5 Ways To Unravel A Sexist System

This weekend in synagogue an elderly gentleman introduced himself to my husband.

After a lengthy discussion about their respective careers, after talking about his daughter who is apparently highly sought-after by potential employers in a technical field, after asking my younger daughter where she planned to go to college and what she planned to study, he turned to me.

“Do you cook or do you microwave?” he asked, very sincerely and with a kindly smile.

How do you dismantle a sexist system so complex and multifaceted, within which some women enjoy far greater equality than others, within which some great strides have taken place, one so interwoven with racism and classism that the knot seems almost inextricable?

And how do you define a “feminist movement” now, anyway? I for one don’t want to be leading that synagogue service; it’s quite fine by me that the role has been left to the men. But at the same time, I know there are women who do want to lead a service and who have become rabbis.

Last year, for a “women in history” class, my younger daughter interviewed my mother about her perceptions of gender roles and sexism.

Taped my mother saying, “I never knew what feminism was until your mother [meaning me] started talking about it in high school.”

Continuing on, “In my household there was no such thing. Everyone just did their job.”

“But who made the decisions?” asked my daughter.

“Well the men did, of course,” said my mom. “Of course.”

And then there’s dead silence.

So sexism does exist, despite the empowerment of some women in some quarters and at some times and places in our world and throughout history.

Frankly, so does reverse sexism against men.

The way you take down an unfair, unequal system is to attack it from all sides. As a sociologist I’m going to give you five of the secrets:

1. Remove its support beams: This refers to taking down the interlocking aspects of the system. Very often sexism, classism, racism, etc. go together. You attack an entire problem by addressing its component parts all at the same time.

2. Make the system visible to itself: This means making our assumptions clear so that they become open for debate – often forcing the ugliness of dysfunction to the surface. For example: really examining the things people say in conversation, through video and audiotape, when they think nobody’s looking. Looking at that and asking whether we really think these kinds of things are OK.

3. Institutionalize an alternative vision: This means tangibly manifesting equality – such as visible diversity in leadership roles at work, in the political system, in the religious system, in education, in healthcare, everywhere you look – so that people in junior positions see people in senior positions who look like them.

4. Empower the weak: It’s not enough to do theoretical things. You actually help real people obtain real power in the system as it exists today. Mentoring is a good example of how this gets done on a practical level.

5. Promote free speech: Oddly to me, somme think that political correctness is helpful to feminism. I would argue the opposite. It is only by enabling the free flow of conversation that flaws in the the logic of a dysfunctional system – e.g. the function of the dysfunction – become clear.


All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

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