My Talk on Sexism

Last year I was looking to get involved with projects related to ending all oppression. I met an African woman, F—, a survivor of domestic violence, who had started a project empowering vulnerable women. She wanted me to be the host for her first event. The majority of her audience was African, African-heritage, and Asian.

Previously at an unrelated gathering of activists discussing the misuse of technology, a group of women decided to address some of the sexism at the gathering. Male opinions had dominated the majority of the discussions. I joined some of the women on a panel in which each of us talked for a short time on women, sexism, and technology. It was the first time I had ever spoken at a public event. Karl Lam was also at the gathering and noticed during the questions-and-answers part of the women’s panel how hard it was for the men to engage. He stood up and spoke “as an ally to women,” saying what he saw was happening and what the men needed to do to respect the women.

(Back to my conversation with F—) I explained to F— that I was interested in the relationship between sexism and the economic system and that I would at some time like to give a talk on that subject. F— was enthusiastic for me to do that at her event. She was pleasantly surprised when I proposed that I bring with me a man (Karl) who would be able to talk about how men can be allies to women.

Karl agreed to do the talk, and we both worked on our speeches. Because of internalised sexism and racism, it was a huge struggle for me to write the talk. It seemed hard to get started, and when I did start, it was difficult to express clearly the points I wanted to make. I felt like giving up on doing it and instead concentrating on my role as host of the event, which was also new and challenging for me. But Karl said that he would only speak at the event if I did.

In the end my talk wasn’t perfect, but I did the best I could at the time. I spoke first, and then Karl followed with his talk. I spoke from my viewpoint as an African, middle-class, raised-Muslim female. I’m glad I did it and gained some experience in public speaking and thinking about sexism. I got some good feedback from both females and males. I’ve included my talk below.

MY TALK

I would say that wherever we see women not fulfilling our potential, there is a reason for it (and it’s not because we are the inferior sex).

Sexism is the treatment of women as lesser human beings than men. The harshest end of sexism is the violence and emotional abuse that women are subjected to. The sex industry exploits individual vulnerable women to make huge profits while at the same time devaluing all women and trivialising us as sexual objects.

But there are also many ideas and messages we hear in everyday life that “justify” sexism. These ideas are taken to be normal or obvious. For example, that women are inherently “crazy,” emotional, and irrational; that by nature we are weak, unintelligent, and lack confidence.

There are many other forms of discrimination that work in similar ways to devalue one set of humans compared to another. And they have similar everyday messages that work to justify them, for example, that white people are better than people of colour, that adults should be more respected than children, that able-bodied people are more valuable than people with disabilities, that middle-class people are smarter than working-class people. 

What is true about females? Sexism tells us a lot of lies about women. And our current and historic achievements are devalued or just not mentioned at all.

If it is true that women are inherently irrational and unintelligent, what does it mean if I can name Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who is a top black woman physicist?   

If it is true that women are by nature weak, then what does it mean if I can name Beryl Burton, a white woman cyclist who in the 1960s held the world record for cycling the most miles in twelve hours? It took two years before a man could beat her record.

If it is true that women lack confidence, what does it mean if I can tell you about Jayaben Desai, the Asian woman who in 1976 led a fight for better working conditions at the Grunwick Film Processing Labs in London?

Men’s achievements are celebrated! Their achievements are held up to say something good about all men. This encourages all men to keep trying to be the best when in fact only a few actual men can make it to the top of any area of society—politics, science, business. There is a reason for this, too, and I would say that it’s not that those men who don’t make it to the “top” are stupid. That is what class discrimination might try to say about them.

But if most men can’t be at the very “top of society,” well at least they can settle for being “better than women,” right?

Where any of us human beings are not fulfilling our true potential (as intelligent, powerful, courageous, and respectful toward others), I would say that it is a measure of the extent to which we have been confused by the messages of sexism, racism, classism, and other oppressions.

Little girls are confident. They will fight against the lies that sexism tells them about themselves. But I’d say that it’s such a tough battle that we females mostly lose and our confidence is gradually knocked down. And then we do our best to achieve and grow within the limits society presents to us.

We women risk humiliation and mistreatment if we do anything that might make us be seen as unattractive. We are generally treated as “not quite normal” (or a “tomboy”) if we like traditional boys’ activities.

We tend to be told to be careful or more ladylike if we spend time improving our spatial awareness and developing our physical strength through hard physical play. Boys generally do this for hours on end—and it does take many hours of practice to develop any skill to a good level (the author Malcolm Gladwell writes about the research behind this).

The same is true of expressing ourselves and developing our thinking and ideas; this takes solid hours of good-quality practice. But as women our practice tends to be limited when we grow up noticing that a man’s opinion is generally more valued than a woman’s.

When women try things that society doesn’t expect us to do well, our mistakes are more likely to be seen as proof that we can’t do them, while a man’s mistakes are more likely to be seen as his learning curve toward success.

I think most women have had the experience of being in a group and expressing an idea that nobody acknowledges, and then a few minutes later a man repeats the same idea and gets congratulated on how brilliant the idea was. When we women talk about these experiences with each other, I think it helps us understand that these things aren’t personal attacks on us. There is nothing wrong with us. They are part of a system of discrimination that affects everyone.

Sexism, like other forms of discrimination, has several roles within our current economic system. One is for businesses to make money out of the insecurities we have because of sexism. The cosmetic industry thrives by providing “solutions” to women’s lack of self-esteem because of sexism—our breasts aren’t the right size; we need make-up, the right clothes, special diet products, and wrinkle removers.

The pharmaceutical industry thrives by selling pills to provide “solutions” to women’s apparent inability to cope and think clearly under the stress of sexism. The symptoms we display, like crying, which any counsellor might tell you is part of a healing process, are treated as proof of our emotional irrationality.

A role that all discrimination plays is putting us all in competition with each other for paid work. Where there is not full employment, we are all pitted against each other to gain the money we need to provide for ourselves and our families.

In the race to get and keep jobs, we can unawarely come to depend on those messages that say that one of us is more deserving than another. And unthinkingly we treat each other badly. Women fare badly—we are not valued and are left with low-paid work or lower rates of pay for doing the same work as men.

Over the last twenty years the computing industry, in which I work, has developed many methods of reuniting people and helping them to respect each other and work together cooperatively. This is because these things have been proven to produce higher quality work. It’s a struggle as we learn about each other, but it’s more enjoyable and inclusive. We share knowledge, listen to each other, and inspire each other. We learn and grow together.

Some say it is the way we would have always treated each other had we been raised in a society in which there was room for everyone to flourish. I have decided to put my mind to creating such a society.

Alima Adams
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England
Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion
list for leaders of wide world change


1 “Looking to” means intending to.
2 Karl Lam is the Regional Reference Person for Cambridge, Herts, Beds, Bucks, and Norfolk, in England.
3 “Taken to be” means considered.
4 “Make it to” means reach.
5 “Hours on end” means many hours.

 


Last modified: 2019-05-02 14:41:35+00