Why Everyday Sexism Matters: A Personal Tale

Culture taught me to ignore women.

I wouldn’t have put it that way, back in the day. I’d have told you that the reason I didn’t read many female authors or didn’t know about many female scientists or like many female artists or musicians was because they just weren’t as good. I’d point defensively to the few women on my shelves or in my CD collection and say, look! I’m not prejudiced or anything, I’ve got women there, it’s just that there aren’t that many doing stuff I like.

Sound familiar? It’s the cry of every dudebro and unique-chick™ out there.

I didn’t realize I was blind to the thousands of women out there who were writing stuff I loved, creating art and music that kicked the shit out of the majority of bands I listened to, who were doing incredible science. I didn’t know society was conspiring to keep them hidden from me. I just didn’t think they existed. I didn’t think to look. And even when I saw them, I almost always had a knee-jerk response to the female name: this probably won’t be any good.

I’m remembering what it was like before the feminists came along and pried my eyes open. I’m going back through my blog archives right now, and I’m horrified by what I’m seeing. Five years ago, if I made a list of really influential scientists, chances are there wouldn’t be a woman among them. If I made a list of popular science books, it would probably include just male authors. Sci-fi and fantasy lists: overwhelmingly men, with a few women sprinkled sparingly in. By that time, I’d gotten over the women-can’t-do-metal attitude, and most of the bands I listened to included female vocalists, sometimes even women playing instruments, and I’d learned I was wrong to knee-jerk dismiss bands simply because they had females in them. Small consolation to the women in everything else I ignored because women automatically suck at x, so why bother?

Image shows a woman from the cartoon series Pokemon, with a building that has a sign saying "PMS" in the background. Caption says, "The one episode of Pokemon that has to do with women, Jessie and Misty shop a ton, fight like there's no tomorrow, and it clearly says "PMS" on that building."
Another fine example of unthinking sexism.

Yet I believed that women should be treated equally. I just didn’t think they measured up. The ones who did would of course succeed, because we’d done away with all the legal barriers and people all knew women could do stuff, right?

That’s what so insidious about this cultural messaging around us. On the one hand, we’re allowed to believe the problem is solved the instant there are laws against discrimination. Hey, look, we’ve got the vote, and people aren’t allowed to refuse to hire us cuz we might get preggers! Woo-hoo, equality! If you fail now, it’s your own fault!

On the other hand, we have a culture that tells us, from birth to death, what women are for. And it tells female people with ladybrainz that they’re not for science and math. They’re not for serious literature or groundbreaking SF. They’re not for leadership. Sure, there are women who can do all those things, no one denies it: they’re just unique-chicks™ who have dudely brains. They’re special.

That was a toxic, yet heady, brewski. Here I was, bathed in legal equality, and additionally, I was one of the unique-chicks™ who could, with effort, break into the dudebro spaces, because I wasn’t one of Those Girls. I wasn’t one of those terrible women who are womanly and boring, useful only for womanly things, which don’t get me wrong are totally important! Just not as awesome as the dudely things. I mean, how much effort does it really take to endure nine months of various medical problems plus someone’s feet in your bladder, then force an entire person out through a small opening, then raise that squalling, screaming, shitting bundle of supposed joy while also cleaning, cooking, running errands, and doing a cake job, like teaching dozens of selfish young fiends how to be good citizens and also read, write, and do maths? Totally easy compared to writing the Great American Novel or designing an MP3 player. Get back to me when you’re doing something important.

The casual contempt of women wasn’t intentional. It was just what we absorbed, along with the notion that women who didn’t like sex were prudes, women who did like sex were sluts, and rape victims should’ve been wearing longer skirts. And gawd, women sucked, right? They couldn’t throw a ball. They were so obsessed with hair-clothes-boys you couldn’t have a real conversation with them. When they wrote stuff, it was soft and domestic and full of icky feelings. When they did science, it was probably going to be squishy stuff, like sociology or something. She’s not pretty enough/she’s too ugly to listen to. On and on and on…

These things are held forth as truths: women are more emotional than men. They’re more into relationships. They’re softer, sweeter, less intellectual. They’re physically weaker. They’re more interested in babies. They’re all sorts of things, obviously, it’s biology, maaan. And those messages are a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re told to see women that way all our lives, so we do. I couldn’t see women any other way. And that meant I didn’t see a lot of women.

Not until I fell in by accident with a few feminists, both women and men, who told me to actually look. Look for the women who are already there, the ones you dismissed without honestly assessing their work, the ones you couldn’t even see because this culture ensured the men were given top billing. Look beyond the assumptions as to why there are fewer women. Look beyond that easy it’s-just-the-way-things-are narrative and find out if maybe, just possibly, there are other reasons why so many women are rare or absent in certain areas.

I found women doing extraordinary work, everywhere. Women who had been completely overlooked because people like me automatically dismissed them, didn’t even think to see if they were there and, if so, doing anything interesting.

I saw the things making them invisible.

I saw that the work they did, that I held in such contempt, was difficult and important and mattered.

I found out I’m not a unique-chick™. I was just being an oblivious asshole, like nearly everyone else.

This is why things like casual sexism matter. No one would give a rat’s ass about a shirt full of half-nekkid women or describing a piece of equipment as a woman you’re trying to bed if women were fully equal and represented. In another culture, that would just be quirky stuff. But not in this climate. In our culture, it’s another brick, more mortar, in the wall that keeps women out of certain fields. It’s part of the smokescreen that keeps women out of the public view as professionals worth taking seriously. It doesn’t matter that the people doing or defending it don’t realize that’s the impact they’re having, and don’t intend for it to be that way.

I didn’t intend to ignore women’s contributions to science, but I did. And part of the reason I did that was because ten thousand tiny messages told me that women were more objects than people, not worth considering unless they were really-really extraordinary. Messages often delivered by people who wouldn’t dream of telling women they were less-than people. But all of those messages, combined, say that women are, indeed, less-than. They have the result of turning women’s accomplishments invisible unless they fall within a narrow spectrum of “things women do.” They depreciate the worth of those “things women do” because, hey, if women can do them…

Image is a page from the Barbie book "I Can Be a Computer Engineer." Barbie is in a computer lab with two guys. She's holding up a disc. Text bubble says, "'It will go faster if Brian and I help,' offers Steven. 'Great!' says Barbie. 'Steven, can you hook Skipper's hard drive up to the library's computer?' 'Sure!' says Steven. 'The library computer has excellent security software to protect it.'"
Another unlovely example of subconscious sexism at work. The author says “it’s possible stuff slipped out.” Ya think?! Image from Pamela Ribon’s excellent smackdown. Click the image for her post.

We’ve got to be more careful of the messages we’re sending. We’ve got to be more aware of our bias, even when we believe we aren’t biased. We have to question those lazy assumptions handed down as unquestioned fact.

We have to do better.


The same image as the previous one. The text bubble has been reformatted to say, "This is the last time I'm giving you boys this anti-virus install. Next time you bork your machine by browsing porn sites with IE as an admin, you're on your own."
This is what could have been – and an idea of how it should be. Image from I Can Haz Cheeseburger.
Why Everyday Sexism Matters: A Personal Tale
The Orbit is still fighting a SLAPP suit! Help defend freedom of speech, click here to find out more and donate!

7 thoughts on “Why Everyday Sexism Matters: A Personal Tale

  1. rq

    You sound like me, when I was younger, too. Actually, the heck am I saying, ‘younger’? A couple of years ago.
    The easiest place for me to point this out is in my selection of sci-fi books, and it’s as you say – I’d acknowledge that they were there (right there on the shelf), I’d read the blurb, and I’d quietly put it down and look for something similar by a man. Since I’ve forced (yes, initially, forced!) myself to read more women authors, it turns out that many of them have been writing exactly the kinds of stories I’ve been hungry for, without even knowing it.
    It was easier in science, the women were less visible. Not visible at all. But it turns out, doing excellent work.
    Music? Same deal. Though going over my old playlists, I do have a huge amount of women artists on them. I’d just never think of them if someone asked me about favourite or best bands.
    That casual sexism still rears its head for me, and it takes effort to counter it. I was looking for people to follow on twitter regarding Ferguson and the Aftermath, and suddenly I realized I was clicking ‘Follow’ on men only… when it was clear from posts that there were several incredibly proud and strong young women working their asses off for the movement. So yes, I followed them, too, and I’m grateful for it.
    It takes constant effort for a long time, I think, to get out of that mindset. To those for whom it comes easily, I salute you. You’re doing better than me. :)

  2. 2

    A lot of this sounds familiar. My ex-husband tried to tell me that we lived in a post-feminist society. That we didn’t need feminism because reasons. Then he encouraged me to read the Gor series of books. I got through the first one by saying to myself that I could see a society could arise where all women are slaves, but I threw down the second book when the narrator told the reader that slavery was women’s natural state of being. [insert emoticon with smoke coming out of one’s ears] I made sure that my ex took those books with him when he left.

    I remember feeling like I needed to be apologetic when I told classmates in high school that my favorite singer was Paula Abdul. I gave up my childhood dream of being a marine biologist, not because I simply changed my mind, but because I was constantly told it was “too difficult.” That I was good with maths was deemed remarkable, even though my honors classes were about equally populated with boys and girls. I absorbed all this as “just the way things were.”

    Then, once I started learning about feminism (mostly from atheist blogs that focused on intersectionality, such as Pharyngula and the Atheist Experience), it forced me to start questioning my assumptions of gender stereotypes I’d been taught. Those stereotypes were (and I’m sure still are) holding me back.

    I still find myself a little surprised when a commenter on FtB mentions her gender and I find myself thinking, “I didn’t realize she was a woman.” Then I feel embarrassed that the possibility hadn’t crossed my mind. I’m trying to do better, but it takes a long time to overcome decades of being steeped in a patriarchal society.

  3. 4

    I always considered myself an ardent feminist. And when I recently checked out an Esquire article on great books every man should, I was duly horrified only one female author made their cut. When I decided to make my own list of Women Authors It Wouldn’t Kill Guys To Read, I was unexpectedly embarrassed when I realized that most of the books on my own shelves were by men. And about men. You can’t do better until you make the conscious decision and effort to do so, which is why I think the general public hates hearing about things like implicit bias, and rape culture. No one wants to think that they’ve been a part of The Problem, and need to step up and be a part of the solution whether they want to or not.

  4. 6

    Excellent post.

    My music taste hasn’t changed noticeably as far as adding more women in my playlists, but I think that is because I mostly listen to instrumental jazz and there’s just not a ton of women in that arena. But my blog-reading has absolutely seen a large shift towards women. Many are right here at FtB but even in the political sphere I now read Heather Hurlburt, Michelle Goldberg, Amanda Marcotte, Amanda Hess, and others. I never specifically set out to read more from women writers but it definitely seems to coincide with becoming more aware of sexism/misogyny.

    Where I definitely have noticed a sudden newfound visibility of influences that were previously restricted by my own bias is in LBGT people. Years ago I was so caught up in my masculinity that I definitely eschewed openly gay artists (and even straight artists who were too femmes as being “not-my-thing”* and nowadays my wife jokes “can we listen to something besides Rufus Wainwright for a bit?” And teases me for my recent obsession with finding a pink tennis shirt (to wear as a small effort to defy gender norms.) I know that a mild homophobia deterred me from all kinds of great artists and activities that I now enjoy. And what a silly reason to miss out?! Life’s too short…

    *Ironically I was a huge fan of Freddie Mercury, Wham and even Liberace as a kid. I think it was only once I started encountering the peer pressure of middle-school that I started to actually pay any attention to the sexual preference of artists, and tried to make my tastes fit into heteronormative expectations.

Comments are closed.