In a networking group called Girls Rule that I’m a part of here in Omaha, someone recently posed a question: “Is Omaha a man’s world?” Do we have to gain favor with men here as the gatekeepers to our success, and is there some kind of implied “game” we need to play in order to be competitive in this community? It’s a question I spent some time thinking about both from my own experience, and from a longer view, looking at our community as a system. I’m one who is very perceptive of sexism, particularly in business, and contrasting my career satisfaction with the game I sometimes feel I must play to find it led to a lot of valuable reflection.
When I think about the people who have connected me with my heroes through email and coffee introductions, who have brought my name up when they heard conferences were looking for speakers, when books were looking for contributors, when there were press connections to be made, I count so many more men whose shoulders I have stood on than women. These are smart, smart, dear men who recognized my value, but I can’t avoid the reality that so few women in power have been available to me because of this system, or that my own race, class, and hetero-normative privilege will always play a significant role in my opportunities.
How could a woman’s world be a man’s world? We need autonomy over our experiences, yet we must always manage our resistance to patriarchal pressure to conform into roles prescribed by men. We all hear questions like, “Do we have to act like men to get what we want?” “Should we use ‘feminine wiles?’” Feminism and female power doesn’t mean learning to play a game, but we constantly negotiate sacrifices for opportunities because we have to work within a rich, complex social system full of prejudice. No, feminism isn’t playing the game. It’s changing the game.
When we talk about “a man’s world,” we’re talking about networks built on social contracts among men only, in racially and sexually exclusive environments over thousands of years. The power and privilege men inherit through that system is one reason why it’s so difficult as a society to consider changing, and much less abandoning, the practices that disempower minorities and women. (Note: I don’t mean to imply that dynamics of discrimination are identical for women and minorities, but that women of all backgrounds face a discriminatory system.)
Instead of talking about where we fit in a “man’s world,” we have to shift our own paradigms to see the world as open for us, while noticing the hurdles of sexual, racial, and of course gender privilege that place obstacles along the way. When women talk about experiences of discrimination and start from the premise of “in a man’s world,” we begin by defining our own reality from a man’s perspective and instantly miss the whole point. Let’s shift that premise to realize that we are women and we only need to learn to be ourselves. It’s not about rehashing gender stereotypes, because change won’t come without radical rejection of gender roles.
Feminism is not about women being better than men, it’s about shifting the paradigm of our culture so people stop facing the limitations of this “man’s world.” It’s necessary for men and women to advance conversations and make conscious decisions that empower all people to take autonomy over their bodies, their families, and, of course, their careers. The reason this conversation is relevant and must continually be in the forefront of our minds is because for thousands of years, this standard of liberation and opportunity has not been the norm. People of sexual and racial privilege have typically played a role in the formation of others’ lived experiences, and to deny that influence still exists blocks all progress.
So is it a man’s world here? Yes, and it is everywhere, today. This will always be business as usual until we begin to take actions that represent the change we want to see in the patriarchy around us. That’s what my writing is about, and that’s why it’s so important to me to reach as many men as I do women–participation from all of us is needed to begin unraveling our collective and individual paralysis around gender issues.
More on that later.