Both men and women are capable of being sexist. Sexism – being prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s gender – can adversely affect both men and women. The idea that men can’t care for babies or run homes is as sexist and limiting as the idea that women can’t run companies or compute maths.
These stereotypes, from which sexism springs, stymy men and women. The notion that males or females are intrinsically better at something, whether it’s leadership, politics or parenting, than the opposite sex, is a zero-sum proposition. It creates unrealistic and unnecessary expectations – for the men who aren’t and the women who are – and no one wins. Whether someone can competently run a company, pilot a plane, cook or care for a baby comes down to the individual, not their gender.
But, broadly speaking, the stereotypes about what men and women can and should do remain deeply entrenched. Subscribing to these beliefs need not be sinister; it’s often subconscious which is why blatant displays of sexism ought to be recognised and challenged. Not to gratuitously shame or attack the protagonists but to highlight the hold that outdated gender roles still have.
You would struggle, I hope, to find a man or woman willing to say, in 2014, they want different opportunities for boys and girls. That they want their son, their nephew, their godson, to have a greater likelihood of being promoted to leadership and their daughter, their niece, their goddaughter, to have a one in two chance of being discriminated against whilst pregnant. No one, I hope, explicitly wants those things.
Accepting the status quo is tantamount to ensuring it. Any man or woman who genuinely wants opportunities to be spread on merit, not pre-ordained by gender, has a vested interest in identifying and rejecting sexism.
The past few weeks alone have indicated why – more than ever – sexism needs to be actively rejected. Sexism and gender inequality are inextricably linked. Sexism is ultimately the reason why the pay gap at its biggest in 20 years; it underlies the fact a female dies every week at the hands of her partner; it’s ultimately the reason why 1 in 5 people are willing to believe a female is partly responsible for rape if she’s had something to drink.
Each of these snippets indicates the importance and impact of sexism, which brings me to a segment on television yesterday.
On Channel 7’s Sunrise, the two hosts Samantha Armytage and David Koch, were discussing a doctor who apparently took a photo of Joan Rivers whilst under a general anaesthetic, shortly before she died. Armytage expressed surprise on learning the doctor in question was a female.
“Oh, it’s a woman!” Armytage said.
“What does that mean?” Koch asked.
“[I] only assumed it would be a man” she said.
Kochie probed further and she responded:
“Well I just wouldn’t imagine a woman to be so stupid to take a selfie with someone that’s under anaesthetic…I’m shocked this is a woman,” she said.
Kochie continued to defend men throughout the segment.
There is no doubt that Armytage’s assumptions – that the doctor was a female or that a female doctor would be less stupid – are sexist. Are they necessarily sinister? No. Are they still sexist? Yes.
Koch is absolutely entitled to take issue with her broad characterisation of males in the same way Armytage would be entitled to take issue with him characterising female doctors the same way. As are the rest of us. But to the point, which has been raised, about reverse sexism and whether the reaction to Armytage’s comments was swift or vocal enough, there’s another important consideration.
There is no doubt that sexism can and does adversely affect both men and women. Currently, however, there is also no doubt that the adverse outcomes of sexism are overwhelmingly borne by women. Until men are being paid less or being woefully underrepresented in management or facing structural discrimination in the workplace, it’s implausible to expect a woman’s sexist categorisation of a man to garner the same reaction as vice versa. If that seems desperately unfair, it is. That’s the problem with inequality; it breeds inequality.
It doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t use the opportunity to illustrate how and why sexism still flourishes. It’s all too clear. And if it bothers you, don’t accept it.