February 18, 2008

How sexism works

Posted in epistemology, gender stereotypes, sexism at 3:51 pm by LB

I’ve seen this cartoon in a few places today, but it is very true, and worth a few thoughts.

(feministing.com’s headline for this was brilliant, “Boys suck at logic, non-sexism.”

Sexism turn attributes of people into attributes of gender. Senator Clinton (I refuse to call her the demeaning “Hillary” as if she were Britney or someone) becomes a poor candidate because she seems like a “bitch” or her expression of emotions are read as “weak” or “manipulative”; if done by a male candidate they would have been read as “caring” (remember Bill Clinton?). Further, the authenticity of her tears was questioned since she, of course, comes off like a cold, hard, bitch.

See a bad driver? When it’s a woman, the comment is often made, “women are such bad drivers.” If the driver is a male do we then say “men are such bad drivers”? Does anyone really keep a tally of the quality of drivers by gender vs. the proportion of the driving population they consist of? And really, does one person’s set of observations really produce a truth?

No it doesn’t-but experiential “evidence” like this is meant to reinforce what we already think about particular identity groups. In the philosophical arena, “direction of fit” is when what we think about the world fits the facts of the world. In the feminist critique of epistemology, we see that this idea doesn’t really happen, because the facts we recognize are those that reinforce what we already think about the world-we see in the world that which confirms what we already believe, and the mere observation of it in the world serves as “proof” of the truth of said belief. Think about it: it is so much easier for people to believe a “scientific study” that confirms “common sense” than one that defies it.


But science has been used for centuries to reinforce ideological views about the inferiority of races (non-white), ethnicities (non-Euro), gender (non-male), and sexualities (non-heteronormative), using their “facts” as “proof” of their discrimination and oppression. Much of the “old” science has been refuted, although many of their claims persist as “common sense.” Indeed, sexist and racist views continue to be circulated in contemporary scientific studies.

Let’s go back to the driving example-all this is to say, have you ever considered that in our society, despite what we think is our “gender equality,” and regardless of whether she holds a paying job (versus the unpaid work of mothering), women disproportionately bear the burden of child-raising and rearing? Thus, if you do happen to notice that women drivers seem to be “bad,” did you ever look to see if there were kids in the car, screaming for her attention? Did you ever think she was trying to make doctor’s appointments and decide what to make for dinner while she’s driving from work to pick the kids up from the sitter’s? IF, and that’s a big IF, women are “worse” drivers, could it actually be because of the prevalence of sexism that causes these things and not because of the “fact” of them being female? This just adds sexism to sexism. Perhaps it is better said that “people with young kids in the car are bad drivers.”

This is the same thing that happens in the math example. IF indeed boys score higher than girls on math exams, it is wrong wrong wrong to say that because we are “gender-equal,” (and that’s up for debate in my book) that means boys are better than girls at math. Don’t blame girls for continued gender discrimination in the classroom, from parents, hell, in the McDonald’s happy meals, where the kinds of play and developments tools we give to kids will highly inform their capacities for certain academic subjects. Of, if a person’s not good at math, maybe they’re just not good at math. Blaming it on their gender is just as logical as blaming it on their eye color.

I think the appropriate saying here is, “you find what you’re looking for.”

And that’s sexism for ya.

1 Comment »

  1. John 'Pizzamonk'Adams said,

    Well, Lindabeth, my observations produce a truth. Ha!
    Every person I know, including me, is addicted to being right. We never want to be wrong! So,these observations made through each of our personal filters are designed to validate us. Many times a specific action is seen differently by different people.
    I have some very negative ideas about some identity groups that, in my eyes, are reinforced everyday. Still, you would be hard pressed to convince me that I haven’t given those groups a fair shake. But that’s because I’m always right!


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