Many of the struggles facing American women in 2017 seem to be finally getting their mainstream due. With millions of people attending Women's Marches worldwide last month, there's evidence of great support and attention for issues facing women, from reproductive rights to general health care concerns. Clearly we still have some inequality issues to work on — and women are not being quiet about it. But while restricting abortion access and blatant mansplaining are easily identifiable issues, one of the biggest problems plaguing American women today that gets ignored is subtle sexism. It's those comments or actions that you feel in your gut are wrong, but that seem too innocuous to confront.
Why is this brand of sexism treated any differently than more overt sexism? Because it's harder to call out. It's that gray area where doubt can still safely exist. If you chose to raise the issue, but can't convince the offender that they are being sexist, because the situation has ambiguity, than you are told you're being "high strung," and are accused of making a big deal out of nothing.
And then, sometimes we may pause and wonder if they are right. Subtle sexism is making us gaslight ourselves.
I am a manager, and the other day I had to speak with an employee about something he did wrong. This was a man who is 15 years older than I am, and he felt it appropriate to try to walk away from me, not once, but twice, while I was reprimanding him. I was left wondering whether his behavior was based on his rude personality, or if he felt he could get away with it because I was a younger woman. But if I were to call his actions out as sexist — in my male-dominated workplace — I would be laughed out of the room.
It's that uncertainty that puts the burden on women to wonder whether we can bring this up and successfully make our point without having it backfire. I know if some of my female friends and I are interrupted by colleagues in a meeting, many are left intently observing who else gets interrupted in the meeting. Is it just me? Is it just other women?
And it's not just about respect in the workplace. There is a pervasive and problematic narrative associated with motherhood that stems from a place of subtle sexism. Women are a very diverse gender, and mothers, in turn, are the same. The only defining characteristic that all mothers share is the fact that they are mothers, which is not a personality trait. Yet there is a certain perception of being caring, gentle and moral that is automatically assumed of mothers.
But when you bring up that people assume all mothers are caring and good, you may be met with, "well why is that a bad thing?" It's not a negative comment, so why be offended. The offense comes from the assumption that motherhood is a one-dimensional experience and mothers can't be nuanced people.
So how do we change this? The problem with fixing an invisible problem like subtle sexism is just that, it's not clearly seen by everyone. Women need to be strong in their convictions when confronting subtle sexism, and not let our opponents, or ourselves, second guess what we know to be true.