It Isn't the Responsiblity of Women to End Sexism In the Workplace

Feminists insist that the more women, people of color and LGBT people are visible, the better off – and more egalitarian – the world will be. But is simple representation the best answer to sexism?

Women are still scarce in many places of power: there’s a dearth of women in Congress, a lack of female experts on the Sunday morning talk shows and a shortage of women CEOs, law partners and bylined reporters. (One scholar is even studying what the lack of women in comments sections does to the public debate.)

The push for eventual parity, however, often means that the first women in traditionally male spaces – be it politics, gaming or even firefighting – are saddled with the responsibility of taking abuse until a critical mass is reached and (hopefully) the culture shifts, and of making that space more woman-friendly.

But why must women sign up to be professional vanguards in order to get the job they want? As California Sen. Barbara Boxer told Liza Mundy in a Politico piece about the sexism women in Congress face, “I never wanted to be a disruptor; I wanted to be a legislator.”

Women still make up barely over 24% of all legislators nationwide, though in Oklahoma and Louisiana, only 13% of people in office are women. And there’s still only 32 women of color in the House, and only one (Sen. Mazie Hirono) in the Senate.

And while we know that women legislators are more likely to support feminist and progressive policies, it’s unclear if their presence in Congress has had much impact on the behavior of their male colleagues (or the sexist culture in politics). Judging by the outrageous sexism recounted in Mundy’s article and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s book last year that described how the way male coworkers treated her, it seems whatever progress has been made is happening at an unacceptably slow pace.

Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, tells me we simply don’t have enough women represented yet to know what a critical mass might do. “The fact that we’re still counting women is because there’s not that many of them,” Walsh says.

“You’re still looking at an institution that is overwhelmingly male; it’s still the most exclusive men’s club in the world,” she said.

“Any person breaking in to a space where they’re not of the dominant culture: it’s hard,” Walsh added.

Take former FDNY Captain Brenda Berkman. Berkman was one of a group of women who sued the fire department for sex discrimination in 1982 and won; she became one of the first female firefighters in New York City. The harassment she faced was downright dangerous — in addition to her male colleagues playing sexist pranks like covering her locker in a huge bra, they also tampered with her protective equipment and drained her air tanks. Berkman has said they were sending a clear message: Your life might be at risk if you pursue this.

Asking individual women to enter hostile spaces to make them better is really asking women to make men better – and to make men better at women’s own risk. But it shouldn’t be women’s responsibility to fix men or deal with their misogyny. Instead, men should be taking it upon themselves to treat women with respect, and demand their other male colleagues do the same.

Emily May, executive director of the anti-street harassment organizationHollaback!, told me, “The answer lies in representation, but not representation alone.”

“We need to regularly ask underrepresented folks, what would support look like to you? And then develop concrete, ongoing systems to provide that support.”

That means if a female politicians want more bathrooms, get them more bathrooms and lay off the potty jokes. It also means developing support and training in nontraditional jobs for women, and demanding that straight white men do as much to make spaces friendly for underrepresented groups as those groups themselves. Women – and women’s presence – aren’t the only things that can end sexism, and closing gender gaps is more than just a number’s game. So let’s look forward to the day we can stop counting.

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