Columns

Vilsan ’19: Tackling pervasive sexism

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, November 30, 2016

As any woman can tell you, we are constantly caught in a catch-22 of gender inequality. We are told that sexism in modern Western society is close to being obsolete, that glass ceilings have been shattered. Of course. That must be why the highly qualified and proven fighter in former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was labeled a “bitch” throughout the presidential campaign, while her competitor was praised for his professional success, despite evidence indicating past fraud. But that was a Hillary phenomenon, we’re told, a result of her flaws, rather than a result of systemic sexism.

And as we know, these days men and women are on completely equal footing, right? They try to persuade us of this by pointing to the fact that over half of today’s college graduates are female and that reputable corporations are actively seeking female executives, for example. But as many women are all too familiar with, the structural, cultural and social restrictions on female accomplishment are very much existent. To put it bluntly: When you out-perform your male competitors, you’re a stone-cold bitch lacking in feminine qualities. When you under-perform, you’re another example of female mediocrity. It’s about time we call this paradox by its name: sexism and misogyny in a superficially sex-blind society.

Breitbart News, an alt-right publication that has recently come under scrutiny and garnered new levels of legitimacy thanks to the White House appointment of its CEO Steve Bannon, recently perpetuated the dangerous misconception that modern education and employment conditions have more than leveled the playing field. As such, given equal opportunity, we should achievie the same level of success as our male counterparts. The only logical explanation for why this is supposedly not the case, according to columnist Milo Yiannopoulos, is that women must not possess the strength and potential to work alongside men in the most competitive fields. This viewpoint is not only offensive to women across fields of study (as well as to men who are capable of succeeding without diminishing the accomplishments of their female competitors) but also highly ignorant.

Normally, I wouldn’t consider it worthwhile to pick apart the poorly researched and painfully condescending article. Yet Yiannopoulos’ misguided view regarding female potential in the sciences is sadly shared by many others. As a female journalist, I think it’s time someone told Yiannopoulos that journalism is about accuracy. Yiannopoulos makes a simplistic statement based on superficial research concerning the success rate of female graduates concentrating in a science-related field.

His conclusion: Women simply “can’t cut it.” Every day, he would have us believe, women are admitted into highly competitive programs and institutions, chosen over less qualified men who have more potential to achieve. In order to combat this obvious travesty, the author suggests capping the number of women enrolling in science-related fields to “between 5 or 10 percent.” A proportion of women any higher would mean we’re giving into political correctness rather than accepting the reality of intrinsic female inferiority in competitive and results-driven fields. As Yiannopoulos so eloquently puts it, “We’re not going to Mars in a nice touchy-feely environment … science is about results.”

While it may be true that women’s success in the sciences post-graduation is lower than that of men, this is because employment conditions are far from conducive to female accomplishment, and women often don’t get the job despite being more qualified than their male competitors. According to a recent Forbes article, the United States is “dead last among developed countries when it comes to paid maternity leave.” Women typically begin raising a family in their 30s while their male counterparts begin enjoying professional advancement. We are essentially given a choice: Be a hands-on mom or a hands-on executive. Contrary to mainstream preaching, the system is set up so that you can’t have it all. For the majority of women in the workplace, there’s no comfortable in-between. Funny that Yiannopoulos would forget to mention this obvious structural hindrance to female achievement — one among many. Women in the sciences aren’t weak and easily freaked, as Yiannopoulos not-so-subtly implies, but rather systematically stymied in their rise to success.

In the rare instances when women are given the same professional opportunities as men, as well as the tools to balance parenthood and work responsibilities, they are still far from praised. As argued by Ellen Fitzpatrick in the New York Times, Americans have deemed men worthy of the White House if they were well-qualified for the position, rallied bipartisan support and raised sufficient funds. Yet the clearly qualified Hillary Clinton faced scrutiny for her monetary success (while President-Elect Donald Trump was praised for his riches) and was criticized throughout her career for being unfeminine (while Trump played up his masculinity and prioritization of work over parenthood).

The problem isn’t female underachievement and intellectual inferiority. We have proven time and time again that we are more than capable and qualified. The problem is that structural obstacles for women in the workplace, particularly in fields that aren’t accommodating to parental duties often handed to women or that are dominated by men uncomfortable with female achievement, are far from eliminated. To every woman in every field across all institutions: Prove misogynists wrong by sticking to your academic and professional passions, fighting for the professional opportunities you deserve and making no excuses for your success.

Fabiana Vilsan ’19 can be   reached at fabiana_vilsan@brown.edu.

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