SexISm or SexISN’T

The murmurs filling the dimly lit and student-packed theatre die down, as each student stretches their posture and twists their head in hopes of spotting him, as he approaches the stage.

All week students have been anticipating this moment: Samuel Reza’s (‘19) speech for presidency of the Student Council. He branded his campaign as the REZALUTION — and maybe that’s why he won.

Or maybe it was his confident, charismatic speech. But with all that, would Reza still have won if he was a she?

Sam and Max–rival candidates

The 2018 Student Council Executive Elections last May marked the second year in a row that all five council positions were filled by males. At first, these results screamed sexism. But my personal involvement in the elections — I had run for the Vice-Presidency against elected Luke Baker-Cowling — made me want to investigate the issue further. It is easy to blame my loss on the fact that I am a female. But using this excuse — apart from being unfair to the qualifications of the elected males —  only feeds into the existing disparity between males and females.

If you were one of the many who gathered in the theatre to hear the election speeches, you definitely remember the two performances given for the presidency by Reza and Maxwell Stroemer (‘19). The scene was out of a Hollywood movie. Stroemer spoke first, approaching the stage on a cart with music blasting on speakers. He proceeded by climbing a ladder and giving his speech on the top step — shouting his words and punching his fists in the air. His performance concluded with loud cheers from the audience. Next came Reza, his silhouette carved out by a bold red background with the words REZALUTION in black projected onto the stage. He, too, shouted and pumped his fists in the air to convey his hopes for Student Council the coming year.

Mr. Browning, who has worked at this school longer than a decade, confirmed that last year’s Student Council Executive Elections “undoubtedly” did not just raise, but completely destroyed, the bar for the amount of hype and discussion they brought to the whole campus — previously famed for lacking school spirit. The presidential speeches were a perfect example of how rhetorical performances leave a lasting imprint on an audience. I was completely amazed by both the candidates’ efforts, yet, I could not help thinking how the student body would have reacted had I — or any other female, for that matter — stood up and performed in that same manner. I mean, can you even picture it?

Student Council Grade Level Representative Olivia Ravery (‘19) had some thoughts on the issue. “The way the [executives] act and the way they address the student body would be considered negative characteristics of female behavior,” she explained, listing especially being “very loud” and “overly open and dominant” as leaders.

Outside of the Zurich International School, countless well-publicized examples of the disparity between how men and women are perceived exist. Most recently, these include the Kavanaugh hearing and the Trump-Clinton election of 2016. Last year, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, resulting in a highly controversial hearing. Trevor Noah and Good and Mad’s Rebecca Traister commented in an interview that “if [Ford] had reacted the way Brett Kavanaugh did — berating people and screaming and shouting — she would have been dragged out of there and people would have been like: ‘yo this bitch is crazy.’” But Kavanaugh, a well-educated (ironic, right?), white male — despite his problematic and hostile testimony — was approved as the ninth Supreme Court justice, a position with life tenure. Journalist and political commentator Brit Hume, in fact, justified Kavanaugh’s dominant behavior by saying: “His family has been under attack…I don’t think the emotion destroys his credibility, in fact it enhances it.” Yet Ford’s emotional, but still composed, testimony somehow did the opposite?

This “disconnect between how women and men’s anger is met” — as Traister phrases it — was also apparent in the Presidential Elections. Trump is famous for his hostile, accusatory rants. On the other hand, the few times Clinton raised her voice during her campaign, she was branded as “annoying” and “irritating.” Yet, if she remained calm and composed, people complained she lacked the passion, explained Traister.

Outside of these specific examples, sexism — in the form of unconscious bias especially — is prevalent in our community. Grade Level Leader and English teacher Ms. Glass recounts various times that men have interrupted her by raising their hands up to her face; other times when the efforts of her female colleagues preparing valuable presentations and insights as experts in their field are shut down and minimized with words like “useless” or even “wrong.” Glass observes unconscious bias by some of her male colleagues in other, seemingly innocent ways, too. Just the other day, a female colleague told her about an incident with a male teacher. Her colleague explained she would give a presentation, and “unsolicited, he started to ask her how she plans to organize the task, and finally even asked her, ‘Do you want me to show you how to make an impactful presentation?’” Although men ostensibly are being helpful, they often assume that a female needs male insights into how to be effective or successful — that’s the problem.

Ravery has experienced similar reactions. She explained that if she argues with her male friends, “they hit back at [her] with very defensive comments,” joking that because she is a girl, “she shouldn’t be as confrontational as [she is].” Regardless of the light-hearted nature of these statements, their demeaning context is greatly problematic as it indirectly strengthens the existing male power system — its resources and ideologies still used today by men to their advantage.

Yet, because of the historically patriarchal nature of our society, this behavior has manifested itself as well in female-female dynamics. In fact, Ravery’s female friends have told her they are “surprised” at how she responds to guys because it resembles how guys talk to girls, not the opposite. Additionally, I have (regrettably) caught myself thinking: “that was aggressive,when my mom raises her voice — an absent thought when my dad acts the same. Evidence that females contribute greatly to the persistence of this power system is also present in politics, with studies indicating that “how white women vote, especially those who are married, is highly influenced by the politics of their husbands.” A study, published in Political Research Quarterly concluded that

“Women consistently earn less money and hold less power, which fosters women’s
economic dependency on men. Thus, it is within married women’s interests to support
policies and politicians who protect their husbands and improve their status.”

So… what can we do about this? Well, straight out of the lyrics of Childish Gambino, I urge you all to “stay woke” (cue catchy song intro). The Oxford English Dictionary explains that the term as “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.” Starting to notice the subtle prejudices around us and within ourselves is the first measure towards us recognizing females and males as equals. And once you start opening your eyes to this reality, it will be hard to shut them again: a “glass shattering moment” (with a nod to my favorite episode of How I Met Your Mother). I hope that each coming May the Student Council candidacy speeches will include an array of passionate performances — as many given by females as by males — and that the enthusiasm and passion presented by both genders will be welcomed equally by the voting student body.

To conclude, here’s a quote from Traister: “We have always lived with this promise that we live in a representative democracy, but in fact you know our government institutions have not represented us and they still don’t.” So let’s begin solving this within the ZIS community by recognizing genders as equal — a first step towards achieving fair representation.

Stay woke kids.

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