There are many valid approaches to combating sexism. Reasonable minds can differ about the underlying definition of sexism, the ideal situation to achieve, and about the best strategies for achieving gender equality. As a free speech-minded egalitarian, I want to share my own approach. In our culture of increasing polarization, the most committed to a given cause are the most vocal, and more moderate views are not voiced. There are a subset of views on this sensitive topic, in particular, not often expressed, especially in certain circles. In my own personal experience with discussions about gender discrimination, I find that people tend to over-read discrimination and to remove the onus on women to assert themselves. That doesn’t mean the opposite doesn’t also happen, but we need better methods for discerning which is which.
I begin with the basic premise that women are as capable of being strong, tough, and resilient as men, and that those are qualities to which we should all aspire. The speech/conduct distinction that underlies First Amendment rights, and the spheres of freedom we all require even socially, but certainly as against the government, necessitate a certain amount of emotional fortitude so we don’t have to constantly worry about hurting others’ feelings or making them uncomfortable. (I wrote a paper on the physical/emotional distinction in tort law and how it intersects with free speech rights.) At the outset, I also want to establish that I generally believe the empirical research that demonstrates some amount of societal gender discrimination or inequality – men interrupt women more often, women are less represented as advocates in appellate courts, and women are more likely victims of sexual harassment (hopefully that term is being defined using a high bar, to preserve speech rights and not patronize women). I should add the caveat that, for the first two examples, people who study those phenomena often have a clear view of how they want the study to come out and a clear sense of their own social justice ideals that may pose challenges for maintaining scientific distance, or may cause them to explain the data in certain ways. (I would explain the data from this study very differently from the authors, for example, and relate the change in perception to the increase in mentoring opportunities only for women.) Wage gap studies are more complex, and politicians often use them to pander in misleading, populist ways. But given that sexism is real, the question then becomes, how much do we think sexism is a pervasive force, and what can we do about it.
True equality is a difficult and subjective concept. If we are wrong about how much sexism exists (a statistical Type I error, or false positive), women are asking for special treatment in our attempts to combat it. I have observed this phenomenon. Confirmatory bias is a powerful cognitive force. When people are primed to look for something, they will see it more – even if there are other equally plausible explanations. This becomes problematic because enough valid instances of sexism cause some people to see disparate treatment everywhere. I bristle when others make assumptions about my experiences as a female professor, because they overstate problems that I believe are petty. My teaching evaluations seem unaffected by my gender. Students do not comment on my attire, except sometimes to compliment my (always comfortable) shoes. I am sure that my gender affects students’ perception of me, as do many factors specific to my personality and teaching style. Perhaps I do not receive as much deference as older, male professors, and my authority is questioned more, but I also benefit from a certain rapport those attributes create with students, who confide in me. I also can get away with being a bit tougher in my Socratic method, because I am not generally perceived as aggressive or domineering (I hope – although the position itself confers an autonomic intimidation factor). Yes, people sometimes mistake me for a student or a staff member in the elevator. The conversation where I inform them that I am a professor takes about 10 seconds, and the error is corrected with no tangible harm done to my career. This sort of event does not require countless meetings. I prove myself as a professor; I defy the students’ expectations, and, over time, our conception of what a female professor with authority looks like changes.
This approach doesn’t give people the satisfaction of feeling like they are fighting for social justice, but personally, I do not prefer framing myself as a victim of discrimination. My own version of equality demands that we perceive women as truly earning respect and status (and their own oral arguments), not being handed these privileges. This is a personal preference, and I am lucky to work in a field where, at this juncture, we are quite solicitous of hiring and retaining women. I believe that in all fields, however, resilience and avoidance of an over-focus on perceived unfairness is also needed, in addition to avoiding Type II errors where we minimize the problem.
During the instances when I experienced what I perceived to be sexism in a male-dominated workplace, I worked harder to prove myself until others were deferring to my specific expertise and competencies. This took time, and I realize not everyone has this luxury. I find this approach, for myself, far superior to complaining about sexism, and I wish others would employ it as well. Fiction writers commonly say to “show, not tell.” Asking people to respect you or treat you differently than their default because you believe they’re being unfair, and accusing them of sexism, is often not going to achieve actual respect and equality. Focusing on unfairness gets people placated. This approach may shame people into treating you differently, or interrupting you less. It may even cause people to consider their own biases, a good thing. But it also causes many to be silent, to secretly polarize about our culture and its special treatment of women, to develop resentments that have a good deal of validity. We also need people who try harder, despite the unfairness, to prove to others that they are as capable, instead of complaining about unfair treatment.
Methods more direct and aggressive than my own are also needed to combat sexism. However, people using those methods must appreciate that our brains fundamentally cannot ignore logic. If you tell men that they need to step in and help their female colleagues, people internalize, even subconsciously, the lesson that women cannot stand up for themselves and need protection. I find this assumption insulting, infantilizing, and counterproductive to the cause of equality – although sometimes I do enjoy the help. The problem is that all solutions may evince and perpetuate sexism, once we focus on this social ill. Consider the following scenario. A woman is continually interrupted during a meeting. If someone stands up for her, combating the problem, he can be perceived as either fighting the patriarchy or perpetuating it, by presuming she needs someone else to come to her rescue. In most cases, personally, I would rather not be rescued – but I also tend not to let people interrupt me in the first place.
Fundamentally, this debate has gotten too polarized. Those in power in certain circles have somewhat extreme views, polarizing the powerless in both directions. There are those, everywhere on the Internet, who believe that sexism isn’t real, that women are making unfair demands, and, worse, that women are just liars and sluts anyway (ahhh, the Internet). But there are many, even fair-minded people, who don’t recognize the privileges women enjoy when navigating social interactions, the ways in which we let women off the hook and remove any onus on them to choose to either assert themselves or tolerate some discomfort, and the ease with which anyone can mistakenly decry sexism and ruin a person’s reputation. Conversations on gender equality require a great deal of moderating, even as we attempt to move toward a more equitable society.