Monday, June 17, 2013

The "broken windows" theory of feminism?

I haven't read Lean In yet, because, until recently, I felt it didn't apply to me. I actually do work in corporate America, though as a consultant, and offsite, and for a small, woman-led company where all but one employee is a woman. Also, though I used to be "in management," I have since leaned out on that score altogether. I have determined that I do not like managing others. In my case, I would argue that this is not an entirely gender-based decision; my father always refused leadership positions throughout his career, preferring to focus on "the work itself." My mother stopped working outside the home after I was born. That is a whole other roiling kettle of fish and worms and what have you, which I will perhaps address elsewhere.

Anyway, I'm now thinking Lean In might have relevance for me, and for a lot of us, after all. As Frank Bruni put it in a recent column, we've received a deluge of reminders of "how often women are still victimized, how potently they’re still resented and how tenaciously a musty male chauvinism endures." But I still find myself shrugging my shoulders, thinking "what do you expect?," when I encounter such resentment and chauvinism personally. For me, such experiences feel like "no big deal" in the scheme of things. Millions of women deal with much harsher forms of belittlement and victimization than I do. Yet why shouldn't those of us who are relatively privileged stand up against those little, supposedly meaningless slights? Why wouldn't this lead, ever so quietly and gradually, to improvement, in the same way that repairing broken windows in crime-ridden neighborhoods seems to lead to a reduction in crime? Why not chip away, in our own small way, at the gigantic edifice of subtly demeaning rhetoric that we all participate in?

I'm thinking, for instance, of a moment a few months back when I went to observe a class of second-graders. The teacher introduced me to the class, and quickly asked me if I went by "Mrs." or "Ms." She actually might have offered "Miss" as the second option; I didn't quite hear. I have a Ph.D., so my correct honorific is "Doctor." But I felt I could not say that without sounding like a horrible snot. I don't use my husband's last name, so I can never be a Mrs. That left me with "Ms.," which I chose, hitting the "zzz" sound as hard as I comfortably could. The teacher introduced me, and the whole stupid moment was over in a second.

Except. Those second graders didn't get to see a woman called "Doctor." And I dismissed my own accomplishment in earning this degree, because I was afraid of looking obnoxious and possibly making the teacher herself feel diminished.

I gather that Lean In, though more focused on corporate settings, addresses these kinds of seemingly small snafus that professional women get entangled in all the time. Trying to avoid discomfort, our own and others' (and others' discomfort further contributes to our own, doesn't it?), we "lean out" of situations where we could be setting forth our qualifications and furthering our own--and other women's--interests.

Even now, I feel somewhat foolish for writing this post. Who cares what that class of second-graders thought my title was? I was only there for fifteen minutes; none of them will even remember me. And I did a nice thing, didn't I, by not contradicting their teacher in front of them?

But all these little stupid moments add up.

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