every profession. Even if your “token” male nanny (for instance) isn’t up to the standards of his female colleagues, his presence in the playground will give heart to future gender-non-conforming men who are genuinely enthusiastic about nannying and might have something valuable to bring to the job.

If a certain field is likely to benefit by sex integration at all, you probably want to keep the minority contingent above a certain level – say, five or ten or fifteen percent; high enough that prospective geniuses of the minority sex aren’t discouraged from pursuing their dreams.


While I don’t believe I’ve had cause to use the word “Injun” before, a few months back I used the 1982 novel Flashman and the Redskins as a springboard for a discussion about high housing prices. In a 2016 essay I used my own undistinguished career as an illustration of how different preferences lead to different outcomes, and in 2011 I speculated that our sensitivity about violence toward women made it awkward for female comedians to do slapstick.

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker