Part 1a: I don’t know when to let hot topics drop
It is a well-known premise that certain conversation topics should be avoided, when in social settings, to avoid offending other people present. As per Miss Manners:
Here is a list of topics that polite people do not bring into social conversation:
Sex, religion, politics, money, illness, the food before them at the moment, which foods they customarily eat or reject and why, anything else having to do with bodily functions, occupations, including their own and inquiries into anyone else’s; the looks of anyone present, especially to note any changes, even improvements, since these people were last seen; and the possessions of anyone present, including their hosts’ house and its contents and the clothing being worn by them and their guests, even favorably.
Well, don’t just sit there. Say something.
And, unfortunately, I tend to do just that. My go-to topic? Feminism.
I have, on occasion, gone on impassioned rants to friends or co-workers about how I believe there are pervasive gender inequality biases at the professional level, and how this has shaped my attitude and behaviour. Don’t get me wrong: I love my company, and encourage whole-heartedly every accounting student to apply here (without the incentive of referral bonuses!). My company acknowledges that gender inequality exists – far less than 50% of its partners are women – and has active committees that try come up with partial solutions to this complex issue. I applaud their efforts, and appreciate that upper management cares enough to allocate resources to addressing this common issue.
I went on such a rant a few months ago, during a work 5a7. Former co-worker (FCW, for short), didn’t agree with my statement that a strong hierarchy in the workplace can minimize gender discrimination through objective evaluation criteria, but nevertheless still exposes women managers with strong characters to negative descriptive adjectives (“bitchy”, “loud”, “bossy”, “aggressive”) than more frequently than their male counterparts, and was unimpressed with my solution (to dress in a very feminine, Mad Men style, to highlight my more traditional attributes, in an attempt to mitigate any such negative perception). Other co-workers present found the discussion somewhat interesting, and eventually we moved on to other topics, and drinks.
I shared the next day this interesting article, which gives credence to some of my impressions about gender bias in the business world, and is supported by academic studies. I thought I was diffusing the situation by referring to neutral third-parties; looking back, I think this was perceived by FCW as an “I told you so“, or a similarly aggressive taunt. Not my smoothest move, I’ll agree: accountants are renowned for their social skills, duh.
Part 1b: The time my (former) co-worker compared my godmother to a prostitute
Not bad as far as headers go, right? Attention grabbing, short, unusual, and unfortunately, quite true.
Fast forward to another work gathering. One girl was explaining how her long-distance boyfriend had been conditioned to always bring her bags of candy (chewy jolly ranchers) for every visit, and, “if he really likes me, he’ll buy me an extra package of nibs!” This reminded me of a family myth, whereby my godmother (happily married for 25+ years) has, on more than one occasion, insisted that her husband buy her diamond jewelry when he had, in her opinion, done wrong. Part of the forgive-and-forget cycle, that is so critical to any long-lasting relationship. I told this story glibly; clearly, not a full-fledged analysis on the complexity of marriage, but an anecdote on how every relationship has its amusing quirks, ranging from nibs to sparkly stones.
FCW exclaimed in horror: “But how could she?! People die because of those stones!”
It took me a moment to realize he had assumed all of her jewelry contained blood diamonds. So I gently replied that there was no reason to suppose that, given that Canada has a healthy ethical diamond market, and my family has solid ethics.
FCW continued: “But that is terrible. She is no better than a prostitute, using her husband in that way, for money. Does she have a job, at least?”
In the very awkward silence that followed that comment, I managed to murmur, that yes, yes she had a job.
The conversation did not survive that hurdle.
Part 1c: Where I realise that I brought that comment upon myself
I took me a little while to accept that my godmother had been called a prostitute, in public, by a guy who in normally is quite polite. Wondering how I could have possibly upset him so much to cause such an unwarranted attack, I decided to try make amends, and see if we could work things out. So I broached the topic with him a little later.
Me: It really took me aback that you would insult my family member (prostitution? really?!) – that seemed completely outside of character, so I wondered if everything was ok.
FCW: It had nothing to do with family or not, it is just that it is twice that you have brought up sexism when I am present, and I don’t consider myself sexist at all, and then I hear this story of a man who has to give everything to his woman… That isn’t equality, it’s reverse sexism. If you are against sexism, you should always be against sexism, and not only when it is in your interests to be against it. I have seen so many free-loading women in marriages, using their husbands to provide for them, I despise the notion that men must give. Giving should be voluntarily, not obligatory. But don’t worry. This isn’t a big deal.
That logic is airtight.
Part 2: Hermione speaks about feminism
The more I have spoken about feminism the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop. (…)
Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and, unattractive.
Why is the word such an uncomfortable one?
Looking back at FCW’s comment, I can only suppose that feminism is such an uncomfortable word for some men, they perceive their gender to be collectively under attack by every mention of it. Like Hermione, I’d like to propose instead that mentioning the existence gender-bias isn’t an accusation, it is an opportunity to start a conversation, one that can benefit both genders.
We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.
If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.
Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong… It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum not as two opposing sets of ideals.
I’ll do my part, and be less strident in the expression of my beliefs, and make sure to listen as much as I speak. But Miss Manners, I am afraid I will disobey your polite decree: I am a feminist, and this is a topic that has to be discussed in order to effectuate change – but perhaps, not discussed at every 5a7.