I’ve had two different encounters with sexism in the past 24 hours, and together they represent my professional raison d’etre.
The first was last night. I was at a meeting, the monthly meeting of a local climate change group. There were three presenters, two men and one woman, and a room with about the same gender ratio. Everyone there was white. After the presentation, there was time for Q&A, which was dominated by the male presenters. I had a question, so I raised my hand. When a related question was asked, I said mine was a good follow-up, so I got called on. Meantime, I had watched the same woman put her hand up… over, and over, and over, without being called on. Several men had been called on despite putting their hands up more recently. So, standing in the back, I called out, “This woman has had her hand up for a while. Do you want to call on her next?” She was called on then and there.
The second was just a few hours ago. One of my tutoring students is an African-American middle-schooler, whom I’ve been working with since October. She had been having trouble with math, so I was helping her with Algebra I. Her improvement has been significant – from failing to acing three tests in a row and making Student of the Month in December. When the improvements first started to show, her confidence soared and it showed in her willingness to answer questions in class. With the start of the new year, though, her confidence has waned. Today at the end of our session, she told me that her math teacher had assigned her specific homework: to participate more in class. So, starting next week, we’ll be working on ways for her to raise her own voice. In the meantime, I told her the story of the meeting last night. I also told her this:
“It doesn’t seem like a lot. So you don’t like to participate in class, so what? But if you practice speaking up with your thoughts now, you’ll be more comfortable doing so later in life. You’ll be willing to take credit for your own ideas in meetings. You’ll be more able to speak out if you are sexually or physically assaulted. You’ll even have more confidence to say no to boys in high school who harass you for a date. I know it feels scary, even to have a wrong answer. I don’t know what your school is like; maybe you’ll be teased for being a know-it-all, maybe you’ll get made fun of for having a wrong answer. But here’s the thing. Society isn’t going to give you a voice. I don’t get called on during Q&As unless I speak up first – I’m a young girl, what can I know? It’s going to be even harder for you, because you’re a woman of color. So you have to raise your own voice. Start by participating in class.”
Confronting sexism requires a two-pronged approach. Women have to be willing to amplify each other’s voices, NOW – at school, in meetings, at presentations. And we need to teach our girls, ALL our girls, to raise their own voices, and not let anyone silence them. Those two things are what I aim to do, with my professional life, and as a tutor and mentor for predominantly female students.
Remember: The future is female. Let’s make the future bright by helping women and girls shine.