Part 3

Institutionalized Sexism

On January 23, 2007, President Bush began the State of the Union address by saying:

“And tonight, I have a high privilege and distinct honor of my own—as the first President to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker.”

For the first time in the history of the United States, a woman was elected as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Second in line for succession to the presidency, Nancy Pelosi shattered the “marble ceiling” in Congress, a barrier she says is much more difficult to shatter than glass. When it comes to women’s rights, the United States has made progress in some areas of the economy and government. However, we have not been as progressive as other nations around the world. Since the founding of our country, there have been 13,000 people elected to Congress. Only 216 have been women. Although women make up 50 percent of the voting population, they are elected to an estimated 5 percent of all public offices. In Sweden, 43 percent of the seats in Parliament are occupied by women and in Norway, 36 percent. In the United States, however, only 13 percent of the seats in Congress are occupied by women. In Germany, the United Kingdom, Norway, Ireland, and countless other nations, women have been Presidents, Prime Ministers, Chancellors, and Heads of State. The United States, however, has never had a female president. Nancy Pelosi is the closest we have come to this day.

Why has it been so difficult for women to break through structural barriers in the workplace, government, and politics? There are a number of factors involved. Due to patterns of socialization, we have internalized the idea that men are natural born leaders. When a woman is assertive in business or politics, she is often labeled aggressive or “bitchy.” In business meetings, women’s comments are often overlooked and men tend to dominate. In general, women in leadership roles often are faced with more criticism than men. Women politicians, for instance, are frequently critiqued for their style of dress, make-up, and hair-dos. Hillary Clinton is constantly shown in the media with angry exaggerated facial expressions. Adherence to gender roles seems more important than being a good senator. Men rarely get critiqued for their style of dress or hair. This focus on physical, superficial characteristics is a part of gender socialization that teaches women to be more concerned with how they look than how well they perform their duties.

Sexism is defined as the belief that women are inferior to men. There are patterns of institutionalized sexism that exist throughout our society and culture. At home, work, church, or in schools, women are disadvantaged in ways that often go unnoticed. In schools, for instance, researchers have found that girls receive far less attention from their instructors than boys. At work, women are faced with the Glass Ceiling, a structural barrier that keeps them from advancing to leadership positions. At home, many working mothers are working what Arlie Hochschild calls theSecond Shift. This is work that gets done at home after working a full-time job. Due to gender socialization, women are more likely to do the majority of work around the house such as cleaning, cooking, childrearing and laundry. While some men are shattering traditional gender roles, patterns show that more women work more hours in the home and have fewer hours spent in leisure than their husbands.

The wage gap between men’s and women’s earnings is also a problem. On average, men earn more money than women. This is partly due to Occupational Segregation between men and women in the workplace. Female-dominated positions include childcare, domestic worker, secretarial/administrative, teacher, and nurse. Male-dominated positions include: doctor, engineer, scientist, lawyers, and construction work and truck drivers. Due to the fact that women’s work has been devalued to the point where it wasn’t really even considered work (especially housework, which traditionally did not receive wages), women’s jobs are paid significantly less than men’s. However, even if they have the same amount of qualifications and are within the same profession, women earn less than men. Perhaps this is because women are more likely to take time off from their careers to raise a family. Another reason, as already mentioned before, is that women are often passed up for promotions and paid less than men. Our society does not expect women to be in leadership positions.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Feminist Theory is a theoretical framework closely in line with the Conflict Perspective. It seeks to explain the basis for gender inequality and attempts to find ways to alleviate it. There are several different viewpoints within this perspective.

Liberal Feminism asserts that gender socialization is rooted in culture and tradition. It is therefore, very difficult to change. According to this perspective, the only way to bring about social equality for men and women is throughlegal reform. Getting laws passed that help protect women in the workplace is one example of this. Affirmative Action, sexual harassment laws, and the Family Medical Leave Act are all means of bring greater equity in the workplace.

Radical Feminism argues that gender inequality is rooted in the system of patriarchy itself. Many radical feminists point out that patriarchy is a part of every culture throughout the world. Regardless of how many laws are passed, women will still be relegated to a lower status because patriarchy is systemic and continues to exist in the home, the media, and the workplace. Men exploit women in the home by relying on their free domestic labor; and in the workplace, they keep women from positions of power. Also, women’s role in reproduction and childrearing are controlled and exploited. According to this perspective, the only way to wipe out gender inequality is to overthrow the system of patriarchy.

Black Feminist Theory asserts that there is no universal experience of being a woman. This perspective points out that there are cultural differences that women across the globe experience and therefore, it seeks to get more women of color involved in writing about their experiences with gender inequality. Black feminism argues that traditionally, feminist theory has focused primarily on issues experienced by white, middle class women. Some point out, for instance, that the family is not necessarily a place where women are exploited. In the black community, women play strong roles within the family, and family is often a source of power against racism. Gender inequality may exist in other areas such as the workplace where women of color are challenged by the structural barriers influenced by race, class, and gender.

Many young women today do not consider themselves feminists but do seem to support the basic ideas behind it. One reason women are reluctant to associate themselves with feminism is because it has been stigmatized as a form of male-bashing where ugly, unattractive women have found a voice in society. Feminists are often stereotyped as radical lesbian “feminazis” who are bitter towards all men. Using homophobia as a weapon encourages heterosexual women to adhere to their gender roles and keeps them from uniting as a class of people who are oppressed by social structures. Read the excerpt in e-Reserves from Suzanne Pharr’s book, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism to understand more how feminism has been stigmatized. Do you think you have been influenced by the stereotypical image of feminists in our culture?