I’m a sexist. I don’t want to be. I’m not proud of it.
I’m also a feminist.
Let’s get real. Fighting the programming in life that suggests that women are sex objects, designed for procreation and parenting more than for careers and leadership is pretty tough. There is a lot of programming to overcome.
It’s like overeating. I’m a pretty chronic overeater and have battled my weight since I was ten years old. I remember going on a 500 calorie per day diet in junior high school. Today, I combat my weight by running about twenty miles per week and eating a low-sugar vegan diet. You still don’t want to see me naked. Looks aside, I’m still about 20 pounds over my optimal weight.
Sexism is like overeating; it is really hard to overcome. We absorb information subconsciously that helps us to classify the world around us. I’m not an expert in such things, but from what I understand our brains use pattern recognition software to help us quickly identify things as food, threats, pleasure, or problems. That system isn’t very smart. It can’t do math past things we’ve memorized. I memorized 12 x 12 = 144 so my brain recognizes that pattern. On the other hand, my brain has no idea how many 13 x 13 is. I need to sit down and work it out (OK, what I really need is a calculator). I’d have to do that with 4 x 4 if I hadn’t memorized that as a 4th grader using my pattern recognition software.
Every meeting I’ve attended for my entire life has sent me clues about the respective roles of men and women. Although it is rare today, until about 2000, most formal meetings I attended included a woman taking notes and a man chairing the meeting. Keep in mind that I live and work in Utah, not New York or San Francisco. My experience is likely different from yours.
In my early career, I benefited tremendously from being a guy. And I recognized it then. Just home from a Mormon mission to Argentina, without so much as attending a day of college as a matriculated student, I went looking for a job. I aspired to be a secretary, largely because I had worked doing physical labor before my mission and did some office work on my mission and found that it required less sweating.
My sister, a secretary for the now defunct American Savings, called me on my first day of job searching, which I recall being my first full day home, and said she had a job for me. Picturing her in a secretarial pool, I put on a tie and ran down to her “office.” I walked out as the newly hired janitor.
Within a year, I was managing a $13 million portfolio of foreclosed real estate for the bank. Along the way, I spent a few months as a secretary. I’m sure that my being a guy made the managers, virtually all men, uncomfortable, so I was quickly promoted. It was wrong. It changed the arc of my career and did the opposite for a young, ambitious woman who worked on the same team.
Some are tempted to blame religion, especially conservative religions like mine, for sexist attitudes. That is an unfair oversimplification. Religions, including mine, often provide great opportunities for leadership for people of both genders. Men aren’t born with a leadership gene; they are taught to lead. Women need to be encouraged to lead, too. In my Church, young women are given a variety of formal leadership roles from the age of 12 up. They lead meetings, give sermons, plan activities and organize service in ways that are similar to the young men. As adults, however, there are relatively few opportunities for women to lead men in my Church, while the opposite routinely happens. That conditions members to see men and women as unequal leaders.
For my part, I don’t believe it is true that women are less qualified to lead—nor is that what my Church teaches. Its teachings and practices, however, suggest this is the case, contributing to the patterns we see in the world.
Let’s also be clear that liberal Hollywood is no better. Hollywood seems to want us to believe that women’s primary value is tied closely to their looks and sex appeal. Additionally, only 13 percent of protagonists were women in the top 100 grossing films of 2014. Shockingly, just 7 percent of directors of the top 250 grossing films of all time were women. For every Katniss Everdeen-like character demonstrating female strength, independence and leadership, there are almost ten that portray women as secondary players or worse, as objects. That programming can hardly be called progressive and is pervasive; Hollywood sends countless impressions every year that men are somehow better than women because they get more screen time and plots are more likely to revolve around them.
Throughout my life, my experiences—many that I share with you—have framed my perception of the roles of women. Despite intellectually choosing to see women as equal to men, my brain still uses cheap pattern recognition software to guide my first reactions to circumstances. A few weeks ago, I was belatedly introduced to Harvard’s Implicit Association Test for gender and careers (the test has been around for years). The test measures implicit associations we make between men and women and home life and careers.
When I took the test, I was hoping that I could overcome my foundational biases to demonstrate equal association between women and careers as I could between men and careers. The test is structured so as to time reactions to words, assigning them to one category or another. Not only could the software discern my bias, I could see it. I had a hard time instantly assigning a word like salary to the category “women” when asked to do so.
Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe that women are as capable as men for any job in the modern economy. Still, when I was challenged to make momentary assignments of these words, I was shocked at the difficulty I had. Most people do have a hard time—including most women. We’re all fighting a lot of programming. (Take the test and see how you score.)
That’s why I’ve come to believe that it is so important for us to have this conversation. Men and women need to recognize the patterns we see that conflict with what we believe and act more in accordance with the obvious truth that women are equal to men.