A father and daughter’s conversation about everyday sexism

Andrew D. Maynard
Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University, Author of Future Rising: A Journey from the Past to the Edge of Tomorrow
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Jade Maynard is an 18 year old high school student with her whole life in front of her. Her father, Andrew Maynard, is an established academic at the University of Michigan. Both are concerned about the impact of everyday sexism in society. But sometimes their views clash.

Andrew: As a white male senior academic, it’s easy to accept the myth of a community that has all but closed the gender gap. At least it would be if I didn’t hear of case after case where women in academia must deal with unwanted attention from their male colleagues through fear that putting up a fight may potentially jeopardize their career.  These are often anecdotes, quietly told by women who are used to a system that prioritizes the actions and decisions of men above those of women. The whispers are endemic – it’s hard to find a female academic who hasn’t experienced some form of harassment. And while to some men these everyday acts of sexism may appear harmless, they insidiously inhibit women from achieving what they are capable of. It is a subtle silencing that infects lives and careers, diminishes society and what can be achieved by it.

Jade: But this silencing of women isn’t limited to academia. As an eighteen year-old who is getting ready to go to university, I can already look at myself and my peers and understand exactly why so many female victims of harassment and assault stay quiet: It’s because we’ve been socialized to.

By the time we become teenagers, we’ve already had it subtly drilled into us that our voices and experiences aren’t important. As a white, cisgender woman from a middle-class background, there are obviously certain demographics that I can’t speak for. But if the experiences of other women are anything like mine, they won’t be aware of how deeply the problem runs until it’s been pointed out to them.

The truth is that socialized silencing happens more often than many people would like to admit. It happens when a girl complains about being hollered at on the street by total strangers and is told that it is just a fact of life; it happens when we hear yet another case where rape has been covered up for the rapist’s sake. And it happens when women who speak out are treated as if they are either lying or being unreasonable. I’m not just talking about serious allegations, I’m talking about when women mention the micro-aggressions they face on a day-to-day basis and are told that this isn’t enough to indicate a serious issue.

Andrew: I fully agree that everyday sexism goes far beyond academia, and must stop. It disenfranchises women, and makes them victims of a system that is subtly stacked against them. Silencing women is wrong. They need a voice. For this to occur, men must be made aware of the consequences of their words and their actions and women must be empowered to stand up to sexism and to own the space in which they work and live. Also, we need a shared responsibility to prevent the abuses of power and privilege. We must all take responsibility for this change.

These are achievable within organizations where there is a full commitment to eliminating the gender gap at all levels. But they are harder to implement within loosely knit social communities. There, action moderated by compassion and consideration is needed, lest the use of extreme measures becomes the de facto norm rather than a measure of last resort.

Jade: But sexism remains so deeply embedded in our society that extreme measures are often needed to precipitate action. Steps also need to be taken by parents, teachers, public leaders and other role models long before children even leave home. A six year-old boy who hits a girl on the playground should not have has actions explained away as “boys will be boys”; a ten year-old girl who never speaks in class should be encouraged that her contributions are valuable and important.

By the time these children become adults, it should be clear what is and what is not acceptable behaviour, and there should be no question in any potential perpetrator’s mind that their actions will have consequences.

At the moment, this is not the reality that my peers and I are poised to inherit. But that is not to say that we can’t make a difference for other generations further along. The irony is that although women are conditioned to stay silent, this is a matter we can never walk away from because we live it every day of our lives.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2013 report will be published on Friday. 

Image: A woman walks along a street during a smoggy day in Changchun, Jilin province. REUTERS/China Daily

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