Today is International Women’s Day. Contrary to some sentiments, this isn’t a day about women in favour of men, it’s a day about gender equality and about equality in spite of traditional views of masculinity and femininity. I watched the famous speech of Chimamanda Ngozi Achibie this morning – you know, the one Beyonce featured in “***Flawless”.
In her speech she says: “Now, today there are many more opportunities for women than there were during my grandmother’s time all because of changes in policy, changes in law, all of which are very important. But what matters more is our attitude, our mindset, what we believe and what we value about gender.”
She tells the story of a friend and her husband, both of whom have the same level of education and the same job. Every day the friend and her husband go home and the friend does most of the cleaning, cooking, and childcare. When the husband changes the baby’s diaper, the friend says “thank you” – as if to say this wasn’t your job and you’ve done a favour for me.
She tells the story of teaching her first english class in Nigeria. She worries not about the substance of the course because she knew the substance inside and out. She worries instead about what to wear because “I wanted to be taken seriously. I knew that because I was female I automatically had to prove my worth and I was worried that if I looked too feminine I would not be taken seriously. I really wanted to wear my shiny lipgloss and my girly skirt. But I decided not to. Instead I wore a very serious, very manly and very ugly suit. Because the sad truth is when it comes to appearance we start off with men as the standard, as the norm.”
The norm. The benchmark of traditional success. I know a girl who experienced a failure at work. She spoke to a male mentor at her work, telling him she wished she had his confidence because she knew the events giving rise to her failure would not have translated into a failure in is opinion. He said to her “I know why you feel this way. You feel this way because you’re a girl and girls don’t usually play sports growing up and so they never learn to lose”. I like to point out here this girl played various competitive sports growing up. I also like to point out this girl was known to her mentor to be an artist, had competed in festivals and had studied extensively for years. This last point was either forgotten or viewed as a lesser learning experience than the norm of traditional competitive activity.
I know a girl who works in media and from time to time moderates the comments on news stories. One day, upon rejecting a series of comments that were sexist, derogatory and not contributory to the story, a comment came in stating that the commentor suspected that the comment moderator must be “sporting a vulva” based on the comments being posted. Surely a male would never block the kinds of comments this commentor was posting.
I know a girl and her two male friends who were told, upon asking a successful senior male “how can we succeed in this profession” that they must “look like her”.
I know a girl who was told if she were her male colleagues she would never act the way she does – less confident, less self-assured.
I know a girl who had to sit through a business meeting with a running joke about how different and better things would be in a world where men had babies – because they would have the baby on a Friday, give the baby to the nanny and be back to work on Monday. An interesting valuation of maternity leave.
Admittedly, despite my telling of these stories, today the opportunity does exist for women to work in professions that previously blocked female participation. Achibie says it’s a “vulnerability in the face of gender expectations”. We are playing the same game, but from a starting position that isn’t based on us but based instead on a perception of “maleness”.
And at the expense of who? At the expense of the women discussed above feeling less-than in their femaleness? Will any of them feel like they should leave and go elsewhere? At the expense of the men discussed above realizing their implicit biases led to this place? Or maybe never realizing it? Assumedly these aren’t bad people but these cultural, implicit biases that govern our behaviour are potent enemies, and so these gender expectations weigh down on our day to day, not in a traditionally oppressive way but still in a tangible, inequitable manner.
So if this is not real oppression in a traditional sense, why is it important? I ask this question when I try to shrug off stories like these ones, stories that aren’t about being barred entry to a profession, or not being paid equal wages for equal work. But there is an arc to equality and the arc is not finished where we are permitted to play, though at the measuring stick of those who embody what is “normal”. Rather, I think the arc should and does include capitalization on our many talents. As we occupy this unlikely existence (consider the huge improbability of YOU, reader, ever having been born in the first place, and of this WORLD ever existing in the formulation in which it does), there is such potential to reach high heights. A potential which is typically best capitalized upon when one feels happy, accepted and equal in their communities. Imagine what we could do together in a world where there isn’t the assumption that I, as a girl, have never learned to lose, or where I, as a girl, might succeed because of my skills not because of my looks. There is potential there, great rearing, soaring potential.
So happy International Women’s Day, onward and upward to that potential of ours.