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Are we ‘girls’?

Recently, the staff of the college went through a two day training facilitated by the university’s Center for Multicultural Excellence (CME).  During one part of the training we were asked to hold up a “web” of string about women that was interconnected, and attached to the strings were various cards labeled “joke” or “stereotype” or “television show” or . . . you get the picture. As part of the exercise, each of us had to read the front of the card and the back of the card. It was a sobering exercise, and I felt the weight of the “web” as each of us read the word “joke” and then the joke, read the word “television show” and then the portrayal of women in the show. When we were done, our facilitator slung the “web” over her shoulder and said “here’s what we carry as we move through the world”—the jokes, the assumptions, the media images, the weight of being women.

Gosh, I sound like such a downer! It reminds me of a stereotype about women that we don’t have a sense of humor.  But I have an amazing sense of humor, am even considered very funny by some of my friends (I particularly appreciate a clever pun!), and am known for having a loud and deeply-felt laugh at a good joke. So why am I not laughing these days?

I wrote in a previous blog about the absence of women in the 5280 magazine article on people of power and influence in Denver (and my letter to the editor was published this month with a link on the college’s website) and you should know, up front, that my primary “lens” on the world is seeing where women are—or are not. So I was heartened to read the front page of the Sunday Business section of the February 21 New York Times that featured Ursula M. Burns, the CEO of Xerox, on her efforts to orchestrate cultural change (“she wants its employees to take more initiative and be more fearless and frank with one another”) at Xerox. It’s also worth mentioning that Ms. Burns is African-American, married to a working dad, and together they have two children—a son and a daughter—and she was raised by a single mom who insisted that all of her children receive a college education. Quoting her mom, Ms. Burns says ““You have to learn and you have to be curious,” she would say. “You have to perform at your best. You have to worry about the things you can control. Don’t become the victim.””

But back to my sense of humor—or lack thereof. Did anyone else but me (and my best friend Barb, who called me on the phone throughout the Olympics) notice that the women athletes, regardless of age, were often referred to as “girls” and the men were never “boys”? That announcers actually referred to “catfights” when describing relations between women like some throwback to another era? And why is there men’s and “ladies” figure skating? And yet we saw powerful, athletic, graceful, talented women throughout the entire Olympics, bringing home all levels of medals throughout the competition from traditional arenas of figure skating to newer arenas of ice hockey.

Sidebar—in the February 26 Denver Post there’s a piece called “The Mix,” where it was reported that Paris Hilton, in an ad for Brazilian beer Devassa, is “in a short black dress preening and rubbing a can of beer on herself, to the delight of onlookers watching through her window.” Brazil’s Secretariat for Women’s Affairs, addressing a Brazilian regulations that say women cannot be treated as overtly sensual objects in commercials, notes that “it’s an ad that devalues women—in particular, blond women.” Ah, I imagine that some of you are thinking that the Brazilian Secretariat for Women’s Affairs doesn’t have a sense of humor . . .

When I asked our CME trainer “did you give us the web of jokes, stereotypes, and images of women because we work at The Women’s College” she answered “no—we do this with all of our groups.”

Back in the 1980s I was introduced to the work of Bernice “Bunny” Sandler who coined the phrase “chilly classroom climate.” Bunny’s research honed in on a phenomena—“micro-inequities”—that exist throughout the educational experiences in a woman’s life. One of those inequities, in and of itself, might not make a difference, but all of the little inequities tangled together, like the web of jokes, stereotypes, and images of women that we were asked to hold in our CME training, add up over a lifetime.

I want to follow the advice of Ursula M. Burns’ mother. I want to learn and be curious. I want to perform at my best. I want to worry about the things I can control. I don’t want to be a victim. And I even want to retain—and hone—my sense of humor. I do wonder when the day will come when women will be called women, when catfights are only used to describe a fight between cats, and when beer will be marketed solely on its merits—because to some, it’s actually pleasing to drink. I want to laugh out loud and appreciate a good joke. And I want the day to come when I no longer need my “lens” on the world to notice where women are—or are not—because that lens will no longer be necessary. Until then, it seems I will not settle to being just one of the “girls.”

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