On Friday afternoon, I went to a leadership workshop, and among the predictable topics of how a CEO should interact with others and how to be an effective leader in a company, it seemed pretty normal. I entered the room feeling confident: I was prepared, my outfit was on point, and my accomplishments showed that I deserved to be there. It was not until the end of the presentation when we could discuss the topics that I realized: I was the only woman in the room. At that point, I saw that I was surrounded by males, listening to a male speaker, and being taught how to be tough/less feminine. It was problematic. I started to enter a state where I didn’t know what the problem was: my presence or what the society expects of women. Suddenly, I felt happy I chose pants over a dress.
As soon as the workshop was over, I started to reflect on what happened and was disturbed by it. What was the reason why I was the only woman there? Why should I feel uncomfortable for being different? What happened that the “standards” of leaders could not evolve with society so that opportunities are equally given to men and women? I did my best to understand what was the reason for this situation to be repeated across places, and the only reason I could find is the utility and value we have been given to different people over the past years. It is all about that old story where the men are the hunters, and the women are the caring (such as a patriarchal society), which is how most people have been influenced. Therefore, it is hard for us, as a society, to impose new roles, and because of that, we lack representation, either in physical, emotional, and language form.
An example of a lack of representation and segregation of genders is the incredible amount of words that end with the word “men” instead of “person,” which I noticed during my workshop, but did not stand out at first because of the frequency we are used to listening to them. Words such as businessman, congressman, and policeman only reinforce the idea that men and not women should occupy these roles, and that women are not capable of being successful in leadership positions, for example. This segregation, as explained by Haraway, is a consequence of the use of Western traditions such as patriarchy and colonialism to explain organisms, which then, tends to form taxonomies and identifications of the “other.” And so, the author explains that particular dualisms of self/other, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, right/wrong, total/partial, God/man (among others) have all been systematic to the logics and practices of domination of women, people of color, nature, workers, animals.
For me, one example of Dualism was when the first woman president in Brazil felt she had to change the adjective “presidentE” (president, in Portuguese) to a feminine adjective “presidentA,” so she felt she was represented. In this case, changing the “e” for an “a” in Portuguese would be the same as changing “men” for “women” in English. What Dilma was trying to do was to include women in the world of politics, however, although she did make an effort to represent everyone, she continued to reinforce the segregation between genders. Hence, it is important that, as Haraway comments, we revise our perception of gender and its roles, confusing our notion of identities in all countries, as this segregation tends to be universal across cultures. Not only that, we should find a way where everyone can construct their own groups by choice, and not by what society imposes on them. This way, events such as being the only girl in a room would not be a problem, and women would feel as welcome as men in a leadership workshop.
When confusing gender, it would not only have an impact in how we perceive women and men, but it would also redefine how we perceive and diagnose gender. Butler emphasizes that gender roles have a great impact in the way we diagnose transgender. She mentions, for example, “The diagnosis seeks to establish criteria by which a cross-gendered person might be identified, but the diagnosis, in articulating criteria, articulates a very rigid version of gender norms.” (Butler, p. 95) In this case, a boy would be considered cross-gendered if he engages in activities that are considered feminine and dress like a “girl”. And so, I wonder if a woman in leadership roles would be considered more masculine or less feminine because of the preoccupation she is in. Therefore, creating a society where gender identities are not pre-established would not only lessen dualism, but also refuse to elevate typical gender attributes to a standard of psychological normality.
-Marina Kleinschmidt Leal Santos
Butler, Judith, Undoing Gender [excerpt] (New York: Routledge, 2004).
Haraway, D., When Species Meet [excerpt] (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).