Thursday, July 5, 2012

Roadside Sexism

So I ran out of gas on the way to work this morning. I know, I know...but there were extenuating circumstances, I swear. Lucky for me, my wonderful Parental Units treat me to a super fancy Triple A membership so I don't get trapped on the side of the road in Stark or someplace equally inhospitable. It has saved my butt many times and I highly recommend it.

Anyway, the tow truck guy arrived with some gas fairly quickly. I thanked him profusely and awkwardly explained my extenuating circumstances in what was probably a vain attempt to not look like a total airhead. "Running out of gas has got to be the most embarrassing reason to ever have to call a tow truck," said I, with a self-deprecating laugh.

"Nah." he explained, with a dismissive sigh. "I get guys that are totally capable of changing a flat tire who call us out anyway."

"Oh, ha ha...wait, what?" I responded in my mind.

Me running out of gas was entirely preventable. If I hadn't forgotten to stop immediately on my way to work it would not have happened. Even with extenuating circumstances, it was entirely attributable to my own thoughtlessness. It was thoroughly embarrassing, and I deserved to be embarrassed.

But flat tires just happen. Generally, there is no one at fault. Lots of people don't know how to change a tire, both men and women. Even if he does know what he is doing, this hypothetical dude could be on his way to work with an important meeting later in the day. He might feel that the fact that he pays a significant Triple A membership fee entitles him to call for a tow truck driver to change his tire for him, regardless of his own personal capability, and he would be absolutely right. No embarrassment warranted.

It occurred to me, as I thanked my savior and shamefully made my way to the nearest gas station, that this is the kind of sexism that most people encounter every day in this country. This kind of sexism, simply being judged differently in small ways or being held to a different standard because of your gender, can be so subtle and so pervasive that it really just fades into the background and becomes 'normal'. It becomes part of the lens through which we see the world, and it's almost impossible to fight head-on.

The more blatant forms of sexism in this country*, like being blamed for your own sexual assault or having your opinions or involvement dismissed outright or being denied promotions or equal pay or health care because of your gender, are easier to explain and demonstrate and therefore easier to fight...not easy, certainly, but easier. But they wouldn't exist without these more subtle forms of sexism, because they make the more glaring forms of sexism possible. They directly affect the way we view other people, and unless something prompts you to notice them...unless you really stop and think "Why do I expect this thing of one gender but not the other?" or "Why does the tow truck guy think it's more embarrassing for a guy to not change his own tire than for a woman to run out of gas?" then you will probably continue to see those things as 'normal'.

Which is the problem in a nutshell. Sexism is normal. It's gotten better over the years, certainly, but changing the status quo is slow and difficult and requires getting people to change the way they think and the assumptions they make about the world, and you get push-back from people who like things the way they are or who don't like being told they are wrong. It's hard, but the only way I know to fight this subtle, pervasive sexism is to point it out when I see it try and make it less 'normal' for the people who will listen.

* I specify 'in this country' because the sexism in other places is demonstrably more horrible than here in the USA. In many places, women are not permitted to own property, vote, drive, be seen in public, or make any legal decision without the approval of a man. According to Sharia law, for example, the testimony of a woman is only worth half that of a man. That is awful, and runs way deeper than what we deal with in my corner of the world.

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