Okay, so I’m pre-empting a book club conversation here (I think half the fun of book club is telling people you belong to one), but as usual my mind is running a mile a minute and I need a moment with my musings. When the book “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg was suggested as our book of the month, apart from hearing a Destiny’s Child song play in my mind (something about paying my telephone bills), I was sceptical. I mean, did I really need to read another book telling me to break the glass ceiling? I stared at Sheryl’s smiling face on the front cover and told myself that I didn’t really want to hear about this privileged, white woman’s view about gender bias. And this, apart from the wine, is one of the greatest things about book club; getting to read outside of my comfort zone. Honestly, now that the book is done and dusted, I can’t say that I wholeheartedly agree with everything that Sheryl Sandberg’s writes about, but I’m certain glad that I read it. I am certainly glad about the conversations the book has provoked, both with myself and with others, because although I don’t have the answers, I know that these are conversations we need to have.
I can remember telling a story about how I, a young, non-white female, was treated when I first started working in a predominantly white, male dominated environment. Amongst other things, the expectations placed on me where due to my race and my gender; I was the girl who would probably take minutes and make coffee. Forget my achievements or qualifications, these men knew what they were doing, so I best listen closely and remember my manners. My first disagreement with an older male colleague was met with such vehemence that I was literally stunned into silence. I was too aggressive, too pushy, how dare I follow up when someone hadn’t given me something they promised? Part of this, no doubt, is because of my personality, not my gender. I can be harsh and driven at times and there is no mistaking that. But more and more it is becoming evident to me that when men behave in the way that I do it is considered the norm, no one gets angry with the man being assertive because that is what men are supposed to do. When a woman does it, she’s a bitch and she’s bossy. When a man does it, he is applauded for taking the initiative and being direct. No, it is not always as I have stated, I know. But we cannot dispute that there is a truth in this that should not be ignored. It also surprises me how sometimes gender even changes the meaning of words. I think back to many years ago when my boss called me “ambitious”, I knew what the word meant but his tone and the hardness in his eyes made me feel that I should look up the word once more. I did a quick Google search now and the description “having or showing a strong desire and determination to succeed” hardly seemed like the insult I heard in my boss’s voice those years ago.
I am not writing this to tell a sad story about gender bias and how I rose above it, I am writing of my own bias as much as of the men I have remembered here. Because if I am being honest, the preconceptions of gender does colour my view. Men should be men, right? Big, strong, assertive. And women should be nurturing and caring, right? Oscar Wilde wrote “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his“ and when I read that, such a large part of it resonated with me. What a tragedy it would be indeed if no man became his mother and no woman became her father. We’ve all heard those comments that slip so freely from our mouths when a man is vindictive, jealous and spiteful “He’s behaving like a woman”, or when a woman is outspoken, assertive and direct “She’s trying to behave like a man”. We judge people based on preconceived notions of what a man should be and what a woman shouldn’t be. I know I do. Realising and admitting that bias is huge for me, because if we ever are to talk about equal access to opportunity, we have to be honest with ourselves first. And sometimes that honesty is not very pretty. I guess it’s great that I’m more aware now, but what on God’s green earth does that mean? What does it fix? Maybe it means that in my awareness and through my reflection, I can rewrite the scripts that I rely on, I can rewrite my thinking. Maybe it means that I can now have more intelligent discussions with either gender, maybe it means that I can also create awareness? Maybe it means that even though it is not a big step, it is still a step forward.