Response to ‘We are more than our genders’

To the Editors:

When I read James Malin’s opinion about gender in the last issue of the Standard, I wanted to share with all well-meaning feminists with male privilege what I know about sexism. When you are told by your female peers that you “don’t understand because [you’re] a guy” please listen to them.  Sexism is not just a belief or an isolated act that an individual commits against another.  Sexism is the system we live in, which advantages men and oppresses women in both subtle and blatant ways. Think of the economic disadvantage of motherhood, discrimination against effeminate males, boys being told not to cry from a young age or the taunt of running “like a girl” as examples of messages that teach the pervasive disrespect of women and femininity.

Feminists work for gender equity knowing that this unjust system exists. The concept of gender equity aims to offset the disadvantages of women in our society from centuries of exclusion beyond equal opportunity and treatment. The idea that “feminism is an issue for both sexes,” not only assumes a gender binary but it also assumes that we are all affected equally by sexism.  This ignores the fact that you and all males are the beneficiary of this system of oppression simply by being a male in our society.  This is neither your fault nor are you meant to fix the problem.  Please understand that your male privilege affords you an existence where much of these benefits are invisible to you. Therefore you feel empowered to say, “at this school [we] are given equal opportunity” and “as far as [you] can tell” men and women are treated the same, without knowing that the experiences of other genders may differ.

 Yes, “our Head of School is a woman, as is the Head of Academic Advising and College Counseling, the Assistant Principal and several of the department heads” but this ignores the disproportionate representation of males in school leadership in general.  Also, does having a female head of school mean that your female peers no longer experience comments about the way they look (sexual harassment) or that they somehow will no longer have to carefully tread between being called “prudes” or “sluts” (slut-shaming)? Sexism means that women experience double standards (of sexual behavior for instance) and constant challenges despite equal opportunity and female leadership.  Why else would the head of school’s gender be highlighted in this example if truly as you argue, “we are more than just our gender?” Of course her gender matters because she’s the female exception to the norm of male leadership. It is unsurprising that we’ve only had two female heads of school at ASL because Title IX, a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, has only existed for about 40 years in the United States (US).  There is a reason White Males are 33% of the US population but are 92% of Forbes 400 Executive CEO level positions (Derald Wing Sue, 2010).  I am not discrediting your achievements but you cannot deny that you have inherited a world where you are “aided by being a male” even if you say, you “don’t deserve special treatment.”

 Honestly, this discussion is beyond numbers and percentages.  It’s about justice and fairness. I wish I was able to ignore my gender, but every morning when I decide what to wear to work, I have to worry about not revealing too much of my body because female bodies are hyper-sexualized (if you doubt this, then just ask breast-feeding women why they cover up).  When I go for a run outdoors, I have to constantly worry about my safety from sexual assault.  Sometimes when I speak forcefully I am seen as aggressive or worse, called a name, while my male colleagues who do the same are heard and even respected.

Sexism is not a thing of the past. Where I teach, it is alive and thriving. Even my six-year old students realize how unfair it is that “some people say girls can’t play football” or that “some people say boys can’t play with dolls.” They want to believe that pink is for everyone or that boys can wear dresses but everywhere we look, they are bombarded with messages that tell them otherwise.  Our intervention and interruption of incidents of sexism are necessary to combat a force that is inescapable.

If you want to be a true feminist, then you must own your male privilege, identify how sexism manifests itself in your daily life and then, continually work against it.


Jennifer Abastillas

ASL LS Diversity Leader and Grade 1 Teacher