On sexism

It has been a few days since the infamous Google doc, or the “Anti-Diversity Manifesto” as so many media sources have called it, has been passed around. I’m not going to respond specifically to it because many have done that already, and it is so easy to view this as an “us-versus-them” issue because of the outspoken nature of those who hold extreme views on the topic, even though the reality is much more nuanced. I wish the media didn’t simplify the issue and boil it down to a sound bite with a misleading title like “Anti-Diversity Manifesto”, because, despite the author’s being labeled as “sexist”, his main motivation for writing the document doesn’t seem to be to speak against diversity itself, but to question Google’s specific diversity initiatives. If you carefully read it, he had some good points to make.

However, beyond the doc, I do want to point out a few things about sexism in the workplace and in society in general, because the gravity of the issue at hand is actually about so much more than this one single doc.

“Sexism”, just like many other words that end in -ism, is ingrained in the way a society functions which propel behaviors from the members of the society that cause a certain effect, in this case, the degradation of the members of the female gender, made possible largely by what are considered the societal and cultural norms, and our indifference toward those norms. So the problem isn’t simply the one openly sexist person who believes that men are better than women, but rather, what all of us tolerate every single day, or at times don’t even realize or label as sexism because of our ignorance and the subtlety of the issues that we encounter. So much of sexism goes unnoticed because we have built a society in which it is perfectly ordinary for one gender to be treated differently than the other, so unless we are actively seeking to identify and bust the existence of sexism, we will continue to live in a sexist society. Most of the time, we don’t even stop to think about it, or realize that something is wrong, which is exactly why this is a problem.

It starts early in our lives as culture and society subliminally enforce stereotypical norms on everyone from a very early age. As young kids, boys are given puzzles and Legos that improve their spacial and reasoning abilities, while girls are given dolls to play with. Boys are encouraged to develop skills that lead to a career (You like to cook? You should become a chef) while girls are encouraged to develop skills for making a home. (You like to cook? You’ll make a great wife and mother.) That might not be as big of an issue if homemakers got the respect that they deserve for the hard work that they do, but as long as society continues to elevate work above home-making, and money-making above relationship-making, this is a major issue. In school, boys are more likely to be given feedback from their teachers that directly address their performance, while girls are more likely to be commented on about their smiles and clothes. And even if we actively tried to stay away, nobody is immune from the dose of pop culture that is always screaming at us; all those TV shows and movies that portray men as heroic protagonists and women as objects to be won by those heroes. And throughout all of these experiences, little by little, we start to pick up on the social cues, and what it means for each one of us to be a valuable member of this society. While boys are taught to be brave and take risks (which naturally lead to many life opportunities), girls are taught to play it safe, be gentle, and look and act cute.

The sexism of course doesn’t stop in adolescence, they continue through adulthood. I routinely notice that when a group of people are having a conversation, a male member of the group will often interrupt a female member who is speaking, and nobody will raise this as an issue. This happens so often that we don’t even notice it as it happens right in front of our eyes. (One time, I encountered exactly this situation in a meeting to discuss how we can promote diversity. Irony much?) Not only do we often fail to recognize the inherent sexism here, men even benefit from such a scene, because so many people view it as a sign of strength when a man expresses his views and dominate the conversation. But our reactions are surely different if the opposite were to happen, that is, if a women were to interrupt a man. Or heck, she doesn’t even have to interrupt anyone, she may just hold a strong opinion about something and express it, at which point she quickly gets labeled as “bossy” or “bitchy”. (related read: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg) Ok, maybe people are not that explicit nowadays with their choice of words, but you get the point.

Here’s another example that you may have encountered: a female coworker of yours does something that is outside of her job description, such as volunteering to organize a team lunch together, or cleaning up after a social event in the office. If you pay some attention as to how the situation plays out, you will notice that she got little to no recognition for this work, because subconsciously, we take it for granted that it is the normal role of women to be these supporting figures behind the scenes, all the while men are encouraged to take on the more flashy, “respectable” roles that stand out more, and often are more about elevating himself rather than the team (by the way, it is horrible that such actions are tolerated and even rewarded, because it hurts the company more than it helps if we wish to engineer a great product, but we can save that discussion for another day), and through these selfish actions, he somehow earns status and respect, and with that come the raises and promotions. And even if your male colleague were to volunteer himself to do some of the “supportive” tasks instead, he is still recognized for that because it is out of the norm for men to take on such a task and be so “selfless”, so his actions are immediately noticed and appreciated.

So about the “doc”, while we may feel good about ourselves because we think that we are fighting sexism by expressing our outrage toward one man who decided to share his views with the company, please, don’t let us think that that is the way to change. It is great to have these conversations as a starting point, but more importantly, let our actions speak loudly for what we stand for. Let us fight deliberately the sexism of this world. To start, we must be aware of the ways in which societal norms can put down one gender. Once we recognize the issue, we can actively challenge them.

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Shin Adachi

I am a pianist and composer based in Los Angeles.

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