I have been a woman, consistently, for 36 years. And though I never spent many of those years reflecting on that specific part of who I am too much, looking back I can say that living up to all of my hopes, dreams and expectations for myself as a woman has been the hardest and most rewarding aspect of my life.
Today is International Women’s Day. Earlier in the week The New York Times published a study showing that more men named John and David hold CEO positions than any woman in America. A few days later, coverage of Ellen Pao’s accusations against Klenier Perkins Caufield and Byers, and the subsequent Silicon Valley trial began. Women have come a long way toward winning equality, but these events illuminate the goals we should focus on next.
Sexism is like racism in that while the overt kind does happen, it's most often subtle and because of this most people don’t believe it still exists. I know otherwise, but I want to be careful to elaborate that I don’t necessarily believe it is intentional most of the time. Ingrained beliefs and perspectives can be tough to break. And asking people to recognize those areas where they may be incorrect, and then to change, is never an easy ask.
I discovered Maya Angelou’s children’s book, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, illustrated by Jean-Michel Basquiat, a few years ago. I cherish this book, along with The Little Prince, and hold it close to my heart—I’m sentimental that way. I imagine myself as a mother one day reading the poem to my own daughter, and the lessons on being brave and strong that I would teach her.
That new classroom where
Boys all pull my hair
(Kissy little girls
With their hair in curls)
They don’t frighten me at all.
Don’t show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I’m afraid at all
It’s only in my dreams.
When I look at the way strong women who speak out today are intimidated—women in male dominated fields like Anita Sharkeesian; women like Emma Watson—I see a need for teaching this kind of strength ever more. And I worry. Because this is what we teach our little girls. Women are encouraged as we grow up to be brave and strong—in very different ways than little boys are taught the same thing—and then as we reach adulthood we find that lesson tested time and again. As we grow older we experience that we need to be strong without losing our vulnerability, speak out but in an understanding and accommodating way. When a group of men catcall to us as we walk down the street, we’re expected to smile and respond positively. If we stand up for ourselves in a more powerful way, we’re viewed negatively and risk ridicule. It’s a difficult line to walk. It takes a confident and secure person to walk it every day.
I don’t know how many other women and young girls I speak for, but I go through periods of feeling strong, powerful and on top of my game, to feeling small and silly after someone attempts to knock me down a few pegs because they mistakenly think I’m acting cocky. Any time I find myself feeling small and silly I remember that I have a backbone and I make the choice to stand tall and keep moving forward. But it’s not always easy. I like to think of it this way: if I speak up and say something someone doesn't like or agree with and that I am then chastised for, that's okay. Getting a reaction just proves that I'm already starting to make a difference. Next comes compromising without backing down on my views—another fine line to walk but one that is well worth learning how to.
Still, the fact remains, to know that you'll be automatically viewed by some people as lesser-than because you're a woman is hard. This view remains the default for too many people. Men's rights have always come first. It's time we start to see women's rights come first more often, and it's time we all stop viewing each other with ingrained sex-based judgements. Most importantly, it's time to recognize that we're teaching our girls and young women to be strong, and then penalizing them when they act strong. Something's got to give.
I wanted to use the above excerpt from Maya Angelou’s poem to illustrate something that no boy, or man, can ever outwardly see—the difference in the way little boys and girls perceive innocent teasing. To a little girl, such teasing is usually intimidating.
Should we punish boys, or men, for unintentional intimidation? No. But, I think, at the heart of this is the need for both sexes to develop empathy and a willingness to understand the way others perceive our actions, and I think we should work at holding each other accountable for this. Intentional intimidation? Well that’s a different story.
I don’t know what comes next as we work towards gender equality. The best thing I can think to say to anyone who cares as much as I do, is that both sexes should do our best every day to walk tall, stand strong, judge less, practice empathy, treat each other with respect, and never ever lose respect for ourselves. It’s not easy to treat another with respect when you feel that person is not respecting you. But this is the test we must pass if we want to keep moving forward.