Home » Feminism » Teachable Moments: Part 1

Teachable Moments: Part 1

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.

8 thoughts on “Teachable Moments: Part 1

  1. I have heard the term glass ceiling but sticky floor is new to me and so apt. I would be in there nodding along but I think many young women do not understand the need for feminism until they themselves are faced with their own sticky floor.

  2. It may be that a conversation which asks them to look at culture and/or cultural artifacts for clues to problems or if there are problems might be of benefit.


    This post talks about one such approach, where examining what women do and how they are treated/presented in graphic novels and comic books shows a significant gender bias.

    Doing this would also take it out of the realm of their personal experience and give the students something concrete to examine for examples and discussion.

    • Great point. And, definitely easier to do when it’s your own class and you meet more than once. I do that sort of thing in my own classes. And, guest lecturing in a “one time” environment provoked the post. I will also look more closely at the suggestion.

      As always–thank you!

  3. It sounds to me like what you could teach in that teachable moment is the content of your blog. Not the particular issue — patriarchy and sexism — but taking a step up and addressing the bigger issue, how to handle an audience with different attitudes. THAT is a skill the students will likely need next week when they move onto topic X, next month when they write their term paper on policy Y and next year when they get a job at Company Z.

  4. I had a really interesting conversation with a friend recently, where she was explaining to me reasons why she was “anti-feminist” in a lot of ways. Now, I was surprised to hear this, because as far as I can tell, she’s one of the strongest feminists I know – determined, egalitarian, and progressive. She told me, though, that one of the reasons she disliked feminists, is that she found them always playing the “victim” card. She said that if women wanted to get ahead, all they had to do was “act like a man” and they would be just fine. She described the strength of character and determination to get ahead in the career world as male qualities.

    Now, I’m a very new student of feminism, though I would like to believe I have always been progressive, so my attempt to convince her may have been somewhat misguided, but this is what I had to say: first, I suggested that the genderisation of qualities, such as strength, was innately wrong. One is not strong because one is a man, but rather one may be a woman, or a may, who happens to be strong. I don’t think it was her suggestion to say that woman cannot be strong, because immediately in front of her, she is clearly a very strong woman herself, but that most women who don’t get ahead are not adhering to the “way the world works”, which in her mind, is the way men have made it work. For her, the suggestion seems to have been that it was not so much that the world needed to be changed, but rather it was women who needed to change in order to get ahead.

    As I rebutted with a comment about how it was unfair to make a binary distinction of qualities as being either male or female, she agreed, and came back with a second point. She said that the root of the inequalities between men and women, now recognising that they do exist, was based in a lack of respect. She said if men and women simply respected one another, then the problems we have with inequality would disappear.

    To me, this was a strange point, not that it was wrong, but that, again, for someone who claims to be something of an “anti-feminist” (I believe in the literature, she’d very likely be classified as post-feminist) it was a strangely feminist point to make. My response to this comment was ready agreement. I said that I felt that respect was an essential part to bridging the gap between male and female opportunities in the workplace, in politics, and in society more generally. But I was quick to add on that, despite her insistence that this might somehow happen organically, that structural, systemic inequalities had to first be addressed.

    In the end, the question of how to address these inequalities is a big one. But I’d say the making people understand that they exist in the first place, is the first step.

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