I used to say I was a feminist but I didn’t know what it meant. Worse, my behaviour was conditioned by patriarchy in the home, institutionally at school and in pursuit of higher education, in physics and computer science. Then reinforced in the field of work within software engineering.
I am committed to justice and equality of opportunity, to seeing humanity as a unity and not to be sucked into the artificial divisions by which a minority amass wealth and power for themselves at the expense of the well-being of all others.
Yet, in my day-to-day behaviour, I am habituated by the patriarchy. I talk over women more often than men. My role models and exemplars are male and I subconsciously discount the historical contribution of women. I am drawn to male speakers who hold forthright but incorrect views more than what I see as meekness in women speakers.
Even as I try to change myself, I still benefit from systemic patriarchy.
In the interests I pursued, I was encouraged at a young age, given chemistry sets, telescopes, electronic kits, computers and all the books I wanted. It is clear this was done preferentially because I was male. I had the arrogance to think I was smarter than my sisters and female schoolmates but I know now this is not true. A lot of reinforcement of my intellectual side as a child set me on a path and my sisters on another.
By the time I reached higher education, I was several steps ahead of those who had not been so encouraged. The proportion of women in physics or computer science classes was tiny. The attitude of fellow male students was not always negative to female peers but it more often than not one of dismissal and unacceptable sexualisation. The stereotype of a lot of young sexually frustrated male nerds is not entirely untrue. Being one of a minority of females in that environment must’ve been discouraging. Worse still, male professors reinforced this division by picking favourites who were almost always male, letting female classmates sink into the background.
At work, male lead developers, the media/finance and start up culture I worked in, have reinforced sexism. From the worse excesses of sexualized humour (“banter”) and the disparity of sexual behaviour in a heavy drinking culture to less obvious unfriendliness to men and women who may have commitments outside of the workplace. The IT industry is geared to taking all the time you have and family life has been treated as something to be sacrificed. Or as is often the case, the male partner works and the female partner is expected to take care of the home and children.
This sexism is what feminism is against. The internalised behaviour that is common to many of us who have grown up in patriarchy and the systemic sexism that is prevalent in our society.
Sexism isn’t just a problem which harms and stunts the potential of women. It is a problem for men who are held up to the archaic models of masculinity. It is a problem for boys who don’t learn how to relate properly to girls and worse, as in my case, who are traumatised by violent patriarchy in the home.
“What is and was needed is a vision of masculinity where self-esteem and self-love of one’s unique being form the basis of identity. Cultures of domination attack self-esteem, replacing it with a notion that we derive our sense of being from domination over another. Patriarchal masculinity teaches men that their sense of self and identity, their reason for being, resides in their capacity to dominate others. To change this, males must critique and challenge the male domination of the planet, of less powerful men, of women and children. But they must also have a clear vision of what feminist masculinity looks like.” [1a]
This is the challenge: How can you be anti-sexist, against the patriarchy and the domination it enforces and makes us enforce, whilst having a sense of who you are and what it is to be a man?
“We do know that patriarchal masculinity encourages men to be pathologically narcissistic, infantile, and psychologically dependent on the privileges (however relative) that they receive simply for having been born male. Many men feel that their lives are being threatened if these privileges are taken away, as they have structured no meaningful core identity. That is why the men’s movement positively attempted to teach men how to reconnect with their feelings, to reclaim the lost boy within and nurture his soul, his spiritual growth” [1b]
But it is a work unfinished. The rise in male suicides and the retrenchment of feminism under the barrage of mass media controlled by the patriarchy are telling indicators.
Closer to home, the question I am left with is how to live and raise my children to break through the sexism I inherited and which surrounds me, clouding my own thinking. This is my challenge and until I reflected upon it, I thought I had it solved. Yet it is clear to me now, more work is needed.
[1a] and [1b] from “Feminism is for Everybody” by bell hooks, p. 70