A big story last week was the firing of Jill Abramson as executive editor of The New York Times. Accusations of discrimination based on gender shocked many who felt that issues like these were long ago resolved. In seeking to make sense of it, I was moved to reevaluate my own response to the women who have been my co-workers and bosses during my career. I find I have to look through eyes and perceptions not my own to seek real understanding. I was raised in the middle of a household of women, and judging my mother and sisters by a different standard never came to mind.
Even after years of deliberate study and examination, even with my upbringing, I must cede that my understanding of women remains frustratingly limited. In situations like these, women often take one view and men take the other. We’ve made a lot of progress, for sure, but biology does complicate matters considerably. Though I have discarded gender essentialism, the belief that all gender differences are inborn and inescapable, it is the honest truth that men and women are hardwired very differently. I find nothing inherently wrong with this view, but it requires that we take particular intangibles on faith alone and learn to trust one another.
I cannot entirely escape the lived experiences given to me upon birth. As we know, most of the earth’s population is heterosexual. Sexual attraction is a very powerful force that brings men and women together, in spite of their innate differences. I’m not sure if many heterosexual men and heterosexual women would do the hard work of daily face-to-face interaction if sexual desire was not a factor. It gives everyone an ulterior motive, male or female, but this presents problems as well. There have been times myself where I have made a mistake and viewed every opposite-sex interaction through through purely sexual terms, even though this is hardly unique to me.
It’s astonishing sometimes that men and women can even communicate with each other. In recent years, gender segregation at the workplace has become less prominent, which has led the way towards greater understanding and productive dialogue. Abramson’s troubled time at the Old Grey Lady, as some have discussed, might reveal the latent sexism of our society. Answers here are few, and as feminist writer Ann Friedman has revealed, Abramson (and the rest of us) may never learn the real reasons for her termination.
Because clear cut answers are not present here, theories have to suffice instead. If sexuality and gender are indeed a factor, we ought to take both under consideration. Even so, this is purely speculation and conjecture and likely only one part of a very complex matter. Men are very visual and sometimes more literal minded in their sexuality and in their daily dealings with everyone else. Women, as I have been taught, often process their interactions with men by a more indirect approach, one within the confines of fantasy and idealization. Those in same-sex relationships, either platonic or romantic, workplace or private life, may well escape this conundrum and confusion, which is likely much to their advantage.
Even if men and women learn only how to cater to another’s whims, this might be a good start, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone's comprehension is exact and precise. Though I admit to being a believer in a Utopian, genderless worldview, I know that strictly masculine and strictly feminine identities in some form will persist. If we could eradicate every cultural and societal problem based on misunderstanding tomorrow, we’d still be left with the biological differences. Respecting each other as we are is not the same as completely understanding each other.
I have a familiarity with Mid-Atlantic culture, six years into my life bordered by Maryland and Pennsylvania, but the Southern mores and customs that dictated who I am today are part of me. To me, meaningless chitchat in the supermarket line with complete strangers is expected and anticipated. Where I live now, most people keep to themselves except in the company of friends or close relatives. This is an example of a relatively harmless regional disparity, but it underscores how unconscious we are of distinction and difference. I seek not to excuse the behavior of the intolerant, but I will say they have farther to go than some of us. None of us have the ability to choose our starting point.
Each of us are shaped by the familiarity and comfort of home, however we define it. I wish that I was raised by a father who wasn’t threatened by women’s rights and didn’t feel that they came at his expense. His beliefs and conduct pushed me farther and farther towards feminism. My mother was raised by a mother who was very masculine, and in response she became ten times more feminine. Women in business leadership learn that they have to conform to a similarly unwritten standard that must be seen and directly observed to be addressed.
Communication is key. The deck may yet be stacked against women. Part of the modern-day feminist movement is convincing people that there is need for new reforms. Until allegations of sexism arise, many are satisfied that sufficient progress has been made. Though social movements may wish to make themselves eventually redundant, no massive problem is ever put aside completely in the first round. This is where we stand today, in a country where women continue to earn less per hour than men, its promise of equality for all unfulfilled. It shouldn't take psychology to keep conflict away, but sometimes it does.