I was recently asked to create a flyer for a workshop (on better inter-gender understanding, ironically enough!) being run by two colleagues, one male and one female. I’m far from being a professional designer, but I did my best with what they had sent me.
Part of the process involved editing the bios they had sent me, for ease of reading and to fit them to the available space. I sent them both my draft versions for comments. The man had no problem with my changes, but the woman sent me an angry email saying that she thought I was guilty of: ‘slipping into ingrained sexism –favouring men’s input over women’s, and expecting a woman to accepting that silencing’.
There was no attempt or intention on my part to ‘silence’ her; what I had sent her was clearly only a draft and when she asked that her whole bio be used, I complied and reduced the font size to fit it in. But it seemed that based on her past experiences working with men, she expected that kind of response and instinctively chose to interpret my work that way.
We all draw on the past to make sense of what’s happening now and/or to avoid outcomes that we don’t want to repeat. The problems come if our expectations either distort what is happening in the present, or blind us to anything that doesn’t fit our negative expectations. Or even worse, when they become self-fulfilling prophecies that bring about the very outcomes that we want to avoid. Which I think is exactly what happened here.
Her expectation that I’d be arrogant enough to think I knew better than her what she wanted to say, was to my mind a kind of gender stereotype — one that I come up against quite a lot when I’m working with women. The assumption being that, no matter how reasonable I might seem on the surface, underneath I’ll always be a ‘typical male’ chauvinist at heart.
I can imagine that it’s harder for women to admit to, or be aware of, their stereotyping than it is for men, because it’s often mistakenly assumed that only men can be sexist. But if a woman expects to be on the receiving end of bad behaviour from men, she runs the risk of seeing that wherever she looks. And without wanting to take anything away from the many harassment cases which are now surfacing, or the courage of women who are refusing to tolerate abusive behavior from men which was previously accepted as ‘the way things were’, my worry is that now, a man behaving in an nothing more than a friendly way toward a woman could be interpreted by her as ‘harassment’.
Yes, we men need to have our unconscious privileges and any inherited and adopted assumptions about gender, power and entitlement challenged and brought to the surface; so that we can begin to change any oppressive attitudes and behaviour we may have. And the good news is that if we understand how our actions may be perpetuating inequality, it will be possible for us to live from a more conscious place — to love and be loved in an authentic and complete way.
But for men and women to make progress towards understanding each other better, we need to also acknowledge that false stereotypes, assumptions and reactions exist on both sides of the ‘gender divide’, even while it is true that power is not distributed equally in our society, and oppression of some kinds is experienced more directly by women than by men.
Then we can share the responsibility — to different degrees and in different ways — for ending sexism, and work together from a basis of mutual responsibility and respect to create the kind of safe and equal world that most of us want.
And any male dinosaurs amongst us that are not ready for that kind of evolution can be avoided and ignored until they eventually die out.
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