I am really getting sick of people simplifying the problem of sexism by reducing it to one little abstract package called The Patriarchy, as if there is an invisible cabal out there conspiring to keep women barefoot and pregnant. While it is true that there are some men out there who want to keep women down and out of jobs and conversations that are traditionally “for men”, that is just one part of the problem. From my personal experience, the sexism that I’ve suffered comes not from men but from other women. Yes, other women. When I tell people this, they tell me that it is just women parroting what “The Patriarchy” has instilled in them over the years. Actually, I think there is something else going on that has nothing to do with a historically patriarchal society.
In Judith Rich Harris’s book The Nurture Assumption, Harris discusses in-group and out-group mentality. Employing the old Japanese expression, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”, she points out that those who do not “fit in” with the group that they are supposed to be in are ridiculed and bullied. This is, perhaps, an evolutionary strategy that ensured cooperation among our ancestors to help them survive. There are many in-groups depending on the social context. Sometimes these in-groups are not based around gender, but sometimes they are. And in terms of gender, it has been my experience that women are more tolerant of feminine behavior among men and men are more tolerant of masculine behavior among women. But in terms of gender-atypical behavior within their own gender? Forget it. We all know how often guys call effeminate men “faggot”. And we all know how often women… well… from my experience the way they gender police is more indirect and passive-aggressive.
I am not the most traditionally feminine woman out there. In fact, I wouldn’t say that I’m traditionally feminine at all. I am very direct. I have a raunchy, absurdist, Monty Pythonesque sense of humor. I am very loud, too, and I hate small talk. I’m also opinionated to the nth degree. Typically, the people who get upset about these behaviors on my part are other women. But instead of talking to me directly, they complain about me to other people. Or they report it to someone in charge (head of a Meetup, boss at work, etc.). Growing up, my mother policed my tomboyish behavior far more than my father did. In fact, my father generally though my mother’s policing was ridiculous. When I want to meet new people, I usually know what contexts to find like-minded people, men and women. But when it comes to a context– such as work– where people of all different backgrounds are thrown together, I almost invariably get along better with the men.
Right now I can hear some people saying, “Well, that’s the patriarchy again, thinking that there are mental differences between men and women.” Sorry, there are. But this is just a generalization and obviously not reflective of each individual. Research has indicated that men and women in general have different styles of thinking and behavior that is rooted in biology to the tune of different genes and hormones (obviously, I’m a potpourri of behaviors typical of both genders, but in many ways on the more masculine side). Research has indicated, for example, that girls exposed to extra testosterone in utero exhibit “tomboyish” behaviors. Recently, Sam Harris got some flack for pointing out the reality of differences between male and female brains. And jeez, he’s a neuroscientist! Wouldn’t he be a good authority on this type of information?
There is scientific research backing up the assertion that men’s and women’s brains are generally different and that these differences are rooted in evolution. For practical reasons, there were different selection pressures on men and women. It made more sense for men to be more direct, to spend more time alone, to talk about “things” rather than engage in small talk, and to be more aggressive. They were the ones who had to hunt, after all. Women were the ones who had to take care of babies while the men were out hunting. They also had to know whom they could trust with their offspring while they were sick or out gathering. Simon-Baron Cohen theorizes that gossip and small-talk served as a “social lubricant” for women to help them figure out whom they could trust with their babies.
People have tried for years to raise their children in gender-neutral ways. It didn’t work. For the most part, the girls generally behaved like girls and the boys generally behaved like boys. Without this understanding, the term “transgender” would be meaningless. Many transgender people report that they were “born this way” and that they’re “in the wrong body” and that they feel like they have the brain opposite of their biological sex. Reporting scientific evidence for sex differences in the brain is not sexist. What is sexist is forcing people into prescribed roles if they deviate. Doing so invokes what is called the naturalistic fallacy.
That said, why is there still sexism? Ask just about any educated person, and they will deny being sexist. They will also deny being racist. And they probably honestly and sincerely believe that they are none of those things. That’s because we now live in a society that is fighting these problems. So if most educated people aren’t overtly sexist and racist, then what the hell is going on?? Why are there still problems with racism and sexism?? Once again, let’s return to evolution. Our ancestors had to make quick, snap decisions about the world around them. They had to categorize. And the speed at which they did it meant the difference between life and death. So they had to do this unconsciously. Today, this may manifest itself as unconscious bias, something discussed in great depth in The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam.
Here’s an example of unconscious bias: Someone walking down an inner-city street sees a white man and says, “Hello,” and smiles. Someone walking down the same street sees a black man and not only does not say hello but also crosses to the other side of the street to get away from him. He might not even consciously realize that he exhibited two diametrically opposed behaviors in the same situation. He made a snap decision based on the information his brain unconsciously processed. And everybody is guilty of unconscious bias to some extent. Yes, me too. So I think the next step in minimizing racism and sexism in our society is not token phrases like, “Girls can do what boys can do” or “Blacks and whites are equal.” We already know these things. The next step is to make people aware of unconscious bias. I have, on numerous occasions, stopped people dead in their tracks, calling them out on their unconscious bias. In many cases, they’ve sheepishly said, “I’ve never thought of that” or “Oh, my God, you’re right.” And so have I, when it’s been pointed out to me.
Think about it.