I am a female college student who never truly understood sexism until I learned more about Women’s Studies during my first year at HWS, and began to observe acts of sexism for myself. As my four years come to an end, I have observed multiple ways that sexism operates in the college classroom. In one of my classes this semester, I learned first-hand, what it is like to be silenced and rendered invisible by a well-respected, popular and tenured professor:
It was 1:15pm—five minutes before my class ended. My time had come and gone. I had my hand raised into the air for a full 20 minutes. Time after time he called on students to share their opinions and comments about the book we had just read. As he called on students I felt my hand slowly start to lower. What was I doing wrong? Why wouldn’t he pick me?
After 13 students got to speak (some students twice or three times, might I add) I realized that even if he did call on me, what I wanted to say had already been said by other students—in a few different ways. I realized that another class had come and gone, and I missed my chance to make a contribution.
I did not know for sure that my Professor’s selection of students was sexist, but I did suspect that something strange, under the surface, was happening. For the next three classes, I decided to keep track of the number of female students that he called on compared to the number of male students who received a chance to speak. In tracking these numbers, I noticed something interesting. While my Professor called on the same number of male and female students, he interrupted his female students at 3x the rate he did with his male students.
Sexism can be mysterious sometimes—it often goes over my head until I think about it after-the-fact…until I really investigate it. The fact that it often goes unrecognized shows how it is so embedded into our culture.
It can be as subtle as my Professor saying to an extremely intelligent, female classmate of mine, “With that pretty smile, how could you not get the job?”
What he really meant by that was, “In your future you will get jobs because of your looks, not because of your abilities.”
Walking away from class, I thought about how these subtle comments teach us not to be as assertive as our male counterparts. We learn that our looks will be valued more than our intellect and that our voices are not as worthy. We get used to being interrupted, talked-over and talked down to by men.
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man…” (We Should All Be Feminists).
I am deeply saddened by this. For example, women that are sexually harassed or assaulted in the workplace—for women who work hard to get to where they are…who have so much to lose…with student loans and families to take care of. It sickens me that we have to deal with these things. I hate that we are silenced and belittled because of our sex. Mechelle Vinson’s story, from “Because of Sex” by Gillian Thomas, illustrates the disastrous outcomes of these seemingly subtle abuses. Here is her story of being sexually abused in her workplace:
Vinson felt powerless to escape. She needed her job. It was all she had to stay afloat financially. Moreover, she feared for her physical safety. Ever since that first night at the motel, Taylor had continued to threaten to kill her if she wasn’t perfectly cooperative…”I had blinders on, I didn’t see an outlet, I didn’t have any support groups or anyone I could talk to about what I was going through. That’s the reason I stayed in it so long. Out of fear.” And not surprisingly, after years of abuse by the men in her life, Vinson had begun doubting that there could be any other way to live. “You begin to accept what’s happening to you,” she reflected, “even though you know in your heart it’s not right.”
We need to spread the word about sexism…how small comments contribute to the larger picture of violence against women. We need to continue to speak-up and share our stories. It is important that we raise other women’s stories up. We need to take charge and speak out for women that have been so beaten down, that they cannot speak for themselves. And we need to raise awareness about how sexist dialogue, like the comment my Professor made, contributes to a sexist social climate and the larger culture of violence against women.
Vinson discovered that the abuses she endured violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal to discriminate against employees on the, “basis of sex.” Vinson argued that she had been forced to work in a “hostile environment” and ended up winning her case. Vinson put her time, and her reputation on the line; she changed our “professional reality,” and illustrated that we do have the power to create change.
Juliet Holme WS ‘16