Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Sexism: Is it still an issue?

I recently read this article on The Current Conscience The Key To Success: Be A Man | The Current Conscience. In this article, the author talks about how the gender bias makes success easier for men than for women. Sure, many of us want to believe that there is now an equal playing field. People like Rush Limbaugh call anyone who speaks up for equal treatment regardless of gender “feminazis.” The word feminist is often maligned and even openly rejected by young women who have bought into this idea that sexism is dead and feminism’s work is done.

And yet, there are facts that speak to the contrary. The National Committee on Pay Equity  reports that in 2010, women earned 77 cents to men’s dollar. According to the Interparliamentary Union’s July 2011 report, in the United States, women only make up 16.7% of government representatives. That’s 70th on the list out of 136. According to the National Poverty Center, “poverty rates are highest for families headed by single women, particularly if they are black or Hispanic. In 2010, 31.6 percent of households headed by single women were poor, while 15.8 percent of households headed by single men and 6.2 percent of married-couple households lived in poverty.”

According to information gathered through the U.S. Census, the wage gap between women and men cuts across a wide spectrum of occupations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2007 female financial advisors earned 53.7% of the median weekly wages of male financial advisors, and women in sales occupations earned just 64.8% of men’s wages in equivalent positions.

Feminism is simply a movement that espouses equality of pay and treatment regardless of gender. Let me make this clear, if the only difference between two employees is their biological sex, and the female employee is being paid less than the male employee, that is sexism. If a person is treated with less respect simply because of their biological sex, that is sexism.

So why do some find it difficult to believe that sexism still exists, contrary to the facts presented above? In Susan J. Douglas’ book Enlightened Sexism, she presents an idea that compliments Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory that we discussed in a previous post about how media shapes our perceptions of reality. You see, in media representations, women have achieved equality! Contrary to the numbers in reality, media often shows women in top positions in government, law enforcement, and business. In fact, our perception of how much equality women have achieved has been shaped by what we see in the media. If TV says that a woman can be president, then it must be so! Right? Wrong.

In fact, even in everyday life, many females, both adults and children, find that their voice is not heard simply because of their gender. For example, I was recently in a meeting with a group of people, 3 women and 7 men. We were all talking together trying to solve a problem. At one point, one of the women in the group confidently and loudly made a suggestion. Nobody responded. A few minutes later, one of the men made the very same suggestion, and it was roundly accepted. The woman said, “Didn’t I just say that?” You see, these men weren’t trying to be unfair. They weren’t knowingly ignoring their female colleague. In fact, they literally did not hear her voice. This type of thing happens everyday to women. It’s called gender bias, and males and females both have the tendency to disregard the female voice.

This is especially true in settings in which women have not traditionally been in positions of leadership or power such as the military, STEM fields, or the church. My colleagues Cherisse Flanagan and Stephen Johnson conducted interviews with young girls (aged 9 and 10) who regularly attended churches that limit the role of women in their leadership. Time and again, these girls expressed that they did not believe their voices would, should, or could be heard in their places of worship.

In a very interesting take on this issue, Yashar Ali says,

“Gender bias is not compartmentalized in our culture; the benefits of discriminating against women don’t just exist for the men who actively discriminate them. So, if we men don’t acknowledge that we all get an extra boost because of our sex—we are essentially saying that gender bias doesn’t exist.

And for those of us who are willing to acknowledge that gender discrimination even exists, we tend to see it as something suffered by women—that it is just an aggressive act against them. We think that we only have to combat the aggressor in order to solve the problem.

So, no matter how good we are, no matter how much we respect women, the same biases the women in our lives struggle with and fight against, are the same biases fueling our success.

How can we fix this gender imbalance if we don’t first look around our own lives and see and acknowledge the reality: yes, I move faster in my career because I’m a man, I didn’t have to sacrifice nearly as much because I’m a man, it’s easier for me than for my woman counterparts (if you have any) and colleagues. Who did I pass on the way here? How can I stop this from happening in my own life? Have I done everything I can to speak out against gender bias in my workplace and life, especially with men?”

This is an important reminder that both men and women, boys and girls need to be talking about equality or lack thereof. It is not enough for women and girls to be aware of inequalities, everyone needs to recognize the truths here and speak up about it. Michele from The Princess Free Zone recently wrote a blog post about teaching boys how to understand this issue. Here are a few of the suggestions that she makes:

As a young boy:

  • Become media literate so that they can become aware of how gender is portrayed in terms of what they are seeing and hearing. When a boy sees an ad or a tv show in which stereotypes are present, make sure you point it out.
  • Teach them that there is more to a girl than what she looks like. Discuss famous women who have done and are doing important things.
  • Make play dates in which there are boys and girls to play with. Making friends with girls can be an important part of how they will perceive women.
  • Introduce them to female characters through books, movies, etc. Research shows that a majority of these characters are male, so it will be up to you to provide a variety.

 As a young man:

  • Teach them that “feminism” means promoting women’s rights and interests.
  • Discuss how being a feminist does not mean women hate men or that women think men are the enemy.
  • Teach them that by taking a role in feminism they will be helping everyone not just women.
  • Teach them that because they are at the top of society’s hierarchy, they have a responsibility and an ability to be part of social change and justice for everyone.
  • Simply talk to them and use probing questions when teachable moments arise. Allow them to reach their own conclusions.

10 comments on “Sexism: Is it still an issue?

  1. michyulo
    September 28, 2011

    The whole idea that women suffer more was something that a lot of people got into on my blog (on The Frisky)–I think men resent the fact that women can pull the “suffering” card and they really hate it. They want to take that out of the equation, but if you look at the article I posted today by Nicholas Kristof is at the heart of many of the world’s economic and social problems. Yours is a great article full of facts that never come into play when regular people have conversations about feminism. It is sad that the term has become so negatively charged–but I don’t doubt it is a concerted effort by many to change the perception that inequality no longer exists.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      September 28, 2011

      Michele, I actually wrote this post after reading both yours, the one by Yashar Ali, and the comments on your post on The Frisky. What struck me was that many people believe that equality has been achieved while it clearly hasn’t. Our census data makes that clear. I strongly believe that the Cultivation Theory is at play here. We see equality represented in the media, thus it must be so EVEN THOUGH we know in our real lives that it isn’t. Just another reason for all of us to understand how media shapes our perceptions and why it matters.

  2. Cherisse Flanagan
    September 28, 2011

    Regarding voice, I noticed a similar thing last week in a school PTA meeting. There was a woman leading the meeting, and she was having to practically shout to the group of (mainly women), who were at the meeting. When a man stood up and began to speak, the room quieted down and he was able to speak normally. When she stood back up, the chatter ensued. These were women disregarding the female voice themselves. We must consciously choose to practice equality. Our culture has taught us that women’s voice is lesser.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      September 28, 2011

      I agree, Cherisse. It is certainly both men and women who have adopted the idea that women’s voice are less important, less strong, and so forth.

  3. Summer
    September 29, 2011

    Hi Jennifer i’m one of your mom’s students. any way me and my friend are doing a project on girl and boy rights and why girls can’t play some spotrs but boys can like footbal

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      October 1, 2011

      Thanks for writing, Summer! Let me know if you need my help.

  4. Pingback: A Woman’s Story: From Feminism towards Post-Feminism and Back « Fifth room in the Fourth floor

  5. Rachel Lunt
    September 30, 2011

    I think you make a valid point about the influence of media in shaping ideas about the influence of women. Many TV shows and films portray women in high profile positions, wealthy and confident…usually putting down male colleagues and behaving aggressively in the workplace…whilst being hot and sexy wearing 6 inch heels and eventually falling for the guy!!! It also depends on the profession…in communication companies there are much higher numbers of women working than men, and they are responsible transmitting a usually sexist message!…I have met many guys who find it very difficult to have a female superior at work and use terms like ‘she is a real bitch’ etc. We need respect and equality and not just in the workplace, but it is a good place to start… also education for both sexes. My son is the only boy in his high school who chose to do Home Economics…I was shocked as 30 yrs ago I fought the school I was attending to have the right for boys to do home ec. and girls to to metalwork and mechanics…the 11 yr old boys in my daughters class dont sing with the girls or join in with the letter writing competition because ‘that is girls stuff’…what hope do they have if they are entrenched in stereotypical ideas of gender at that age?

  6. Pingback: When Will Gender Bias Ever End? « JennSpot

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