The Questionable Authority

As many of you know, my family circumstances do not put me neatly within the American norm. I’ve got a functioning Y-chromosome, but even though I’m happily married, I’ve done single parent duty for months at a time. Even when my wife is home, she has very little control over her schedule, and very little flexibility when it comes to things like taking time off when one of the kids is sick. There are few women working in her specific field, and not many of the ones who are there have families.

A while ago, I’d have told you that this gives me about as close to a first-hand understanding of the issues women face in the workplace as a man can have. I’d also have told you that I’m very confident that it is a good understanding of those issues. And I would have been right. Mostly. Well, partly right, anyway. Or at least a little bit.

In reality, what I have is a very good understanding of those issues, as they relate to that one set of experiences. And it’s a set of experiences where the issues are very easy to spot. Particularly if you look down.

i-7e519a50b7d430ece5ebb860fb73034a-IMG_2413-1-tm.jpg

That’s about the extent of the footwear that my wife’s allowed to wear at work. She’s got some variations on those basic themes, but that basically means that she’s got a few subtly different pairs of boots, and a pair of black low-heeled shoes for when the occasion is a little fancy for the Oxfords. On a typical day, she’s told which of those to wear. The rest of her wardrobe – let’s just say that when you open her closet, you get an overwhelming impression of “green” and leave it there.

It’s easy to think about gender issues when everything about the environment projects an aura of masculinity.

Jessica Simpson Ballerina Flat.jpg
Teal Salmon Pump.jpg

That’s not necessarily the case when the dress code isn’t quite so fixed. There are environments where everything is left to choice. Boots, sneakers, pumps, flats, dress, jeans, t-shirts, it’s all the same. Almost everyone who is a part of this work environment – whatever their X-chromosome count might be – thinks of themselves as being socially aware. Very few, if any, think of themselves as being an actively contributing part of a problematic situation.

It’s harder to see problems in an environment like that, as long as they’re not problems that affect you personally. This is particularly true if you don’t look. And, really, why look? After all, we all know that it’s a comfortable environment, right?

Of course we do. Right up until the point when there’s a catastrophic meltdown. That’s when we learn that quite a few people didn’t actually think of it as a comfortable environment at all, that they’ve never thought of it as a comfortable environment, and that we would have been aware of that fact had we been paying the slightest bit of attention.

It’s easy to mistake an environment where women are obviously present for one where women are comfortable. And, like most easy mistakes, a lot of us make it.

It came to my attention earlier this week that it was a mistake I’d been making elsewhere. I failed to notice obvious problems that a number of women had called attention to, and I did not notice that I, personally, had been doing so until it was fairly directly pointed out to me.

Oops.

It turns out that more than a conscious effort to be fair and equitable is required if I want to help create an environment that’s comfortable for everyone. It turns out that I actually need to pay attention – real attention – to what’s happening around me.

Who knew?

Oh. Ummmm….yeah….oops.

Comments

  1. #1 Isis the Scientist
    May 21, 2009

    This is a great post, Mike. I think most people (like you) are genuinely good at heart and want to do the right thing. That said, all we have for how to do that is our own frame of reference and what we think is the right thing may be hurtful to someone else. The key is to be open to introspection rather than getting lost by focusing on arguing that you are a good person.

  2. #2 Anonymous Pseudonym
    May 21, 2009

    Could you be a little clearer about what you are referring to? Without the context your post tells us nothing more than ‘it is important to pay attention’….which some of us already knew.

  3. #3 trained entomologist
    May 22, 2009

    This post was murky and missed a lot. Here’s my perspective.

    I’m female and I have wide feet. The shoes in the top picture are all _comfortable_ and practical. They can tromp down miles of city streets, go through the mud at a construction site, or in the case of the Oxfords, look good at a meeting yet not pinch the toes. These shoes are types that a podiatrist would feel comfortable with his patients wearing them.

    The “feminine” shoes in the bottom picture are, yes, pretty, but they aren’t all that practical. The flats on the left are far better than the heels on the right. The flats are suitable for most places where the Oxfords could be seen i.e. offices and a few blocks of walking. However, they wouldn’t stand up to heavy duty walking involving a couple of miles though. I couldn’t wear them in a factory or a scrap yard either, because they lack steel toes and/or would get dirty/ruined. The heels on the right are downright uncomfortable. They crush the toes and the wearer risks a sprained ankle unless she is quite practiced at wearing heels. The heels are good to wear to a soiree or nightclub…that’s about it.

    Just because I’m XX (female) doesn’t mean that I prefer frilly, impractical shoes. I need something in which I can walk.

  4. #4 jc
    May 22, 2009

    “It’s easy to think about gender issues when everything about the environment projects an aura of masculinity.”

    Yup ELEVENTY! Except that the non-self-aware menz can’t see the masculinized air they breathe 24-7, and when their male privilege is pointed out to them, they deny/blame/attack the women who don’t have the option or ability to breathe non-male air (or wear shit kicking boots!).

    great post.

  5. #5 Bob O'H
    May 22, 2009

    Ah, OK. I’d heard reports of something going on behind the scenes over there a couple of days ago. I guess this is part of the fall-out.

    I sometimes wonder if I make similar mistakes, but nobody ever tells me. I haven’t been shouted at yet, but it’s possible that people are just suffering in silence. If they are I hope they’ll pop over and have a quiet chat with me.

  6. #6 Scicurious
    May 22, 2009

    trained entomologist: this post isn’t about shoes. It’s about what the environment makes you notice about feminism issues. In the environment in which one is told to wear uniforms and combat boots all the time, feminism issues actually stand OUT more. In an environment where everyone can wear what they want and, presumably, act how they want, issues may not stand out as much. But that does not mean they aren’t still there. You just may have to work to notice them more.

    Good post!!

  7. #7 QA's Mom
    May 22, 2009

    Mike
    Growing up as you did in a non-traditional home,in a very diverse community where most people didn’t look like you.
    its not surprising that you might not be overly aware of what we use to refer to back in the day as institutional discrimination.

    You had a dad with a traditionally “female” occupation (nurse), a mom who was hardly Susie-homemaker, and three brothers. It rarely came up. As to the shoe thing — I almost never wore heels.

    Overt bias is easy to spot, and has begun to be socially unacceptable. The harder issue by far, is the insidious everday things that are so much part of our lives that we don’t notice.

    For me a light bulb went on years ago, when a collegue pointed out that my “flesh” colored band-aid didn’t look like her flesh.

    In short, there’s a big difference from seeing what others have to live with and walking in their shoes (pun intended)

  8. #8 dan
    May 22, 2009

    I would debate as to the actual functionality of your y chromosome.

  9. #9 Pascale
    May 22, 2009

    As someone who has been going through time with an orthopedist and physical therapy for arthritis in my right knee, I would like to point out something important about the shoes. Both sets of professionals prefer to see me in a heel than those ballet flats.
    Now, the army shoes would probably meet with their general approval, but I’m not wearing anything like those. Ballet flats have almost no support in them and are actually bad for most foot problems. Heels have far more engineering, arch support, etc, and are generally preferable. When my daughter went to the podiatrist for foot problems during her year as a dance major, he told her to find shoes with 1-2″ heels when she wasn’t dancing or wearing running shoes.
    So don’t diss the Pucci heels. Of the 2 pairs of cute shoes, the experts might come down for those!

  10. #10 Pascale
    May 22, 2009

    As someone who has been going through time with an orthopedist and physical therapy for arthritis in my right knee, I would like to point out something important about the shoes. Both sets of professionals prefer to see me in a heel than those ballet flats.
    Now, the army shoes would probably meet with their general approval, but I’m not wearing anything like those. Ballet flats have almost no support in them and are actually bad for most foot problems. Heels have far more engineering, arch support, etc, and are generally preferable. When my daughter went to the podiatrist for foot problems during her year as a dance major, he told her to find shoes with 1-2″ heels when she wasn’t dancing or wearing running shoes.
    So don’t diss the Pucci heels. Of the 2 pairs of cute shoes, the experts might come down for those!

  11. #11 msphd
    May 23, 2009

    Very astute. I think this is exactly the point that most of us have been missing.

    Even if women are present, does not mean we are comfortable or, god forbid, thriving.

    And yet, this is what most people think, and it’s exactly why they don’t understand that they’re missing the point.

    Thanks for this valuable insight. Seriously, this is probably the most encouraging thing I’ve heard all day.

  12. #12 Eamon Knight
    May 25, 2009

    I’ve been puzzling about this ever since it was posted, and I still think I’m missing the point somehow.

    OK, I understand at an abstract level, that women may not feel comfortable in an environment where “normal” is defined as “what men find comfortable”.

    However, the shoe example, or metaphor, or whatever, isn’t doing it for me. I get the point that standard mil-spec footwear is traditionally masculine, but after that it gets confusing.

    Is it that: Women prefer to do things in some “feminine” way, and are prevented from doing so by male-oriented assumptions of normativity? Metaphorically, this would correspond to: they’d really like to wear the shoes in the lower pic, but can’t because the rules of the environment won’t allow it. Am I close?

    The reason for my confusion may be that I’m married to a woman who would find it physically painful to wear either of the “cute” shoes, and in particular thinks that high heels are a stupendously stupid idea. But she’d happily wear anything in the upper photo. So when I look at those, I don’t think “comfort”; I think rather the opposite — which completely destroys the metaphor for me.

  13. #13 supra shoes
    August 23, 2009

    Thanks for this valuable insight.This is probably the most encouraging thing I’ve heard all day.