Thursday, October 13, 2011

Feminism in the 21st century

I'm often torn about the f-word. To me, feminism evokes images of bra-burning women, fighting against butt-slapping, boob-watching men. Because the sexism I experience today is so different from what I think of feminists fighting against, it's hard to call myself a feminist, or to want to be a feminist. Day to day, I would generally say I don't experience overt sexism (except for one glaring example during graduate school, which I'll tell you all about later). But, if I sit down and think about how the media reports on and portrays women, it makes me frustrated.

How am I supposed to teach my daughter that she can be anything she wants, when there are so few examples for her to look up to (e.g. only 3.6% of career firefighters are women)?

How do I deal with the information that wearing make-up (i.e. being more beautiful) makes me appear more trustworthy?

What do I do with the information that women across all fields still earn less, on average, than men (no, I don't think it is all blatant discrimination, but there is, as the article states, a higher likelihood of women working lower-paying jobs, and men working higher-paying jobs - why is this?).

Is it fair, to women or men, to expect such ridiculous body standards?

Oftentimes when I think of gender biases, I find myself drawn to thoughts of how changing standards for men and women will reduce biases, and make life better for all sides. Certainly all people are not the same, and I don't want everyone to conform to some idea. I do, however, think that it should be okay for men to speak softly or have dyed hair, or wear frilly clothes. But burly, buff, jocks, can be just as much of an ally in making sure everyone has similar opportunities. Petite, busty women should be able to pile on the makeup and miniskirts, if they wish. But a woman with a crew cut shouldn't given any fewer opportunities (assuming they both have the same skill set), because she someone doesn't think she's as pretty.

Maybe one of the biggest challenges with gender equality is that ensuring equal opportunities doesn't mean everyone is equally qualified for every opportunity. What I mean by that is that we all have different interests and talents, and we shouldn't try to change the system so anyone can get into medical school. Instead, we should start from the ground up, in pre-school/kindergarden, and make sure every student has the training (perhaps even extra attention, given different home/economic situations), to be prepared for, and encouraged to pursue, whatever life path they choose. Especially we need to make sure that the options are known. I was aware of pathetically few options for my life when I was in high school - and maybe I wouldn't have cared about them if they'd been in front of me - but at least some of them might have stood out. Are there people who study this? The advantages of being well-informed early in life?

Ah, clearly, I have a lot of thinking to to about it still, and will try to work out some of those thoughts here, but in the meantime, I think I'd like to see this movie:



EllenQ said...

This is just a little thing, but I think it is helpful in terms of embracing the term feminist. I heart Gloria Steinem speak several years ago and she says that she would call feminism "humanism" if that word weren't already taken. Feminism is just wait you said. It should be that everyone is judged on their merits, not anything external about them. Of course, this is extremely hard to do for all of us.

mathbionerd said...

Thanks Ellen! I totally agree. I think humanism is probably the best word. I've been a big advocate of including men in Graduate Women in Science. A few years ago a ran into a wall of resistance - worry that men might, someday, take over the organization. Ridiculous. Now we have our first male National committee member! Yay!