Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Is Sexism Dead?

A couple of years ago, I taught a college class entitled "Gender and the Law," in which I took students through the evolution of legal barriers to gender equality. At the end of the class, both male and female students thought that it was little more than a history lesson and that sex discrimination no longer exists--at least concerning anything that matters.

But there is evidence everywhere that sexism still exists. Were this not so, would there be so many films and television shows that fail the Bechdel Test? 

The Bechdel Test is a simple, three-question test designed by Alison Bechdel to determine whether women appear in a film or program as real characters. A film or TV show will pass the Bechdel Test if it: 1. has at least two named women as characters, 2. the women have at least one conversation, and 3. the conversation is about something other than a man or men. It is surprising how few pass this test, including some blockbuster successes. So we see it, but does anyone care? 

Most writers, and many others, have been following the recent debate about whether male authors get more respect just by virtue of their sex than women do. It was touched off when two female authors (Jodi Piccoult and Jennifer Weiner) said publicly that they believed that it is harder for a woman to have her book reviewed in the New York Times than it is for, say, Jonathan Franzen whose most recent novel, Freedom, was extolled in two--yes two!--New York Times book reviews, as well as a number of other prominent places. It turns out that, indeed, the NY Times reviews significantly more male authors than female. A summary of the debate can be found at:

Coincidentally, another new report out this week announced that women make 83 cents for every $1 earned by a man for comparable work. This, the report said, was an amazing victory for women. (I doubt the man reporting it would have thought it a victory to be told he was going to get paid only 83% of his salary for the coming year.) But he had a point--there has been progress. In the mid-seventies, women only made 59% of what men earned for comparable work. But we still have not reached gender equality. 

Like most women my age, I have endured my share of sexism. I was encouraged to become a paralegal instead of going to law school. When I interviewed for my first job as a lawyer, I was asked about my husband's employment status. I was told by a fellow attorney that women only go to law school to find a husband. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

I tried to raise my children without the ingrained gender roles. It was a thrill when I told my young daughter that the father of a girl she had met was also a lawyer, and her reaction was, "That's silly. Daddies can't be lawyers." (Okay--she still had rigid gender roles, but at least they were based on personal experience rather than societal expectations.)

At a writers conference several years ago, a writer voiced the opinion that women can always write men better than men can write women. I tend to be skeptical about sentences including the word "always," but I heard her out. She said that since women live in a male-dominated world, women have had to learn to understand men to a greater degree than men have had to understand women. If that is true, wouldn't women authors be more likely than men to write the truly "Great American Novel?" Yet there was still a man who, in response to a article entitled, "Can a Woman be a 'Great American Novelist?'" said "Women writers don't speak to me, they speak to other women." It is subjective, yes, but doesn't this also sound like prejudice? 

And despite the fact that women buy more books than men do, the Times still reviews more men.

So what do you think?  Are my students right? Have we reached a point where gender discrimination doesn't exist, or if it does, it doesn't matter? Or do we still have a long way to go--and if so, how do we get there?