I identify as a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual man. I ascribe to myriad customs deemed masculine by our culture: I never wear skirts or blouses, I place emphasis on my physical strength, I restrict my emotions in front of others. Playing this gender role consistently gives me great advantages and acceptance in society.
I am able to enter any office space and not be mistaken for a secretary or janitor. When I run through a neighborhood wearing a hoodie, no one assumes I am about to commit a crime. When I run shirtless, it is never considered public indecency. If I fail in an assigned task, it won’t be attributed to my sex or race. If I succeed, it won’t be registered as a fluke or a mistake.
I can see myself in commercials, in depictions of God, and in almost all the presidential candidates. Society was built for men like me.
Bonnie had me when she was 38. She divorced from her partner, Kim, before I turned two. Hardly the pair of committed lesbians white liberals envisioned when arguing for same-sex marriage. Throughout my childhood, Bonnie recited the struggles she faced as a member of a marginalized group twice over. I heard tales of workplace discrimination, challenges to her competency, and homophobia from family members. These stories were lost on me. I could listen and nod, but never realize the full extent of her pain or frustration.
As one who benefits most from a system that marginalizes others, I am the least likely to recognize instances of inequality. Based on the media I consume, the conversations I have, and where I grew up, institutional discrimination may never enter my purview. If most of my time is spent among people who share my gender expression, ethnicity, or political views, I am likely to have a narrow view of society.
I may assume, unconsciously, that others have the same opportunities and access to certain resources. I may also assume that others have similar life experiences and educational backgrounds.
Any instance in which inequality is highlighted is likely countered by the just-world hypothesis: people are deserving of their circumstances based on their actions. If a white man becomes CEO of a major company, he must be extremely hard-working and conscientious, worthy of such a position. If an unarmed black teenager is shot by a police officer, he must be a thug, somehow deserving of an instant death sentence.
We can term these explanations heuristics—reference points used to make easy identifications and decrease cognitive strain. Through this process, many equate bodybuilders with immense physical strength, though such ability isn’t purely dependent on the size of one’s muscles.
While these heuristics are potentially useful, the just-world hypothesis can often mislead and hinder a deeper explanation.
Take the wage gap. Women continue to earn 78 cents for every dollar made by a man. There is little debate over whether this phenomenon exists; it is accepted amongst virtually every academic. The exact cause, however, is where discrepancy and disagreement arise. Some economists insist this gap is not the result of an imbalance of rights and opportunities, but instead a series of poor decisions made by women. These economists argue that women enter lower-paying professions, such as social work or teaching, because they are either expecting a family and need job flexibility or chose not to receive the skills necessary for higher-paying positions in engineering or business.
On the aggregate, there is truth to this assessment: women hold far fewer graduate degrees in technical fields, such as computer science and physics, than men and professions greatly differ in granting parental leave. At the same time, however, it ignores the underlying societal mechanisms that led to these “choices” by women.
Gender roles engrained in our society routinely direct women away from the STEM field and toward professions that are more secretarial. Even when women overcome those barriers and gain those technical skills, gender biases remain prevalent within hiring decisions made by managers in engineering and computer science. Still, when those women are hired, they often face blatant discrimination by co-workers and are consistently forced to prove their competence.
This is not so much a string of bad choices made by women, but instead a systemic inequity within our workforce. Denial of its presence through heuristic explanations does little to mitigate its effects on society. You can’t explain away inequality.
In theory, feminism is a movement that should transcend political lines. All proponents of a liberal democracy can agree on the normative statement that every member of a society is entitled to the same civil rights and liberties. That is, the freedoms and privileges you enjoy as a citizen should not be restricted by the body into which you were born.
Although we can deem this assertion self-evident in any democracy, it is often misconstrued by a failure to recognize true inequality within a society. The fact that a woman’s control over her body, her decisions, and her community is regularly debated by politicians, predominantly white men, should cause concern to any stalwart of the democratic process.
While men surely cannot internalize the same personal or professional experiences of women, they can strive to ensure that equality is met within our society. The realization that inequity continues to pervade our culture is a crucial first step.
With that awareness, however, comes a moral imperative to include the perspective of women in every action, policy, conversation, and debate. It is unethical to be complicit in a system that routinely places more value on one group above another, especially when that value is contingent upon a person’s genitalia and their levels of various hormones.
A simple thought experiment is enough to elucidate this point.
If you did not inhabit the body you do now, with its endowment of privileges and accolades, and instead lived in a body that immediately restricted you from certain rights, opportunities, and freedoms, in a body over which you did not have complete control, in a body that would be objectified and sexualized against your will, would you continue to invest in the same system?
Ayres is a member of the Class of 2017.