Advice From the Trenches

Just Smile!: Should she call out her sexist board member?

Dear C and Dr. B;

I am really mad, but don’t know what to do or say. Last night during a 12- person zoom meeting of nine men and three women, the head of the board I am on kept asking the women to smile. He didn’t do this to the men. I didn’t want to embarrass him so I said nothing but it really made me feel icky. He probably doesn’t realize he is doing something wrong, we do live in a patriarchy, but It is demeaning, sexist, and wrong. I don’t know what to do about it and I am not sure who to talk to about it. It really irks me to even be in this position. What do I do?  

– Bring on the Clowns

Dr. B says: This brings to mind 2016 when Trump’s frown was seen as a sign of strength and seriousness, but Hillary was expected to smile. Hillary talked about this and there were a lot of articles written at that time about how woman were asked to smile so as not to threaten men. It is a token of submission and placement in a patriarchal society. It is socially expected for woman to smile but not men. There are even names for body shaming of women like spider legs and camel toe but there are no equivalents for men.

Men aren’t made to wear high heeled shoes and stockings, does this bother you, too? Being forced into anything by expectation would make me feel trapped and icky as well. But on the other hand there are all kinds of social rules about appearance, dress and etiquette, which are built on tradition and social expectations. They are really all costumes people are forced into, most of which people have internalized, welcomed and have no problems with. Do you wear a business suit, high heeled shoes, stockings, makeup, or dye your hair? Do you shave your pits and trim your pubic hair? A social smile is no different than these. It is all really the same thing. 

It may be helpful to print out an article on this subject, present it to the other women on the board and ask how they feel about it and plan from there. “The Sexism of Telling Women to Smile” in The Atlantic is a good example, but Google can bring up a zillion others. Or maybe print it out give it to the board director and have a discussion about how it feels?   

-Dr. B

C says: Oh, for gods sake, Clown, stop being such a girl! You are acting out your own cultural stereotype just as much as your board director is following his. If you were a man you would feel no need to gather support or circulate memos before speaking up. If you don’t want to embarrass the guy, then wait until after the meeting. But I’d leave the sexism accusations out of it. You may see his request for smiles as demeaning, sexist and wrong, but for centuries, such behavior has been taught as polite chivalry. Our perception of compliments and smiles has only recently shifted in classification from “friendly” to “oppressive.” Deeply rooted programming doesn’t change overnight.

The Me Too phenomena has been a double edged sword. On a number of levels, it was powerful and important – men should never be allowed to conspire to prevent women from equal pay or demean them by demanding sexual favors in return for advancement. But I am totally sick of  women who now think that they are entitled to kid gloves treatment and they shouldn’t have to stand up for themselves anymore. 

Both men and women are oppressed by cultural expectations. Do you honestly think that men don’t have to deal with being put in their place, insulted, or held back unfairly? If they aren’t the boss chances are they have as much crap to deal with as you do. The difference is that society expects men to hold their own, be the bread winner, and stand up to territorial invaders, so men don’t question themselves the way women do. But men are oppressed by other cultural standards – if a man wanted to stay home and nurture his kids while his wife supported the family, he’d be seen as a free loader. If you wanted to do the same thing, no one would think twice.

As adults, we all need to learn to stand up for ourselves. Anyone who is in power is constantly assaulted by those who would take it away – and if you ever try to get ahead, both men and women will give you grief every inch of the way. In my experience, women hand out as much crap as the men do…they just smile while they do it, which is a lot sneakier. 

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