Recently I had the opportunity to give a talk related to Gender and Public Policy. I spent the talk really talking about the elephant in the room—patriarchy and sexism. I figure that if the students should have an honest conversation about the existence of systemic issues that influence their lives and influence public policy. When I have these conversations with students several things typically happen. There are nodding heads among the students and several who have had sociology or women’s studies and are cognizant of readings or other information. Some people will cross their arms and stop listening—they see women in their classes and as a woman she might not have ever experienced any sexism/racism/classism and what am I talking about in class? This is not her experience. Others are open to the conversation and want to understand where the disconnect it—lots of women on campus, yet not in the workforce. And, then others sit in the class enjoying the question and answer period and are not sure where they stand. They want to see where the chips fall. This is a quick and easy description and certainly not exhaustive.
And, some will offer that women just do not want to be engineers, doctors, politicians, and the like. Their opinion is generally this: if women really wanted to do these things—we would see more women in this array of professions. That is, it’s women’s fault for their lack of success. If women were more ambitious they could have it all, they could do it all.
Well, where do you go with a statement like that? There are so many layers to cut through with that sentiment and logic. And, understand that the student who makes this statement is not looking for a fight or using sarcasm. In my experience, the comment is a common one and usually said without any malice. So, it is not conducive for me to pull a Dana Carvey and say, “No, you’re wrong and here is why.” (This dates me, but I’m thinking of his bit on SNL when he starts saying wrong or no. See this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0Yr9XyBdnI&feature=related). The truth is that the person who raised this point is not right or wrong. This person is offering an opinion and the opinion might be based on life experience or just what s/he thinks.
This is ripe teachable moment and my reaction is important for a few reasons:
1. I represent all feminists on the planet in the classroom.
2. If they like my response then I’m OK, but if they don’t, then I’m one of those mean fill in the blank feminists.
3. If I disagree it is read as critical or attacking and I am biased or have a closed mind.
4. If I my explanation is something they can work with then things are salvageable.
Now, those four points are said in a tongue in cheek fashion. You see, it is easier to recover or move on with a conversation when you have a few months with a group, but when you have 50-90 minutes each minute is precious.
What I have attempted to do is respond in such a way that I am open to the statement, but offer an alternative point of view and then call on the audience to participate in the discussion.
What do I do in this situation? I attempt to offer that there are systemic reasons for the different numbers of women in leadership positions, but do not rely on the “they just are not ambitious.” I know too many ambitious women who have left their fields due to the sticky floor and glass ceiling. I know too many young women facing hardship at work and their ambition hits against the reality of issues that are typically outside of their control.
How do you deal with the generalized question about what women want? I look forward to your points.