Seeing Gender

This week, my spouse and I watched a live ice skating show. Throughout the show, some of the pieces were performed by the entire ensemble, while other pieces featured a solo skater.

The first solo was performed by a female skater. When she landed her first jump, I bought my hands together to clap, then stopped when I realized no one was clapping. I thought that was strange, but I admittedly have never been to a live ice-skating event before. The second solo skate was performed by a male skater, and when he landed his first jump, the audience applauded. “That’s strange,” I thought.

This happened again the same way with the next female skater (no applause), and the next male skater (applause). At that point, I pointed the pattern out to my spouse. He admitted he hadn’t noticed, and we continued to watch the show together, him now doing so though the lens of my observation. The pattern continued.

Two days later, my family was standing in one of four lines waiting to enter a different event. Each line had an attendant at the front, scanning people’s tickets. Our 11-year-old daughter turned to me and said, “Mom, look at that. All the guys are working on their own, but the one girl over there, she’s not allowed to work alone. She has a guy with her.“

Her comment drew our attention to the four attendants who are checking tickets. The four attendants were all wearing blue shirts. The three men were at their stations alone. The female attendant had a man standing beside her, looking over her shoulder. He was wearing a white shirt.

After a few minutes, the man in the white shirt moved to help a male attendant. I pointed this out to my daughter, and we talked about adjusting her interpretation based on this new observation. The man in the white shirt seemed to be supporting whomever requested his help, and continued to bounce around between attendants after that.

Classes I’ve taken in sociology, psychology, education, and women’s studies have all alerted me to the ways gender sometimes (always?) affects our expectations, behaviors, and experiences. How I see and make sense of the world is affected by my gender. I can’t take off that lens.

Women are sometimes mistreated, and being mistreated hurts. For instance, once a male colleague didn’t acknowledge me in collaborative work we had done together, and then when I brought it up to him later, he blamed me for his own lack of attribution. (That’s called gaslighting).

Now, did this happen because I am a woman? Or because he’s a forgetful, aloof, and/or an inconsiderate jerk? Both? Neither? Other? There is no one right answer to this question. Perhaps I too quickly assume instances like this are gender related. It rarely seems clear cut in these personal interactions.

While the interpersonal interactions are rarely clear cut, the research is pretty clear cut: there are patterns of discrimination against women in everything from healthcare (e.g., women experience delayed health diagnoses compared to men) to education (e.g., male gender-bias in college course evaluations). One of the benefits of research is that it can help us see patterns and trends like this, which is an important step in beginning to address gender-based discrimination. Knowing this research is perhaps partially why I’m sometimes quick to assign gender as the reason for hurt I experience.

I’ve recently challenged myself to check my assumptions about gender when I observe or engage in interactions. Some things may be about gender (some days I feel like everything is about gender!), but I owe it to myself and those I interact with to watch for patterns. The attendant was being helped, not surveilled.

Still, I don’t resent my gender-related wondering. The wondering is part of the liberation, I think. In retrospect, what I do resent is that when I saw a woman nail a landing in an ice rink, I didn’t applaud when she deserved it.