My girlfriend will graduate with her Ph.D. one year before me. Recently, at a party people asked her about this. They asked what she was going to do while, quote, "waiting for me to graduate" and asked, "You're going to hang around here and then follow him to whatever professorship he gets right?"
The implication was subtle but clear: as a woman, she would be following me.
Despite this conversation occurring at a party of socially liberal people, and despite the fact that my girlfriend is a fantastic scientist, and despite the fact that the conversation was among female scientists and professionals, the message was as ancient as the old testament: Adam would come before Eve.
We are in a society that screams that it embraces equality. But we still quietly and subtly embrace the concept of "Adam then Eve" not the equal idea of "Adam and Eve." And we would never even consider giving "Eve" first billing in the couple's title. Who's ever heard of "Eve and Adam"? No one, because when it matters, the man comes first.
Despite much progress in women's equality, in the most conservative and most liberal environments, there are still societal expectations that women will care for the kids; not make trouble; defer to the male ego; and, follow. Today many liberals seem more keen to support the concept of "Adam and Steve" than the true equal standing of men and women.
A wealth of research shows that even people who consciously agree with statements such as "equality is important" do not always carry out a life that reflects the statements. Sexism can be subtle, unconscious, or so ingrained in social norms that we do not notice it.
Today, acting a little bit sexist is the norm not the exception. You do it, I do it, and both women and men do it. Women can be sexist to other women and men often rigidly enforce "no homo" gender norms amongst themselves.
These everyday sexist acts can perpetuate gender-consistent behavior even in those who disagree with the norms. If society implies that people should be a certain way ("wait for their boyfriend" or "not cry in an unmanly way") then out of convenience or fear people will tend to act that way.
Women and men may even internalize norms they dislike. Constant exposure to gender norms can create gender schemas. Gender schemas are models in the mind that can lead people to unconsciously and automatically act in gender specific and even sexist ways. All progressive people have felt the influence of gender schemas when they've blurted out something extremely sexist, only to immediately think to themselves, "Why did I just say that?" People may catch their sexist behaviors once in awhile, but for the most part their subtle sexism may go undetected by themselves and those around them.
When we see blatant sexism, we often know to say it is wrong. However, we do not realize that even those men and women with pro-equality stickers proudly displayed on their MacBooks are not without their subtle forms of discrimination.
If sexism occurs subtly and unconsciously, then we must consciously resist it. We must address the norms straight on. Does this mean we should eliminate gender and all become unisex? No. Ultra-conservatives want you to think that anyone who preaches "equality" really wants a "genderless apocalypse." When in reality most people promoting equality are just suggesting we make it okay to break gender norms and develop societally acceptable models of people who break the norms.
How we reach such a future can come through many ways.
One way is policy. We need policies that allow women to break the norms. Things like child support. Because if women overwhelmingly care for the children right now, and that is unlikely to rapidly change, then child support remains an "equality" issue. We must change both psychological and real obstacles to equality. No matter what changes, many women will choose to be stay-at-home moms and we should respect that choice. However, we should not socially and almost legally force the stay-at-home option on women.
It also means we need to expand the "precarious" male identity. Men should get paternity leave and be encouraged to take it. Young boys must be taught to respect women and not feel a need to prove their superior "manliness" at all moments.
Because maybe nothing illustrates our gender problem more than how a male feels when he loses to a woman at nearly anything. No matter how many Hillary Clinton rallies that man has been to, losing to a woman still stings like hell.
I want my future children to live in a world where it's okay for a boy to lose to a girl. Where it's okay for Eve to come before Adam. Where Adam is comfortable with following. And where Eve feels great leading.
Follow Troy Campbell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/troyhcampbell