When Sexism Becomes a Joke

“It’s just a joke” is one of the most watertight defenses for a discourteous comment. You can say a lot of things under the guise of a shrug and a smile, claiming it’s just funny. Well, sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t, but making jokes about the opposite gender is a delicate business.

Recently Emma Watson addressed the U.N. on the issue of gender equality, promoting the new HeForShe campaign. One of her many salient points touched on the need to get men on board with gender equality discussions. As with any complex societal topic – often eliciting impassioned responses – there are a variety of attitudes toward forwarding discussion. The impression that issues affecting women must evoke an “anti-man” response from proponents of gender equality in order to further an agenda, is bantied about with regularity on twitter/comment boards/the internet generally. Ms. Watson’s speech directly targeted this idea, and instead invited men and boys to join the conversation. She posited that in so doing, they become better men by helping the world become better for women and thus better for everyone. With all due respect to the many approaches over time toward bringing women’s issues to the fore, I am inclined to agree that bringing men into the discussion can only help.

I was fortunate to grow up under circumstances where I was encouraged to do or be  anything. I not only had the encouragement, but the means through my parents’ support (both personal and economic) to thrive in whatever direction I chose. As Emma Watson discussed, she had the privilege to be raised in a place and a family where gender did not matter. I too experienced this privilege. Perhaps that is why I am always taken aback when I see, or feel, a ripple of the sexism that still pervades in areas of the world as a whole, or my own personal world. Just as an example, I was working on an issue with three male colleagues in my same field of work. (I’ve touched in the past on the occasional disparity  in the ratio of men to women in my field). For the record, we had all met each other for the first time about twenty minutes prior, and they were older than I. Needing someone to take notes as we came to a resolution, the man heading up the project asked me to take down our progress, adding “I didn’t ask you to do that because you are the woman.” Followed by a feeble joke about maybe asking me to run and get them coffees when I was done taking notes. Everyone chuckled.

I, too, laughed off the comment and finished up the project, but later I began thinking about the encounter. Perhaps it was just a tasteless comment, an attempt at humor, from an otherwise, seemingly, pleasant and respectful man. Likely he had just randomly assigned the dictation to me, then perceived that it may have given the wrong impression. In which case, his comments were an apology of sorts. Whatever the intention, I found it all a little uncomfortable.

Here is why the comment made me squirm. First, I had the same credentials as the men in the room and was contributing equally to the conversation, yet drawing attention to my gender dredged up the madmen-esque stereotypes of the past where men were professionals and women were their assistants. Suddenly we were all thinking that 40 years ago, in this setting, I would have been his secretary. Second, making a joke about taking dictation and doing coffee runs, feels patronizing toward those types of assistant roles, which by the way, are valuable in their own right. Third, talking in jest about a more “traditional” role of a woman in the workplace, to a woman working in a profession that, only a mere few decades ago was dominated by men… well, I’m not sure what kind of message that is supposed to send. Are you trying to tell me that you are okay with my presence? Are you still working through the transition from the assumption (safe decades ago) that women are ‘only’ secretaries, to the reality of professional life today?

Through this very small, hardly-worth-mentioning example, I’d just like to point out that even in situations where women are provided equal opportunity, there is still room for a conversation. Jokes like the one directed at me take us from a group of colleagues to a group of men and one woman. We may not speak up at the time, because we feel outnumbered, or don’t want to “make a scene,” or be perceived as sensitive or difficult, but such comments still make an impression.

I remember in middle school, when boys were first noticing girls, and girls were noticing boys. It became very popular to tell somewhat naughty jokes, and some of them were downright sexist. But the girls always laughed, because they liked the boys, and the boys told more jokes because the girls were laughing. Now, of course I love a good joke as much as the next guy (or gal)! There is plenty of humor to be derived from the differences between men and women. But the context, the intention, and the taste level of the joke matter. And just because a woman is smiling at a joke about antiquated gender roles doesn’t mean she thinks it’s funny.

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