I’ve questioned whether or not to write about this topic for some time now. It’s not that the topic is particularly controversial in itself, but rather that the issue is not often discussed by a…gasp…man! I suppose I’ll start the discussion in the same manner as I do in my Human Growth and Development course; with a question. How old were you when you learned that women were inferior?
Now, as you (i.e., well, some of you) feel your stomach tightening or fists clinching, realize that I pose this question to my classes with a “matter of fact” tone and a tremendously sober expression on my face. Sometimes I have to follow with, “Not a rhetorical question; I actually expect a response.” Then I usually proceed to do a “round” until all students have uttered something aloud.
My reason for phrasing the question this way is based on a fairly simple premise. Both women and men are conditioned at a disturbingly early age to recognize women as inferior. In other words, society views women as being “less than”, therefore when little girls learn that they are destined to become women, there is an automatic association with being “less than” their male counterparts. Don’t blame me…I’m just the messenger. We can’t blame Freud or Erikson either for concocting their developmental theories. They were just explaining social norms that were already in place. No, if anyone is to blame, it’s you. Well, I guess you can blame me too! I’m as much a part of the problem as you are.
Most lifespan development theories suggest that somewhere around toddlerhood, girls and boys begin to understand differences in gender role expectations. Developmentally, it is typically not a big deal in families for little girls to be envious of boy-related gender roles (i.e., tomboy), particularly since they make the realization that boys are thought of more positively by the world. However, a little boy better not be envious of girl-related gender roles (i.e., playing with dolls or preferring pink to blue). One inference that can be drawn from this discrepancy is that society sees little boys acting “feminine” and asks, “Why would you throw away all that privilege?”
Some of my students respond to my initial inquiry by saying that they were never taught that women were inferior. I then try to get them to look at things through the lens of society at large rather than their own personal story. In other words, even if their parents told them that boys and girls were equal, at some point society told them that they are not.
How then does a counselor, knowing this, not perpetuate society’s view? For it is the view of society which dictates our understanding of normality or appropriateness regarding behavior. Are counselors simply to accept little girls’ belief in their inferiority as a normal part of development? Or maybe we should just tell them right then to get their time management skills and patience levels up. Get prepared now, little girl, you’ll be expected to do all the same things men do then clean up the mess after everyone. Any accomplishments you have will always come along with the lingering question about how YOU were able to achieve them. Do all of this with a smile, little girl, because you don’t want to be looked at as being too aggressive or direct. You know what we call those. Do all of this while being sure to have a few children and keep your husband happy, little girl, for that is the truest measure of your worth as a woman.
I’ll leave it there, as I tend to in class. This is where my female students usually sit with their eyes averted in disgust with the continued state of things. My male students usually sit with a partial grin as if to say, “Whose side are you on anyway?”
It’s okay if I’m breaking “man code” today. My daughter said so!
Kenneth Oliver is a counselor in Missouri and an assistant professor at Quincy University in Illinois.