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In Defense Of Femininities — All Of Them

Happy Women’s, Womyn’s, Womanist Herstory Month!  Yep, it is March already.  A time the US has set aside for obligatory celebration of girls and women and their contributions to the world.  Sadly, there is a sense of obligation, with the whisperings of “do we still need this?”

Comprehensive Gender Equality

Yes, we do still need these 31 days — barely 10 percent of the entire year — to reflect on girls, women, feminism, sexism and patriarchy, and gender.  By no means have we achieved gender equality.  And, we are overdue for broadening our vision of gender and equality.

Some time ago, I blogged about the narrow definition of “gender equality.”  In this limited, traditional sense, we are referring to the the equal status and treatment of women and men, still recognized by their gender and presumed sex.  This is certainly the dominant vision of mainstream feminism, or was at least in the days of second wave feminism.

There are at least three aspects of gender inequality that remain in this limited view of gender and gender equality.  First, this vision reinforces the treatment of “woman” as a singular status and “women” as a monolithic group.  The unique experiences and needs of women who are also of color, poor, disabled, lesbian, bisexual, queer, older, immigrant, and so on are overlooked.  Second, this focus fails to address the marginalization of transwomen, and transgender and gender non-conforming people in general.  Finally, while aiming to free women from oppression, certain gender identities and expressions — namely femininities — remain stigmatized and invisible.

Gender Diversity

There is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often overlooked within our society that continues to treat sex and gender as binaries: females and males, women and men.

Women, as a group, come from diverse backgrounds: race, ethnicity, social class, sexual identity, nativity, body size and shape, religion, region, and ability.  It is unsurprising, then, that various branches of feminism — or, more accurately, various feminisms — emerged to counter the exclusive focus of mainstream (second wave) feminism to the lives of US-born white middle-class heterosexual cisgender women.  Some of the prominent feminisms in both activism and academia include Black feminism, Womanism, Chicana feminism, multiracial feminism, Third World feminism, lesbian feminism, and working-class feminism.  Today, feminist advocacy and organizations are now more inclusive, but there is still a strong tendency to slip into “single issue” politics.

Related to this diversity among women is the variation within the category of “woman.”  Just as thinking of gender in binary terms, women and men, a singular view of women misses the existence of trans* and gender non-conforming people, particularly transwomen.  Unfortunately, feminist advocacy and organizations have even excluded transwomen in the past, and many wrestle today with deciding how far their inclusivity should extend (e.g., should women’s organizations serve transmen?).

Beyond diversity in terms of gender identity is the recognition of diverse gender expressions.  In reality, there is no universal femininity.  Rather, there are multiple femininities.  Because of the conflation of sex and gender, we tend to assume that femininity = woman; so the reality that femininity can be expressed through any body, regardless of sex and gender identity, is actively resisted and suppressed.  This means we also overlook the hierarchy of femininities, wherein hyperfemininity in female-bodied individuals is rewarded and valued over other expressions of femininity and its expression in other bodies.

Just to make sure the above discussion is clear, I stress that there is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often ignored or erased.  “Woman” does not imply white, US-born, able-bodied, heterosexual (or even sexual), cisgender, feminine, middle-class, Christian, and thin.  There is no singular status or identity of woman.  As a consequence of overlooking this gender diversity, we also miss the inequality that persists among women and among femininities.

In Defense Of Femininities

Despite the many gains that (cis)women have made, and increasing attention to the lives of transwomen, femininity itself remains stigmatized and devalued.  In fact, I would argue that some of the gains made toward gender equality have come at the expense of femininity.  Indeed, early on, some feminists expressed concern that the elevation of women’s status to that of men’s would largely men that women become men.  You can join the old boys club on the condition that you become a boy.

My discipline (sociology) recently tipped over the threshold of gender parity to become a predominantly-female field.  Though the “glass ceiling” has been cracked, if not completely shattered, in some of the field’s top-departments and leadership positions, feminist sociologists continue to struggle to gain legitimacy in mainstream sociology.

Further, we continue to prioritize and reward masculine (or even masculinist) presentations of self.  On two occasions, I witnessed a woman professor scold women students (in front of a mixed-audience) for appearing to lack confidence and aggressiveness: “don’t do that, that’s girly!”  I, too, was discouraged by a (man) professor from being a “shy guy” during an upcoming talk, which, upon comparing notes with another student, realized was the softened version of “man up!”  (I suppose I was assumed too sensitive or critical for the more direct assault on my gendered presentation of self.)

These interpersonal constraints are compounded by those at the institutional level.  In particular, academic institutions continue to evaluate scholars, particularly for tenure, using standards of the days where (white) male scholars had stay-at-home wives to take care of house and home.  Women who become parents face great professional costs, while women who forgo parenthood are rewarded.  Of course, an ironic twist to this aspect of sexism is that fathers receive a slight boost.

Liberating Femininities

As an optimist, I see liberating girls, women, as well as femininity as beneficial to all members of society, no matter their sex, gender identity, and gender expression.  As a critical scholar, I see this liberation as inherently tied to the liberation of all oppressed groups. Sexism is linked to transphobia is linked to heterosexism is linked to classism is linked to racism is linked to xenophobia is linked to ableism is linked to ageism and so on.

For example, two groups of oppressed men — Black men and trans, bisexual, and gay men — stand to benefit from the liberation of femininity.  Just as a hierarchy exists for femininities, one exists for the diverse expressions of masculinity, with that of US-born white middle-class able-bodied heterosexual men as the most valued.  Thus, Black masculinity and queer masculinity are devalued, stereotyped, and simultaneously threatened and treated as a threat.  As a result, many queer and Black men devalue femininity in society and particularly among themselves.  (Some rationalize this by asking, “why would you want to be further stigmatized?”)  True racial and sexual equality cannot exist if these men’s gender expressions remain constrained and policed.

It is time, then, to update our feminist vision of the future.  Feminism cannot be limited to the goal of liberating (a “narrow” category of) women.  We must liberate all women, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, race, age, ethnicity, ability, nativity, religion, body size and shape, and social class.  And, we must liberate all expressions of gender, particularly femininities.  For women will never be truly free in a society that oppresses femininity.

The Importance Of Representation: Voice, Visibility, And Validation In America

For one obvious reason, disadvantaged groups are often called “minorities” — the groups are smaller in size than another group.  In this sense, people of color (or racial and ethnic minorities) and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (or sexual minorities) are numerical minorities.  However, these groups, as well as women, are also minorities by virtue of having less power in society than their majority counterparts: whites, heterosexuals, and men.  Unfortunately, this latter point is often forgotten; look, for example, at the hope that racial equality will be realized once people of color outnumber whites in the US.  Indeed, the history of Apartheid in South Africa serves as evidence that a group’s minority status in terms of power is not the mere product of being a numerical minority.

Minority Status: The Roles Of Size And Power

The size of a minority group is an important component that plays a role in shaping the experiences of minority group members.  In particular, by virtue being a member of a smaller group, minority group members theoretically have a lower chance of seeing other minority group members across various contexts.  Whereas non-Hispanic whites make up two-thirds of the US population, white people have the greatest chance of any racial or ethnic group of seeing other white individuals at work, the grocery store, church, on the street, at the doctor’s office, and so forth.  In these terms, women and men have roughly the same chance of seeing other women and men, respectively.

However, the unequal allocation of power, resources, and opportunities also plays a role in shaping minority and majority group members’ experiences.  In terms of gender, despite slightly outnumbering men in the US, women are often underrepresented in many contexts.  Take as a very important example the US Congress: there are 76 congress women in the US House of Representatives (compared to 362 men), and 17 in the US Senate (compared to 83 men).  Do the math.  Women make up roughly 50 percent of the US population, yet only 17 percent of congresspeople are women!  Though 10 percent of congresspeople in the House are Black, not a single member of the US Senate is Black.  Indeed, other factors play roles in the outcomes of elections, including — I add emphatically — prejudice and discrimination.  But, it is safe to say that something other than a numbers game is at play when there is such a stark underrepresentation of women and people of color in one of the most important institutions in this country.

Representation: Why Group Composition Matters

There are a host of reasons why the extent to which a subgroup is represented matters.  Continuing with the example of the gender and racial and ethnic composition of the US Congress, it is important to note that the House and Senate, with their underrepresentation of women and people of color, is making important decisions that impact the lives of every person in the US.  So, two groups that consists primarily of white middle-class heterosexual men — many whom are only interested in the needs and desires of other white wealthy heterosexual men — are making decisions right at this moment on behalf of people of color, working-class and poor people, LGBT people, women, and other disadvantaged groups.  In fact, the leadership of every organization and institution in the US — most which are also dominated by white heterosexual middle-class men — is making decisions as I write this post that impacts the lives of every person of every race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and class-standing.  Indeed, the decisions these individuals are making has great influence in guaranteeing that the next generation of leaders will also be white middle-class heterosexual men.

So, in a big way, what a group produces is shaped by the composition of the group.  Since individuals can only truly speak from their own experiences, the contributions of women and people of color systematically excluded from important decision-making processes.  But, the composition of a group also shapes the interactions among the groups’ members.  For example, a recent study on the gender composition of small groups found that the presence of fewer women is associated with less contribution from women group members:

When voting by majority decision, women deferred speaking if outnumbered by men in a group.  However, when voting unanimously, the researchers found that women were much more vocal , suggesting that consensus building was empowering for outnumbered women. The researchers also found that groups arrived at different decisions when women did participate. These findings, however, are not simply limited to business settings.

In this case, when women are underrepresented in a group, especially where reaching a consensus is the primary goal of the group, they are less likely to contribute to group decision-making.  And, the group loses out on what could be a unique contribution and voice not offered by male group members.  Because so many important, powerful groups include few or no women, the contribution of women is systematically excluded in important decision-making.  I would say the most shameful of these exclusions is the absence of women in important conversations about women’s health (e.g., contraception for women!).

Unfortunately, it seems that the challenges that arise from being a member of a minority group are sometimes exacerbated when one is also in the numerical minority in a group.  I would suggest one factor that contributes to women’s underparticipation in groups that are dominated by men is the stress associated with being the token woman. Social scientists, including professors Cate Taylor , Pamela Braboy Jackson, and Peggy Thoits, in Sociology at Indiana University, have examined the stressfulness (and resultant problems for health) of being “the only X” or token in groups and organizations that are heavily white and/or male.  The uneasiness one may experience as the token woman, token Latino person, or token lesbian, can contain so many different concerns and feelings, ranging from the discomfort of always being evaluated as a woman, Latina, or lesbian, to the discomfort of feeling that one is perceived as speaking on behalf of their entire group, to feeling that one has to contribute the perspective of a member of one’s group.  I can think of many discussions where I have been overwhelmed by anxiety that stemmed from being the only person of color or queer person present or, more often, from feeling the urgent need to interject that the group has systematically overlooked the importance of race, sexuality, and/or gender.

Seeing Yourself

The importance of representation extends beyond small groups and decision-making processes.  The visibility of minorities in the media is an extremely important arena of representation, one that has been extensively studied and debated.  For example, each year the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) analyzes the representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in film and television each year.  The positive portrayal of women, people of color, immigrants, LGBT people, same-gender couples, interracial couples, working-class people, people with disabilities, fat people, and so on is crucial so that people are aware of diversity, but also appreciate and celebrate that diversity.

Specifically for the members of minority groups, seeing oneself reflected in the media is crucial, particularly in the face of prejudice, discrimination, and the constant barrage of invalidating comments and actions.  In fact, there was a recent study featured in the media this summer that finds evidence of a self-esteem boosting effect of television for white boys, but self-esteem damaging effects for white girls, black girls, and black boys.  One primary reason?  White boys see lots of white boys and men in the shows they watch.  And, not just that, but they regularly see these characters and actors in positive, powerful, and central roles.  This is less so the case for other kids.

Though less frequent for members of minority groups, to see a face or body that looks like your own is powerful in its effect to simply validate you as a worthy human being.  I can think of the range of emotions I saw or heard about in people of color, especially Black Americans, when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008.  Some had tears streaming down their faces simply because they were overwhelmed with joy, hope, and likely some sense of relief.  I am not ashamed to admit that I get this feeling in terms of race and ethnicity in the media, but also sexuality.  To not only see LGBT people on my television screen — again, I emphasize positive portrayals — but to see them loved by others, or in love, is sometimes emotionally overwhelming because these images are new to me.  I am disappointed, however, that I have to feel such joy just to see someone who looks like me — a joy whites, men, heterosexuals, and other privileged groups do not experience because their representation is the norm and, as a result, their presence is treated as the default.

Though things have changed, and are continuing to change, there is still much work to be done until we stop seeing systematic underrepresentation and hearing about “the First African-American X” or “the First Woman to Y.”