Gender bias can seem invisible until we experience it. Increasing awareness about gender inequality needs to start young, argues Robert Lindberg. Experience leads to knowledge, reflection and repetition of knowledge leads to maturity. And then change happens.
Years ago I used to go to parties with a friend that usually bemoaned the fact that he “never got the girl”. Whenever he saw another young man walk away with the girl he was interested in, he said “At least I’m not like that sleazy guy”.
I could sense how the situation irritated my friend. Jealousy grew, contempt, and then low self esteem set in. Fast forward 10 years and the voices of #metoo have swept the world. I was recently talking to that same friend from those parties. We talked about #metoo and sexual objectification. I could not help mention how he in fact was exactly like the other ‘sleazy guy’. The only difference was that my friend didn’t ‘get the girl’. He didn’t get his candy, his toy, his object; that which his gender role had told him was his right, an unwritten law disguised as a belief of human nature. I was a bit hesitant to say all this, but I write and speak about gender equality and I felt the timing was right to shine a light. I was expecting an angry reply, but instead the blood ran from his face, followed by a vacant gaze. He agreed, quietly nodding.
Now there are those who will be thinking that everyone has a choice and that includes my friend and that he should have known better. My response is that unless he – or anyone else for that matter – is aware of the choices they have, unless they can see their behaviour as mistakes, or someone points it out to them , they won't always know it is unacceptable. I have spoken to a lot of men that feel #metoo has gone too far. They don’t seem to empathize.
Addressing this challenge would be easier if we started teaching gender equality at the moment of birth. The absence of these discussions is part of the root cause of the harrowing stories that have been relayed through of #metoo. Bringing people up with assumptions about gender and inequality happens largely subconsciously. New parents lean on what they know and for many these gender role norms and what they grew up with (gendered play/toys). If we couple gender equality teaching with emotional intelligent exercises we could see the deeper awareness of empathy and understanding too.
This takes me to another friend who lost her dad when she was just 13. During the funeral the extended family turned to her eight-year-old brother and said: “You’re the man of the house now”. This is a terrible burden to place on a young person but these are the kinds of phrases that slip by without comment and can be well intentioned. And of course, these messages are often prevalent in the media, films and adverts with their often fixed and discriminatory ideas about gender. As consumers and viewers we can and should demand change.
Another ‘invisible’ sexual objectification was highlighted to me some years ago. I was in a relationship and we were out and about when some men, came up to my partner, started to flirt and get close. When I walked up and said hello, one guy responded: “Oh, sorry man, I didn’t know.” Instead of saying sorry to my partner, he apologised to me. It felt like he was saying sorry for almost having ‘claimed’ my partner without asking me first.
These experiences are important to reflect on if we are to reset our thinking about gender and alter our world for the better. Of course there are those that take offense and exaggerate the implications of being aware: “Oh, OK, so we can’t ask anyone out anymore?” They feel like their rights have been revoked, even though I suspect many would feel very differently if the kinds of things shared under #metoo had happened to their family members. My point is not to argue for punishing people like my friend but about increasing awareness amongst him/them/us.
Robert Lindberg is a writer and speaker on gender inequality. www.sustainablepersonality.net
This article is dedicated to Aila Löfberg Nilsson. Thank you for reminding me about the importance of change.