Dear men: we need your help, but it’s not what you think.
The journey of gender equality still has a long way to go before reaching a destination of awareness.
An obvious example is the pay gap in America. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women still make an average of 81% when compared to men in the same positions.
This is 2020, and being a woman in a leadership role, I find this appalling. But at least it’s an overt example of sexism. One that cannot be argued.
A harder to spot example of sexism would be jokes. Jokes are a subtle way of engaging in sexism while under the shroud of humor.
Way back in 1905, Sigmund Freud theorized the nature of jokes in his book, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.
According to Freud, understanding of joke technique is essential for understanding jokes and their relation to the unconscious, however, these techniques are what make a joke a joke. He claims that “our enjoyment of the joke” indicates what is being repressed in more serious talk. —Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious
Don’t act like such a girl.
You should really grow a pair.
It’s time for you to man up.
You’ve likely heard these digs before—said by both men and women—to reference men that slip “too far” out of society’s masculinity comfort zone.
And don’t forget gems like:
Is it ‘THAT time of the month?
I see who REALLY wears the pants around here.
These are often heard in situations where women display assertiveness.
This needs to stop.
The jokes need to stop, and they’re not going to stop on their own. Hiding sexism under a layer of humor allows the real issue to go unchecked, unfettered by the nature of a joke.
This is subtle sexism, and it’s dangerous.
Get over it, they say. It’s harmless. But is it?
Thomas E. Ford and Mark A. Ferguson Department of Sociology Western Michigan University say this about jokes of this nature:
Humor theorists have argued that disparagement humor has negative consequences at both the individual or psychological level and at the macro-sociological level. At the individual level, disparagement humor is thought to create and reinforce negative stereotypes and prejudice toward the targeted group. —Social Consequences of Disparagement Humor: A Prejudiced Norm Theory.
The classic joke about who wears the pants in the family goes back to times where women weren’t allowed to wear pants. We weren’t allowed to.
Is that the kind of joke you want to share?
Let’s play hypotheticals.
You’re at happy hour with your friends, and you’re all having a great time. Then that one guy says that one joke that makes everyone cringe, and perhaps laugh in an uncomfortable way. No one is likely to say anything, except to change the subject. We do everything possible to pretend like we didn’t hear it, and we certainly don’t feel comfortable voicing our offense in that setting. We’ll be labeled the wet blanket, or be accused of being dramatic.
Doing nothing in these seemingly harmless scenarios is in fact taking an active role in misogyny.
By doing nothing, you are solving nothing.
This isn’t something that’s limited to women. Men are told to be tough, unemotional, unavailable, and if they’re not? Well, then they shouldn’t act like such a girl.
Why does it feel like we cannot correct this behavior?
Why is it so difficult in that moment, when that joke is said, to say “stop?”
My theory is that we are human—it’s that simple. No one wants to be the person to bring the party down, especially when it’s an uncomfortable conversation with a friend, in a public setting.
I will see your uncomfortable conversation and raise you with a more important one.
The longer we continue to allow these seemingly harmless comments to reach the light of day, the more protected sexism becomes. It becomes easier to hide, and harder to identify.
The good news is, there is a right way.
Communicating with kindness and love is the key. Fighting fire with fire is rarely effective, and sensitive topics such as this call for sensitive conversation.
The next time you find yourself feeling uncomfortable about something a friend said, speak up. There are harmless, easy phrases you can use.
“I know you meant that as a joke, but I’ll be honest…it made me uncomfortable. Would you mind if we stayed away from jokes like this?”
“I love you, but I didn’t really love that joke.”
“You’re my friend because you can always make me laugh! But that comment did not make me laugh, and to be honest, it made me cringe a little.”
Most people do not mean to offend when they make jokes. They won’t know if they do unless someone tells them so. Most often it will be awkward as an apology is offered, and everyone will learn from the experience.
If their response is self-justifying and defensive, maybe those people don’t deserve your company. Maybe losing a relationship over an offensive joke will allow them to grow.
That is a harsh sentiment, I know. I say it knowing that this is what is required in the face of ignorance.
I challenge men and women to stand up, especially if you have the luxury of staying seated. It’s easy to feel outraged at a situation that affects you personally. Take that to the next level. It’s much harder to stick your neck out for the greater good.
When you see hate in action, say something.
Not just in the name of sexism, but in situations where racism, xenophobia, and ignorance show themselves. There is a right way to bring awareness to friends, and strangers, by communicating with love and kindness.
This is the first step in creating lasting change.