Today, I had an interesting conversation with some colleagues. We were discussing the recent decision made by the US Navy that now allows women to serve on submarines. This rule had been in effect for years, and the military had cited the “close quarters” and eminent dangers to women in this type of environment (no doubt rooted in the damage it could do to our ‘delicate sensibilities’) as rational to keep women from this type of service. When the new policy was sent out on a social media network, two of my male allies responded in disbelief. They had no idea that women had not been allowed to serve in this capacity (i.e. on the submarines).
I admire these men for openly admitting that they didn’t know about this discriminatory practice. I furthermore admire these men for acknowledging through further discussion how this practice was wrong, unnecessary and to some extent, ridiculous. But what I admire the most about these two men is that they have openly committed themselves to advancing the message that equality for women is important, educating other colleagues about the same, and have identified the need to ensure women are afforded access, or a place at the table. Allies like this are hard to come by, and I personally make a commitment right now to provide them with as much information as possible to continue to advance this cause.
However, something about this conversation stuck with me. The more I thought about the concept of access – I began to wonder if it really was the answer. For years, women have been told that if they simply had a “place at the table”, we would achieve equity. Simply by being “in the room”, “part of the team”, or “part of the leadership”, women would somehow right all the wrongs of gender discrimination, topple the hegemonic structures that perpetuate overt and micro inequities, and equality would be achieved. By sheer force of will and the vastness of our numbers at the “upper levels”, we would finally realize equity.
This creates a problem. Recall that women have not been involved in the development of processes, policies and structures currently in place. Simply amassing critical numbers of women in key positions will not solve this problem. Granted, it will change the conversation considerably; however, we have to acknowledge that patriarchal structures implemented centuries ago have not just prevented access for women, but have altered the way women behave, think about and believe what our role and place in society should be. This is internalized sexism – whether we as women believe it or not – and we have to remove our blinders before we can begin to imagine what true equity and equality for women really looks like.
Because of these structures, many women feel the need to emulate the leadership style of successful men in order to get ahead (for you fledgling feminist scholars out there, that’s called acting as an ‘amateur male’). Taken to an extreme, this can rob a woman of her identity, and perpetuate an even more horrific situation – that of women intentionally sabotaging other women in order to get ahead (a.k.a. acting as a female misogynist). In situations like this, women are playing by rules set by men long ago – and we’re losing.
Anna Quindlen said, “You’re less wedded to the shape of the table if you haven’t been permitted to sit at it.” However, I’d take that statement one step further. I counter Ms. Quindlen with this, “You’re less wedded to the shape of the table if you haven’t been permitted to design it.” This captures both the innovative, inclusive and equal role women should be taking in designing policies, laws, structures, processes, and values that shape our world.
As women have been victim to these power structures, we are better equipped to identify and challenge them. We can take an active role and work to end the inequities that we see. We can express our concern individually when things happen with which we do not agree. We can moblize and champion change. We can identify our male feminist allies to walk with us, talk with us, advocate with us and stand with us as we work to effect this change for women. We all have a role to play, but I will assert women have the stronger role, for as Dr. Johnetta Cole, President Emeritus of Spelman College stated, “If we do nothing to change the world, then we cannot call ourselves educated women.”
For real change – we have to shake off what we know. For real change – we have to take off our provided sunglasses. For real change – we have to challenge what we ourselves believe and how we ourselves behave. For in that moment of rebirth – we will find a way to walk with each other as equals, and design one hell of a great table together.