Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Does sexism exist? How much of a problem is it? What can we do about it?

Let me clarify at the outset that by "sexism" I mean what I think is the most common everyday use of the word, i.e. negative attitudes against a gender group in general, or individuals based on their gender. I've written previously of the pitfalls of certain academic feminist definitions which define sexism as both the cause and the effect, leading to cocooned thinking that is impervious to reality.

I'm also aware that sexism plus a power advantage is more detrimental to the victims of sexism than sexism alone. However, I don't want to go down any road that suggests that men always have power over women, only men can be sexist, and only women can be victims of sexism. Once again this leads to cocooned thinking and tunnel vision.

However, I have no problem acknowledging that women as a group are the ones who suffer most of the ill effects of sexism. Every day's headlines seem to bring fresh outrages from the Muslim world: girls having acid thrown in their faces for the crime of going to school. Women being brutally raped, and then even more brutally punished for the crime of adultery, i.e. being raped.

Closer to home, we see women being belittled, denied opportunities in the workplace, and held back from achieving their full potential, just because of their gender. Western society has made a lot of progress since women first entered the workforce in large numbers, but it still has a ways to go. And then of course there are all the War-on-Women laws being passed in state legislatures across the US every day - laws which treat women as nothing more than incubators, and deny them control over their own bodies.

Sexism hurts a lot of people (including many men, plus transgender/genderqueer people) by denying them equal rights, respect and responsibilities. It also hurts society by depriving it of the talent the victims of sexism would otherwise contribute.

So it seems to me that sexism is undeniably a problem and we should try to address it. But what is the most effective means?

First of all, I'm totally cold and unsympathetic to radical academic theories which declare that I am an oppressor, and part of some vast international conspiracy called "The Patriarchy", just because I'm a man. I refuse to be considered interchangeable with any other man, or to consider any woman interchangeable with any other woman.

I am a very strong believer in treating everyone first and foremost as an individual. Yes, you can be sensitive to someone whose background is different from yours, and try to learn from them rather than jumping to conclusions. But at the end of the day, the background is the background, not the whole person. So any collectivist remedies for sexism, which deny individuality, are out the window as far as I'm concerned.

The solution to the War on Women is simple in principle: vote the bastards out. Of course this takes energy, commitment, organization and a lot of voter outreach and education. Let's leave the details for another day and turn to workplace discrimination.

Sexism, like racism, is about negative, often unthinking attitudes about a group. When I lived in England I often dealt with workmates who had very negative attitudes towards Irish people in general, and yet accepted me as an expert in my field and a valuable colleague. They seemed to make a distinction between the group and an individual from the group.

I wish I'd had the guts to call them on their anti-Irish attitudes, but I'm not a very confrontational person in real life. However, I'd like to think that I showed by example that not all Irishmen are lazy brawling drunks. If my mere existence caused any of my colleagues to question their assumptions about Irish people, then perhaps I've done my bit to dispel negative stereotypes about the Irish in Britain.

Similarly, as women enter more and more fields of work that were previously exclusively male, we can hope that they will show that they are fully equal to the job. Of course, we can do more than sit around and hope: we can put policies in place to encourage more women to follow their career choices regardless of whether it's a "man's job" or not, and to educate people on how to get along with the opposite sex in the workplace and treat them with respect and professionalism.

I'm against quotas because they tend to help mostly the brightest people who would make it anyway, while creating resentment and backlash that hurts those who most need a helping hand. But there is certainly a case for going the extra mile to encourage under-represented groups, and measuring progress to ensure that the goal of more inclusivity is being met. It seems to me that affirmative action should always be trying to put itself out of business, by creating a society in which it is no longer needed. The danger is that it instead becomes an entrenched bureaucracy, and like every bureaucracy, sees its primary goal as perpetuating itself.

I know the foregoing has been pretty vague and short of specifics, but to try and sum up, polices against sexism in the workplace should in my opinion:
  • Treat everyone as an individual first and foremost.
  • Encourage everyone to see their colleagues as individuals first and foremost, rather than simply instances of a given group. I think this is absolutely key to dispelling negative attitudes.
  • Monitor progress towards the goal of greater inclusivity, and adjust policies as necessary, with the goal of phasing them out when no longer needed.
  • Avoid heavy-handed command-and-control measures which tend not to work and only to create resentment, exacerbating the problem.
  • Accept that different individuals will make different personal choices not only in the work they want to do, but in the work-life balance they want to have.
  • Remember that the goal is not strictly enforced 50-50 representation for its own sake in every nook and cranny of the workplace, but giving each and every individual maximum opportunity to achieve his or her personal goals, regardless of what society has traditionally deemed to be men's work or women's work.

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