Resolve the Gender Gap In One Easy Step: Teach Girls to Act Like Boys!

Why aren't we arguing for disrupting the paradigm itself, rather than the behavior of individuals?
Publish date:
August 1, 2013
sexism, seriously just stop talking now, women in the workplace, gender gap

Did you know that the reason women aren't as successful in the workplace is because we aren't teaching girls to be “disruptive” in school? Because that's apparently what Kevin Stannard seems to think, judging from a recent opinion editorial for the Times Educational Supplement.

So here's the skinny: according to him, the traits that we value in school (being quiet, following directions, not rocking the boat, etc.) are exactly the traits that lead women to fall behind in the workplace, because they make them fade into the background. He suggests that one way to address the gender gap in working environments would be to encourage girls to be “disruptive,” thus making them more assertive and more able to compete in the outside world.

Not so disruptive, of course, that they'd actually make it hard for people to learn. Just, you know, a little disruptive.

In an article reeking of gender essentialism (girls have a “typically more measured, stepwise approach to tasks,” for example), Stannard posits that the socialization of girls in school is to blame for the gender gap -- which is partially true, but not in the way he thinks it is.

The problem isn't that schools are teaching girls to be subservient, but that society is teaching girls this. Women who actually are assertive are usually punished for it in society at large, no matter what he seems to think about assertive women in the workplace. That's a pretty powerful reinforcement of the idea that good girls are nice, quiet, and nondisruptive.

The issue here is that we live in a sexist society, and a racist one, something Stannard doesn't probe at all. The gender gap in terms of salaries and positions may seem daunting, but it's even more stark when you tease out more fine-grained numbers. The problem isn't just that women make less than men, but that women of color make a lot less than men, and significantly less than their white counterparts.

And that's not something you can neatly solve by teaching girls to be “disruptive.” In fact, women of color are often penalized especially harshly for being assertive and sticking up for themselves, in a way that white women are not. While I agree that the socialization of girls is a tremendous problem in terms of social inequality, we can't get around the problem as neatly as Stannard seems to think we can.

Because his approach is centered on girls themselves, rather than the society around them, like a lot of “interventions” aimed at women. The problem here is not the victims of the inequality, but the perpetrators; which means that yes, we do in fact need to change the culture for girls, but that shift should surround how girls are treated, which will naturally push cultural shifts.

What I'm getting to here, in my rambling way, is that Stannard is blatantly victim-blaming here. We undeniably have an inequality problem but the fault lies with the system, not the women in it. If you want to resolve wage inequality, stop by changing the culture at the top -- the people who make decisions about hiring, promotions, and firing.

Because let's face it: When you're a lady, you're kind of screwed no matter how you act. If you're assertive, you're a bitch, you're too aggressive, you're obnoxious, particularly if you're a woman of color. If you behave in the way you've been culturally trained to behave, then you're meek, too quiet, a pushover, a doormat, and you are to blame for your lack of success.

Stannard's commentary here suggests that he believes women should conform to a society designed for men, rather than that society overall should shift. This is a fundamentally wrong approach, and it's an obnoxious one. Why, when the gender gap and social inequality come up, are we always informed that women are responsible for behaving more like men if they want to get ahead? Oh, right, because we live in a society rampant with misogyny and sexism, and where being a man is specifically the best thing you can be -- so clearly, if you want to get ahead, you need to act more like a very specific social vision of what a “man” is.

After all, men who behave in “feminine” ways also face obstacles in the workplace, though not as many as women do. So this is less a problem of “boys do this and girls do that” than “stereotypical visions of masculinity are believed to be superior, so we should resolve social inequality by telling everyone to act like a 'man'.”

And I'm not really understanding how this resolves social inequality. If anything, it exacerbates it; telling women to act like men doesn't actually do anything for breaking down the larger problem of sexism in society. And it's not even particularly good for men, because it reinforces the idea that there is only one right way to be a man, and that if you can't be “disruptive,” you won't get ahead.

Why aren't we arguing for disrupting the paradigm itself, rather than the behavior of individuals?

I agree with Stoddard's comments that girls' schools can be very empowering, but for very different reasons than the ones that seem to underlie his logic. It's not that they teach girls to act more like boys, but that they teach girls they have value, worth, and a position in society, encouraging women to feel like they actually matter after they graduate. Empowerment shouldn't be about adhering to a specific behavioral standard rooted in social ideas of what the idea man acts like: it should revolve around teaching everyone that other human beings have value just as they are.

Socializing girls to be meek absolutely happens, and it's bullshit, and it plays a role in gender inequality, but the problem with inequality should be laid at the feet of the perpetrators, not the victims.

Stoddard's sexist commentary is a great example of the fact that women are continually blamed for something they didn't create and don't have a lot of control over. While he may be operating under the belief that his suggestion to change the way girls are taught would empower them, it's actually just more of the same old tired sexist nonsense.