It’s still hard to “go ahead” as a woman: talking about gender discrimination

February 21, 2011 § 3 Comments

“The lillies of the field charter no banks, nor issue any paper money, yet Solomon in all his glory could not go ahead faster than they,” wrote a journalist for the New York Herald Nov 15, 1841 in a review of the performance of readings and recitations given by Anna Mowatt.

This evocative statement managed to both acknowledge and snidely undercut the advancement of women in 1841, whether in the realms of literature, performance, or social and political reform.  It implies that the pushiness of women exceeds their merits; Solomon would neither need nor exhibit such agency on his own behalf.  It also admits, albeit grudgingly, that the absence of women from the centers of economic power have not forestalled their many economic successes, particularly in the cultural marketplace.  The volume of mid-19th century writing about women’s achievements and challenges to male privilege raised a related dilemma.  Could a woman who managed to “go ahead” still remain among the “lillies of the field”?  Or would she risk becoming something other, an intermediate sex, or a “sort of steam engine in petticoats” like Abigail Folsom, who make a nuisance of herself speaking out in public meetings.  In 1842, she addressed the House of Congress from the ladies’ gallery, demanding that we “let every one do the business of the country, both male and female!” (New England Weekly Review Feb 16, 1842)

I love going back and forth between my 19th-century sources and the commentary in the news and blogosphere today, not because I’m seeking some false equivalency or teleology in debates about women’s achievement, but because the infinite variation on the questions and the answers fascinate.

* * *

In 2011, what does it mean to get ahead as woman?  How do we recognize, police, and support our professional women?  These questions continue to matter, coming together in ongoing debates about how we effectively evaluate gender equality in the professional world.  Last summer, Hannah Rosin declared “The End of Men” in the usual provocative Atlantic Monthly feature.  Women are doing better in our postindustrial knowledge society, better than men because of the decline in male-dominated industrial jobs of the last century.  But Rosin’s applause of women’s achievement are folded into the usual antagonism of the sexes framework that also is found in analysis of the way our education system has been failing boys.  There’s better work out there, more attuned to the complex histories of gender politics in the last century.   The internet can give you hours of reading.  Where to start?

I spent my afternoon reading three very different treatments of three very different contexts in which we can see the complex intersection of gendered systems of value and the structural factors that can make or break women’s professional advancement.

In “What John Tierney Gets Wrong about Women Scientists,” Alison Gopnik delivers one of my new favorite comebacks about how gender discrimination in professional advancement works: “You could say that universities don’t discriminate against women, they just discriminate against people whose fertility declines rapidly after 35.” Proving or disproving gender discrimination isn’t just a numbers game, Gopnik argues.  To truly understand how gender discrimination shapes the professional advancement of women we need to look at the support systems around women’s advancement, and analyze the resources — or lack thereof — that are frequently a condition of this advancement.  Gender discrimination isn’t just about proving bias.  The existence of some key resources and not others is as much a function of bias as the absence of some women and the prominence of others.

Then there is the whole problem of why some women in positions of power don’t seem to promote their own sex any more than a man would.  In “The Lack of Female Bylines in Magazine Is Old News” the familiar questions of affirmative action are back in new guise.  Here’s the problem: men’s dominance of bylines is normative, but when a woman publishes a major feature this seems to fill a tacitly recognized quota.  Katha Pollitt wants us to stop complaining about women’s poor showing in magazine editing and writing and actually “make publishing women a priority.”  We need to stop making women an “afterthought” or give lipservice to ill-defined quotas that collapse in on themselves, like “those studies that show men overestimate the number of women in a group—one-third feels like half, half feels like a majority.”  Let’s actually make promoting women a priority.  What are we afraid of?  That women might come to dominate the bylines or lead more of the conversations?  Perish the thought.

This conversation shouldn’t be limited to publishing.

There’s also…academia, where entrenched and unacknowledged sexism in its many forms is exacerbated by hierarchies of value around different facets of the profession, teaching and research, which are gendered in a maddening catch-22.  I’ll let you read all about it over at Historiann, who asks “Is research a tool for maintaining the sexist status quo in academic departments?”  How should a woman prioritize her work within an academic career in order to best position herself in a difficult profession with so many facets?  I haven’t been on a search committee or up before one (yet), but show me a female graduate student who hasn’t witnessed firsthand, let alone had to navigate the strange fun-house mirror of gender politics in liberal academia.

Conversations with my colleagues in the last few months remind me that we contribute to these dynamics, particularly in the professional relationships we create and foster with other women.  What kind of a gender performance earns a woman respect and regard as an academic without alienating male colleagues or producing resentment from female colleagues?

And what does it mean to support — to fight for — gender equality?  I know Egyptian women are thinking a lot about it.  And I’m not going to even start taking about the Republican war on women’s health.  For now, I’d rather think about workplace discrimination…

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