It's Time To Hold That Uncomfortable Gender Inequality Conversation

Issues of women’s health have dominated the Republican political agenda this past year. While voters have rejected significant threats to these rights such as the Mississippi Personhood Initiative, aggressive lobbying by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on the issue of universal birth control coverage continues to alarm women’s advocates.

Several female pundits have speculated that 2012 poses a real threat to the pro-choice voice in Congress since women’s political outcome and guarantee of rights is tied to Democrat success.

Although we seem to universally acknowledge gender inequality, the topic of women’s rights often gets brushed aside as inconsequential or secondary. For instance, many are aware of the disproportionate representation of men in political institutions: the United States ranks 90th in the world in terms of women in national legislatures, and women hold only 17% of the seats in the House of Representatives.

Another well-known statistic: In 2008, women still earned only 77 cents on the male dollar even after controlling for such factors as occupation, industry, race, marital status, and job tenure. That number drops to 68 cents for African-American women and 58 cents for Latino women.

But, the equality discussion gets a lot harder, and less frequent, as it moves beyond hard statistics and blatant discrimination. During my presentation on inequality in the U.S. to my Singaporean peers, I was reminded why this discussion often stalls. After I presented the problems of gender empowerment in the U.S., a well intentioned classmate asked whether societies should be blamed for inequalities if there indeed exists a gap men and women's capabilities.

While I don't believe in his premise, I very much welcomed the question. Nothing can be accomplished on the issue of real, society-shifting gender empowerment if people do not get uncomfortable. If white, straight, middle-class men in the U.S. do not share what they are really thinking, or if someone is not willing to play devil’s advocate, no thought provoking or mind-changing conversations can take place. If teachers are afraid to broach the topic of racial or gender inequality for fear of "offending" someone, what have they accomplished besides suppressing issues that are paramount to America’s regeneration? 

Yes, during the course of the discussion someone might become offended. But what good does it do anyone, offender or offended, to suppress these unresolved, under-discussed prejudices?

Such overwhelming social contingencies contribute to the ongoing stereotype threat against women. Every day women encounter disproportionate pressures that may negatively affect performance in the laboratory, on standardized tests, in memory capacity, athletic performance, and so forth.  

Without dialogue streaming from all sides, genders, races, ages, and so forth, the discussion and direction of women’s rights will continue to stagnate.

The most important reason to force inequality conversations is because of the chameleonic nature of contemporary sexism. As overt discrimination moves towards popular rejection and widespread delegitimization, prejudice has taken up a much more subtle nature. For instance, consider the demeaning national debate over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “scrunchie-gate” fiasco: A young girl considering politics will have to contemplate these future battles having nothing to do with her capabilities or performance, while a young boy will likely never think twice about it.

Is there a solution for overcoming stereotype threats in order to both level the playing field and enhance the performance of over half of America’s young adults? Of course, but it will require educating directly against stereotypes, encouraging greater cross-gender collaboration in youth, and changing the competitive mindset not only of women but of men, too. Would federal funding for gender and power courses in U.S. public schools, alongside gym and art electives, ever be a realistic option? How about forcing the issue of co-ed youth athletic teams back into the equation? Yes, such goals require a generation of gestation, but this caveat provides no less an incentive for beginning efforts immediately.

Clearly, subtle prejudice is more difficult to call into question or rally against than overt discrimination. Therefore, nothing substantial will be accomplished on gender empowerment without forcing many more uncomfortable conversations.

Photo Credit: Reginawcruz

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Elizabeth Laferriere

Elizabeth Laferriere is the Legislative Director at the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women. Her research and professional interests include women’s equal right to work, political participation, and social justice, as well as US foreign policy toward South and Southeast Asia. Ms. Laferriere received her MPP in Public Policy from Georgetown University, where she studied international policy as the Wellesley College Margaret Freeman Bowers Graduate Fellow. She spent an exchange semester at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. She received her BA in South Asian Studies and History from Wellesley College, where she graduated with honors in 2010.

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