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In a Meritocracy, Sexism Is Shocking and Hard to Believe

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It's hard to accept that sexism is alive and well and that it undermines virtually everything we believe about equality, fairness, and justice.

"Am I doing an injustice to the female members of this school?"

This is the question 16-year old Junius Onome Williams, running in an election for his school's student body president asked himself recently when confronted with the reality of gender imbalances in leadership at his high school. Williams attends Phillips Academy Andover, in Massachusetts. A New York Times article, "School Vote Stirs Debate About Girls' Leadership," threw the campus into heated controversy and forced discussions about why girls don't think of themselves as leaders, why boys do think of themselves as leaders and systemic sexism. It won't win us any popularity contests, but some of us call what they are talking about misogyny.* The problem identified by this group of students, a tip of the tip of the iceberg, is male power that excludes females. The hallmark of misogyny, besides gross pandemic violence against women, just happens to be women's marginalized access to decision making and institutional power.

A letter written by twelve seniors, in Andover's newspaper explained in an understated way, "Having four female school presidents since the 1973... is embarrassing." This is, of course, better than our national or state records. The Andover imbalances are just visible outcomes of largely unchallenged and embedded norms in our mainstream culture... globally. It's unfashionable to say, I know, but this is just Patriarchy 101. Worldwide, women -- still more than 50 percent of the population -- make up roughly 18 percent of legislators. Earlier today, writing in Foreign Policy Magazine, David Rothkopf described sexism as civilization's greatest shame: "The underrepresentation of women in positions of power is proof not so much that men still dominate the top of the pyramid as it is of a system of the most egregious, widespread, pernicious, destructive pattern of human rights abuses in the history of civilization."

And, if you think this is a problem in the Mythical Land of Over There, Warren Buffet took some time out of his busy schedule this week to explain how this works in the United States, "Despite the inspiring
'all men are created equal' assertion in the Declaration of Independence, male supremacy quickly became enshrined in the Constitution." The United States ranks 77th for women in legislatures.

And Rothkopf and Buffet are talking about the obvious things, not the insidious marginalization and small violences that permeate life. According to Miss Representation, 61 percent of students surveyed report seeing or hearing derogratory comments or images of women. In the one year since its inception, the Everyday Sexism Project has been flooded with women's stories describing daily encounters with sexism. More than 85 percent of women globally report street harassment that inhibits their movement in public space.

Since the NYT's article there have been ongoing conversations about gender, off and on line, in school meetings, at dinner, with speakers on Andover's campus. The overall result, despite frictions, has been a good one: people are talking about sexism and intersectionality, which was not the case before and they are confronting surprising opinions about things we take for granted or assume "everyone" agrees on... like whether or not we live in an unbiased meritocracy.

We do not live in a meritocracy, not even in the most privileged corners of the country where diverse, academically driven kids enjoy access to what might legitimately be seen as unlimited opportunities. This idea deeply disturbs people. Sexism -- which is the focus of this article -- is a difficult idea to come to terms with if you've grown up being told it doesn't exist. Sexism affects everything: from classroom interactions to gendered safety gaps, from hook-up culture to the pay gap; from parenting to health and bodily autonomy. To some, it is shocking, saddening and enraging. To others, it is unbelievable, uncomfortable and conflicting.

Students have created a group, Feminism=Equality, a Facebook page, and they are organizing speakers and discussion groups. This, of course, means that they are encountering a whole new level of casually accepted everyday sexism and backlash, but (don't say anything) what critics who say things like, "You're a girl, and the teacher is a feminist, so it's an easy A," perversely don't seem to realize is that sexism isn't actually a disincentive to feminists.

"We have three goals," explains M. J. Engel, 17, a senior from Wisconsin who ran for president last year and is a founder of Feminism = Equality. "One, to raise awareness that sexism is an issue at all at Andover; two, understanding why it's an issue of systemic oppression and not a girl versus boy thing; and three, cultivating overall gender equality through social and cultural change, not just leadership positions, but in campus life."

The question posed by the young man above was a good one, but it needs tweaking. "Am I doing an injustice to all the members of my community?" is the question we should be asking, because, without a doubt, the gross underrepresentation of women in leadership -- whether in government or business or religious life, negatively affects us all. It is revelatory though. His question shows a laudable concern with others as individuals. It also demonstrates his grappling as an individual with how to manage privilege. But, it highlights a serious and recurring problem: when people talk about systemic injustice -- which is what feminism's fight against sexism and misogyny are -- those who benefit from that injustice often feel that are being blamed as individuals. As one student interviewed in the Times said, some boys "felt attacked for simply being boys." Instead of hearing, "Our systems are prejudiced," people hear, "You are prejudiced."

Consider what these studentsare saying because, frankly, it's far more nuanced and deeply thought out than ideas I've heard expressed by much older people:

"The access has been achieved, but the equality in terms of roles has not," said Jing Qu, 18, a senior from Illinois. "Girls are scared to be overly ambitious because they're scared of the potential backlash."

"I find it shocking that this is still an issue," said Daniel Feeny, 16. "I've grown up with feminist values. It's surprising to me to get here and see women say they are still treated unfairly."

"Fewer girls try to get ahead because of a mentality in our culture that says boys have better leadership skills," said Farris Peale, 17, who ran for office. "But you have to put yourself out there."

This controversy at Andover, now played out in national media coverage, has transpired during the same month in which a new study designed to investigate why a gender gap in political ambition exists, and how large it is, Girls Just Want to Not Run, was published. Among the study's most telling findings were that twice as many boys as girls envision themselves as leaders and that boys are seven times as likely to plan to run for office by the time they get to college.

"Right off the bat, it's not a meritocracy for girls," said Maia Hirschler, 19, a senior told the New York Times. "They're starting behind because we don't associate leadership qualities with them."

Role models are important. This isn't even a remotely controversial fact, just a conveniently ignored one. In terms of leadership, a study released, also this month, documented how significant even just seeing a woman in power is to inspiring self-confidence in other women. Our traditions, media, education system and language, if left unexamined and unchanged, will continue to teach our children that only men, usually straight, white ones, can lead and make decisions on behalf of everyone else. That's who "gets" to lead.

Take public life alone: in the U.S., there are 5,193 public, outdoor statues. Guess how many of those are of men? 4,799. We have no women on our everyday currency, no public holidays marking any significant effort made by any woman in this country. We have no visible, national, public acknowledgement of the fight for women's rights, equality, parity, liberation -- name your term. In schools, women's activist and feminist movements are briefly mentioned in core curricula, marginalized in "women's history months" and usually framed along the lines of "the vote was given to women," like a nicely wrapped gift instead of something they marched, starved and went to jail fighting to get. Imagine not knowing who Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King are. Our kids learn about John Adams, but not about Abigail Adams' entreaties that he "remember the ladies" when considering voting rights. They learn about Thomas Paine, but not about Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women. They grow up to be people who don't know Ada Lovelace, but can't wait to see the upcoming Linda Lovelace biopic. When President Obama mentioned the Declaration of Sentiments in his inaugural address, most people probably wondered if he'd been paid by Hallmark. Sojourner Truth? Is that an indie band? What we don't teach children about what women have done in our past is ridiculous.

But, it's more than reassessing history and storytelling. Ileana Jiménez teaches feminism at the high school level. She works to engage kids not just with history and theory, but with everyday activism. "Why don't we talk to primary school children about gender roles and gender expression at a time when these roles are first reinforced?" she explains, in an article that includes a terrific list of suggestions for educators and parents. "Why not teach middle school students to be more mindful about the sexualization of women and girls in the media and how these images prime their buying habits and influence how they eat (or don't eat)? Why aren't educators teaching high school students how men can stop rape?"

Once you start thinking about these topics you realize that the unbalanced power is inseparable from the violence that permeates women's lives and defines the insouciance and casual acceptance of everyday sexism.

In Andover senior Madeline Silva's words: "This is about how sexism is ingrained in the attitudes of students. A marker of successful change would be that a girl running for president wouldn't have to think anymore, 'I should run with a guy, because I can't run for office with another girl, because I'd never win,' or 'I shouldn't be too aggressive, or someone will think I'm a bitch.'" She knows exactly what she's talking about considering that last year, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was called "a man's bitch," by a political opponent, of who then went on to lecture her on sexism and misogyny. Gillard responded with a speech that changed the dictionary definition of misogyny to include "entrenched prejudice against women."

It sounds strange, right, to associate the idea that an imbalance in leadership as the visible symbol of pervasive oppression and hatred with students in a pristine, bucolic corner of North America.

We better start. While our boys and girls may lack role models, students like these, Jimenez's and others like them, are filling our void and I am grateful for their work.

* According to The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology, Misogyny is defined as: "a central part of sexist prejudice and ideology and, as such, is an important basis for the oppression of females in male-dominated societies. Misogyny is manifested in many different ways, from jokes to pornography to violence to the self-contempt women may be taught to feel toward their own bodies."