Subtle doesn’t mean invisible, just easier to ignore

Posted: June 13, 2012 in Personal, Ugliness American Style, Women's Issues
Tags: ,

I will most likely never get openly harassed at my very professional workplace (although many, many women will still get openly harassed in the workplace in less professional environments or in male dominated industries such as the military, law enforcement, politics, IT, etc).  I experienced overt sexism from as early as 6, in regards my mothers status as a single divorced mother of six.  I can name countless overt, covert and subtle instances of sexism in my childhood.  Another important event occurred  In my early 20’s when I won an ROTC scholarship, only to be told by many male cadets that I could not have possibly have earned it.  I must have used my vagina, somehow, someway.  As unsubtle and overt as that was, I expected that kind of reaction.  You know why?  Because I recognized a million different covert and subtle acts of sexism that led up to that one ugly overt act.  My entire early life had prepared me to be treated as “less than” and created in me a personality that tried to reject such labeling and not let such ugliness affect my self-esteem.   I have not always succeeded in fending off the damage, unfortunately.

Here’s what i see that so many men and women around me do not.  Covert sexism is hidden but intended to cause harm. Subtle sexism is not intended to do harm but still does so nonetheless and is often built into very fundamental cultural aspects such as language, art, gestural communication,etc.    And I am not even talking about such things that an enlightened male should already know such as the fact that women STILL only make 75 cents for every $1 a male makes or that only 12 of the Fortune 500 are run by female CEOs or that only 16% of Congress are women or that the US is ranked 69th in the world for the amount of women in government.  That stuff should be painfully obvious, regardless of what the GOP likes to tell you.  The fact there are some rather than zero is better but you have to pardon me for not being content with these breadcrumbs.  Hell even the expectation that women should be happy with what we’ve gotten is condescending and sexist.

Here are some examples of covert and subtle sexism that I notice EVERY single day that many people, both women and men don’t have a clue about.

1.  Ever notice that the majority of statues in the US are of men?  There are over 5,000 public statues and less than 400 are of women.  What about books in our public school curriculum?  What about artwork n our museums?  This may be an obvious one, but again not too many people really think about this.

2.  Telling a woman who is upset that she must be PMS’ing.  God forbid that she actually be  legitimately upset about something important.  Do we ever tell an angry man that his testosterone must be surging?  No, even though that is a distinct possibility.  Hormone levels wax and wane at different life stages in both genders and directly affect mood.  From now on, if a man accuses me of being bitchy because of PMS, I am going to counter with “then you must be acting sexist because of male menopause” or “an over abundance of testosterone”.

3. Always calling a group of mixed gender “guys” and calling grown women “girls” – I myself am guilty of this one….it actually does more damage than you think as recent studies have shown because when you use “guys” or “they” for mixed gender groups or he/she in a bid to be gender neutral, psychologically both men and women do not even visualize or associate women to the terms.  The language actually produces a sort of nullification of women in our brains.  Okay, now take that and multiply it by the millions and millions of times you have used or heard the terms he/she, they, or guys…in almost every instance women did not exist in your conception, visualization or interpretation of those nouns and  pronouns.  Intellectually you might have interpreted it as meaning mixed gender, but that happens after your initial unconscious reaction to the word.  It doesn’t get any more subtle than that.

4.  Ever tell another guy to stop acting like a girl in the presence of a woman?  Yeah, you just insulted her so much more than him because you are telling him (and her) that a man is lowering himself by acting like woman.  Therefore acting like a woman is not as good as the way a man acts,  therefore the way women act is bad.   Plus you are assuming that all women act a certain way, which is also patently false., which leads to the next one.

5.  Ever notice that negative behavior from men is either not noticed or is tolerated much more than that same behavior from women?  Think about it.  Don’t we label and treat men and women differently. The same behavior exhibited by a man makes him assertive but the woman aggressive.   The first is positive and expected from men.  Assertiveness is not expected from women, so it is labled negatively as aggression.  What about men who interrupt, have angry tirades, slam things around their desk…if the man is really smart and good at his job, he will often be tolerated, but women exhibiting the same genius and negative behaviors will not.

6.  Women who act like men are “butch”, “lesbian” or frigid.  What do they mean by “act like a man” (since there is no set way for men to behave)?  I personally tend to think, react to and interact in ways that research has found to be more likely associated with the male gender.   This is not to say all men act this way, only that it is more likely…..I am prone to crosstalk, interrupting, directly challenging other peoples assertions, making bold unqualified statements, and being overtly competitive.   I wasn’t like this until I got to college and I noticed that if I didn’t communicate that way in the classroom I would never get called on and never get a word in.   In my professional career I have encountered so much push back, however, that I developed, unbeknownst to me for long time, a habit of qualifying myself.  For example, where I used to say “That won’t work because x, y and z”, I began to say, “I could be wrong, but that might not work because of x, y, and z.”  The average American male hears only the part about me being wrong and discounts whatever else follows.  This is a well known psychological phenomena in American society.   I have since realized this personal trend and have tried very hard to stamp it out, not only for the sake of communicating clearly but also because I refuse to bow to all that social pressure to act in a way that society expects me to simply because I have a vagina, uterus, ovaries and breasts.

7.  Ever sit in a meeting full of men with only one or two  woman present and when the men speak they make eye contact with everyone but the women?

8.   In such situations, ever notice how the woman is usually the one asked to take notes, get refreshments, to make copies, to clean up afterward, etc?

9.     Ever notice that there is often one or more people in a department who automatically takes on the female subservient role either subconsciously or overtly as a means of ingratiating themselves and have you ever noticed how frequently those people are women?   The unconscious woman is just sad–the overt one is horrid.  She is like a woman who claims that being a prostitute empowers her and gives her control over how she presents herself sexually without ever understanding that there is no real power in that role and never can be.  It is an archetype of objectification and by taking on that role you you are not only giving up your power you are buying into the power of the male system of objectification.  I.e., you simply reinforce the stereotype.  I find myself doing this on occasion and I hate it when I do.  I am not the friggin hostess!  Call hospitality or maintenance, but leave me out of it, thank you very much.  I have enough people to clean up after at home.

10.  Ever go to a meeting as a team, a male and female, and when you get there the people in the meeting will listen to your female partner and always follow that up with a look to you, the male, to add to, repeat, correct or confirm what she just said?

11.  Ever go to a meeting with your female boss and when the others meet her are surprised to find out that SHE is the boss and not you?

12.  Ever have someone give  woman the full once over and say to her male employee/student/intern, ‘she can’t possibly be your boss/professor/supervisor/dean!’. I have  from the mouth of a male college student’s mother to him, right in front of me.  Um, I heard that…..

I have more but I think you’re starting to see my point.  Research shows that once such things are pointed out to women, they have an ‘oh yeah, I have experienced or have seen that’ moment…an awakening of sorts. Sadly the same research shows that no matter how rationally I or anyone else presents this kind of information or other facts regarding subtle and covert sexism to American men most of them will not accept such behavior as being sexist and will not have similar changes in their awareness of it in their lives.  The ONLY effective way for them to ‘get it’ is through empathy and empathy is not an easy thing to teach.  Perhaps that is why many men deny that sexism exists until they have daughters and then they finally see first hand how pervasive and destructive it actually is.

Ultimately, I don’t care how they come by the empathy so long as they eventually do.  Until then, sexism, like racism, will remain pervasive in our society and I will continue to be told by privileged white men that it ‘isn’t that bad’ and ‘to lighten up’.  And I will continue, in turn, to tell them what they can do with their uninformed opinions.


6/4/2013:  Updated to correct numerous grammar and spelling errors

  1. Jordan says:

    Once again, your post is thought provoking. I live in a house full of young men who often call each other “pussy” when pointing out a weakness. I have taken to objecting every single time they say this. Even though it comes off to them as annoying and overly sensitive, I still feel this is important. My gender does not make me weaker, it does not make me less rational, nor lacking in any way and I believe that we need to stand up and make this clear. If we start out small like pointing out when someone keeps saying “guys” or how “pussy” is offensive then maybe we can get people to think about what you are saying here.

    • drangedinaz says:

      Yeah, educating young men from the cradle is necessary but we have to find a way to educate the ones who have grown up with all that subtle language discrimination–our husbands, brothers, friends and fathers. You know to be fair, I hear a lot of women saying the same kind of things that men do and they are completely unaware of how they undermine themselves. Education of women, of all ages, is an absolute must because they will be the ones that turn around and raise that enlightened little boy or correct that annoying grown man.

  2. Aaaugh. I so want to comment in depth on this but I have to, have to, go to bed. Last time I said this on a blog comment I didn’t get around to returning – yet – I hope I have time tomorrow.

  3. Okay… Here’s one that has happened to me more than once: ever pay for your purchase with cash while shopping with a man and the cashier hands HIM the change? Every time this happens I tell the cashier, nicely, why they shouldn’t do that and why. Such a small thing, part of daily life, that makes me feel less human, less important, and clearly not even able to handle money. Grrr. And sadly it’s usually a female behind the till.
    #7 no – but now I’ll make a point of noticing. I’m big on eye contact personally and I would notice if I wasn’t getting it, but never paid attention to others in the room…
    #8 oh yes. If they EVER try that on me I will go mental. I don’t even know how to make a cup of tea, feic off.
    #3 I’ve always preferred to use ‘they’ even as a child, and even though it is grammatically incorrect I still prefer it and when i read he/she I mentally change it to they. I’m very surprised to hear that it isn’t neutral, it sure is to me.
    #2 I have a really good death stare I use when I hear someone say that. I’m pretty sure no one has ever had the guts to say it about me, though.
    #6 Wow, yeah, stop that qualifying stuff. I hear women do it and it makes me cringe – but at the same time they are the better-liked (than me) for doing so.
    #4 I always say, ‘Why are you using “pussy” as an insult if you like it so much?” That makes em think.
    #5 Yep, that’s me. I get really angry and I let it out. It makes everyone uncomfortable. I just assumed its because I look like a jerk and change the atmosphere in the room, though.

    Ok are you sorry I came back yet? 🙂

    • drangedinaz says:

      OMG, I totally forgot that first one, but you’re right! That made me remember another one. When you’re out to dinner with a man (doesn’t matter if husband, friend, brother, father) and the waiter ALWAYS hands the bill to the man.. Same crap, different day.

      In re: to not being liked as much….that’s what sucks about it though. A guy doing the same thing could be easily liked and even complimented for being assertive and leader-like. But a woman, she’s a ball buster and isn’t liked. I HATE that double standard….

      And no, I am not sorry and you can’t make me be! 🙂

  4. alopecia says:

    If you’re up for a little drama, try this the next time a man accuses you of having PMS just because you’re not acting like a doormat. Step a little closer and make a show of looking carefully at his ears, around his eyes, his chin—don’t overdo it, but study him, preferably with a slight frown and a look of concern. Just before he asks what you’re doing, step back, nod and say, “That’s what I thought: testosterone poisoning.” Then turn and walk away. He’ll be seriously peeved, but he’ll think twice before he insults you that way again.

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