I volunteered to help out with a college event last week. During an ice breaker exercise, one of the men at the table (I was merely observing up to this point), when told the group of two men and two women would need to record some educational challenges and potential solutions to share with the entire group later, asked if “one of the ladies could do the writing.”
Between this man and the two women in this group was another man about the same age as the first one; the speaker ignored the other man. I looked at the man who had entreated one of the “ladies” to record the thoughts of the men and stated out loud, “the women at this table are not your secretaries.” Yikes!
I could not help myself.
For the younger readers, there was a time when women could only get jobs in a handful of professions, and secretary, the servant of the oh-so-important male executive, was one of them. I was a secretary for over 15 years. I know of what I speak. I won’t go into the sexual harassment that accompanied that job, but suffice it to say, being a secretary was oftentimes quite demeaning back in my day.
(Secretary as a title/occupation has mostly been abolished and replaced with executive assistant or administrative assistant. At first, this change bothered me, but I see it as an attempt to create a gender-neutral type of job designation, one that is less indicative of how subservient the secretary was to her typically-male boss. To secretaries of this world today, your jobs are vastly different from the time when I was a secretary. Very different.)
Why did I speak up when this man begged the “ladies” to do the writing? I spoke up because last semester I was involved in a huge project that dealt with stereotyping. One of the actions recommended, which is supported by research, when an individual witnesses stereotyping is to say something. Speak up. Call it what it is. And so I said something.
I know I made this guy very uncomfortable. He needed to be uncomfortable. His view of women needed to be challenged. His tendency to believe that because women might have more legible handwriting than men, they should take notes for men is outdated and based on conscious and unconscious attitudes that need to change.
Is it my job to change them? Well, I was the only one who said anything, so I guess so.
The other two women were older (most likely the age of the man’s mother), probably used to being told that they needed to support the men in their lives, and felt quite comfortable taking a motherly role, so to speak. But this is wrong in a college environment.
(Without complaint, one of the women immediately took the job of recording responses for the group.)
At college, women are not there to support men (or find husbands). They are there to get an education, to discover their strengths and weaknesses, and to have their eyes opened to new possibilities. They are there for themselves.
When I started college in early 2013, I made a decision not to be the college mom. I don’t hand out pens and paper to the (mostly male students) who fail to prepare for class. I don’t take notes for the young students who miss class because they slept in. I don’t provide a motherly type of support to any of the students.
I do, however, mentor. That is completely different. I encourage the women, especially, to speak up in class if they are being very quiet (self-silencing behavior is common among black women, especially). I try to model confidence in using my own voice. I encourage students to advocate for themselves when faced with a challenge.
I do not tolerate men stereotyping women because it limits their potential and denigrates them as people. I don’t tolerate anyone stereotyping anyone, really. Women stereotype women a lot, too.
I learned while doing this project on stereotyping that it is silence that keeps stereotypes alive in a society.
Do ladies have better handwriting? Maybe, maybe not. So what? If a man has poor handwriting, he should work on that. It is a weakness that needs to be addressed unless he is already a doctor who is earning a couple hundred thousand dollars a year and can afford to hire someone to do his writing for him (and this stereotypical physician model is outdated as well — physicians are required to complete record-keeping tasks using computers now).
Did I make an enemy by speaking up? Possibly. Is that very important? Not really. It is much more important to address stereotyping because of how serious it is and how damaging it can be to all people.
By the way, students aren’t the only ones who make stereotypical comments on campus. I have heard a lot of anti-southerner comments from professors, faculty and staff (this kind of behavior is common here in Connecticut), as well as anti-Republican, anti-Christian and anti-conservative rhetoric.
When I was in Texas over Christmas I heard anti-liberal, anti-Democrat, and anti-northerner comments which I challenged. I almost got in a fight with one of my adult sons over showing respect for the president and first lady. You don’t need to agree with their politics or ideology, but you damn well better show respect for their positions, accomplishments, and humanity. I was faced with dogmatic attitudes, and that made me pretty angry. Go ahead and challenge a policy, a practice and even a belief, but do not resort to ad hominem attacks. That shows me that you don’t have a valid position to defend.
Comments I have heard on campus and off, here in Connecticut and in Texas were demeaning and meant to ridicule particular people groups. In nearly every case, I have spoken up. Yep, even with professors (I’m not very popular with some professors). I do tend to make enemies. Sigh.
I don’t defend the bad behavior of any political group, conservative, liberal or moderate, nor do I support offensive religious behavior (anyone who knows me knows that I really don’t like religion).
I have challenged what I viewed as anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic attitudes and comments in a group in which I am involved. One of my children used a derogatory, racist label for Muslims and that adult child got a tongue-lashing.
I feel it is important to address negative comments aimed at people groups. I speak up.
I plan to continue to address stereotyping when I see it. I think it is the better choice.
For more information on stereotyping:
OUCH! That Stereotype Hurts – or a PDF guide http://www.diversityresources.com/media/Ouch_LeadersGuide.pdf. Not affiliated in any way.
Implicit Bias – Harvard University – https://www.projectimplicit.net/index.html. Participate in the online surveys. They are eye-opening.
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