Last week, Jess requested that I do a blog detailing all the ways that feminism helps men in addition to helping women. Well, there are several issues directly affecting men these days, the biggest of which is probably the Man Box. You know, “Boys don’t cry; men don’t show weakness.” That sort of thing. And feminism does address that problem.
But I’m not here to talk about that.
In my opinion, the most important thing that feminism can do for men is educate us on just how bad things really are. Because, my fellow genlemen, I can assure you that women have it a lot worse than we think they do.
We’ve all sat through seventh-grade social studies; so we know what sexism is, and we know that it’s wrong. But if you’re anything like me, you found a tacit assumption in that social studies curriculum. A false assumption. The fact that schools are talking about sexism means that society now acknowledges the fact that sexism is wrong. So we’ve all learned our lesson, and now we won’t do it anymore.
I remember having that exact train of thought when I was twelve years old. In my young mind, the 90s were the point in history where sexism officially died. Oh sure, there were a few holdouts – backward thinking men who couldn’t let go of an unjust power dynamic – but they were a small minority. Society had acknowledged that sexism was wrong. They were teaching it in schools and everything!
To their credit, the boys in my class took the message to heart. We even started policing each other, shouting “That’s sexist!” any time someone said “You throw like a girl” or anything else along those lines. But while school taught us that sexism was wrong, it didn’t teach us what sexism looked like, and thus we were blind to its existence.
Let me show you what I mean.
It all started last week when Briana Wu made a simple request. I’ll use her exact words. “I’d like to talk about gender differences in communication and how men might be causing women stress in the office without realizing it.”
She went on to give a few examples of how men tend to state their opinions as facts and explained why many women find this intimidating. She then concluded with this: “If you listen to how women communicate with each other, we tend to leave space for the other person to have an opinion.”
Now to a man whose views on gender issues were largely defined by that seventh-grade social studies class, this seemed…a little offputting. You have to understand that one thing our teachers emphasized over and over was the fact that you aren’t supposed to say things like “Boys do this, and girls do that.” You aren’t supposed to define people in terms of their gender.
So why is a feminist now doing the very thing that feminism says you’re not supposed to do? I mean, all that stuff we learned in social studies… that all came from feminism, right? Right?
Yeah…Not so much.
Finding the answer to this question changed my worldview in a very profound way. I’m going to start with the revelation that hit me hardest. At one point, I asked my feminist girlfriend this question: “Suppose I grant that men and women communicate in fundamentally different ways. Even if I accept that basic assumption, why does it then follow that female communication is better than male?”
“It doesn’t,” she replied. “Better isn’t the point.”
“Women shouldn’t have to adapt to the male way of doing things,” I said. “That isn’t fair. But couldn’t we meet each other halfway? Couldn’t men learn a bit of the female style, and women a bit of the male style.” To a person who believed that sexism died in the 90s, this kind of compromise seems perfectly reasonable. Surely most men aren’t as savage and vicious as the GamerGaters? Right? Right?
I think you see where this is going.
My girlfriend educated me on the tragic consequences of women trying to meet us halfway. Mainly, we punish them for it. If male-style communication is defined as assertive – a definition that I object to, but for the sake of argument, let’s play along – then women who adopt that style of communication at work face any number of economic and social penalties.
A 2006 study conducted by Harvard researchers Linda Babcock, Hannah Riley Bowles and Lei Lai found that women who display too much assertiveness in matters of leadership and negotiation are perceived as lacking in social graces and thus unsuitable for most positions. This judgment is not applied to men.
To quote Babcock, Bowles and Lai. “Society rewards and reinforces different types of behaviour for men and women, and it is not always good advice for women to act more like men to claim the same resources and privileges. Research on feminine modesty, for instance, shows that women tend to present themselves more modestly than do men, and this modest self-presentation style tends to undermine perceived competence, particularly as compared to those who self-promote in a stereotypically masculine way. However, if women attempt to overcome this ‘deficiency’ by behaving in a more masculine, self-promoting manner, they are perceived as technically skilled but lacking in social competence. This lack of social competence then detracts from their perceived hireability.”
Babcock, Bowles and Lai weren’t the only people to encounter such results. Their findings have been corroborated in many different journals.
So what’s the lesson here?
There is no halfway. Women cannot meet us halfway – cannot adapt to the masculine way of doing things – not because they lack the skills but because they are systematically punished for trying. The sexism is built right in. It’s a part of the machine.
“Call it what it is, boys: systematic.”
Which brings me to the issue of Cam-Pong.
When I need some help working my way through an intellectual quagmire, I usually summon one of my characters as an imaginary debate partner. Someone who might provide me with a new perspective. In this case, I chose the star of the novel I’ll be releasing next month: Anna Lenai. Now, I freely admit that Anna is a product of my imagination, but Jourdan tells me that we summarized the issue quite well. So here’s a snippet of our conversation.
Oh dear God.
I think you see where I’m going with this.
Back in Grade 12, my friend Cameron coded his own version of Pong that he called Cam-Pong. Everyone hated playing against him because he also created a series of cheat codes that only he knew how to activate.
He could press a button and shrink your paddle to half its size. Or make the ball change direction after you’d positioned your paddle to block it. He could speed the ball up when it was coming toward you or slow it down when it was going toward him.
Cam always won at Cam-Pong because he controlled not just his paddle but also the arena. The game literally changed to suit his needs.
And the professional world is a place where men control the arena.
They control the very environment and thus can choose to make it hostile to women.
And most men never notice.
Because you don’t control it consciously. The arena shapes itself to meet your needs without you having to do anything. The ball magically finds its way toward your paddle with no direct input from you.
Which means that I have to consciously control the arena just to make it fair and even for both players. I have work just to make sure the ball follows the natural laws of physics rather than zeroing in on my paddle and deliberately avoiding my opponent’s.
There’s a very important corollary here. So gentlemen, listen up. If you take nothing else away from this blog, remember what I’m about to tell you.
The environment shapes itself to suit our needs without any conscious input on our part. Which means it’s practically impossible to spot all the myriad ways that privilege works in our favour. Any one of a thousand things that we take for granted might be harming the women we work with, and we’d never know.
So if a feminist asks you to change your behaviour in some small way, just do it. So long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, just grant the request. Chances are the feminist in question sees a problem that simply escapes our notice.
So that’s it. Thanks to Jourdan for helping me to wrap my head around this, and if you want to read more about Anna, the book will be available for purchase as soon as editing is complete. Stay tuned for updates.
Hey, looking for some great fiction? Check out Symbiosis, the book reviewers have called the illegitimate love child of Star Trek and Buffy.
Now available on Kindle
It’s had some great reviews!