An institution can refer to large organizational realms such as politics, academia or corporations or smaller units like a family. When generations of gender bias are steeped into our psyches from the moment we’re born, reinforced through school, the media and eventually the workplace–that’s some STRONG and BITTER tea.
I’m as guilty as anyone. There is a social contract that I don’t remember signing that compels me to comment on my female friends’ looks the moment I see them. Even as I’m saying, “You look great!” I catch myself and wonder, “Why the hell am I saying this??” It’s how we keep the institutions of unfairness and privilege alive and thriving.
We are all participating at some level, whether we are conscious of it or not. When we see a little girl, the first thing we do is evaluate her looks and say, “Aren’t you pretty?” In fact, I would wager the less pretty a girl is, the more we tend emphasize it.
I see it with my daughter. She is Native American and Samoan, loose black curls that flow all the way to her waist. Her face is undeniably magnetic and I’ve watched grown ups become puddles in her presence. I’ve had well meaning friends say upon meeting her, “Wow. You are SO pretty…like, seriously beautiful!” I can feel a familiar, shared sense of relief that she has accomplished “being pretty.” This is a cultural construct of the institution called American Society that needs girls and women to focus on being objects of male desire to keep the status quo.
At the age of three, she began saying, “I’m so pretty. I’m so cute!” I finally had to be “that mom” and ask all of her teachers to start focusing on other things so she doesn’t think the way she looks is more important than what she thinks. I am breaking the social contract for the sake of my daughter, knowing what she’s up against:
When she goes to school, she will have to overcome the institutionalized gender bias she will encounter that will steer her away from math and science and reward her for being quiet. She’ll read text books that glorify the accomplishments of men throughout history, but have little to say about powerful women who have changed the world.
When she goes to college, she will have to navigate an institutionalized rape culture where young men enjoy the privilege of sexually assaulting intoxicated young women under the banner of “boys will be boys” with little or no consequence. If she wants to pursue higher learning in the sciences and become a professor, she’ll need to deal with the institutionalized gender gap in academia.
If she chooses to work in the corporate world, she will face institutionalized leadership discrimination as well as a significant wage gap. The best she can hope to make is 90% of what her white, male peers are making. That’s until she turns 35, then the most she can make will be about 75% of what her equally educated white, male colleagues will be making.
Giving my daughter an early childhood packed with messages about how valuable, smart and able she is will hopefully arm her with enough self-esteem to not fold under the massive pressure to be quiet, pretty and compliant. My husband and I have invited our friends to help us provide her with interactions that are more focused on what she’s interested in. We extend the same “person focused” attention to our friends’ sons and daughters.
As Gloria Steinem once said, “We’ll know when we’ve reached full equality when a mediocre woman can get as far as a mediocre man.” We are not there so until we are, I will greet my female friends with, “It’s so good to see you! What’s going on in your life?”
What small adjustments could you make to make this world more fair for girls and women?