When women change gender to become men, they are taken more seriously. But when men change gender to become women, they experience a loss a respect. All statistics show that equality is still a long way off. Research into gender transformation shows that inequality often arises in the perception itself of the woman.
As the saying goes, you have to walk a mile in someone’s shoes before you can judge them.
8 March is an occasion to try to see the world from women’s perspective and collectively walk a mile in their shoes.
We still have gender equality challenges in Denmark, including lack of equal pay and gender balance in management positions and other positions of power, a gender-segregated labour market and financial measures with a disproportionate effect on women. And of course the heavy issues: every year thousands of women are the victims of violence, rape, threats, sexism, revenge porn and harassment.
Despite the above, the question usually crops up on 8 March: Why still celebrate International Women’s Day in Denmark? Have we not achieved our goals long ago? The answer is simply: no.
Many people don’t see every day acts of inequality, instead they bend over backwards to come up with likely (or unlikely) alternative explanations for why things are the way they are. The most common explanations are those of individual’s choice, and that men and women are just different. And there is some truth to both explanations.
But this does not change the fact that massive and well-documented discrimination is taking place based on one single variable: gender.
“…massive and well-documented discrimination is taking place based on one single variable: gender.”
And if we do not notice it, it is probably because we are so used to the traditional gender stereotypes that it does not even occur to us that things could be different. Often the acts of discrimination appear so insignificant that it does not seem to make sense to object. This is called micro behaviours. There are no visible bruises, but research indicates that we should look at the fallout like acid rain; the corrosion is gradual over a long period of time.
There is no shortage of research showing gender discrimination. Documentation has long been available. It shows us that the meritocracy is largely an illusion.
Recently, quite a few articles have been published based on interviews of and research into the experiences of transgender people. These bring entirely new perspectives and testimonies to the gender debate.
In 2010 Kristen Schilt, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, published her research”Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality”. Here she illustrates how the experiences of transgender men can help shed light on the processes that maintain inequality at the workplace.
One of the interviewees is Ben Barres, a biologist at Stanford, who lived the first 40 years of his life as Barbara. After he changed gender to become a man he has summarised his typical experiences as follows:
– He is treated with more respect and taken more seriously
– People listen more to him
– His authority is not questioned as often
– He is no longer interrupted at meetings
– His work is considered better (other scientists praised it over “Barbara’s”, who they thought was his sister).
These experiences seem to be typical for transgender men. The latter point was also highlighted by another example from the research. Thomas (previously Susan) maintained his old position, but customers were told that Susan was no longer with the company and that Thomas had taken over. A customer told Thomas’ boss that he was happy Susan had been let go because she was incompetent, while the “new guy” was not.
Miriam Abelson has interviewed 66 transgender men, who said they were treated in “strikingly different” ways and for example given more physical space and respect as men. One transgender man described how a female colleague brought up ideas at a meeting, but was ignored. When he later in the same meeting repeated one of her ideas, it was approved and he was given the credit for it.
“Generally, transgender men say that they get bigger/more rewards, promotions and congratulations than when they were women.”
Generally, transgender men say that they get bigger/more rewards, promotions and congratulations than when they were women. Suddenly they have more “excellent points” and “good ideas”.
On the other hand, it is disheartening, albeit not surprising, to read about the experiences of transgender women.
The transgender woman Joan Roughgarden, who lived as a man for more than 50 years, noted after becoming a woman that we generally assume that men are competent until proven otherwise, whereas women are assumed to be incompetent until they prove otherwise. She now feels that she has to defend and explain her professional dispositions and proposals much more often. In addition, transgender women in management positions point out that whereas they were previously seen as “taking charge”, they are now seen as aggressive. It is important to understand that it is such micro behaviour that over time builds up and leads to the statistics that we struggle with at macro level – with gender imbalances in e.g. pay and management positions.
Ben Barres experiences led him to conclude about the lack of women in management positions, “I’ve had the thought a million times since becoming a man: “It’s not about child care and family responsibilities. I’m taken more seriously”.
“We know that equality and gender balance is the way forward for our welfare and quality of life. For everybody – also men.”
We know that equality and gender balance is the way forward for our welfare and quality of life. For everybody – also men. That is also why it is important that we all assume our part of the responsibility for promoting equality. Every single day.
Google inspires us when they for instance choose to use a transgender speaker at their management conference to challenge managers’ unconscious prejudices. McKinsey has made a video that uses an office environment to highlight a lot of micro behaviours by swapping the gender roles in situations where bias is well-documented. Let’s be inspired by them and many other initiatives.
Let’s listen and be inquisitive and “walk a mile in women’s shoes”.
Have a good International Women’s Day!