As I left my finance class my professor stopped us at the door to add,
“For the presentation next class, guys please wear business suits. And for the girls…I’m not really sure what you wear, but make it look good. Just not too good.”
I was one of three girls in the class of twenty students. The three of us gave each other a look did he really just say that? But none of us actually said anything. To each other. Or to him. The sexism I hear is often conversationalist in nature. It’s difficult to name, to pinpoint, to act upon. No one would slight a woman, especially on my college’s liberal arts campus, for speaking out against overt acts of sexism, but in instances of subtle sexism the attitude still is,
Can’t you take a joke?
And this is something I have bought in to for a long time, I would keep my mouth shut for the sake of the joke. But as my final year of college comes to an end, I’ve realized something frighteningly true: we are not equipped with the ability to recognize the way words make us feel, especially in instances of subtle sexism. Subtle sexism is defined in Volume 21 of the Psychology of Women Quarterly as openly unequal and harmful treatment of women that goes unnoticed because it is perceived to be customary or normal behavior.
It’s easy to perpetuate this seemingly “normal” behavior. It is easy not to act even when a part of us knows that we should; perhaps there is a fear of being told we are responding more emotionally and forcibly than “justified.” But as the only three girls in my finance class, we would not have exchanged looks if we didn’t recognize that our professor’s words were acutely inappropriate—but we still never spoke on it. Is it that we have lost the ability to gut check when something makes us feel uncomfortable? Or have we never learned it? Maybe the real question here is:
At the risk of being uncool, are we willing to say something?
As an athlete for my college, we are required to attend discussion-based talks coordinated by coaches and athletic department staff members on topics about inclusion and respect. In one talk in particular, our speaker—a sports coach at my college—went off topic and began talking about the drinking he did in the army. He then went on to talk about the women he saw on his tour—making an hourglass shape with his hands. A ripple of laughter went through the room and as I looked around, I saw it was mostly the men on my team that were laughing, but some of the women were as well.
Sure, this isn’t a big deal. We’re all convinced it’s funny.
But in a talk focused on the importance of respect between teammates of different backgrounds, I began to wonder when it became okay to use women’s bodies as a prop in an attempt to relate to his much younger audience? This is a talk that every team hears at my college—from football, to basketball, baseball, and lacrosse, all teams. If this coach’s reference to women’s bodies got a laugh with my teammates, what would stop him from using it again?
So at the risk of being uncool, I said something. I went to his office, and I told him I found it problematic that he referred to the women he met on his tour in that manner, especially in a talk about respect. He nodded, he apologized, but nothing much came of it. He now avoids eye contact when he sees me on campus. The way he avoids eye contact with me is a reminder of the way my female classmates and I made eye contact after finance class that day—in both instances, nothing is said, but a part of all of us knows something feels wrong.
I have enjoyed my time at my college very much, and I know these experiences of subtle sexism are not isolated to just my campus; they are a very real part of other high schools, colleges, and work places. If we learn to recognize instances of subtle sexism every time, passing glances will turn to action.
But it’s only when we understand the difference between what we are told to believe is a joke and what actually feels like a joke, it’s only when we check in our gut the way moments of subtle sexism make us want to react, and it’s only after we’ve abandoned this aversion to being uncool that we can change the conversation around everyday acts of subtle sexism.