A few years ago, Bill Gates spoke at business seminar in Saudi Arabia. One audience member asked if he thought the country could reach its goal of becoming one of the world's most competitive economies by 2010. Gates, looking at the audience segregated by a large partition, men on one side, women clothed in full length burqas on the other, responded "Well, if you're not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you're not going to get too close to the top."
None of my guy friends considers himself sexist. Neither do I. We've evolved past that. Any culture that institutionalizes discrimination (much less violence) against women should be denounced. Rape is unforgivable. Sexual harassment should be investigated and prosecuted. It's unfair and criminal that women still earn less than men for the same jobs. Women have every right to enter any profession they desire. Notions that there's a universal female feebleness with math (or any other discipline) are antiquated and embarrassing. Same with jokes about women drivers. Advertising that oppresses women with unrealistic standards of beauty is bad. As is an entertainment industry in which "average" women are depicted as perennially young, thin, beautiful and always perfectly made-up and coiffed (and often paired with genuinely average or downright schlubby men). Any progressive man has plenty of women in his social circle. No guy is good in bed if he leaves his woman unsatisfied, and no guy considers himself bad in bed.
But no matter how evolved a man considers himself to be, there's millennia of cultural baggage to overcome, much of it embedded at an unconscious level.
Our very language implies that men are the default gender. Wo-men are the variation (the opposite of the biological truth, incidentally). Pairs of terms coupling masculine and feminine usually place the masculine first: men and women, husband and wife, brothers and sisters, boys and girls, his and hers, he and she, guys & dolls, he said she said, masculine feminine. In the last couple of decades certain words have been changed to imply gender neutrality: chair for chairman, handmade for manmade, humanity for mankind. In practically every case the change was from the masculine. And these terms are still recent enough to serve as reminders of the concession to political correctness a person makes when using the new form.
Western culture has been run by men for a long, long time. The majority of figures you're likely to read about in any history book will be men. Most scientists have been men. Most philosophers, too. And spiritual leaders. Most literary names (as well as painters, composers, sculptors, etc). Most heads of state. Explorers. Military leaders. Industrialists. Inventors.
Of course, this is due to the fact that it's a recent and still limited phenomenon for women to even be educated at all, much less to reach a position of power and prominence in any field that receives notice across the gender divide. But it's very easy to absorb an unconscious impression that men are intrinsically more interesting. More capable. More significant. Worthier of attention.
As much as there's been progress toward equality in the last hundred years, our public discourse is still dominated by male voices. Politicians are usually men. Same with the clergy. And tenured professors. Produced playwrights. Stand-up comedians. Textbook authors. Radio personalities. Political pundits.
Male movie and TV stars consistently command bigger salaries than their female counterparts. Movies with women in the lead roles get labelled "chick flicks," implying that men should avoid them at all costs, unless trying to get laid.
The Hollywood machine is staffed by men who display what Roseanne Barr described as "staggering sexism" in a recent New York Magazine article, and "blondes in high heels who were so anxious to reach the professional level of the men they worshipped, fawned over, served, built up, and flattered that they would stab other women in the back."
The current literary world seems much more gender balanced, but plenty of guys never read novels or short stories written by women.
How many men have an aversion, conscious or not, to reading or watching the story of a woman's experience?
This impulse can easily, and stealthily, slip into the everyday realm of conversation.
A friend of mine told me her litmus test to gauge a first date: how long does it take for the guy to ask her a question? Quite often, he never does.
I explored this in a Facebook poll, asking women how often the men in their lives asked them questions of any kind. Two responded "all the time!" A few others said it was restricted to things like "where are my keys?" The majority said, quite emphatically, that it never happens at all.
Do you ask women questions?
In an article collected in The Worst Years of Our Lives, Barbara Ehrenreich relates how sociolinguist Pamela Fishman found that "topics introduced by men 'succeeded' conversationally 96 percent of the time, while those introduced by women succeeded only 36 percent of the time and fell flat the rest of the time."
How would the men observed in this study react if they were made aware of how dismissive they are? How would you?
Ehrenreich also describes how sociologists Candace West and Donald Zimmerman found that "men interrupt women much more often than they interrupt other men and that they do so more often than women interrupt either men or other women."
In Carol Shields' novel Unless, one character describes how she has never had a conversation with a man without the man trying to "win."
Do you try to win conversations? Do you steamroll female "opponents"? If you do ask a woman for her opinion, is it because you want to be enlightened by her perspective, or are you looking to see if she agrees with you (and to overpower her with your opinion if she doesn't)?
If a woman offers a view different from your own, how willing are you to consider it? Do you take it differently than you would if it came from a man?
Would you have read this article if it had been written by a woman?
None of these questions is meant to accuse, but to explore. In his book When the Body Says No, Gabor Mate describes the value of compassionate curiosity: looking at one's inner processes not with judgment and condemnation, but with interest and a desire to understand.
Enneagram author Russ Hudson described curiosity as an attribute of any person operating at a high level of personal development. Curiosity about oneself, and about the world. Always asking questions. Always seeing what you can find out, from everyone and everything.
As men - especially as first world white guys - we enter a world predisposed in our favour. We ride a great tide of privilege that was firmly established long before we got here. This privilege comes at the cost of others, women prominently among them. It's very easy to ignore that. Or to consider it the natural order of things. It's humbling and counter-intuitive to step down from one's inherited pedestal.
We can choose to be curious about our relationship to this privilege. Curious about our interactions with women. Curious about any unconscious beliefs manipulating our conversations.
A fertile curiosity can take us out of the paths we've grooved in our minds and show us things we've missed.
Curiosity can spur us on to ask questions, to women and men alike. Actually listening to the answers we receive can get us asking more questions still. And eventually seeing the familiar world in a new light.
Ken Wilber said one of the best ways to evolve is to learn to see from different points of view.
If there was some inner mechanism blinding you from fifty percent of human experience, would you want to know about it? If you had the opportunity to free yourself from it, would you?
What might the benefits be of learning to utilize the vast, ignored resources around you?