Category Archives: Sexism

Structural Inequality

My approach to working up this difficult and abstract concept is to specify a simple social context from which a structural inequality emerges.   Using this example, I will describe a general picture of structural inequality.

A woman that I know, let’s call her Mary, has a seat in the monthly executive-level strategy meetings at the company where she works. Fourteen people regularly attend these meetings, 10 men and four women. In the formal corporate hierarchy, she is on the third tier from the top, which is the lowest that participates in such meetings. She is one of two people and the only woman on her level.

Her male colleague, John, with whom she is in direct competition for promotion and other benefits, is younger than her and was hired after her. In the spirit of a team working for the interests of the company, all participants are expected to offer their thoughts and ideas and are tacitly evaluated by their superiors on their contributions to the discussion. Indeed, the opinions of each are explicitly solicited, and Mary is often asked what she thinks about the issue at hand.

Now for some reason, Mary is also tasked by the president of the company with taking meeting notes. There is no obvious reason for Mary to get this particular assignment, but on one occasion when Mary was not able to attend a meeting, the note-taking responsibility was given to her immediate supervisor, also a woman, rather than to the man at Mary’s level. These strategy meetings are fast-paced and require quick and creative thinking from participants.

The problem for Mary is that taking notes on such conversations makes it extremely difficult to contribute to them. Her bearing this responsibility thus puts her at a disadvantage with respect to the adequacy of her participation. She is negatively evaluated for what appears to be a lack of insightful and creative thought. If, however, she were to resist the note-taking assignment, she would be penalized for lacking team spirit. Were she to do the note-taking job poorly, she would be judged incompetent, so she diligently takes precise and comprehensive notes. This fact, of course, seems to offer some justification for the president’s decision to assign the task to her and ensures that it will remain hers.

Moreover, since she is taking the notes, everyone else in the meeting is free to concentrate fully on strategizing. So her good work serves to improve the performance and thus the evaluations of others. This has the effect, especially for John, of increasing their status in the eyes of their superiors relative to hers. Hence her considerable efforts work against her own interests.

Mary is encircled in what Marilyn Frye calls a “double bind,” a kind of trap that limits her options and opportunities and makes the avoidance of penalty impossible.1

Mary’s plight is not necessarily apparent to the casual observer, so there is no reason to think that the president intends to put her in this situation.  The evaluative criteria are the same for everyone in the meeting. All are expected to participate. Mary has a seat at the table, and her opinions are actively solicited. Note taking in itself isn’t a particularly odious or difficult task, and it arguably gives Mary an opportunity to demonstrate her commitment to the team. All might seem fair if each element of the situation in which Mary finds herself is considered in isolation from the others. But if all of these considerations are taken together, it is clear that Mary is at a disadvantage relative to her colleagues.

Borrowing Peter Blau’s spatial metaphor, Iris Marion Young provides a generalized account of this kind of inequality. According to Blau,

A social structure can be conceptualized as a multi-dimensional space of differentiated social positions among which a population is distributed. The social associations of people provide both the criterion for distinguishing social positions and the connections among them that make them elements of a single social structure. 2

Each meeting participant occupies a particular social position, the features of which condition the options and opportunities that are available to the occupant. Each of these positions is defined and thus differentiated from other positions by the relationships that exist between them. These relationships also connect each position to every other position, and it is by virtue of such connections that the various social positions together constitute a social structure or social space.

In Mary’s strategy meetings, such relationships include but are not limited to the patterns of authority and deference of the formal corporate hierarchy, social norms, role assignments and responsibilities, evaluative criteria, expectations, etc. An important correlate of this picture is that the positions and their features are relationally constituted. Each position in the structure is differentiated by its relationships to other positions, and the set of conditions that a position places on the options and opportunities of its occupant are a function of the relations in which it stands with other positions.3

As a specific example,  consider the position of note-taker in the social space of Mary’s strategy meetings. The features of this particular position are constituted in part by the fact that every other position does not carry with it the assigned responsibility of taking meeting notes. And reciprocally every other position is in part constituted by the fact that the note-taker position has note-taking responsibilities.  So conditions on the options and opportunities of the occupant of the note-taker position are partially a product of the fact that the other positions don’t have note-taking responsibility.

Consider that Mary’s difficulty comes in part as a result of the fact that though she is held to the same evaluation criteria as everyone else, she has an additional cognitive burden that no one else has. If either everyone or no one were to have this extra burden, then the disadvantage that Mary suffers as a result of her being the only note taker would not exist. Moreover, conditions on the options and opportunities of those who occupy positions that do not have note-taking responsibility also come in part as a result of the fact that the note-taker position has this responsibility. The advantage that everyone else enjoys because they are free of note-taking responsibility comes in part as a result of the fact that Mary is taking notes. And again, if everyone or no one were to be required to take notes, then this advantage would not exist. Mary is unequally positioned relative to her fellow participants in that her position carries with it a constraint on her options and opportunities that disadvantage her relative to the others in the meeting. Furthermore, her disadvantage is reciprocally related to their advantage.

Generalizing a bit more from my example, the reciprocal relation between the advantaged and the disadvantaged (and thus structural inequality itself) can be constructed in at least three overlapping but distinct ways. First, a social structure, in which some occupy positions of privilege, necessarily puts others in disadvantaged positions, so individuals in the privileged positions are granted a sort of positional good that is denied to those who are not. Next, it will often be the case that disadvantaged individuals are relegated to performing service work for those with privilege, e.g. wives caring for the emotional needs of husbands, housekeeping staffs and secretaries freeing up their employers’ time, etc. And lastly, the privileged often extract value from the disadvantaged. The benefits that advantaged persons receive enable them to improve their position relative to the disadvantaged. The energy that a disadvantaged person expends is thus used against her in a way that furthers her disadvantage.

From here, we can work up, in very general terms, the further notion of a social group. Such groups consist in people who occupy similar social positions. So we can say that the existence of a note-taker position in the social structure of Mary’s meetings creates at least two groups: note-takers, of which there is only one member, and non-note-takers, which has 13 members. There is a complex myriad of other overlapping social groups in even this simply social context as well: those who are on the same levels of the corporate hierarchy, those who are in various departments, men, women, etc.

Like the positions that constitute them, social groups have features that condition the options and opportunities of their members. We may also conceive these features and the groups that bear them as relationally constituted, so the existence of a group that consists of a set of similarly disadvantaged positions implies the existence of another group that consists of a set of positions which are advantaged with respect to those disadvantaged positions. The presence of structurally unequal groups in a social structure thus entails social stratification.

There is much more to be said, but this should begin to shed some light on the notions of social structure and structural inequality. Societies have a social structure. Individual persons occupy social positions in this space that are differentiated by the relations between positions. These relations determine the features of each position, and these features condition the options and opportunities of the occupant. Positions that exhibit relational similarities form the social groups which typify the divisions and hierarchies of race, class, sexual orientation, and, as Haslanger defines it, gender.4

An additional aspect of structural inequality is that inhabiting a particular position often involves significant and psychological effects The relations in which a particular position stands with other positions condition and constrain the options and opportunities of its occupant, and these constraints and conditions are often internalized by the occupant through socialization processes with the effect that the selves of some people are reduced, fragmented and alienated.

Focusing on the positions that constitute gender, the unequal and oppressive set of norms that characterize the genders may be understood as the ideals of masculinity and femininity, and when internalized these ideals become important elements of people’s identities. Sandra Bartky has argued that the internalization of femininity distorts the psychological development of women in a way that reduces and fragments their selves. For example, women who have internalized femininity may be significantly less inclined to question the roles that they are expected to play and norms that they are required to follow.  This is not a simple matter of women not being allowed to speak or not being heard.  It is not even that women may be afraid to openly question and criticize the way things are.  While all of these factors may also be in place, a deeper problem is that women may be psychologically conditioned such that they do not even feel a desire to speak. As Bartky suggests, a person, who has internalized the conditions, constraints and norms of the positions to which “woman” refers, is likely to feel quite at home in her femininity. She is also likely to see the subordinate relationships that she and other women have with men as entirely natural as well. So in addition to being an effect of the structural inequality of gender, the internalization of gender ideals should also be seen as a mechanism for the maintenance of gender itself.

While my focus is on gender,  it is very important to note that sexism is not the only such structure. Similar accounts could be given of inequalities based on class, sexual orientation, age, disability, ethnicity, religion, and so on.

1 See Frye, Marilyn. “Oppression” from The Politics of Reality (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1983).

2 Blau, Peter. Inequality and Heterogeneity (New York: Free Press, 1977), 4.

3 Young, Iris Marion.  Inclusion and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 92-99. See also Young, Iris Marion. Justice and Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 43-65.

4 Young 2000 93-94. Haslanger, Sally. “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” Noûs, Vol. 34, No. 1, (2000): 31-55; Mills, Charles W. “But What Are You Really? The Metaphysics of Race” in Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 41-66.

5 Bartky, Sandra. Femininity and Domination (New York: Routledge , 1990), 23-32.

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Sally Haslanger on Gender

How to understand gender is a complicated issue that has not been settled in any conclusive or definitive way. And it is not my goal here to enter this discussion. For now, I wish only to describe roughly how Sally Haslanger understands gender in order to make better sense of her analysis of objectification.

Along with Haslanger, I assume the sex-gender distinction that is common in the feminist literature. According to this picture, “sex” refers to those biologically determined facts about a person that relate to one’s role in sexual reproduction. There are at least two sexes, “male” and “female.” “Gender,” on the other hand, refers to a socially constructed position that a person occupies in society, and there are at least two genders, “man” and “woman,” i. e. those who are “masculine” and those who are “feminine.”  According to the standard way of thinking, these two ideas are connected in that an individual’s perceived sex plays some role in determining his or her gender. This is, for now, very vague, but a more precise account will be sketched later.

Assuming the viability of the sex-gender distinction, there are further questions about how many sexes and genders there actually are. Though my focus is on men and women, I am committed neither to the claim that there are only two genders (or only two sexes) nor the claim that there should only be two genders.

Serious questions do arise about “how far down” socially constructed gender goes and indeed about the stability of the sex-gender distinction itself. I doubt that a clear-cut way to demarcate gender from sex is forthcoming. But there are significant social, political and economic inequalities in our society that correlate with perceived roles in sexual reproduction.

Haslanger has developed a characterization of gender as a social construction.

S is a woman if and only

1. S is regularly and for the most part observed or imagined to have certain bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction;
2. that S has these features marks S within the dominant ideology of S’s society as someone who ought to occupy certain kinds of social position that are in fact subordinate (and so motivates and justifies S’s occupying such a position); and
3. the fact that S satisfies (i) and (ii) plays a role in S’s systematic subordination, i.e., along some dimension, S’s social position is oppressive, and S’s satisfying (i) and (ii) plays a role in that dimension of subordination.

S is a man if and only if

1. S is regularly and for the most part observed or imagined to have certain bodily features presumed to be evidence of a male’s biological role in reproduction;
2. that S has these features marks S within the dominant ideology of S’s society as someone who ought to occupy certain kinds of social position that are in fact privileged (and so motivates and justifies S’s occupying such a position); and
3. the fact that S satisfies (i) and (ii) plays a role in S’s systematic privilege, i.e., along some dimension, S’s social position is privileged, and S’s satisfying (i) and (ii) plays a role in that dimension of privilege.1

Haslanger’s definitions involve two notions that will need to be elucidated further, the ideas of social positions and structural inequality. I understand social position, as, I believe, does Haslanger, in terms of social structure. And the existence of some positions that are privileged or subordinated relative to others means that the social structure that contains these positions has a structural inequality.

1.Haslanger, Sally. “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” Noûs, Vol. 34, No. 1, (2000): 31-55,  Page 42

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“My Lethal Weapon’s my Mind”

Ice-T, Juan Williams, Tipper Gore, Jello Biafra and Nelson George, all on the Oprah Winfrey Show (circa 1990) discussing the influence of rap music on white teenagers.

Alright, alright.  That’s not what half of them take themselves to be talking about, but that’s what they’re talking about.

What’s striking to me about this is that I actually remember seeing this discussion around that time (I was in high school), and I can vividly remember being completely against Ice-T and thinking that he was truly evil.  (Did I mention I’m white and that I grew up in the South?)

But now I can’t watch this without really being astounded at the implicit white supremacy and complete erasure of the experience of young black men that comes through in what a lot of these people are saying.  It’s all over the discussion, but I especially direct your attention to the white male audience member who’s speaking at the break between the first and second video below.

The other angle is that there is a serious problem with misogyny going on as well.

So what is my opinion?  I honestly don’t know what to think about it.

I do think that criticism of misogyny in Ice-T’s music, as if he and other hip hop artists are uniquely or especially misogynistic, belies the implicit white supremacy I mentioned above.

Misogyny is everywhere in popular music going back a very long time.  See Johnny Cash (“I shot my woman down”), Led Zeppelin (“The soul of a woman was created below”) and countless other white musicians of all genres.

None of that’s to say that there isn’t and wasn’t serious misogyny in hip hop, but any justice minded person should worry when charges of misogyny are deployed from a white supremacist standpoint in order to silence black men.

I have to think that it’s possible to reconcile gender justice and racial justice.

So, yeah, watch this.  And wonder if we’ve made some progress since 1990.  Or if we’ve gone backwards.

Yes, it’s (annoyingly) in four parts.  Yes, it’s Oprah Winfrey.  Yes, it’ll take you about 45 minutes to get through it.  Yes, should watch it anyway.

But first, watch  Ice-T’s Lethal Weapon (the link is to the lyrics), which is – frankly – a work of genius.

And here’s the Oprah in four parts.




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Ill Doctrine on Harassment

Must watch.

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“The Nature” (of Women)

I am not going to make claims about the nature of women (hence the strange punctuation in the title), and I will say a little about why not at the end of this post.  Instead, I am going to talk about what it means to have beliefs about “the nature” (of women or men or whatever).

There is an enormous body of philosophical literature, going back thousands of years, about the nature of entities.   My goal here is not to enter into this ancient debate.  Rather, I want to clarify the term as it is used in Catharine MacKinnon and Sally Haslanger’s definition of objectification, which I call enforced reconstruction.

Recall that Sally Haslanger interprets Catharine MacKinnon as holding that an objectifier represents and treats the objectified as

“having by nature properties [the objectifier] desires” and “has the power to force [the objectified] to have these properties (and sometimes exercises this power).”

So what meaning does the notion of “nature” add to these sentences?

  • Women are ____ by their nature.
  • It is in the nature of women to ____.

At root the conception of “nature” that Haslanger and MacKinnon have in mind is simple.

The nature of an entity is what is essential to it, and an entity’s “natural properties” are just those properties without which it would either not be what it is or would not be a well-formed or well-functioning individual of the type of entity that it is.

Our knowledge of the nature of an entity guides us in figuring out what we should do when we encounter it.   Such knowledge also informs our moral, aesthetic and functional evaluations of individuals.

That men’s beliefs about women are often beliefs about the nature of women is important, and here’s why.

Consider that there is commonly held belief that women are naturally submissive.

Full Stop.  This is only an example.  I do not believe that women are naturally submissive.

In fact, it is an undeniable fact that there are many, many women who do not act submissively.

This fact could be taken as a reason to change the beliefs that women are submissive.  If I just so happen to think that all women are submissive because all of the women that I have ever seen have acted submissively, then my reaction to meeting a women who does not act submissively should be to change my mind about the submissiveness of women.

A counterexample to the idea that women are submissive.

But if I think that it is in the nature of women to be submissive, then my reaction to meeting a women who does not exhibit this trait will be to attribute a defect to that individual woman.  I do not, in this latter case, revise my views about the nature of women; rather, I infer from my beliefs about the nature of women that this woman is not a good woman.  This, of course, is bullshit.

We must watch out for this sort of belief – in others, yes, but also – especially – in ourselves.  They are very common, and they may be held in good faith by people who do not intend to have sexist beliefs.

I don’t think it’s possible to really justify a belief about the nature of women or indeed people in general.  So I am an agnostic about the nature of people.  We can’t know what our nature is.   This is why I will not make any positive claims about the nature of women (or anyone else).  But what I will do is criticize claims made by others about the nature of women.

Work hard to avoid making beliefs that operate this way.  In one sense it is fairly easy to do this.  Just make sure that you hold your beliefs about people open to being revised.  When you encounter an individual who doesn’t fit your beliefs about what people are like, let that individual change your beliefs about what people are like.  Don’t let yourself think that an individual is defective, weird, or bad just because they don’t fit your preconceived notions about what people are like.

But in another sense, it is very difficult to do this.  It is very easy for us to let our beliefs about what people are like solidify into a beliefs about the nature of people.

Be vigilant!

1 Haslanger, Sally. “On Being Objective and Being Objectified,” A Mind of One’s Own, ed., L Antony and C. Witt. (Boulder: Westview, 1993) 85-125. Page 111; MacKinnon, Catharine. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989). Page 122.

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How to Survive Scholastic Books for Girls

A plump, juicy bite of USDA Grade A prime time Sexism for your delectation:

Oh! and um…Scholastic Books.  Yeah, you.  Stay the fuck away from my daughters.

BOYS ONLY: How to Survive Anything!
Table of Contents:
How to Survive a shark attack
How to Survive in a Forest
How to Survive Frostbite
How to Survive a Plane Crash
How to Survive in the Desert
How to Survive a Polar Bear Attack
How to Survive a Flash Flood
How to Survive a Broken Leg
How to Survive an Earthquake
How to Survive a Forest Fire
How to Survive in a Whiteout
How to Survive a Zombie Invasion
How to Survive a Snakebite
How to Survive if Your Parachute Fails
How to Survive a Croc Attack
How to Survive a Lightning Strike
How to Survive a T-Rex
How to Survive Whitewater Rapids
How to Survive a Sinking Ship
How to Survive a Vampire Attack
How to Survive an Avalanche
How to Survive a Tornado
How to Survive Quicksand
How to Survive a Fall
How to Survive a Swarm of Bees
How to Survive in Space
vs
GIRLS ONLY: How to Survive Anything!
Table of Contents:
How to survive a BFF Fight
How to Survive Soccer Tryouts
How to Survive a Breakout
How to Show You’re Sorry
(and chapter 3 is where we no longer care about “survival”)
How to Have the Best Sleepover Ever
How to Take the Perfect School Photo
How to Survive Brothers
Scary Survival Dos and Don’ts
(“don’t throw things or yell at your ghost. it may react badly.”)
How to Handle Becoming Rich
How to Keep Stuff Secret
How to Survive Tests
How to Survive Shyness
How to Handle Sudden Stardom
More Stardom Survival Tips
How to Survive a Camping Trip
(“fresh air is excellent for the skin”)
How to Survive a Fashion Disaster
How to Teach Your Cat to Sit
(are you #$&^%*@ kidding me?)
How to Turn a No Into a Yes
Top Tips for Speechmaking
How to Survive Embarrassment
How to Be a Mind Reader
How to Survive a Crush
Seaside Survival
(don’t wear heels. tie your hair back. sunglasses add glamour.)
How to Soothe Sunburn
How to Pick Perfect Sunglasses
Surviving a Zombie Attack
How to Spot a Frenemy
Brilliant Boredom Busters
How to Survive Truth or Dare
How to Beat Bullies
How to be an Amazing Babysitter

(HT: http://ryannorth.tumblr.com)

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Egyptian Women Protesting Harassment Harassed by Counter-Protesting Dicks

This is disturbing and, from what I understand, fairly representative of the experience of women activists in Egypt in the aftermath of Mubarak’s removal from power.

“We were surrounded by men from both sides and by [the time we reached the corner] I saw a wave. I saw so many that attacked some men and women,” said Abul Magd. “Every few minutes there was a wave. It was definitely a coordinated attack.”

Egyptian Women Protesting Harassment Harassed by Counter-Protesting Dicks.

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Harassment, Misogyny and Silencing on YouTube | Feminist Frequency

Feminist Frequency is a cool blog.

And misogyny in the video game culture is big problem.

Here is a very small sample of the harassment I deal with for daring to criticize sexism in video games. Keep in mind that all this is in response to my Kickstarter project for a video series called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games (which I have not even made yet). These are the types of silencing tactics often used against women on the internet who dare to speak up. But don’t worry it won’t stop me!

Harassment, Misogyny and Silencing on YouTube | Feminist Frequency.

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Thank You Hater! – Skepchick

An Ode to the trolls.

“Some might say you’re a sexually aggressive, racist, homophobe, misogynistic, cowardly, illiterate, waste of human skin, but I say, ‘Thank you, beautiful stranger.’”

via Thank You Hater! – Skepchick.

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I agree with this blogger’s point whole-heartedly. Understanding the problems that women encounter in the public sphere is a key part of my work.

4firestone's Weblog

After all these years, women still struggle to have access to express their voice in the public sphere. Not only are they not present, for the most part, they are not even considered. Issues relating to family, work, right to choose, and motherhood are still framed within the context of the male dominated perspective.

I am not a male hater, as those who fought for women’s rights used to be labeled, but I do believe that women perceive relationships differently than men. That difference, though some argue is not essential but taught, is real. So, what over 50 percent of the population thinks and how they envision change might just be significant. 

All right, I will admit that women are not a single group with a single voice. But, then neither are men. However, the opportunity for women to express their voices in this country and other places in the…

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