This morning I tuned in to — and live tweeted — a live streamed panel organized by the AAUW (American Association of University Women) on implicit bias and sexist microaggressions: “(Not) All in Your Head: How Women Internalize Sexism.” The moderator was Soraya Chemaly, and the speakers were Abigail Lewis, Gina Torino, and C. Nicole Mason.
The panel discussed the fact that sexist behaviours against women often come in insidious, undetected forms. Sexism happens casually, unconsciously — sexist ideas are so ingrained in our culture that they feel natural, but such gender coding has long-term effects for women, their treatment by both men and women, and their opportunities for leadership.
The AAUW panel discussed some of the implications of institutional sexism, and offered some solutions. The term “microaggression” was first used by psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s in the context of racial discrimination in commercial advertising, but has been expanded greatly by psychologists in recent years. Gina Torino was one of the co-authors of a highly influential academic paper, “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life”, which defines microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of colour“ (2007:271). The fact that the term originated in the study of racism and has been expanded to include sexist and classist behaviours alongside racist ones demonstrates that intersectionality is at work here.
The panelists shared their experiences of microaggressions: a male co-worker only says good morning to his male colleagues; a woman of colour is asked where the professor is when she’s the professor; another professor makes digs against women in an engineering class that is 20% women. In each case, the implicit message is: you don’t belong here, your body signals you as different from what I want or expect. Even if the person (man or woman) responsible for sending the message has no idea they are doing so. The panelists cited studies in which respondents, asked whether sexism still existed, answered “no” but still blamed women for not being more proactive in their achievements. The problem is that sexist behaviour is so prevalent that it becomes invisible. This means that women keep being silenced and excluded, and then they are blamed for their apparent incompetence. And women also blame themselves when they are at the receiving end of sexist behaviour.
The panelists also discussed strategies for communicating the problem of sexism to an audience that is inclined to deny its existence. They said that studies have shown that male listeners are likely to “circle the wagon” when confronted with reports of sexism; they double down on the status quo. The panelists suggest making changes by seeking support: find female colleagues who can validate your experiences; communicate your experiences through storytelling to male and female audiences. What doesn’t seem to work is an explicit statement of the problem — this seems generally to provoke an impulse to deny. If there is any way forward it is through persistence and through empathy — shining more light on the stories of sexism, and communicating these personally.
The AAUW also has an excellent discussion guide, which lays out how to engage in productive discussion about sexism in a formal setting. What I especially like about this guide is its care to bring muted voices into the forefront in the “community agreement”, which in many ways reminded me of WCC’s practical tips for feminist pedagogy:
- What’s shared here stays here, but what’s learned here leaves here.
The group agrees to confidentiality of names, but the knowledge and insight garnered will stay with them once they leave the room.
- One speaker, one mic.
When someone is speaking, they should not be interrupted. Everyone who would like to speak will be given the opportunity.
- Move forward, move back.
If you normally are the first to contribute to the conversation, considering allowing others the chance to speak. If you normally are shy, challenge yourself to share your opinions.
- Challenge by choice.
While everyone is encouraged to leave their comfort zones and share their thoughts, no one will be forced to share.
- Listen to understand, not to respond.
When others are talking, make sure you’re digesting everything they’re saying, rather than simply waiting for your turn to speak again.