"Being a feminist is also about seeing the invisible"

"Being a feminist is also about seeing the invisible"

Tue, 08/03/2016


Interview of Christine Detrez, sociologist, for International Women’s Day

Christine Detrez, lecturer at the ENS de Lyon and a specialist in gender, was one very busy woman on March 8, 2016: speaking at a roundtable in Lyon on the theme "Feminism and Seduction", and later on RFI radio station for International Women's Day. One year ago, she published Quel genre? ("What gender?"), an essay on the cliché phrases we use without thinking and which confine girls and boys to specific roles. Her latest book was released last week: Can women be great men? On March 14, she was at the Grand Palais in Paris for a debate on the theme: "Neither masculine nor feminine. Are you of the neutral gender?"
Belin editions asked you to write a book on gender using a striking tone. It became Can women be great men? with anecdotes, data and quotes that make readers pause…

Christine Detrez: It's a real writing exercise. I'm an adept of "gay science," as nailed by philosopher Michèle Le Doeuff. In research, you can be very rigorous but not take yourself seriously. Humor is the best way to get a message across. And that works for everybody: friends, family, colleagues, researchers, children and teenagers. Going to secondary schools and high schools to talk about gender, I think, is the continuity of a researcher's mission. I consider it a transfer of knowledge, and it's also one of the missions of the ENS de Lyon: dissemination of knowledge. Did you know for instance that out of 13,192 names of men and women in schoolbooks, only 6.1 percent are women? That J.K. Rowling chose to only use the initial of her first name to hide the fact she was a woman? And you must know about the Matilda effect…
In September 2014, the president of the ENS de Lyon appointed you special advisor to the vice president in charge of research. The previous president had also named you advisor to gender equality, alongside Sophie Fermigier. Do you think we're making progress?
CD: Yes, things are changing – slowly but surely, inexorably. Look at all that happened lately at the ENS de Lyon. It's not just a matter of communication. The first congress of gender studies, organized by the GIS Genre, of which the ENS de Lyon is a founding member, was held here in September 2014. The junior lab Genere has organized many memorable events encouraging in-depth and rigorous debates on the topic. Female students have founded the club "Salopettes". Have you seen the posters they've pinned up everywhere, even in the restrooms, to appeal to university students? Take the time to read them. I support their initiative. There are also the Expertes. There, the female researchers at Monod are trailing behind those at Descartes.
I'll tell you a personal story. As a sociologist, I've always talked a lot about gender to my students. But in a way I was keeping a distance. And I remember very well how after a lecture on stereotypes, a student came to me and asked me: "Why did you say: I'm not a feminist, but…"? And right there, I realized I needed to do things differently. It was eight or nine years ago. That student, Marlène Benquet, now works at the CNRS, and she's gone quite a long way in research on gender. Every time someone asks me "are you a feminist?" and I answer yes, I think of her. Being a feminist is also about seeing the invisible, that well-known glass ceiling. When you're a feminist, you're always asking yourself questions.
In all of the projects carried out by the ENS de Lyon, the question of gender and equality is taken into account: for instance, it's one of the overarching themes of the future Laboratory of Education (LLE). Because education is the key to change.
Which women have left their mark on you?

CD: There's not just one, for sure! The latest is philosopher Michèle Le Doeuff (who also happens to be an alumnus!), and I recommend reading her two works, "L'étude et le rouet" ("The study and the spinning wheel") and "Le sexe du savoir" ("The gender of knowledge"): both are terribly topical, and reading them is energizing. And in my childhood, one fictional character left her mark on me, and even influenced me: Jo, in Little Women. 
What does a sociologist specialized in gender dream of?
CD: (without any hesitation and with a large smile). Of having nothing left to say!

Gender initiatives

Non-exhaustive (and non-chronological) list of gender-themed events and initiatives involving the ENS de Lyon
The interdisciplinary project "Gender and Policy" of the Triangle Laboratory, set up in 2009. Each year, it organizes conferences open to the general public.
The junior lab GenERe (Gender: epistemology and research) aims to encourage debates and dissemination of knowledge around gender, within our school and beyond. It regularly organizes conferences and meetings.

September 2014: France has its first ever gender congress, hosted by the ENS de Lyon and organized by the GIS Gender. Christine Detrez comments: "Thanks to my colleagues Pascale Barthélémy and Claude Gautier for leading the project; it allowed me to attend the conferences and debate with other researchers."

January 2016: a space devoted to gender equality issues is set up on the school intranet. It's moderated by Sophie Fermigier and Christine Detrez, named special advisors on the topic.

Last month, during an administrative meeting, the vice-president in charge of research presented two illustrations on the gender of lab managers. They came with no comment but highlighted the fact there are more women leading laboratories in exact sciences than in human and social sciences at the ENS de Lyon.

Students have founded the club "Salopettes", following in the footsteps of the "Simones". Christine Detrez comments: "Have you seen the posters they’ve pinned up everywhere, even in the restrooms, to appeal to university students?" (inspired by the Blog tenure). "Take the time to read them. I support their initiative."

The call for LLE (Laboratory of Education) projects is posted on the website of the Triangle laboratory. Christine Detrez comments: "Don’t forget: the key to change is education."

And of course Les Expertes: based on the finding that only 20% of the experts invited in the media are women, in 2012 two journalists created the first Guide to female experts. Initially printed on paper, it's now available online. Its aim is to increase the visibility of women in the public arena and in the media. More than 1,650 female experts are listed in the guide, for some 300 themes and 2,900 key words. As we're writing these lines, only 5 ENS de Lyon researchers are listed in there, exclusively in human and social sciences. Christine Detrez comments: "Come on Monod girls, we're counting on you to sign up!"