Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Sex! (Ha! That Got Your Attention, Didn't It?)

I was having an e-mail discussion with a friend a while back that really got me thinking. Said friend gets very torqued off by sexism, and was complaining rather bitterly about how women get less respect than men and less pay than men, how people tend to assume she won't understand technical stuff because she's a woman, etc. (And, um, if she happens to be reading this and recognizes herself: Hi! Thanks for making me think, and I hope I haven't misrepresented you any!)

This sort of conversation always makes me a little uncomfortable, because I feel that what I'm expected to do -- what most people will surely think is the only reasonable thing for me to do -- is to join in with my own chorus of moans about how unfair life is to women. And yet, I find that I can't. Because I've honestly never felt that I've been treated unfairly because of my gender in any way that was at all serious or important or genuinely hurtful. Sure, I've heard sexist remarks and encountered occasional chauvinistic attitudes, but never really in a context where I couldn't just roll my eyes, shrug it off, and go on about my life. And, hell, most of the really nasty sexist remarks and attitudes I've encountered have been directed against men. I mean, I could say "Men are a bunch of disgusting pigs and should all be shot!" and I'd probably get a chorus of "Amen, sister!"s. If I were to say something equivalent about women, I'd be repudiated and reviled, and quite rightly, too. Call me anti-feminist if you want, but that don't seem right to me.

And, OK, I've frequently encountered the attitude that no one -- and most very particularly no woman -- can be a complete human being without a spouse and kids and the whole white picket fence deal, and that anyone -- especially any woman -- who doesn't have those things is automatically to be pitied. And that makes steam come out of my ears and sets me off on rants that make my friend's small complaints look tame by comparison. But, you know, nobody has ever tried to force me to conform to that stereotype.

I was born at a pretty amazing period for women, really, a time when society was really starting to accept the idea that women are perfectly capable of and entitled to do anything that men have traditionally done, but where the numbers of women in traditionally male-dominated fields hadn't yet come to reflect that (as, indeed, they still haven't). As a result, when, as a young woman, I expressed an interest in science and computers, the response I got from teachers and other adults wasn't, "Why should a girl be interested in that? Go study Home Ec!" but "Great! There need to be more women in those fields!" And I was, if anything, singled out for support and encouragement I wouldn't have gotten if I were a boy. I went to a small technical college, where I studied astrophysics. The male:female ratio at the time was something like 4:1 (I understand it's much closer to 1:1 now), and I was occasionally the only female in a very small class, but I never felt out of place, or as if the professors or my fellow students expected anything different from me than from anybody else. And, while I'm sure the people involved would deny it, I have a pretty strong suspicion that my gender played a role in getting me the scholarship that carried me through my last year of college and in getting me the job I currently hold. Gender balance looks good for scholarship providers and employers.

So I honestly don't feel I can complain. It'd be all dishonest and hypocritical of me to join in with a rousing chorus of, "Yeah! We women always get the shit end of the stick!" when it's never been handed to me. Which isn't to say that women --- some women, many women, for all I know most women -- don't get the shit end of the stick. When I hear my friends talk about being made to feel inferior for being female, or like they're being held back in favor of men, or whatever, I certainly don't disbelieve them. And society hasn't remotely achieved real gender balance yet. (How many women are there in the US Congress again?) But I, personally, really can't complain. Especially when I compare the support and the opportunity and the freedom I've had to, well, most women in the entirety of human history, really.

Maybe I've just been lucky. Or unobservant. I've traditionally been both throughout my life. But I prefer to look on it as a good sign that there's at least one female in the world who can honestly say that she doesn't think her gender's made any important difference whatsoever in how the world has treated her.

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