The common metaphor used for the struggles of women in professional society is that of the Glass Ceiling. This is an accurate and effective image — an invisible but rigid force that prevents advancement for women even as they watch male peers and even inferiors rise to positions that they themselves are just as, or sometimes more qualified for.
But there is another struggle that can be equally as frustrating. I’ve come to call it the Brick Wall.
Sexism for the Thoroughly Modern Man
In a previous job, I had a coworker named Dan*, with whom I worked closely on many projects. Dan was a very kind man who genuinely cared about his friends and coworkers, and who did his best to be a good person. We got along well and I liked him a lot.
But then there were all-too-frequent moments where in conversation with Dan, I would run up against the Brick Wall. The moment gender came up, he would go from relating with me to questioning my experience. He knew that sexism was a thing, and he also knew women were smart and capable, but as far as he was concerned, this was the 21st century and women were equal to men. Therefore, he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.
He couldn’t see it, and therefore it didn’t exist.
A Brick Wall. One so exhausting to scale that, for the sake of our professional relationship, I soon gave up trying.
We’re all equal now, right?
But even as Dan claimed that issues like workplace inequality no longer exist, he was the number one offender when it came to interrupting women in meetings and conversation, while allowing men to finish what they had to say. I never thought he meant to do it, but rather it came from an ingrained difference in how the words of women and men are perceived.
When a man speaks, it’s treated with more importance, and therefore it should be listened to, even if the idea being presented is one the listener disagrees with. It didn’t seem to matter the status of the woman either. He’d even interrupted female customers in meetings before.
This was a problem, but not one Dan was prepared to fix, mainly because Dan never saw the problem as one that existed.
Ingrained sexism is nothing new.
But whose responsibility is it to explain the problem to men like Dan, who would have so much to offer the world if they realized how much damage their privilege was doing?
Is it the responsibility of his coworkers, who have to work with him day in and day out, all while maintaining their own sanity in face of countless microaggressions?
Is it his mother and sisters, who presumably come from the same culture that created his preconceptions?
Is it the liberal university he attended for a socially-sheltered hard science degree?
Is it his nonexistent female superiors in a workplace dominated by men?
Or is it on him to key into the voices whispering timid objections all around him, in hints and allusions that maybe his conduct isn’t as gentlemanly as he thinks?
It should be on him, but therein lies the problem. Given how he responded when I objected to his comments or his interruptions, it’s unlikely he’s ever heard that many objections to his conduct. And as for the extensive wealth of social writings on the topic, I doubt very strongly that he’s aware of any of them.
In the few political discussions we had, it became very clear to me that the news that Dan was exposed to differed very much from the news I was exposed to. So the issues that seemed obvious to me were legitimately foreign to him.
Social media is plagued with selection bias.
We choose our friends, generally based on our common interest, and freely unfriend them if their political views conflict too egregiously with our own.
This trend creates a false impression of information saturation, and that saturation is at the heart of the cultural divide in America. It’s so easy to assume that, just because you see something all the time, everyone else does, too. But this assumption isn’t the case, and believing it is what creates the problem.
For all that I disagreed with Dan’s politics, I had to remember that he didn’t mean harm by it. This isn’t to excuse his actions, but rather to understand them. This is a problem borne from one side refusing to understand the perspective of the other. It won’t be fixed by duplicating the offense.
So how do we fix it?
Well for one, we can’t stop talking about it. Ever. Talk about it until the word does break out of your social circles and into theirs.
For another, we can’t get “angry” about it. Especially not those of us who present as female. It’s this that’s particularly frustrating, because it’s something that we should be allowed to be furious about, but “Angry Woman” is too pervasive a stereotype to ignore. Martin Luther King adopted radical nonviolence to bring about incredible changes in civil rights.Think of radical patience as being the gender rights equivalent.
And lastly, we have to realize that this talking and patience is not for them, it’s for us. For our benefit, for our future. It’s not our job to teach them, but it is our right to express ourselves, and it’s our responsibility to ourselves and our chosen communities to put our voices out there in mass.
To that end, we have to be smart about our psyches. At times I called an end to conversations with Dan because we’d reached the point where I could tell no good would follow (such as whenever he began a discussion with the phrase “Now I’m a person who respects women…”). There is such a thing as living to fight another day. Don’t burn yourself out so much that you lose the will to keep going. Be strategic, and look out for your own health.
It comes down to perseverance.
Eventually, people like Dan will learn. And if not them, then their children. And our children. And the numbers of people with that particular kind of ingrained sexism will diminish as the number of woke individuals grows.
And that’s when the brick wall will start to crumble, and we’ll all be able to see much more clearly.
*Name changed to protect friendships and feelings