“The world is sexist, but there are no new sexists being born.”  This idea from a friend helped me to understand the disparity between living in a culture that was created based on sexist assumptions and the actual rare encounter with people who are openly and unabashedly sexist.  In this post, I’d like to explore the environmental sexism of the world rather than sexism that is created and perpetuated by living and breathing sexists.  Even if there were no new sexists being born (a gal can dream), we would still live in a sexist world.  Why?

In a series of two consecutive posts, I’ll discuss two reasons sexism continues:  1) a world designed by sexists, and 2) biological foundations for sexism.  Today’s focus is on the first.

Inherited Sexism

Because previous generations restricted the roles of women through social constructs, the world is in some ways inherently unfriendly toward women’s interests.  For example, women entering the workplace generally need to adjust to male preferences to be successful.  Professionalism is defined by the limited range of emotions men are comfortable expressing, requests for flexible work schedules are viewed suspiciously or seen as a sign of a lack of commitment, and women still experience lower pay than peers for the same jobs.  Because of the environment, many women opt out or deliberately downgrade their career, reinforcing the perception of a glass ceiling.

For men & women, this inherited problem manifests in a few negative ways:

  • War Between the Sexes.  Strife between men & women is the most obvious natural byproduct.
    • Men vs. Women.  Men unwittingly (or wittingly) reinforce the inherited sexism that benefits them and limits women when they do not understand issues from a female perspective.  And honestly, how can men understand issues from a woman’s perspective without experiencing life through that lens?  We often call this “male unexamined privilege.”  Even a man who is not otherwise inherently sexist can inadvertently reinforce stereotypes that are advantageous to men and limiting to women.
    • Women vs. Men.  Disenfranchised women can become so angry with the existing culture that they can no longer bear any correction or criticism from males (in authority or not) or they may become paranoid about the motives of all men, indicting all for the crimes of some.
  • Wars Within the Sexes.
    • Men vs. Men.  In a patriarchal society, men who don’t conform to male-dominated stereotypes are often disparaged or disenfranchised.  For example, a man who chooses to be a SAHD or to downgrade his career may be viewed as “less of a man.”  As societal norms shift, early adopters have the most to lose.
    • Women vs. Women.  Women who adapt and succeed in a male-dominated world can be viewed with suspicion by women who do not adapt or who do not wish to adapt.  And women who conform to female stereotypes can also feel disenfranchised by their peers who are attempting to change norms.

So, how do we solve these inherited problems?  Here are my suggestions.

  1. Identify the socially constructed sexism.  This includes things like (in the workplace) pay inequities, work environment issues, hiring practices, etc.  Generally, this means looking at things from a female perspective to spot the disadvantages.  In the church, this might include things like assumptions about female skills and interests, which assignments and callings women are allowed to perform, and how female perspectives are considered.  On the flipside, the existing social construct also has some inherent disadvantages to men.  This is often overlooked but also needs to be identified.  So this should also include how men who don’t fit the “norm” are viewed:  single dads, the divorced, SAHDs with career wives, the perpetually single, etc.
  2. Examine the unexamined privilege.  This is the opposite of #1.  In addition to seeing how it hurts women, we have to look at how the inherited environment is an undeserved advantage to men.  On the flipside, the existing social construct also has some inherent advantages to women.  This is often overlooked.
  3. Be self-critical of gender requests that benefit us personally.  We should examine our rationale whenever we place restrictions on others that limit them to our benefit.  Making demands on others is always a slippery slope.

With these solutions, the tricky part is going far enough and not going too far to address the issues.  Basically, we need to do all of the above consistently and thoughtfully.

How does the church do at identifying and countering socially constructed sexism?  How does the church do at examining unexamined privilege?  Because of basic gospel teachings, my hopes are high for overcoming the sexist environment in general (barring local sexist leadership), with a few weak areas:

  • High level leadership.  The church is a gerontocracy, meaning social norms of the past will be harder for individual leaders to question and overcome.  And not only is church leadership male-dominated due to an all-male priesthood, but even women’s roles are limited in scope and carry time limits.  Still, assuming church leaders feel beholden to Christ’s teachings, the gospel itself will keep these human tendencies largely in check, even if individuals make statements that sound out of touch and sexist.
  • Local leaders.  Within the church, local leaders have a lot of autonomy in addressing issues, and we have a lay clergy.  Provided those individuals do not abuse their power and try to understand women’s issues, this works as well as can be expected.  The best bet is for local leaders to seek out the guidance of women in their wards and to partner with them to meet the needs of their congregation.
  • Female voice.  Revelation, correlation, leadership, ward council, women’s issues:  all of these are overseen by an all-male priesthood.  Female perspectives are unlikely to be understood if female voices are not sought or are dismissed as being less important.  Revelation is received as a response to a question.  If men are asking all the questions that result in revelations that are binding for the church, female perspectives can’t help but be overlooked.  Men simply don’t ask the same questions women would ask.  It would be unrealistic to expect that they would.  YW and other lesson manuals are frequently written from a male perspective and can be irrelevant to the YW.

Basically, there’s a lot of room for local variation which can be good or bad.  Given that the oversight at the highest levels is from the perspective of decades-old norms, it’s unlikely that much correction will be made if local leaders mistreat women or underrepresent female viewpoints, unless that mistreatment also meets the standards for mistreatment that our grandparents would recognize (e.g. domestic abuse, failure to provide financial support, sexual abuse).  Most of what we consider to be sexism today (being patronizing, not listening to women, limiting women’s roles) would have been remarkably enlightened 50 years ago (seriously, just watch some old movies if you doubt this).

What do you think the church does well?  What does it not do well?  Discuss.