Tag Archives: gender stereotypes

The more things change…

The other day, I was walking through downtown Amherst and picked up a book of feminist writing I thought might be thought-provoking. I opened to a random page, and read about a steadily increasing gender wage gap. I opened to another random page, and read about those moments when women have had to deal with the assumption that they will have children and how this must inevitably affect their career. I opened to a third random page, and read an account about what it feels like to be sitting at a conference – yet again – listening to the people in a position of privilege and power talking about working for equity.

I was reading Sisterhood is Powerful, an iconic collection of feminist essays published in… 1970. Nearly half a century ago.

As one of my college friends commented on Jill Abramson’s firing, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I know, I know. Things have changed. Things are better. We have progress to make, but see how far we’ve come! And the optimist in me really wants to celebrate and focus on all the genuine progress that has been made.

Only, the realist in me can’t completely set aside how much genuine progress is yet to be made.

So often, progress toward equity is seen as taking away power from the historically privileged and giving it to the historically oppressed. And that view, not without reason, is hard to rally around.

But for many if not most feminists, feminism (and by extension most strands of gender activism, including my own) is actually not about privileging women over men but rather about dismantling a system of patriarchy that privileges the (traditionally) masculine over the (traditionally) feminine, thus allowing each individual authentic self to emerge, in order to achieve equity.

For her CAS project (Creativity-Action-Service, one of the requirements for the IB diploma and now an option for all students in IB schools) Mary Pura ‘13 created a feminist film festival. Her efforts, and the discussions that followed each showing both immediately and some time afterward, have resulted in what appears to be a deep cultural shift in this school to more openly reflect our feminist roots. It is cool to identify as feminist, both intersectionality and gender and sexuality diversity are increasingly being discussed, and even students who prefer not to identify as feminist tend to believe in the feminist ideal of working toward gender equity and the ability of all people to express their true authentic selves.

One of the films Mary showed that had the most profound impact on the school was the documentary Miss Representation, a well-researched and hard-hitting look at how the media in particular and society in general consciously and unconsciously reinforce patriarchy through their depictions of and commentary on women. The team that produced the movie has been hard at work on a new film, The Mask You Live In, which further explores restrictive gender norms, examining their effect on boys and men. Feminism, Gloria Steinem and many others have said, is ultimately about the liberation not just of women but also of all human beings, and we may hope that this new documentary will help drive that point home and help move our society forward.

My fervent hope for my students and for my son is that, should they stumble across a copy of Sisterhood is Powerful 45 years from now (nearly a century after its original publication), they will view it simply as a historical document depicting times long past. It will not happen by itself. But we are capable of making it happen.

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Village

In real time, it’s hard to be sure what’s sexism and what’s you.
– Ann Friedman

As you may have heard, Jill Abramson, the first-ever female executive editor of The New York Times has been fired. There’s no speculation on that point – the paper has been clear, and she has made no effort that I know of to deny it. What’s much harder to figure out is why, even with excellent analyses like “Jill Abramson Will Never Know Why She Got Fired” (Ann Friedman in New York magazine) and “Why Jill Abramson Got Fired” (Ken Auletta in The New Yorker).

If you haven’t already, please note in passing the extreme contrast between those two titles, and ask yourself to what extent the genders (as perceived by their names, anyway) of the authors may be a factor. Not because of who those actual people are. Because of patriarchy.

In his article, Mr. Auletta notes that Ms. Abramson recently found out that her pay and pension benefits were significantly less than her predecessor, who was male. “‘She confronted the top brass,’ one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was ‘pushy,’ a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.” (Auletta) (For the record, you may count me in that “for many” group.) Differences of opinion over editorial policy and personnel decisions may also have been contributing factors. Mr. Auletta concludes, “Even though she thought she was politely asking about the pay discrepancy and about the role of the business side, and that she had a green light from management to hire a deputy to Baquet, the decision to terminate her was made.” Emerging from the objective tone of Mr. Auletta’s article, that analysis points to the likelihood of the kind of gut-level decision which is exactly at the center of Ms. Friedman’s piece.

Ms. Friedman notes that not “all women necessarily have a deep personal need to be liked by their colleagues” but that nonetheless “those colleagues’ gut-level opinions matter greatly when it comes to evaluating a woman’s job performance.” And early in the piece, she writes, “A muddled combination of complicated interpersonal stuff, not a single action or failure or incident, isn’t just an explanation for Abramson’s exit. It’s a reality for women in almost any workplace.” As she notes, while the confidence gap between men and women may not actually be all that great, the degree to and manner in which men and women are “allowed” by our culture to express that confidence does in fact vary widely. However hard one works to remain objective and free of restrictive gender norms, they exist and may be applied to us at a moment’s notice. Ms. Abramson, notes Ms. Friedman, recognized there may have been some legitimacy to various complaints aired earlier in her tenure. She also recognized a double standard may have been applied. And she also cried.

“But for most women, and anyone else who faces scrutiny as the ‘only one’ in the room, not caring is not an option.” (Friedman) Note that one doesn’t have to literally be the only one in the room for this to be true. And note also that that spotlight might be due to any number of factors including the full range of gender, sexuality, class, abledness, age, religion/spirituality, or other factors. The commonality is difference from what is commonly (whether consciously or not) considered the norm, along with the real and perceived pressures that result.

Because of patriarchy, institutionalized racism, and privilege in general, the only way to solve the problem is ultimately to dismantle the societal constructs that inevitably lead to it. Along the way, those of us with different kinds of intersecting privileges can scrutinize our own actions to see how they are affecting others, listen to historically oppressed groups, understand it is inevitable we will feel discomfort, and in general work to make sure “not caring is not an option” for us as well.

It takes a village, the saying goes.

Sign me up.

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The Politics of Nail Polish

“Can I ask why you’re wearing black nail polish?” I turned to see one of my advisees, a member of the Middle School Rock Band, walking toward me as we prepared for dress rehearsal for a show. “Sure, I said, “In order to make people think about why I’m doing it.” She burst into laughter, and said, “You’re the only person I know who would answer that question in that way.”

There are other reasons too, of course, several of which I’ve written about here before. Solidarity with my students in showing that I value the feminine. Breaking gender stereotypes and supporting other people who do the same. Ensuring my nail polish does not clash with my skin tone (granted, that’s mostly about the colour). And, as I have noted to those of my students who share a love of black nail polish, because I just like the way it looks on me. It took me quite a while to realize that, as I had to break a few internal gender stereotypes of my own. But I do.

I remember five years ago, sitting with a group of students and female faculty members having a “Day of Awareness” discussion on a gender-related issue, when one of the women turned to me and said, “Well, Bill’s here. Bill, what is the male perspective on that?” After a moment, I said, with maybe just a slight wavering of my voice, “I have no idea what ‘the male perspective’ is, but I can tell you what I think.” In so doing, I anticipated my current Humanities 7 students’ personal definitions in response to the question “What is a girl?” Ultimately, the majority (if not all!) of them felt that anyone who identifies as a girl gets to decide for herself what that means for her. My own sense of self was similarly unique to who I am and had (and still has) nothing to do with how anyone else identifies.

Six or seven years back, when my hair began thinning on the back of my head, my stepfather remarked on it and asked me if I’d have to cut off my ponytail one day and, if so, if I’d have to change my personality. The question struck me as both odd and insightful, and took me back several years before then when I’d told a colleague I had made an appointment to get a haircut. She said, genuinely alarmed, “But you’re not cutting off your ponytail!” No, I told her, just a trim, wondering why she’d care that much. I can only guess that, for both my stepfather and my colleague, there was something about my long hair that symbolized my way of being. Many of my virtual friends have told me that my online persona seems feminine to them. I’ve even had people tell me face to face, “Sometimes, I forget you’re a man.” And I can happily live with that, with people looking beyond gender to who other people really are deep down. In fact, my own search for identity has been largely shaped by my continual efforts to look past gender to my true authentic self, and my gender expression has reflected that ongoing search in the context of a heavily gendered culture.

To me, then, the whole concept of gender is ambiguous, individual, and personal. For some, a fixed, binary vision works perfectly well, and more power to them. For others, not so much, and more power to them as well. So what if we all were granted the sole power to determine our own gender identity, and other people simply respected that? It’s crazy, but it just might work.

If my own personality is a blend of what society currently calls feminine and masculine, along with other traits that don’t necessarily fall specifically into either gender box, so be it. And if my appearance – hair, nail polish, and the occasional skirt included – reflects that blurring of traditional concepts of gender, so be it. I am not female, though I am (conventionally) feminine in many ways. So I’m not (conventionally) masculine either. Except when I am. Which makes me… just… me. Husband, father, son, brother, son-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, nephew. Cousin, friend. Teacher, adviser, colleague. Person.

Those who see me around but don’t know me may nonetheless find their conceptions about gender stretched, and as a gender activist, I’m all over that. And those who do know me may take the combination of my appearance and my way of being as a means of reflecting on not just what gender means in our society and what they think about that but also on how we each ultimately determine our own gender identities and gender expressions. And I’m all over that as well.

How we conceive of the idea of gender identity was one of the questions Ms. Durrett’s sophomore English class wanted to discuss with my Humanities 7 students when we met near the end of Fall Term. While we didn’t quite get to it, not directly anyway, having gotten deeply involved in the topics of feminism, girls schools, and sports culture, both classes wanted to get back together for more discussion. When we do, I’ll be fascinated to see what they have to say.

And maybe, as my own contribution to the discussion… I’ll wear black nail polish.

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Seriously? Seriously.

Maybe it’s because I was on vacation, but the news that “there’s even a gender wage gap in babysitting” (Maya) saddened me but didn’t outrage me. I suppose it’s also because it was simply too easy to assimilate it into my existing body of knowledge: how women right out of college earn less than men, how men earn more than women even in so-called “feminized” professions, how the gender wage gap exists not just at a national level but also within all racial groups (granting that white women earn more than men of some other racial groups), how… how? How? HOW?!

Today, at any rate, school is in session, and I was beyond outraged to learn there is a gender wage gap in allowances.

Yes, you read that right. Allowances.

As with many issues of social justice, what seems unfair on the surface – turns out to be unfair on multiple levels as well. Yes, the gender wage gap is now officially extended even further down into childhood, which is disturbing enough. Yes, it’s harder to blame society as a whole because individual parents are making these decisions (I know, all of us together make up society as a whole. But in general, parents of daughters tend to want the world to embrace them fully for who they are and not think of them as “less than” – you’d think they, if anyone, would be fair about this.). Beyond all that is the relationship of allowance to chores. Boys, it seems, are asked less often to do chores and see their allowances tied to those chores more often. And “asking girls to do more chores without paying them teaches both genders that women are meant to do unpaid work.” (Bryce Covert, quoted by Maya)

Gloria Steinem said that most social justice movements begin with consciousness-raising, and suggested that feminism has passed both that stage and the organizing stage and has arguably embarked on the final stage of transformation. However, it seems that a little additional consciousness-raising is in order.

Depressing as this news is, though, it is also an opportunity. Patriarchy operates in large part at a subconscious level, and when behaviors and attitudes such as these are made glaringly visible, one can consciously begin to work on them. Out of such work, we may hope, deeper and more permanent transformation will be possible.

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And We’re Back!

Other than the persistent and depressing cold, which I’ll concede has the virtue of bringing people together united in the strong desire for spring to just come already tinged with a sense of pride that we seem to have survived winter, it’s been a relatively normal return from spring break. The faculty began with an excellent in-service day. We spent the morning thinking about gender and sexual identities and how they relate to adolescent development, and how best to support our students. In the afternoon, we learned about Korean culture and spent time thinking about ways to best support all the English learners in our school. Kids greeted each other with the usual screams and hugs. Classes got back to work with a general good will and air of curiosity, although I’ll admit here that my Humanities 7 class was openly (and occasionally successfully) trying to distract me from starting the brand new unit. They would eventually agree that the unit’s theme would be judging, with the discussion underlining that we were especially looking at how ideals get set, why some ideals end up so superficial, and the sources and effects of judgment on people in general and 7th grade girls in particular.

Wednesday morning, while looking for interesting articles and comments to share on the school’s Twitter stream, I stumbled across an article at edweek.org entitled “Single-Sex Classrooms Making a Comeback for All the Wrong Reasons.” That certainly caught my attention! Reading through it, I felt as though I were in an alternate reality. The concluding sentence, “It seems that there must be a better way to encourage young women, and men, in their academic studies without implementing the archaic practice of total separation in classrooms.” summed up the general drift of the article, and was followed by a question that, in the context of the article, I hope and trust was sincere: “Are you in favor of, or against, single-sex schooling models?”

Well. I am strongly in favour of schooling models that work toward social justice, and unsurprisingly, I believe (based on both experience and on research) that girls schools can provide a unique, valuable, and rich context for that work. I don’t always comment on edweek.org articles, but I was definitely riled up, and before I knew it, I had worked up the following comment that began with quotes from the article:

“This idea that young women are dropping non-feminine topics at an impressionable age because of the opposite sex is flawed.” “One of the arguments for single-sex schooling is that it takes away the tingly, budding attraction emotions in young people” I work in the middle school program of a girls independent school, and believe me, these are not fundamental rationales for our being a girls school. I would run away screaming if that were true.

In sharp contrast to those rationales, our school’s mission implies feminist ideals as it is not just about honoring and developing girls’ and women’s voices but also about working to build a world that is genuinely willing to listen. Year after year, kids in my class say they can talk about gender issues in a way that was never possible in their old schools. They’ll talk about coaches – coaches! – that discouraged them from developing athletic ability. They’ll talk about how much they appreciate being taken seriously and valued as girls. One alumna wrote of how grateful she was to have learned how to live as a feminist in a patriarchal society. And there is research supporting these sorts of benefits of living and learning in a girl-positive environment.

As for the “T” in LGBT – we have in fact had students and alums come out as transgender (by the way, I would argue that the implication here is that gender, unlike sex, isn’t necessarily predetermined), and I do in fact try to be very clear with my students that I’m well aware that not every person at my school whom I’ve ever taught, or will ever teach, will necessarily self-identify as female their whole life.

So yes, I support my school’s model. But I don’t view it as archaic in the slightest. And in no way do I believe I am “teaching stereotypes” – other than to identify them and the forces creating them, the better to work to undermine and do away with them.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Girls School Advantage, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

To ban or not to ban: “Bossy”

“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’” So begins the website at http://banbossy.com/, a new organization co-founded by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In Foundation and the Girl Scouts of America. The website points out that girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boy’s from elementary to high school, that girls are twice as likely as boys to worry about being called “bossy,” and girls are still called on less and interrupted more in class. (Ban Bossy) There’s no question that we need to do something about that, and there’s no question we know some of the things that work.

On the Girl Scouts’ website, for example, they share the results of a study done in 2008 that showed the following (Girl Scouts):

  • Girls, even at a very young age, have definite ideas about what it means and takes to be a leader.
  • Promoting leadership in girls is primarily a matter of fostering their self-confidence and providing supportive environments in which to acquire leadership experience.
  • To be relevant to and successful with girls, a leadership program must address their aspirational or preferred definition of leadership, their need for emotional safety, and their desire for social and personal development.
  • Girls have a range of “leadership identities,” from strong aspiration to outright rejection of the leadership role.

Of course, girls schools and other girl-positive organizations epitomize supportive environments. However, these environments need not necessarily be all girls organizations (to whatever extent one can ever say with confidence that one’s organization is in fact “all girls”), though that does facilitate the process. In helping create supportive environments, these principles suggest that we need to – following principles of best practice – engage with the individual girls in front of us, helping them figure out how they now view leadership, how they came to hold that view, where they see themselves going, and ultimately how they see themselves able to help move a given group of people forward (the goal behind all good leadership and all good membership).

In that context, the “Ban Bossy” campaign can be, and is, seen by different people as anywhere from an essential component of doing this good work to a needless distraction. A recent chat on the Feministing website brought out several important points:

  • Rather than bringing attention to women’s exclusion from leadership, [it] distracts from these realities by making the issue semantic and easily dismissed. (Jos Truitt)
  • Also I honestly don’t feel like “banning” words like this ever really works, and I actually find it a lot more effective to find power in that word vs. a bland attempt to get rid of it. (Jos Truitt)
  • I do appreciate the goal of starting a conversation about the negative feedback we give to girls who show leadership qualities and how that particular double-standard has real consequences for how kids are socialized. (Maya Dusenbery)
  • This campaign exists without analysis of how “bossiness” is perceived when women and girls of color are bossy, which I think is a really important point. (Verónica Bayetti Flores)

One of the people in my Twitter family is a member of the Tea Party, and she certainly had a vehement and visceral reaction to the campaign and what she saw as thought police. As we discussed the issue, it developed that we agreed that the conditions that led to girls with leadership qualities being more likely to be called “bossy” are something we as a society absolutely must discuss but that we both were uneasy about outright “banning” use of some words. Also, I do believe that gender activism in general and feminism in particular strongly need to continually listen to the full range of voices in the movements, work on intersectionality, and strive to bring out nuance in service to the greater goal of true equality for all humanity. Towards that end…

When posting a link to the “Ban Bossy” campaign in its earliest days, my Twitter and Facebook friend Kenzo Shibata added a comment that caused me to respond, “Like to the power of like.” He said, “I got a better idea. How about we teach children of all gender identities to be collaborative and stop making authoritarianism the ideal?” (Kenzo Shibata)

That, I can absolutely support. Anyone else with us?

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, On Education, On Parenting, The Girls School Advantage, Women in media

Circle of Uniqueness

The end does not actually justify the means; the means create the end.
– Gloria Steinem

If there isn’t trouble the day after a feminist speaks, they haven’t done their job. So noted Gloria Steinem, feminist icon, early on in her speech given at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts as part of their Public Policy Lecture Series. As I thumbed a paraphrase of her words into my phone, I thought, “Well, perhaps it’s my job to help ensure there’s trouble.” And indeed, Ms. Steinem referred on multiple occasions to the accumulated power in the room, never mind the other auditorium where overflow was watching and listening via a video feed.

Her listed topic was, “Feminism: Where are we going?” It would appear that where we are going (as a gender activist, I strongly sympathize with and work alongside feminists) is both exciting and dangerous. Most social justice movements, she said, go through three distinct stages: raising consciousness, organizing, effecting transformation. The phase of consciousness-raising most pertinent to modern feminism may have reached its peak with the groups of the 1970’s I remember so well in my home town and at my college. Ms. Steinem would note later on, in response to a question, that if done right and through face-to-face communication, consciousness-raising groups can permit an easy, smooth, and seamless shift to organizing – part of the work is already done.

So at this point in time, Ms. Steinem argued, the organizing phase is also largely done. Attitudes have sharply shifted, and there are signs that the process of transformation has started. As Ms. Steinem put it, “Hierarchy is based on patriarchy and patriarchy isn’t based on anything any more.” However, to completely break free of gender boxes and open up the full range of human potential, it’s going to take a whole lot more transformation including men developing their full humanity as well. She also noted, both in response to a question about intersectionality and elsewhere in her talk, the intimate relationship of of feminism and anti-racism, affirming that “It’s not possible to be a feminist without being anti-racist.”

To break free of gender and other restricting boxes, we can think in terms of a circle of human qualities rather than a hierarchy. To further challenge and put an end to hierarchy, we can also work to understand individuals on their own terms rather than by identifying them as part of a group. This does not mean denying connections; quite the contrary. Ms. Steinem noted that “We are linked, we are not ranked,” and affirmed that hierarchies are a self-perpetuating lie that we increasingly disbelieve. Ultimately, the goal would be to ensure that “We are each completing our own circle of uniqueness.”

Ms. Steinem also talked about domestic violence, pointing out that countries with the highest rates of domestic violence also tend to have the highest rates of other kinds of violence. Normalizing violence in the home normalizes violence in the world. Furthermore, domestic violence is about control, and the most dangerous time for a potential victim of domestic violence is immediately before or after they escape that control.

As we work to free humanity from the control of patriarchy, the metaphor of escaping from domestic violence holds true. One questioner from the audience noted the strength of the backlash in the form of both various proposed pieces of legislation and rhetoric, expressing the fear that things were actually getting worse rather than better. Ms. Steinem acknowledged the strength and force of the backlash, noting that legislators, especially in state legislatures which fly somewhat more under the radar than Congress, disproportionately represent a minority view that seeks to restrict the rights of women, LGBT people, and people of colour. She pointed out that the majority, even when they are right, does not always win.

Among audience members asking questions were a student who had come down from Burlington, VT, a worker with a group fighting domestic violence in Cambridge, MA, and an alumna of MCLA who had heard Gloria Steinem before but had driven six hours from Philadelphia with a friend so the friend could see her as well. A number of questions were preceded with sometimes tearful statements that, “You are one of my heroes,” “You kept me sane,” and “You have no idea what you meant to me.” The speakers seemed to be expressing not only a longing for connection but also a longing for affirmation for their true selves in a world that does not always value them. Ms. Steinem noted the fundamental importance and power of networking, of creating spaces where people can talk about what they are seeing, feeling, and thinking, and of knowing wherever you go, you can find such a space. Such groups work best face to face; “A revolution doesn’t happen by pressing ‘Send’.”

I hope and pray that this school is one such space, and I know I work nonstop in the hope that it may be. I also work nonstop to spread the notion that people of all genders need to be freed of the roles and boxes and rankings that have hobbled them for hundreds of years. But, as Ms. Steinem noted, the period of human history dominated by patriarchy has been relatively short. We are in fact the majority. And if we want to go forth and cause a little trouble, so to speak, we are not alone. Therein lies hope. That circle of uniqueness need not just be each individual person; it can also be also all of us together. And all of us together are a force. All of us together can win.

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