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Sex Differences or Sexism? On the Long Wait for a Female President

photograph of oval office

In her recent New York Times piece, “Britain 3, America 0,” Gail Collins laments the failure of the United States to elect a female president. Meanwhile, traditional old Britain has recently acquired its third (Conservative) female prime minister, Liz Truss.

Collins’ frustration will strike many readers as obviously correct, perhaps even boringly correct. If, counterfactually, we lived in a society without sexism, then surely we would have had at least one female president by now. If that’s right, then sexist stereotyping plays some role in explaining the fact that we haven’t. But are there other explanations than sexism?

According to the Center for American Women in Politics’ Debbie Walsh, the problem is “that women are seen as good at getting along with other people, but not necessarily at running things.” In other words, inaccurate sexist stereotypes explain the nation’s failure to elect a female president.

The trouble with this explanation is that psychological research partly confirms certain clichés about men and women.

While both sexes have near-identical average scores for some traits, e.g., openness/intellect (the ability and interest in attending to and processing complex stimuli), studies repeatedly find significant differences between the sexes for other traits. For instance, on average, women are more “agreeable” than men, meaning they have a higher tendency toward “cooperation, maintenance of social harmony, and consideration of the concerns of others.” But men are, on average, more assertive, which many – rightly or wrongly – consider a key leadership trait.

There are competing explanations for these sex differences. Some think they are explained by human biology. Others contend that they are cultural artifacts, ways of being that men and women learn from society as they grow up. But most psychologists now think that a complex mix of nature and nurture explains these average differences between men and women. But whatever the cause(s), there is little dispute that these measurable differences exist. On this basis, some have concluded that our society is not sexist because “Women really are different from men!” And they think that this fact – and not sexism – explains things like why we’ve not had a female president.

But this conclusion would be premature. There’s still plenty of opportunity for sexism to be doing some explanatory work.

First, it might be that our assumptions about what makes a good leader are sexist. We might tend to overvalue the “masculine” traits and undervalue “feminine” traits. Perhaps women’s greater tendency to agreeableness (“cooperation, maintenance of social harmony, and consideration of others”) is precisely what we need in a leader in these divisive times, but we keep electing less suitable but more assertive “strong men.” If we systematically overvalue the traits more common in men and undervalue those more common in women, we would be putting the pool of female candidates at an unfair disadvantage. This is one way in which sexism can operate even if there are sex differences.

Second, and I think far more significantly, individual men and women are not the averages of their sex. An average is just an average, and nothing more. Within any group as large as half the population, there is obviously a huge amount of individual variation. There are many highly agreeable and unassertive men and many highly assertive and disagreeable women. Think about it — you probably know people who fall at all different points on this scale.

Even if, hypothetically, traits more common in men did make them more suitable for the role of president, then, given great individual variation, we should still expect some presidents to have been women, even if not half.

This brings me to another way that sexism can operate on top of sex differences. Imagine a voter who sincerely thinks that assertiveness is a key trait for a president. After all, a president must make difficult and important decisions each day, often under terrible pressure. Imagine this person could never vote for someone who they didn’t think was highly assertive. That seems like a reasonable view.

But sexism could still be at play. If the average woman is less assertive than the average man, then we might tend to overlook the leadership potential of highly assertive women because we assume, given their sex, that they are less assertive than they actually are.

Given that female politicians have, presumably, had to overcome certain challenges their male counterparts have not, you might even expect female politicians to be particularly assertive, perhaps even more than their male counterparts. Britain’s controversial first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, certainly lends some credence to that possibility.

To explain why we’ve not had a female president, then, we can’t simply appeal to either sexism or sex differences. The relationship between sexism, sex differences, and political outcomes is more nuanced. We don’t need to dispute the psychological evidence of sex differences in order to maintain that sexism is a real problem with damaging political consequences. It might be that our assumptions about the traits needed for leadership are sexist and biased. Or it might be that our awareness of group averages blinds us to individual differences, preventing us from fairly judging the merit of individual female political candidates. Yes, there is significant psychological evidence for sex differences in traits that are commonly regarded as important for leadership. But sexism could still be unjustly distorting political outcomes. As is so often the case, the partial explanations of political events and outcomes that we are so often provided are excellent at getting us riled up and reinforcing our loyalty to our political tribe, but they’re much worse at helping us to understand the society of which we are a part.

“Not Like Other Girls” and Internalized Misogyny

photograph of two young women of different attitudes

If you were a young person with internet access in the early 2010’s, you’ll almost certainly be able to visualize the “Not Like Other Girls” meme, which proliferated on sites like Deviantart and Reddit about a decade ago. Two girls stand next to each other, the one on the left (usually blonde and dressed head to toe in pink) is labeled “other girls,” and the one on the left (usually brunette, and less cartoonish than her counterpart) is labeled “me.” The “other girl” is the archetypal mean high school cheerleader. She wears makeup, loves boy bands, wears lip gloss, and is ostentatiously vain about her appearance. The girl representing the artist, while rarely being overtly tomboyish, rejects traits associated with traditional femininity. She eats voraciously, reads books, wears baggy or modest clothing, and snubs her nose at pop music. She’s quirky, unpolished, and raises an eyebrow with condescending confusion at her blonde neighbor.

A thousand versions of this image exist; sometimes the “normal” girl sports a mohawk and leather jacket, other times she’s holding an Xbox controller. Regardless of the finer details, the inherent silliness of this dichotomy, and the presumptuous superiority of the “normal” artist, was easy to mock. The meme rose to popularity because it spoke so directly to the experience of preteen tomboyish girls (or really any girl who felt alienated from her peers), but it experienced a wave of backlash as mainstream culture became more sensitive to feminist issues. The “other girl” is almost always a caricature of offensive stereotypes, which is why many have viewed the original meme as a manifestation of the artist’s internalized misogyny.

Internalized misogyny happens when we absorb and regurgitate sexist stereotypes, often subconsciously. Even the most diehard feminist is not completely immune to patriarchal socialization, which is why young women are encouraged to be vigilant with regards to gender norms. A 2009 study on this phenomenon published in the Journal of Integrated Social Sciences explains the manifestations of subconscious sexism:

“women and girls may learn to have low expectations of their capabilities . . . may be treated as if they need to be taken care of . . . may be criticized or ostracized for being assertive, visible, or outspoken, may find their opinions discounted, may be disliked as leaders unless they fit female stereotypes by acting nurturing, may be valued and appreciated primarily for their looks, bodies, or sexualities, may face expectations that they will spend considerable time and money modifying their physical appearance, may need to manage unwanted sexual attention or physical contact from men, [and] may be expected to act passive in sex, dating, and relationships.”

The study notes that this process usually begins in the middle school years, when girls are encouraged to relinquish their preadolescent androgyny and conform to femininity. Girls are made to feel incompetent and powerless, and then pressure other girls to conform with standards that hurt all women.

But at the same time, it’s hard to slap an “internalized misogyny” label on this meme and call it a day. After all, internalized misogyny is more than just a dislike for other women; it has to do with reinforcing power structures. Scholar Greta Olson explains that

“Within a system of hegemonic masculinity, women who have successfully internalized misogyny will be rewarded to the degree that they uphold and enforce the structures of this system to the detriment of other women who are less compliant. By contrast, such women will be treated with hostility who refuse to hold up the prevalent system of male privilege.”

In other words, feminine pursuits may be denigrated, but any girl who steps outside those pursuits is doubly ostracized. Sexism remains a double-edged sword, a fact that this meme (albeit unintentionally) captures with its simplistic dichotomy.

At the same time, the notion that gender-non-conforming girls are somehow too confident or arrogant, and that their unwillingness to conform to social expectations was a ploy to gain male attention or approval (as is so often implied in parodies of the original meme), is deeply misogynistic in itself. As Anusha Ashim explains,

“Many of these anti-’I’m not like other girls’ memes mock the girl on the other side rather than stating that both are equal. The unfeminine girl is portrayed as unhygienic, lazy, bitter, and even jealous. Things like baggy clothing, dark hair, and types of music are associated with her. We must ask ourselves this: Why are we creating another sexist caricature to prove that a sexist caricature is false?”

We’ve reached a point where any criticism or minor aversion to traditional femininity is labeled as internalized misogyny; even a dislike of the color pink, which many women were practically force-fed as children, is deemed a manifestation of their hatred for other women. Internalized misogyny is extremely hard to unpack, and often pits women against one another for arbitrary reasons. Empathy is required on both sides of the artificial divide if we’re to achieve any substantial form of gender-consciousness.

Can Hyperfemininity Be Radical?

image of black lipstick kiss on white background

In late November of 2020, Rolling Stone published a controversial article on “Bimbo TikTok,” a nascent subculture that has found a home on the popular video sharing platform. Young twenty-something women are reclaiming the word bimbo, and as EJ Dickson puts it in the Rolling Stone article, they aim “to transform the bimbo into an all-inclusive, gender-neutral leftist icon.” These women, along with the handful of gay men and non-binary people who also embrace the aesthetic, signal their bimbo-ness through Barbie-pink clothing, glittery eyeshadow, and a willingness to appear ditzy.

So how is this revolutionary? Kate Muir, one of the young women interviewed by Dickson, explains that “you become everything men want visually whilst also being everything they hate (self aware, sexually empowered, politically conscious, etc.).” In other words, coupling a hyperfeminine (and as Dickson acknowledges, explicitly sexual) aesthetic with a radical political sensibility creates cognitive dissonance in viewers with a habit of objectifying women. There isn’t really a political manifesto for this nebulous movement, so Muir’s statement is about as close as you can get to a bimbo philosophy.

However, there are a few glaring problems with “reclaiming the bimbo” under the banner of progressive politics. The biggest is that while some women, like Muir, claim to be anti-consumerist, it isn’t really possible to reject consumerism and be hyperfeminine at the same time. Name-brand clothing, makeup, and hair products don’t appear out of thin air; they require a significant investment of both time and money.

Furthermore, the idea that women can fight misogyny by performing hyperfemininity is problematic in itself. Griffin Maxwell Brooks, an engineering student at Princeton and another person Dickson interviewed, said that “The modern bimbo aesthetic is more about a state of mind and embracing, ‘I want to dress however I want and look hot and not cater to your expectations.” Bodily autonomy is a deeply important feminist issue, but when we stop interrogating why we choose to look a certain way, it becomes hollow as an analytical framework. In other words, women should be allowed to dress however they want, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask what cultural forces shape our desires. In a society where women are still expected to perform femininity, how is leaning into femininity not catering to men’s expectations? Why is the bimbo’s version of “hot” revolutionary, despite the fact that it’s just what straight men find attractive? All women, regardless of how they present, suffer from misogyny in one way or another, but it’s ludicrous to propose that women who are conventionally attractive and do buy into hyperfemininity are more maligned than the women who refuse to play ball.

To be clear, the problem isn’t that women are dressing provocatively and wearing fake eyelashes. The problem is that an inherently consumerist aesthetic is being reframed as politically radical. For years, make-up companies have used feminism to sell their products, equating personal expression with the freedom to buy lipstick. But now, companies no longer have to spend millions on market research and insidious campaigns; consumers are doing the work for them. It has become almost impossible to escape consumerism, so young people with radical impulses can only direct their energy into an empty aesthetic, into products rather than activism.

Furthermore, these young women are putting time and money into an aesthetic that remains rooted in deeply misogynistic views about women’s intellectual capacity. Is the bimbo really the best figure to reclaim in the name of sexual liberation? A more truly radical action would be to expand our collective imagination beyond tired and harmful stereotypes, to imagine a new way to be free without the help of old templates.

There is a fun element of campiness to the bimbo aesthetic, and it might have the potential to become a sophisticated parody of misogynistic expectations. Glittery makeup is harmless, but it’s a waste of time to frame wearing it as a political statement. The fact that we feel the need to reframe blatant consumerism as radical is, in itself, deeply troubling.

Is Prenatal Sex Discernment Unethical?

On Saturday September 5, a gender-reveal party gone-wrong set fire to a California forest, burning down thousands of acres over the following week. This is not the first time a gender-reveal party has led to a major wildfire, nor is it the first time one has been responsible for threatening human life. Gender-reveal parties are largely a product of 20th century natal care medical advancement. The El Dorado fire has renewed debates around gender-reveal parties and the ethical questions that surround them.

Does prenatal sex discernment do more harm than good? Should gender-reveal parties be banned? And what value is there, if any, in determining sex before birth?

While there is evidence that humans have attempted to predict the gender of an unborn fetus for thousands of years, the integration of ultrasound technology into prenatal care in the 1960’s radically improved the accuracy of predicting fetal gender. Typically, gender is determined using an obstetric ultrasonography which can be up to 98%-100% accurate.

The practice of determining a child’s sex before birth is relatively uncontroversial in the United States, but it has been banned in parts of the world where this information has been used to initiate abortion. Because of women’s economic marginalization and lack of socioeconomic mobility, in some places girls are considered an economic burden compared to boys. The preference for boy babies has led to sex-selective abortion and an imbalance in the sex ratio in countries such as India and China. Studies have found that an imbalance in sex ratio favoring males, has been correlated with many other social problems such as human trafficking and an increase in violence against women. In order to combat these rising sex ratios both India and China have previously banned, or severely limited, the practice prenatal sex discernment. Despite these attempts to discourage sex-selective abortions, there still exist many concerns that regulations have not gone far enough.

Prenatal discernment in the United States has not led to sex selective abortion in the way it has in the rest of the world, but it has become a cornerstone of the pregnancy process. In a 2001 study of expectant parents, more than half of both men and women expressed a desire to know the sex of the fetus. Interestingly, researchers also found that there were sharp differences in desire to know the sex of a fetus across ethnicity, age, race, and marital status indicating that at least some of our desire to know the sex of our child comes from cultural or social influences.

While knowing the sex of a fetus does not mean a parent will necessarily have a gender reveal party, gender reveal parties certainly necessitate prenatal discernment. In the 2010’s gender reveal parties in the United States have become strikingly common. Pregnant women and their partners perform some type of ceremony in which gendered objects or colors are revealed to indicate whether the child will be male or female. This practice might seem strange to many, considering the fact that the medical process in determining the sex of the child is medical and very private in many cases.

But the point of gender-reveal parties is not simply to find out the gender of a future child, but in many cases, as Lindsey King-Miller of Vox describes, “to make a spectacle…like all kinds of social media challenges, gender reveals are made to be recorded.” By their very nature, these spectacles often involve pyrotechnics, complicated machinery, and other forms of entertainment more commonly found at an amusement park rather than one’s backyard. Perhaps this is why gender reveal parties have led to so much destruction in modern history, with critics such as Arwa Mahdawi arguing that “gender reveal parties are a form of domestic terrorism.”

The practice of gender-reveal parties has clearly led to many negative and unethical consequences. However, this is not the only reason that many find them to be morally abhorrent. Critics argue that at their core, gender-reveal parties perpetuate sexism and transphobia, exclude intersex people, and contribute to our relentless obsession with defining people within a gender binary. These parties are often rife with gender stereotypes, with themes like “Touchdowns or Tutus.” Gender-reveals also fail to acknowledge the crucial distinction between gender and sex. As psychologist Daniel L. Carson explains, “Gender is the social, behavioral, and psychological characteristics that we use to distinguish the sexes…By definition, parents have no idea what the gender of their child will be since they have yet to interact with the child.” The distinction between gender and sex has been recognized by Western sociologists, medical professionals and psychologists since at least 1987, with the establishment of “Gender and Society” and the publication of the groundbreaking article, “Doing Gender.” Today, the World Health Organization defines gender as “characteristics of women and men that are largely socially created” while sex on the other hand is “encompasses [differences] that are biologically determined.” This difference is important in understanding both the ways in which our experience of the world is impacted by our biology as well as by social stereotypes associated with our gender. It is also crucial to recognize this difference to acknowledge that not all who are biologically male or female identify with the “corresponding”, or cis, gender. Recognizing and honoring this difference is imperative for ensuring the rights of transgender, genderqueer, and non-binary people. Choosing to undergo prenatal sex discernment or host a gender-reveal party does not necessarily mean one does not understand or support the difference between sex and gender. However, it could be indicative of one’s overall attitudes toward those different from them, and toward stereotypes associated with sex and gender in general. A 2014 study, for example, found that those women who chose not to undergo prenatal discernment, tended to be “open to new experiences, and combine egalitarian views about the roles of men and women in society with conscientiousness.”

Gender-reveal parties are not the only form of American ritual that has been enabled by prenatal discernment. Companies, such as the Gender Reveal Game, have built an entire profit scheme around providing a platform for parents-to-be to encourage their loved ones to place bets on the sex of their child. Baby showers, a common custom where friends and family “shower” expectant parents and unborn children with gifts before birth, arguably center on goods like clothing and toys which are heavily marketed and designed to be appropriate for a baby depending on their sex. Anyone who has attended a baby shower can attest to the fact that it is much more challenging to find gender-neutral toys and clothes for expectant parents. In fact, experts have reported that children’s toys are more divided by gender now than they were 50 years ago. While some progress is being made on the front of gender-neutral children’s clothing, industry experts affirm that the vast majority remains gendered, beginning in infancy.

But is wanting to know the gender of an unborn child necessarily immoral? Some might argue not. As mentioned earlier, there were sharp divisions in parents wanting to know the sex of their child based on ethnic, racial, age, and marital status. For some, knowing the gender of one’s child before birth might be religious and traditional. Knowing a child’s gender might also help parents decide which name to give their child, depending on their cultural or religious background. Additionally, knowing the gender of a child might be a way to ease anxiety during pregnancy. It is especially important to note that in the 2001 study mentioned above, the two groups with the highest desire to know the sex of their unborn child were pregnant women below the age of 22, at 98% and single-mothers at 90%. Being pregnant at a young age, or without a partner to help raise the child undoubtedly creates a lot of uncertainty. Knowing the sex of the child might be one way for these expectant mothers to ease anxiety during pregnancy.

In an article in Today’s Parent, Dave Coodin, father-to-be, explains his decision to partake in prenatal discernment. He explains both that prior to knowing the sex of his child, he and his partner referred to the baby as “it” which was rather dehumanizing. He also explained that by knowing the sex, he was able to conceptualize a part of his baby’s identity in a manner that allowed him to “construct fantasies that satisfy us in the present, no matter how crazy and deluded.” Pregnancy is certainly a long and difficult process, and some might agree with and sympathize with Dave’s desire to know at least one potential aspect of his future child’s identity. In a 2015 research paper, Florence Pasche Guignard argued that gender reveal parties have filled a role “where neither medical nor religious institutions offer ritual options deemed appropriate enough for celebrating joyfully and emotionally during pregnancy.” While there doesn’t seem to be anything inherently wrong with celebrating during a pregnancy, critics might still push back that it isn’t the celebratory nor ritualistic aspect of prenatal discernment and gender-reveals that is the problem, but rather the desire to define a human being, and a baby, based on its sex.

Regardless of what one believes about gender-reveal parties, the tide is certainly turning on emphasizing gender in children in general, with about 1 in 5 American parents supporting gender-neutral clothing. In fact, even the woman credited with starting the gender-reveal party trend back in 2008 has become a vocal critic of the phenomenon. In a viral Facebook post from 2019, Jenna Karvunidis asserted “Assigning focus on gender at birth leaves out so much of their potential and talents that have nothing to do with what’s between their legs.” In a rather ironic quip, she concluded by revealing, “PLOT TWIST, the world’s first gender-reveal party baby is a girl who wears suits!”

Freedom of Speech and Sexist Tweets

photograph of Indiana University campus

On November 7th, 2019, Indiana University Bloomington economics professor Eric Rasmusen tweeted a link to an article titled, “Are Women Destroying Academia? Probably.” In his tweet, Rasmusen pulled out one quote in particular as worthy of special emphasis, “geniuses are overwhelmingly male because they combine outlier high IQ with moderately low Agreeableness and moderately low Conscientiousness.” Among other things, the article claims that 1) the inclusion of women as students in universities has led to the deterioration of rigor in those institutions because emotion has replaced the cold, unemotional evaluation of facts and arguments, 2) women are highly prone to “Neuroticism,” precluding them from logical thought, 3) the presence of women in academia reduces the production of the “genius type,” a type which is overwhelmingly male, and 4) female academics are too high in agreeableness but low in I.Q. to adequately nurture the mind of the male genius. Thus, the article claims, the inclusion of females in academia both as students and as professors, is harmful to male education and has a chilling effect on the number of geniuses produced by universities.

This isn’t the first time that this professor has made headlines for his tweets. In 2003, Rasmusen came under fire for his comments on the fitness of male homosexuals to serve as teachers. In a response to this ongoing controversy, he re-affirms that position,

“I am on record as saying that homosexuals should not teach grade and high school. I don’t think they should be Catholic priests or Boy Scout leaders either. Back in that kerfuffle when I was widely attacked for saying that, I was careful to say that academia was different. Professors prey on students too, so there is a danger, but the students are older and better able to protect themselves, and there is more reason to accept the risk of a brilliant but immoral teacher.”

In response to the most recent tweet, people immediately began to call on the university to terminate Rasmusen’s employment. Lauren Robel, Executive Vice President and Provost of Indiana University Bloomington issued a statement condemning Rasmusen’s actions as “stunningly ignorant, more consistent with someone who lived in the 18th century than the 21st.” She also makes it perfectly clear that the university cannot fire Rasmusen for his comments because the First Amendment protects them.

The university did take some corrective action in response to Rasmusen’s behavior. In her statement, Robel provided the details of the steps the university is taking. First, no class offered by Rasmusen will be mandatory. In this way, students can avoid taking classes from him entirely. Second, grading of students in Rasmusen’s classes will be blind to avoid the bias that might be present. This means that assignments will be set up in such a way that Rasmusen will not know which student’s paper he is grading when he is grading it. If the nature of certain assignments is such that they cannot be graded in this way, a different faculty member will grade those assignments. With these measures in place, students can avoid any potential bias that they might expect from someone who has expressed the kinds of ideas that Rasmusen has expressed.

The public response to the incident involves some confusion about why exactly it is that Rasmusen can’t be fired. Some people view this incident as an indictment of the tenure system. It is not Rasmusen’s tenured status that makes it the case that he can’t be fired over this issue. Indiana University Bloomington is a public, state institution, funded by taxpayer dollars. As such, they cannot fire a professor for the content of the speech he or she engages in as a private citizen, and on his twitter account, Rasmusen was speaking as a private citizen.

Legal protections aside, there are compelling moral reasons that speak in favor of this position. It is valuable, both as a matter of personal liberty and for the good of society, for ideas to be expressed and evaluated. It is important to the aims of democracy that people can speak truth to power. In some cases, the speech involved will be very ugly, but the general practice is so important that we must be committed to it come what may. Punishing speech on the basis of content may seem to make good sense under certain conditions, but good, well-intentioned people don’t always have the final say in what “makes good sense.” To protect our basic liberties, we might sometimes have to be content with procedural justice, even when it seems to fly in the face of substantive justice.

Even if Rasmusen were not speaking as a private citizen, it is possible that his claims should still be protected because of the value of academic freedom. Courts have consistently ruled that academic speech—speech related to teaching and scholarship—is deserving of special protections. There are compelling moral reasons for this position as well. The practice of putting forward ideas that are then critically evaluated by peers is essential to the pursuit of truth and justice. When only the dominant view can be expressed without consequences, that dominant view becomes dogma. Its adherents believe it, not as the result of patient and diligent investigation, but because they would be punished for pursuing alternatives.

On the other hand, there are some real moral costs associated with keeping Rasmusen on the faculty. He seems to be sympathetic to the idea that the presence of women diminishes the quality of a college education. In light of this, it would probably be rather difficult to feel comfortable as a female student in Rasmusen’s classes. His female colleagues are also likely to find the climate he has created very unpleasant. In addition, to treat the ideas expressed by Rasmusen as if they are just as likely to be true as any other competing idea ignores the fact that we have made significant progress on these issues in recent decades. It encourages the conclusion that there is no such thing as a settled moral issue. The crusade for women’s rights was predicated on the idea that, to borrow a phrase from Jean Paul Sartre, “existence precedes essence.” The attitudes that other people have about a woman’s “function,” shouldn’t construct limitations on who she can become. Autonomy is generally viewed as tremendously valuable, in part because of the role that it plays in self-creation. When views like Rasmusen’s are treated as if they are deserving of protection, the result is discouraging (to say the least) for women, particularly young college women who are just beginning to craft their own lives.

Finally, there is the issue of moral character. Rasmusen’s behavior on social media demonstrates either a misunderstanding of or disrespect for the role that he plays as an educator. The article focuses on the role that universities play in creating “geniuses.” Geniuses are rare, and genius isn’t obviously valuable for its own sake, its value depends on how it is used. This isn’t even close to the primary role of a public university. The role of a professor at such a university is to assist in developing a well-rounded, educated citizenry. Ideally, professors should be preparing students to live productive and meaningful lives. Good teaching requires empathy for students, and a genuine desire to understand the conditions under which they are apt to learn. Professors should remember that they are public figures. This means that before posting on social media, professors should reflect on the question of whether what they are posting will contribute to a negative classroom environment that might make it more difficult for certain students to learn.

Morality is a social enterprise, and young people look to adults in positions of authority to determine how they ought to behave. It may seem unfair that public figures carry more of a burden than others to conduct themselves reasonably and with dignity on social media platforms. Ideally, a person who has achieved a certain high level of influence values virtue and has worked hard to develop a strong moral character. People who care about character are the kinds of people who deserve to be in these positions in the first place. On social media and elsewhere, public figures should think carefully about the implications of their messages.

When Is Comedy Over the Line? The Departure of Shane Gillis from SNL

photograph of Radio City Music Hall

Earlier this month, the famous sketch comedy program Saturday Night Live announced that Shane Gillis would be joining the troupe. The comedian was allegedly cast in an attempt to appeal to more conservative potential viewers. In recent years, the show has been perceived by many to have a liberal bias, and its creators wanted to draw more politically diverse viewership. Several days later, however, SNL announced that Gillis would not be joining the cast after all. The show’s representatives acknowledged that they cast Gillis on the basis of the strength of his audition, but failed to adequately vet him before offering him the job. In the days immediately following the casting announcement, comedic material surfaced that many found appalling. A good number of the offensive remarks came from a podcast co-hosted by Gillis in which he makes unambiguously racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic remarks. There are also recordings of Gillis making rape jokes and mocking people with disabilities.

This is not the first time a comedic institution has decided to part ways with Gillis over the nature of his comedy. The Good Good Comedy Theater, a prominent Philadelphia Comedy Club, tweeted the following,

We, like many, were very quickly disgusted by Shane Gillis’ overt racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia – expressed both on and off stage – upon working with him years ago. We’ve deliberately chosen not to work with him in the years since.

This event had an impact on the national stage more broadly. On one of his podcasts, Gillis referred to presidential candidate Andrew Yang using a series of racial slurs.

Yang replied to Gillis on Twitter, saying:

Shane — I prefer comedy that makes people think and doesn’t take cheap shots. But I’m happy to sit down and talk with you if you’d like. For the record, I do not think he should lose his job. We would benefit from being more forgiving rather than punitive. We are all human.

It appears that Yang opted to take a measured and forgiving approach during a politically challenging time. Not everyone agrees with his strategy, but plenty of people also disagree with the choice made by SNL.

Some support for Gillis was grounded in concerns about free speech. To the extent that these are concerns about Gillis’ constitutional rights, they are misguided. Our first amendment rights to freedom of speech are rights we have against governmental restrictions of or punishment for speech, not rights we have against private individuals or institutions. SNL is not constitutionally obligated to retain any particular cast member, especially if they believe that cast member will damage their product.

Charitably, however, even if the concern is not a constitutional matter, one may still think that there are moral issues dealing with freedom of speech more broadly. Some of these considerations have to do with comedy specifically. Comedy plays a special role in society. Comedians shine a light on power dynamics within cultures, challenge our existing paradigms, and provide us with a cathartic outlet for dealing with our frustrations.

A third set of free speech concerns has to do with call out culture. Contemporary generations live in a world that is far removed from the one occupied by their ancestors. Our past speech is no longer lost to memory—if we say something online, it’s there forever. Some argue that we should have some freedom to make mistakes, especially in youth, that won’t spell ruin for our careers later in life. We are all human, after all, and forgiveness is a virtue. That said, it’s worth noting that many of the problematic comments made by Gillis were made earlier this year.

Others argue that SNL did the right thing. It is certainly true that we all make mistakes, and that all of us have said things that we later wish that we hadn’t. Nevertheless, Gillis’ behavior does not seem to be behavior of that type. The offensive jokes he made were not aberrations that it would be appropriate to view as juvenile mistakes. These behaviors were routine, habitual, part of his comedy style. What’s more, Gillis only appeared to demonstrate remorse for the content of these jokes when he was in the national spotlight, called out in public space to do so. Many viewed his apology as insincere.

Many critics of Gillis would agree that comedy serves an important social function. But, they might argue, there is a difference between being pushing the comedic envelope and being the equivalent of a schoolyard bully. If your child started a YouTube channel dedicated to mercilessly mocking his peers, you’d be likely to punish him and/or get him counseling rather than praising his creativity.

Critics may argue further that SNL tends to be a collection of the best comedic talent this country has to offer. People work for years to develop a background that makes them qualified to be a cast member. If a person wants a job with a high level of prestige and public attention, that person needs to be attentive to their character development generally. Impressive opportunities should be reserved for impressive people. Or, at the very least, genuinely apologetic people.

What’s more, inclusion of Gillis in the program doesn’t do conservatives any favors, and it doesn’t honor the viewership that SNL is attempting to generate. Reasonable, ethical republicans will certainly object to the characterization of Gillis’ brand of humor as “conservative.”

A further controversy has to do with the way in which presidential candidate Andrew Yang handled this issue. Yang has attempted to brand himself as a candidate from outside of traditional politics, stressing a message of civil discourse intended to have broad appeal. Some view his engagement with Gillis to be tone deaf when it comes to race. Many feel that the message that should be sent to Gillis is that his comedy isn’t funny, it’s offensive. No one is trying to censor or stifle his speech. Gillis is free to work in the kinds of venues for which such behavior is not a deal breaker. He can say what he wants, but if what he wants to say is cruel, perhaps society will not be willing to pay him lots of money in support of those kinds of messages.

Misogyny, ‘Purity,’ and Leggings at Notre Dame

Photograph of southern quad and Morrissey Hall at the University of Notre Dame

On Monday, March 25th, The University of Notre Dame’s student-run newspaper The Observer printed a letter to the editor from Maryann White, the self-described mother of four sons who recently visited the Indiana campus, titled “The legging problem.” The note scolded the university’s student body for its attire, specifically criticizing the prevalence of form-fitting clothing. More specifically, the letter chastised the female students of Notre Dame for their clothing choices and suggested that women who wear leggings as pants are unavoidably leading men to ogle their bodies. As White explained, she was simply concerned “For the Catholic mothers who want to find a blanket to lovingly cover your nakedness and protect you — and to find scarves to tie over the eyes of their sons to protect them from you!”

In addition to a variety of published responses (appearing in venues ranging from CNN to the Washington Post, to the Today Show) more than a thousand students responded to a Facebook event organized by the Irish 4 Reproductive Health club, an on-campus organization promoting reproductive justice and access to sexual health resources, indicating their intent to wear leggings to class last week as a demonstration against White’s misogyny. The Observer indicated that, in addition to the much-publicized controversy online, their offices received several dozen additional letters in response to the article, several of which they also published.

To be sure, there are many who might balk at my application of the word ‘misogyny’ to this story (“after all, isn’t ‘Maryann White,’ herself, a woman?”), but the term has benefited from an enriched treatment in recent philosophical work and is fitting, given White’s expectation that women at Notre Dame shoulder the burden of warding off the male gaze. (NOTE: the latent heteronormativity of White’s initial letter is also worth critiquing, but that’s an issue for another article.)

In her recent book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne explains that misogyny is more than just an emotional hatred of a particular gender, but is instead, “primarily a property of social environments in which women are liable to encounter hostility due to the enforcement and policing of patriarchal norms and expectations” (19). On this view, misogyny can be entirely emotionless (and even not directly intentional), but still misogynistic if it continues to promote sexist ways of life; as Trent University professor Kathryn J. Norlock put it in her review of Manne’s book, “If sexism offers planks, misogyny provides the nails.”

Imagine instead if Maryann White had witnessed a mugging during her campus visit, then wrote a letter chastising students for not taking self-defense classes – anyone reading that newspaper would rightly complain that White had misplaced the blame for the crime onto the victim, rather than the perpetrator. Even though her theoretical argument (that “if people aren’t ready to defend themselves, then they can’t be surprised when they’re attacked”) might not be, itself, a mugging, it nevertheless functions to create a context which helps muggers to mug by shifting the blame for the problem onto the victims. In reality, the only person at fault in a mugging is the mugger; so, too, with ogling or any other kind of sexual assault.

Down Girl is perhaps most famous for coining the term ‘himpathy,’ what Manne calls the “often overlooked mirror image of misogyny” evidenced by “the excessive sympathy shown towards male perpetrators of sexual violence” (197). If White’s desire to patronizingly cover unknown women with blankets to protect their modesty is strangely misogynistic, then her felt need to find scarves to restrain her own sons is similarly problematic. Both actions assume that the sexualization of innocent women’s bodies is suffered mainly by the men doing the sexualizing, not the women being objectified.

Of course, White’s expectations about women’s responsibilities (and men’s lack thereof) is far from unusual, particularly in an American religious context; in Linda Kay Klein’s book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, she deconstructs what she calls the ‘purity culture’ that grew alongside American evangelical Christianity following the post-1980s ascendency of the Religious Right. In particular, Klein explores (primarily through interviews buttressed by research) how particular teachings about sexuality and gender, and particular interpretations of biblical passages (that see sexuality as a ‘stumbling block’ for one’s pre-marital ‘purity’) have led women, in particular, to feel burdened with guilt; as Klein explained of her own experience, “Intended to make me more ‘pure,’ all this message did was make me more ashamed of my inevitable ‘impurities’” (33).

So, the sentiment expressed in Maryann White’s letter is far from uncommon and, as Monica Hesse of the Washington Post put it, that’s the real conversation this letter should provoke. Far more concerning than the specific worries of one mother is the culture-wide phenomena of misogyny critiqued by thinkers like Manne and Klein.

The Deeper Significance of Women Presidential Candidates

Kamala Harris giving a speech, smiling and speaking into microphones, with people crowded around

Women presidential candidates are appearing in unprecedented numbers for the 2020 election. So far, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Tulsi Gabbard have announced their intentions to run. This surge corresponds to the 2018 midterm elections, which also saw record numbers of women obtaining seats previously held by men. In the wake of the 2016 election, when the presidential confirmation of a Donald Trump won the day over an eminently qualified female candidate, it seems that more women are ready to run and more people are eager to elect them.

 From the stoic prudence of Angela Merkel to the fallen humanitarian Aung San Suu Kyi, it is clear that women are as capable and complex as their male peers in positions of leadership. Women are leaders around the world, though recently they constituted only 6 percent of international leaders compared to male heads of state.  

American voters believe women score equally or higher than men in terms of valued leadership qualities, but women still lag behind men in positions of power, including their most glaring omission in the role of the US presidency.

Reactionary streams in American politics likely bear some role in women’s lagging parity. The most recent iterations include the conservatism of the neo-Nazi movement espoused by Richard Spencer, the unlikely stardom of Jordan Peterson, purveyor of 19th century psycho-social truisms presented as original contrarian theories, and the backlash to the #MeToo movement among Republican leadership exemplified in the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court after his histrionic confirmation hearing.

At the same time, these reactions to change suggest that unparalleled changes are occurring. Among them is a redefinition of character norms.  

Our very notion of “virtue,” a core term in philosophical discussions about character, has gendered connotations. The word “virtue” in English derives from the Latin word for “manliness.” While the ancient Greek term for virtue is gender-neutral, i.e. excellence (arete), Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics treats personal greatness as the birthright of a very few men. Aristotle speaks of courage and justice, but also liberality and magnanimity, character traits which reflect a superior social standing. Aristotle, like so many of his successors, demarcated virtue and public life as the space for the few males who belonged to an emancipated, land-owning, citizen class. This separation was made possible by setting aside manual and household labor or “economy” – literally, household management, as the province of women, slaves, and the non-citizen class of men. It was this vast majority’s task to create value which would accrue to the men in charge. It is thus no surprise that “magnanimity” or “greatness of soul” (characterized by a sense of entitlement) also figures largely among Aristotle’s virtues.

Because women, slaves, and non-citizen men performed the labors of life, Hellenistic aristocratic men enjoyed leisure or “paideia,” which permitted education and a public life that are essential for political participation. This primary division of labor and leisure justified an oligarchic and patriarchal logic: might equals right. This is the circular logic of power: those who are in power must have managed it by being somehow superior (an argument Aristotle makes in his Politics) or conversely, those who are in power determine the rules because they can enforce them. The latter is put forward by Plato’s Thrasymachus in the Republic (Thrasymachus, incidentally, may be one of the most socially-realist characters in early philosophical literature). This ancient rationalization of “might equals right” has enjoyed a surprisingly long shelf life. America’s founding fathers similarly opted for a “republic” rather than a democracy, ensuring that only a very few, adult, European-descended, property-owning men could vote. Even today, the fundamental logics of white supremacy and extreme capitalism can be parsed in very similar lines.

Given that women, persons of color, and LGTBQ individuals have been running for office in record numbers since Trump, it will be interesting to see the kind of politics that arises from communities that are not accustomed to power and representation as their birthright. Figures like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and the Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggest visions for a more inclusive distribution of power, labor, representation and compensation. In the long, painful stages of late capitalism where a middle class has all but disappeared, and the majority of Americans are carrying most of the burdens of contemporary life while only a very few enjoy its rewards, it seems that voters are ripe for a new kind of politics.

Examining Masculinities: Why Gillette Struck a Nerve

A drawing of a king holding an old-fashioned safety razor with the message "Gillette Safety Razor: King of Them All"

Editor’s note: This article is the second of a brief series on Gillette’s “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” ad that aired on January 13, 2019. 

The recent Gillette short film “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” has received vocal backlash from some viewers.

Gillette’s commercial film touched on critiques of “toxic masculinity” (also known as “hegemonic masculinity”). But the short film is also firmly rooted in empathy and concern for those who identify as male and takes up male victimization. The recurrent protagonist is a boy running from a group of relentless bullies. Terry Crews is also featured, a beloved advocate for positive masculinity who has spoken out about his experiences as a victim of sexual harassment and as the child of domestic abuse. The film also references the #MeToo movement in media montages and a mock sitcom where a white man harasses a cleaning woman of colour. It exhibits ”benign” examples of misogyny, including a moment where the camera focuses in on the expression of a woman at a corporate-looking table as her male colleague silences her and speaks over her, “Actually, what I think she’s trying to say…”

At the thirty-five second mark, the camera pans across a line of men towering over barbecues, arms pugnaciously crossed, muttering in unison ”Boys will be boys will be boys will be boys” ad infinitum. The film highlights how this classic, reductive tautology serves as a straitjacket for the supposed beneficiaries of “traditional masculinity” as much as a fortress against those who are excluded from it.

It is revealing that much of the outcry against the commercial revolves around this same circular cry, “Boys will be boys!” The backlash has a confusing logic, however. Contrary to what critics say, Gillette offers positive examples of masculinity. Its very title suggests masculinity can be more than benign – it can be superlative. The film showcases a group of young men resolving a conflict among themselves, a father nurturing his tiny daughter’s self-confidence, male figures intercepting bullying among children and checking a catcaller in his tracks, and ends with lingering shots on the thoughtful, trusting, hope-filled faces of young boys.

To what, then, do its critics object? Certainly, the commercial scrutinizes a still-prevalent version of performed “masculinity.” But gender scrutiny is deeply embedded within culture and within advertising as a particularly influential capitalist cultural medium. Femininities are regularly examined. Women are routinely exposed to media and discourses that tell them how to be women. These injunctions include impossible expectations of thinness and narrowly Western beauty ideals, enforcing traditionally female occupations overcoming workforce barriers without seeming too female, balancing being caregivers, breadwinners, and managing an enviable “lifestyle” for themselves and their loved ones while exhibiting positive emotion and self-control in all things, being confident and assertive without coming across as aggressive, being maternal without giving up one’s career and vice-versa, et cetera (for more details on women and perfectionism, click here, here, and here). These themes are so ubiquitous as to be immediately recognizable in satire. (One such satire is “Man who has it all,” a social media experiment that switches the male for the female gender in providing “helpful lifestyle tips” and highlights the pressures which advertisers and culture-at-large place on women to be perfect in every way to achieve minimal respectability.)

Masculinities and femininities are undoubtedly subject to interrogation and contestation. But it seems peculiar for a short film to inspire such controversy for encouraging men to be role models for the next generation by rejecting abuse, violence, and unreasoning defensiveness.  Some may question whether companies are best positioned to further our social conscience, while others welcome corporations taking on responsibility even if driven by a profit motive to be on the side of social evolution.  

Gillette’s ad ultimately advocates an extremely parsimonious set of norms — a minimum bar of human decency by any gender standard. Some could even argue that it does so by endorsing some traditional conceptions of masculinity as honorable and strong or ‘’virtuous’’ (in its etymological connotations of ‘’manliness’’). For some, the ad endorsed truly “manly” behaviour, reminiscent of the concept of a “gentleman,” which, along with its conceptual counterpart of “ladies,” is also grounded in highly specific gendered, racial and classed identity and performance.  

The American Psychological Association recently came out with its first guide to practice with men and boys. This represents a moment of introspection in psychological discipline. The APA has had a guidebook for treating women and girls since 2007. But the need to examine masculinities as an object of observation to the sciences and not merely as the default subject is overdue by much more than a decade. As in other disciplines, the typical psychological subject was presumed to be a white male, a standing point that served as a proxy for the whole human race. While psychology is not unique in assuming a European-descended male as its implicit subject this moment is revealing how limiting a privileged standing point can be, even to those who accrued social benefits from being silently and exclusively represented as the default in the network of knowledge and power domains.

The default male figure as the unquestioned subject of knowledge traditionally understood can now also be the object of social gaze and reflection. Perhaps it is inevitable for this to be the source of some anxiety. In this case, the APA’s guidelines are well-timed to this social moment.

Reframing Picasso: Hannah Gadsby and “Separating the Man from the Art”

Silhouettes of people in front of Picasso's painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"

“High art elevates us and civilizes people,” the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby claims, jokingly presenting an observation from her art history degree. “Comedy, lowbrow. I am sorry to inform you, but nobody here is leaving this room a better person.” When she delivered this joke, most of the audience probably did not detect the irony, because who would expect to leave a comedy show with a new glimpse at humanity? Those discussions are usually saved for the art museums. Continue reading “Reframing Picasso: Hannah Gadsby and “Separating the Man from the Art””

Eric Schneiderman and the Moral Wrongs of Hypocrisy

Image of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman

Eric Schneiderman was the New York Attorney General since 2011 and a strong opponent of President Trump’s policies to end DACA. Most recently, he sued the Weinstein Company over sexual harassment and civil rights violations while being a vocal supporter of the #Metoo movement. His clear stance as an advocate for civil rights, and specifically feminist goals, has made the circumstances of his recent resignation particularly frustrating.  Schneiderman resigned as New York Attorney General the first week in May in response to claims that in four past relationships, he had physically assaulted his partners.

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NFL to Cheerleaders: Down Girl!

Photo of cheerleaders performing at the 2006 Pro Bowl

I’ve always thought there was a problem with cheerleading. However great they are as athletes and dancers, cheerleaders give the impression that a woman’s place on an athletic field is to cheer on the men. But now we’re learning that there are also problems for cheerleaders. NFL cheerleaders are subject to a truly bizarre list of conduct requirements, as well as regular sexual harassment.

The story has been told in a series of New York Times articles (April 4, April 10, April 17, April 17, and April 24), but perhaps most compellingly in this interview of Bailey Davis, a former New Orleans Saints cheerleader, on the New York Times podcast, “The Daily.”

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DePauw in The Trump Era: Has Trump Influenced Racist Incidents on Campus?

Image of students with banner that reads "We are not safe"

Race. It’s an unavoidable topic in today’s social and political climate. After centuries of racial tension in the United States, it’s a subject that still persists, leaving many hurt or enraged. It seems almost ironic that amidst the swirl of racial tension, the President of the United States promotes racial tension through his actions. Now, racist occurrences have been happening across the country long before Trump took office. But, it seems as if racists have been more open about conveying their distaste for people of color, and it makes one wonder if Donald Trump’s’ presidency is the source of this open racism, or at least contributes to it. With that said, DePauw has experienced a plethora of racist occurrences on campus. Could it be that Trump’s condoning of– and even facilitation of– racism encourages individuals at DePauw to be racist towards people of color?
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Does Implicit Bias Explain Gender Discrimination?

Photo of men's and women's bathroom stall signs

Implicit bias is a concept that’s been enormously useful to feminists grappling with the way progress for women has stalled in some areas. Women are still under 5 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. They still make considerably less per hour than men for doing the same work. Women are still just 20 percent of PhD engineers and around the same percentage of philosophers. They still haven’t made it into the pantheon of US presidents, and only 23 out of the current members of the US Senate are women.

It’s all difficult to explain, especially if you don’t believe that women as a group have distinctive interests or aptitudes. But then, what’s going on? Outright sexism and misogyny aren’t exactly rare in the US, but neither are they common. Thus, if you suspect bias is at the root of the underrepresentation problem, implicit bias is a welcome concept.

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Hip-Hop Misogyny’s Effects on Women of Color

A photo from a Kanye West concert.

Hip-hop has become one of the most popular and influential music genres to date, with clout that has reached far beyond the United States and its inner-city New York roots. Rappers and poets alike craft clever verses and lay them over powerful beats, while smooth crooners sing over catchy instrumentals. Hip-hop has even crossed over music genres, with influences in styles of music such as rock, gospel, and even country. With hip-hop being integrated into so many different classifications, the music genre has brought people together, allowing individuals of different races, religions, and creeds to come together to enjoy something that they all have in common.

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Harvey Weinstein and Addressing Hollywood’s Unacceptable Reality

A photo of the Hollywood sign at sunset.

On October 5, The New York Times released a report detailing various instances of sexual assault perpetrated by Hollywood director and executive, Harvey Weinstein, on many of his female colleagues. The allegations span over a period of 30 years, as Weinstein’s power in the film industry protected him from consequences. “Movies were his private leverage,” the report reads, as Weinstein often offered promotions and bonuses to his female colleagues in exchange for sexual acts, and silenced those who spoke out with payments that ranged between $80,000 and $150,000.

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The Ethics Behind the Kanye West-Taylor Swift Feud

A photo of Taylor Swift at a press conference

The Kanye West and Taylor Swift feud has recently reignited with the release of Swift’s music video for her song, titled “Look What You Made Me Do.” And with this renewal of their feud, it is important to understand the basic issues with both parties; indeed, the intersecting forms of of oppression both artists face must be taken into account when picking a side in the ongoing Swift-Kanye feud.

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Democratic Equality and Free Speech in the Workplace

A close-up photo of the google logo on a building

Numerous news outlets have by now reported on the contentious memo published by former Google employee, James Damore, in which he criticized his former employer’s efforts to increase diversity in their workforce. The memo, entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber: How bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion,” claims that Google’s diversity efforts reflect a left-leaning political bias that has repressed open and critical discussion on the fairness and effectiveness of these efforts. Moreover, the memo surmises that the unequal representation of men and women in the tech business is due to natural differences in the distribution of personality traits between men and women, rather than sexism.

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The Google Memo and Bias in Science

A photo of the Google logo outside the company's headquarters

Whoever leaked former Google engineer James Damore’s internal memo at the beginning of August didn’t so much release a document as unleash a tempest. The publicizing of the memo, and the subsequent firing of Damore, seized our national attention and generated considerable commentary about diversity, freedom of speech, and the origins of gender disparity in various sectors of society.   

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Classical Sexism: Gender Bias and Female Conductors

Classical music has a long legacy of sexism, and the most evident reminder is often standing right in front of the orchestra. I’ve stared at this inequality for most of my own musical career. In twelve years, I’ve worked with only one professional female conductor, but countless males. And even in the world of instrumentalists, equality can be hard to see. I remember being in middle school band, shocked that there wasn’t a single boy in the flute section, but all the professionals my teachers told me to listen to were men.

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Sexism in Birth Control Research

Changes in mood, pain, depression, increased or decreased libido, and weight gain are all common side effects for women who choose hormonal birth control. Recently, news broke that a study of hormonal injections as birth control for men was stopped earlier than planned after men experienced various adverse side effects – all of which women have been experiencing for decades when using hormonal birth control. Due to these effects, the study was terminated earlier than planned.

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