Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute [Rebecca West]

I'm generally not one to spend much time on feminist thought... I'm more likely to be interested in issues of poverty and unequal access to resources than I am in gender inequality... I personally can't think of a time where I've felt as though I have been disadvantaged by being a woman, other than occasional hesitations about walking by myself at night or travelling alone (which I by no means think is an OK state of affairs). However, I noticed something today that made me wonder about more subversive forms of gender inequality, and who is playing a part in it.

Today I was at a training session that was attended by around 30 professionals in the mental health and addictions field. As you might be able to guess, in a room full of social service workers, there were about 22 women and 8 men. At one point we were asked to split up into 5 groups and then within our group appoint a representative to speak for us. Four of the groups had at least one male member and in all four of those groups a male acted as the representative.

As I noticed this I took note of how it had happened in my group. There was one male in my group and when we were instructed to pick a representative he was the first to ask "who wants to talk". When the women in the group all looked around in silence he said, "I'll do it". I pointed out what I noticed to a male friend who had been the representative for his group. He replied, "No one else offered to do it".

In both these instances, he wasn't taking the lead away from the women, they were giving it to him. Why didn't any women take the lead (myself included)? Why did we passively sit by and let the men do the stepping up?

Now, being your group's representative at a small workshop is hardly important in the grand scheme of things, but it made me wonder... if women were giving up their power and influence in this environment (a room full of counsellors is probably the safest place you could dream of for putting yourself out there), what other arenas is this playing out in? And as it plays out in arenas with bigger consequences, what effect is that having on our gender and on the world?

As I work with a population of young women, who regularly give away much bigger parts of themselves than their chance to lead a group, these questions are gaining more and more importance for me. What do we need to build up in our young women in order to empower them to be strong and be seen?


  1. I LOVE that quote at the beginning - me exactly. And a great story that is definitely thought provoking. To me it says that women buy into the bias as much as men do - which is why you can feel like you've never been disadvantaged because you are female...Once you start thinking about it, you start seeing it...

  2. Hi Sara! Great post hear and good observations! (I sound like a teacher or something) Anyway, I've been thinking a lot about your post this week. I definitely can see why you have concerns about women feeling empowered to take initiatives and be leaders. One question I've been thinking about,...are women "giving up their power and influence" when they let a man lead? I wonder this because sometimes the most influential people can be the ones that aren't seen much, and don't speak up much. I realize that this is not the case always, but maybe there is more hiddenness to a woman's power. ??? Just something I've been thinking about. I read a book once that focused on the strength of women in leadership. It took the idea that women are wonderful at nurturing and collaborating, and instead of trying to neatly fit women into a man's role, we will actually have to come up with new leadership roles/jobs/positions, where women's strengths can be used properly. I think that is a huge area of growth that needs to happen. What do you think about this?

  3. Hi Sarah! Thanks for your thoughts, I've been thinking about this since you posted it and I'm having trouble coming up with a coherent response haha
    I feel like the idea you've proposed is both true and dangerous all in one. I think that we have to be open to the idea of different types of leadership, but I wonder if categorizing different types as male and female is limiting to both genders? As we create more leadership roles maybe we need to throw away our ideas of what it means to be a leader in that context, but this will be beneficial to both women and men who lead in a way that is different than what we consider a typical leader. I dont' think it is only women who an lead in a nurturing and collaborating way and I don't think it is only men who can lead in an outgoing and powerful way.
    Maybe this is why I struggle with feminism, because I see the stereotypes as being damaging to both genders, not just women!