Yesterday I read a piece in the Guardian by Barbara Kingsolver entitled “#MeToo isn’t enough. Now women need to get ugly”
It was a thought-provoking piece and I am still mulling it over today, in light of world news, and in light of experiences I have had in my life and career.
“Patriarchy persists because power does not willingly cede its clout; and also, frankly, because women are widely complicit in the assumption that we’re separate and not quite equal.”
She explains how we are so embedded within the patriarchy that sometimes it is difficult to perceive it. I have heard patriarchy likened to being a fish in water, but not knowing what “water” is – it is the stuff we swim around in every day. We do not know what it is because we have never been without it for any length of time. Patriarchy is like water: it envelopes our lives in such a way that it becomes our reality.
But fortunately humans are not fish. And our breathing is not dependent on the existence of the patriarchy, though it may seem like our livelihoods indeed depend on it for many.
I realize part of my aversion to corporate life these days reflects partly an exhaustion with a patriarchal system that does not value work based on merit. It privileges the contributions of one gender over another. It does not value people and their multiplicity of contributions, the range of what they could bring to the table when given an opportunity.
I am fortunate to work in a company that places a high value on employees as people, and usually lives up to that tenet of our mission. But looking at a wall of inductees to its highest scientific honor society, counting the ~70 people’s faces and realizing that just 10% of them our women, I sigh and wonder.
There are so many barriers to women attempting to enter realms of work like science, engineering, politics, higher management. Some of these barriers are internal: we lack confidence or we are not sure we have the competence to enter. We erect higher standards for ourselves than men have to try these positions, and worry more about making mistakes.
The socialization of women and girls has evolved a bit in the 4+ decades since I was born. The availability of sports teams and competitive opportunities has allowed more of us to challenge ourselves and take leadership in new areas. And yet when we lack critical mass, we must work much harder to build professional alliances and networks.
The “old boys club” is very much a reality in many of the corporate environments where we work. My own experience has shown me that men who mentor and sponsor us at work can be professional and appropriate in their behavior. But patriarchy functions subtly here as well.
My boss treats me a bit like a daughter figure – I can tell he is proud of me and my achievements. He wants me to “brag” more and to make sure others know about my accomplishments. He allows me to make my own mistakes and learn from my experiences. But he has also been protective of me in a way that may be different from how he has treated his male proteges. Whether that is an aspect of personality or of systemic bias, it is impossible to really separate out. We swim in patriarchy so clear vision is obscured.
This morning I will return to a project group of mostly men (25% women) to work on a design project for technology that needs an upgrade. I found myself wanting to share more of my creativity yesterday during the “ideation” phase of our human-centered design process. But I found myself holding back. I was not sure why. The group is unfamiliar to me, and that is a barrier sometimes.
It does no good to blame the patriarchy when we struggle to get our ideas out, when there are also internal barriers as well. But it does help to understand the context of why women are less confident putting themselves out there. Kingsolver notes: “It’s really not possible to overreact to uncountable, consecutive days of being humiliated by men who say our experience isn’t real…”
Exactly. This type of rape culture makes working “outside our comfort zone” a regular and daily occurrence. Is it any wonder that taking risks in business or engineering feels so dangerous? While many of us learn to live and even thrive in these environments, we also realize women are disproportionately attacked and thus we remain on guard for more of waking hours.
I am contemplating the the notion of getting ugly as Kingsolver recommends. I definitely think we need to dispense with making ourselves pretty and “acceptable” and comfortable for men. It simply does not serve anyone, ourselves or the wider world, to neglect the gifts and talents of half the world’s population.
Men have been ugly to women privately in ways that are now becoming public. And it has caused some seismic shifts in the way women realize how non-personal and cultural all of that behavior has been. I agree that we must never tolerate this behavior, and if that makes me ugly, I am fine with that.