Recently, I was at a function with a group of people when I witnessed what I feel was blatant sexism. It wasn’t directly aimed at myself or the other females in our group. However, at the same time, it felt as though it was aimed at all women, everywhere and I felt incredibly hurt and angry. I don’t think that I was the only female in our group who felt this way. A few of us walked away from the function feeling incredibly devalued and also shocked that, in 2019, women as a whole were still being subjected to such behaviour.
I am not convinced that the individual really meant to be derogatory towards women, although their comments would probably lead most of us to thinking otherwise. I believe that they simply did not think, that they got a little caught up in being who they felt they had to be in that situation and tried to make a joke that, in my assessment was unnecessary and far from funny. In my mind, this does not justify their actions. It does, I think, give us an inkling as to why “isms” such as sexism, racism and the like can be difficult to remove from society. When people aren’t even aware that they are doing it, when they use words that satisfy their needs in the moment without having an awareness of what those words can do to others, it unfortunately seems to make sense that some of these less-palatable hangovers from previous societal views are going to remain with us for some time. I think that this situation was an example of that.
A Disappointing Reaction to Sexism
My reaction to the situation was, in my assessment, both surprising and disappointing. The shock, disgust and anger that I experienced led me to mostly being silent apart from a snide comment that wasn’t really heard. I hold an assessment that my reaction wouldn’t have had an impact. In my opinion, my actions will not have contributed to the possibility of removing sexism from our society. I feel a little cranky with myself for that. What was interesting, however, was that it was obvious that the majority of the women in the group were affected by the individual’s behaviour and yet no one spoke up. I am in no way judging these other women. I am responsible for my own actions and I also did not speak up. I am however, curious that none of us spoke up.
Why Isn’t it as Simple as Declaring Women as Equals?
When we look at the history of women in society, we can see that some of the women’s rights that my daughters will probably take for granted only came into play 30-40 years ago. Humans have existed for how long? And some basic human rights that have only been available to women for 30-4 years have been available to men since almost the beginning. I find this saddening.
However, it could also be argued that 30-40 years ago is long enough for the changes to have been embedded in our society and yet, still today we are fighting for women to be treated equally and with respect. Still today, we can find ourselves in a group of people where a male trying to impress other males can exclaim “Haven’t you got a missus? Why wasn’t she doing your washing for you?” Still today, when a male makes a comment like this, a large number of people in the group can find it amusing and simply laugh. Still today, the women in the group can feel so shocked and disrespected at what they are hearing that they simply say nothing.
Why is this? We changed the rules around women in society years ago. Why isn’t is as simple as changing the rules and moving on? Women have equality in many ways now, so why don’t we simply stop with the derogatory jokes and move on, treating everyone as equal? Surely it can’t be that hard?
Our Old Learning Around Women’s Roles has not Caught up With Society
We all learn from our history, and throughout the history of each and every one of us, we will have taken on learning about the role of women that has shaped who we are today.
I look at my own learning around the place of women in the world and I can see elements of my upbringing remaining. I have an amazing, strong mother who did everything with regard to cleaning the house, cooking meals, taking care of my Dad and raising myself and my siblings. My father, also amazing, took care of the typically male tasks in the family. In my relationship with my husband, we have both always taken care of whatever needs to be taken care of in each moment. To us, it mostly doesn’t matter whether it is a traditionally male or female task. Yet, I still beat myself up when I don’t manage to clean the house even though most of the time, it isn’t my mess. I still assume that I am meant to be the one thinking about cooking meals for my family. I still feel guilty that my husband runs our daughters around to their extra-curricular activities because, in my upbringing, that would have been the mother’s responsibility, not the father’s. These are the standards and judgements that I place on myself based on my learned understanding of the roles of women. And, from the time that I learned these standards, they have become so ingrained as a part of me that, in my assessment, shifting them really does take a conscious effort.
As a concept, I think that people have generally accepted women as “equal” – people seem to cope with women in the workforce, women as voters, women in roles that were traditionally masculine roles, and so forth. However, I also think that there is some learning from our past, deep within our souls, that stops each of us from totally moving on and accepting what equality really means. Otherwise, why would a male at a function say to another male “Haven’t you got a missus? Why wasn’t she doing your washing for you?” And why would the women in the group feel as though they could not hold this person to account for his behaviour? It is not as simple as someone saying “Women are equals now” and then waiting a few seconds while our past learning magically leaves us in a puff of smoke. In my opinion, if we want to remove sexism or, indeed, any “ism”, we have a requirement to get to the heart and soul of the matter.
How do we Turn Sexist Behaviours Around?
As a society we have declared that we want women to be treated equally. However, “society” is not an organisation that we can sit back and wait on while it goes about removing sexism. Society is each one of us.
So now, as individuals within a society, I think it is important for us to question how our actions are serving us with regard to removing sexism (and other “isms”). It is important for each of us to understand that we have prior learning underpinning our interpretations of women and of equality in general. It is important that we consciously work to understand what that learning is and how it serves us with regard to the actions that we take surrounding the roles of women. And then, it is important that we make whatever changes we identify in order to shift the actions that we take regarding the cause of women.
I am fairly certain that the next time that I am at a function and someone tells a group of males that their “missus” should be doing their washing, I am not going to simply become angry at the person or behaviour and say nothing for fear of saying too much. Instead, I am going to become curious about why the individual thinks it important to say that out loud to a group of people, and I am going to ask them exactly that. In that moment, the questions that I will be living in (although I may verbalise them differently) will be: For the sake of what do you feel that it is necessary to say that? What impact do you think what you are saying is having on the strive for equality in our world? What impact would you like to be having?
And, if I don’t bring myself to speak up, then I will be asking myself: For the sake of what did I choose to say nothing?
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