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Valerie Young's picture

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Sometimes I think I'm going crazy, only I know I'm not because other women tell me they notice the same thing.  It's complicated, and it's hard to keep it in focus sometimes, but it really is there.  I don't see dead people,.  I don't hear voices - I just see gender distinctions being made where other people see .... nothing out of the ordinary.  Business as usual.  The same ol' same ol'.    Has this ever happened to you?
For example, I hear bald assertions, like "women aren't ambitious".  Or, "market forces control what a worker is paid, so if a woman is paid less than a man for the same job, it's her fault" for not holding out for more.  Or "women aren't discriminated against, they are just not as good as men in business, or in politics, or the court room".  Or we don't need a paid maternity leave policy, because "it's best when workers and employers can negotiate between themselves for these special benefits".  Or (and this is my personal favorite) "mothers don't want to work, they'd really rather be home with their kids".  Truly, I'm not making these up.  Each of these statements was made in front of me in recent months.  Some of them were said by women.
I don't think any of these conclusions is true, and they certainly aren't supported by data I've seen.  I can imagine nothing more ambitious than creating and giving birth to other human beings and nudging them into the unique, well-adjusted and creative individuals they will become.  How could mothering be less ambitious than building a business, winning an election, or running faster than anyone has ever run before?  I bet motherhood takes more of what you've got and greater sacrifice and resilience than any other endeavor.  The vast majority of mothers care for family while being employed outside the home as well, some in jobs, some in careers, but all with responsibilities and obligations of their own.  Of course, when a person says "women just aren't as ambitious" as men, the unspoken understanding is "professionally ambitious", as if that sort of ambition is the only worthwhile kind.  From a male point of view, against a backdrop of traditionally male values,  professional success measured by money and power probably IS the only kind.  But that's a very narrow way to define the full scope of human activity, and views women's ambition only to the extent that it mirrors men's.  Hardly a full and accurate picture, is it?
We want so very much to believe that hard work is rewarded and merit is the foundation for success.  I suspect this is hardly as true as we wish.  Women have certainly excelled in school, earning better grades and receiving more degrees at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral level than men.  But they haven't reached comparable levels of leadership and achievement in politics, business or academia, because grades generally are not the deciding factor.  Something else is more valued, and it is more elusive and difficult to measure.  According to Why Isn't Better Education Giving Women More Power? in The Atlantic, personality trumps performance in the real world.  "Many parts of the work world, by comparison .... reward a particular sort of self-promotion that many women shy away from. Studies have repeatedly shown that women get more criticism and less praise in the workplace than men do. They are offered lower starting salaries, and are judged more negatively by prospective employers than are men with identical backgrounds. And unlike in school, the burden of fighting discrimination rests almost entirely on an individual, who must initiate grievance procedures against her boss."  Well, that's not a rosy picture.
What's really going on here?  Researchers at Harvard University point to "second generation gender bias" in a recent Harvard Business Review article entitled Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers .  Effective without the specific intent to exclude, and often without immediate negative consequences, this slippery kind of discrimination blunts women's representation in positions of influence and leadership.  Inherent in everything we have all absorbed, second-generation gender bias "erects powerful but subtle and often invisible barriers for women that arise from cultural assumptions and organizational structures, practices, and patterns of interaction that inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage."  That's pretty abstract, but it rings very true.
A wife, mother of two, and working woman wrote me recently, and her words reminded me of the article quoted above.  She said, "My husband is by no means sexist at all, but when I talk about the way I am treated differently as a woman he simply does not see it.  He thinks it is my imagination, or I am overreacting, or being oversensitive, estrogen-induced hysteria or something.  It's like it's subtle and blatant all at the same time.  Any differential treatment towards women, perceived or real, is a function of the woman's behavior, beliefs, attitude, bias, or whatever.  And if you talk about it you risk being seen as whiny or overly emotional, or asking for preferential treatment."
At the risk of sounding whiny or overly emotional, I see sexism.  And I'm not the only one.
'Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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