I set out to write a post about the representation of women at the 2014 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) earlier this fall in Toronto, instead, all I could think about was how much the women at IAC represented women at large, and what we are going through. You see, at the Opening Ceremonies, not a single woman spoke. Sure, there were some women performers figure skating in scanty outfits (I even overheard one guy question why the referee outfit was so sexy), and the President of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF, sponsor of the IAC) called up a female counterpart, Tanja Masson-Zwaan, to the stage to declare the IAC open, but that was spontaneous. The bottom line was, despite a healthy population of women attendees, women rarely saw representation in any congress-wide event. Too often, in our world, this is the case. Though women make up the majority of the population, our lives are mostly run by men. I can’t help but ask, why aren’t we there yet?
— Tanja Masson-Zwaan (@tanjamasson) October 1, 2014
I can’t turn on the news, or log on to social media without coming across at least one story that highlights this struggle – whether it’s Zoe Quinn receiving violent threats, education about reproductive rights in Arizona, or Pamela Gay wondering if she can do it anymore, it’s clear that we have problem. To echo Pamela Gay’s sentiment – I am tired, we are tired, and it’s no wonder that some women are choosing to walk away rather than continue the battle. How many times can we question if we’re there yet without eventually tiring of the answer being no?
Too often, we’re tricked into thinking we’re all alone in our struggle, that our field is the only one in which women can’t make it, but it’s not true. We are all struggling, and often, just as we win one battle, the war gets ugly again. The recent issues coming to head with #GamerGate and #ShirtGate are just a few examples out of many. We just weathered an election season in the United States that saw both record spending and the lowest voter turnout since 1942. That’s right, 1942, when the entire world was at war, nearly 4 million American were serving in the military (an estimated 73% of those overseas), and though blacks were counted as voters, many of those were disenfranchised. Only 36.6% of registered voters showed up at the polls, and of those who did show up the majority were older, white, and male.
It’s impossible to have a conversation about gender parity without some mention of privilege, and coming off an election where the people with the most privilege are the ones whose voices were heard, that conversation is even more important. Following some of the more visible instances of institutionalized sexism in fields like science and technology, it was refreshing to hear some voices from the privileged in those fields. Even better, the rapid and heartfelt apology from one of the men involved demonstrated the appropriate response to making a mistake because of your privilege.
However, anytime you discuss privilege, you must be prepared for people to be offended. It is unfortunate, but many people equate calls for recognizing privilege with an implied insult, which simply isn’t true. As I discussed in my Speak Up series for Geek Girls Night Out, recognition is often the first step in fixing any issue. Learning how to recognize your privilege is incredibly important, as is using your privilege to advocate for those who don’t have the same privileges as you. I recognize, that as a white woman, I face less discrimination than women of color. Does that mean I don’t have disadvantages? Absolutely not, but it does mean that I do have privilege that makes it easier for me to overcome the disadvantages I do have.
The best example of this privilege is that I am able to write this article without fear of being called an angry black woman (the Sapphire trope) and all the assumptions that go along with that label being applied to me. Sure, I might get called a man hater, or called over-sensitive, but I will not be ridiculed or scoffed at simply because of the color of my skin. What I can do is use my privilege as a white person to call out this behavior and to point out how it not only hurts women of color, but how allowing stereotypes of this nature to continue to proliferate, we hurt all women. We are in this together no matter what our ethnicity, gender identification, or field of work or study is. We all must speak out against destructive behaviors and assumptions that make society an uncomfortable place for women to exist.
I’m finishing up this post from my basement office in an academic building on the campus of my university. About twenty minutes after five, someone walked into the office suite, and because of the positioning of my door, I wasn’t able to see who it was. It’s very unusual for anyone other than myself to be here after about 4:30 or so, and when that person didn’t unlock another office door in the suite, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps I should have locked the suite door at five, because the reality is that college campuses aren’t always a safe place. The person turned out to be a young man looking for a free place to print, and I was happy to oblige him, because we’ve all been in that last minute print situation. Still, after he left, I got up and locked the door to the suite.
So, are we there yet? We’re not, but it is getting better, especially among the younger generations in the United States. We now recognize that seeing gender as only binary is a mistake, and people with privilege are speaking up for those who don’t have it, and that’s a great step in the right direction. The unfortunate truth is that there are still many fields that are unwelcoming to women, but we are armed with information to combat that reality and allies to come along beside us when we’re tired of the fight to remind us that we’re not alone, and it’s okay to take a breather when we need it. The battle is grueling, but we will win this war. We will get there.