Gender inside-out: Four everyday moments
Women’s Day, gender balance, Me Too. They almost sound like slogans.
But they aren’t.
So instead of writing this post in reliance on research, theories and statistics, this time I have chosen to take a look at four banal, everyday moments through gender-glasses and examine them from the inside out. With more question marks than exclamation marks.
Because in this fractal world, if I look at myself and my surroundings through a magnifying glass I might learn something about myself, about my own little world, as well as the big wide one.
Moment #1: Prime time
I watched a Jay Leno interview with actress Sofia Vergara (winner of an Emmy award and others). Gordon Ramsey was sitting beside her. A woman with whom the entire interview was colored with various forms of sexual innuendo. But before I had a chance to get angry, I was saddened. Legitimate talk on prime time. The audience laughed. Leno acquiesced. The actress cautiously placed a boundary. With humor. And I wanted her to get angry. To stop the interview until he apologized. To explain to him that in today’s Me Too world, this kind of talk is unacceptable, and that it serves as a model for others, and that the show is a model for others. That she will not accept it. But she didn’t.
Did I watch those moments and stand idly by? Perhaps I didn’t notice? And if this wasn’t a blunt sexist joke but merely nuances – in the way she was given the floor; in the way she was interrupted; in the way an idea was respected – maybe my gender sensors are overly sensitive, sending my radar haywire? Or maybe the reason is skill or competence or any other germane reason, and not gender? Gender is not an excuse, but neither is gender blindness.
I have drawn a theoretical map, which helps me to identify when this is a phenomenon and not merely chance. A map with fine, invisible coordinates that helps me find my location. At the moment of truth I get a sour taste in my mouth, evidence that a gender boundary has been crossed. Male or female. However subtle, however sophisticated.
Moment #2: A midnight soul searching
It’s a little after midnight. I have less than six hours of sleep left. I understand the implications for tomorrow, how tired I’ll be, but still, I don’t go to bed. These are the first moments I’ve had alone today. Alone with myself.
Morning. I’ve prepared the kids’ school lunch. Drive. Work. Drive. Home. Sick partner. I play with my daughter for a while. Homework with both kids. Food for today. Computer and work. I fall asleep on it. Again.
So many days look like this.
I haven’t invented anything. I’m not extraordinary.
I am blessed with a man who is a partner, who cooks, shops, shares the cleaning with me, a man who is a significant parent. And still, there are things that are completely my responsibility. Contacts with the school. Contacts with the parents (mainly moms) of friends, contacts with the community. Fairly gender-oriented. Is this the stereotyping into which we were raised? Is it his nature or mine? How do you distinguish between the two, anyway? Which of my choices is what I prefer because that’s who I am and that’s where I’m at my best? Which of my choices is the outcome of the society in which I grew up- and actually, if I take a brave look inward, I prefer otherwise. “This is how I negotiate”, I say to myself. “This is my approach to wage processes”; “This is the mother I want to be”; “This is my way of influencing others – persistently, consistently, without any overt conflict”. Is this my way or is it the way I was raised to be? What I was taught? What does one need to fight against and what should one embrace and get the best out of?
What do my children see when they observe me, the way I used to observe my parents? What am I teaching them with my words and actions, at home and at work? Every business trip abroad is a painful little wrench, but I go anyway. It’s important to me to communicate the message that I have a career that’s important to me, that self-actualization is important to me, that being my best is important to me, that life is breathing separation and reunion.
Are these gender-glasses that I can take off if I want to, or are they my own eyes?
Moment #3: A language issue
I have just written an email that turned out very long, because Hebrew is a gendered language, so everything had to be written in the masculine and feminine form to address all recipients. Unnecessarily cumbersome? In Hebrew, the “impersonal” is masculine. And every test, instruction sheet, user guide – all are in the masculine form. Why not accept it as it is? Maybe it’s just annoyingly tiresome? In any case, everything bears the statement that “any masculine term used here shall also include the feminine”.
I recently read about a research study that examined whether there is a difference in the performance of men and women on the basis of the gender of the instructions.
And wonder of wonders! Men and women perform better when the instructions are gender-specific and in the appropriate gender. Thinking about the implications is scary. School exams. Pre-employment tests.
So I persisted. I persisted because it turns out that even things that are seemingly accepted and obvious communicate a message and have an effect. At the end of the day, even things that seem to go in one ear and out the other register. I persisted because I wanted to communicate a message that everyone, those addressed in the masculine gender, and those – in the feminine gender, was invited. Even if it became a little tedious on the way.
And if that’s the way it is in the basic building blocks of the Hebrew language, how can it be any different in interviews, in the way an organization is structured, in the way textbooks are written, in the way development processes are managed.
This is just one example out of many of our different language for men and women.
And if that’s the way it is in an everyday matter we aren’t even aware of, is there really any chance of a change?
Moment #4: Laurels
Parent-teacher day. My daughter’s nightmare. She walks into the classroom, hanging her head, cringing. Holding my hand, she doesn’t look the teacher in the eye. She has a hard time dealing with compliments. I prepared her. I asked her to sit up straight in her chair and just enjoy it. It didn’t work. The teacher had asked the children to think about what they would be told on parent-teacher day, and she read aloud what my daughter had written. All of it was points for improvement. Right, by the way, but where were the compliments? For the teacher, my child’s major mission has nothing to do with academic achievements; it has to do with learning to make her voice heard.
It took me a long time to learn to accept compliments. Even today, I don’t know if I am able to accept them, but I put on a brave face and weather the experience.
It took me a long time to make my voice heard with clarity, to make room for it. To make room for me.
And I am raising a daughter and a son in a conscious attempt to let them choose to be what is right for them, from the inside out. So how, again, is my daughter in a place where it is embarrassing to succeed and scary to make herself heard? How many boys in fifth grade were given the same feedback?
Men who read job descriptions consider themselves right for the job if they are a 75% match with the criteria. Women won’t feel the same way unless they satisfy all of the criteria, in full. Perhaps it is there, at my daughter’s parent-teacher day, that the seeds for this perception are sown?
Society teaches her, teaches us. Teaches us that success has a price, especially for girls. That making yourself heard has a price. Especially for girls. And doesn’t this also hold true for the women in my neighborhood? At my place of work? What chance do we have of raising a different generation when the mindful institutions and structures – and, in particular, those that are not mindful – are biased?
Zooming out, I try to look at all these moments together. What are my takeaways? Despair? Hope? Mainly, the understanding that a genuine change can only be made if all of us, men and women, look at the world through gender-glasses, and then bravely examine, ask, deliberate.
And understand that sometimes we are biased, with no ill intentions.
And understand that the world isn’t just about gender, it’s about a lot of other things as well. And be careful not to gender-paint things that have nothing to do with gender.
And choose to see. First of all, see.