I recently had the privilege of spending a week with 50 some odd brilliant women. We were participants in a leadership program specifically for women run by a business school. So we spend the week learning about management, negotiation, behavioral psychology, and business organizations from the perspective of being a woman in business on the assumption that it is different to be a woman in business than a man. Maybe that’s a ‘duh’ moment, maybe not.
One of the things I found most interesting is something I have long suspected based on anecdotal evidence: the difference in how men lead and women lead is minimal. The traits of a leader are not dependent on the genital organ; the perception of those traits however is enormous depending on the type of organ you have been blessed to carry. Strong man = awesome; strong woman = bitch. This is not brilliant, this is something any woman who has ever had to function in a working environment understands implicitly if not explicitly.
After a week of intense education in this topic I can now share with you the underpinnings of social psychology that provide some explanation; I can talk about the socio-behavioral standards that we use to support these systems; I can even tell you about my own independent learning that shows evolutionary-anthropological support to these systems. I just read a blog piece (not one that I found particularly well written mind you) that referenced a study showing that men in marriages with a wife that stays home inadvertently act as protectors in the work place thereby limiting women’s option further. Blame it on the nice guy who just wants to take care of me. Or blame it on religion: depending on how you read genesis, and because few of us can read it in the somewhat more original hebrew (somewhat because we don’t have access to a first draft) we get to choose the interpretation whereby Eve was created form Adam or the two were created simultaneously (oh the elusive simultaneous…. but that is a different essay). Are we equals? Are women subordinate? Are we simply different incarnations of the same thing? Did we crawl out of the primordial slime as one? And let us not forget that for all of the advances we see in science, but for women there would not be men.
But the real issue I am trying to get at is sexism: is this something that can be solved and do we actually want to solve it? I think that the two questions have to be asked together. Really I think that the latter may be the bigger, more important issue because if we don’t want to solve the problem you know we are not going to try all that hard.
I have long felt that women were as much, if not more to blame for the continuation of sexism than men. We are mean to each other, we are catty and nasty and focus on physical one-upmanship to a degree that we make it virtually impossible to succeed. How often do we look at a man in our work world and say, “oh my god, did you see what he was wearing?” We mostly don’t because we mostly don’t care. But man alive do we ever do this to each other. Maybe the problem is that we have more sartorial options, and men rarely run into the problem of wearing a skirt that is too short. But we not only dish on the girl in the too short skirt, we also choose to wear them; because we get attention from men when we do, and we like that. We use the assets we have to get ourselves advantages and some of those assets are sex appeal. If we lived in a world were sexism didn’t exist, a hint of breast and a tight skirt would be of no advantage and the truth is there are plenty of women who appreciate the attention. Even in the stories where the beautiful princess is intelligent and independent she falls in love with the big strong man in the end.
So what is the problem? Is it that we are biological creatures and even as we take up our positions to run the world our deep subconscious is plotting how to get us the most viable mate? In other words are we so driven by sex that we continue to do stupid things even with the empirical knowledge that what we are doing is stupid? I want to be the most attractive chimp in the group because that will get me the most food, the best mate, the greatest chance of genetic survival. Is that very different from how sexism plays out at work? I will use what I can to disparage competitors and to gain my advantage so I have access to the best resources. If we are blind to gender, which is probably the best solution for the problem of sexism, we will not be able to survive as a species (pretend we don’t have the science that defeats this argument). The bigger issue is, can we acknowledge gender differences without making assumptions and judgments? …someday, we will be judged by the content of our character, not by the….