Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?

I was in a facilitated discussion yesterday as part of a professional conference. One of the questions we discussed: “Should women be treated the same way as men?” There was no clear consensus, except that we all could agree with a vague statement saying that people should be treated with respect.

No, I don’t think women should be treated the same way as men, and a lot of the participants disagreed with me. I believe that some of the women in our conversation (our group was all women) were answering a different question than the one that was asked. I think the question they were really answering was, “Should men and women be treated the same way?” But that’s not the same thing as “Should women be treated the same way as men?” If we treat women the same way as men, we are starting from the premise that men are treated in a particular way and agreeing that women should be treated the same way. If we treat both the same, we are determining a way of treating people and applying it to everyone.

So often, women have been expected to conform to social structures that were designed by men. Look at a hypothetical, but quite common organization in a male-dominated industry. The employees are mostly men. Sometimes management hires a woman employee. In most cases, these women leave after a few months. Managers conclude that women are flighty or lack dedication — that they are bad employees. So they hire fewer of them.

But an analysis of the company shows that the corporate culture is hostile to women. Sexist jokes abound; managers condone them, and even laugh along. Female employees are expected to laugh too, or at least not to speak up in their defense. If they do, they are told they are overly sensitive, or looking for offense where none was meant. Women in this workplace are frequently subjected to comments about their appearance, to unwanted touching, and worse. They are cut off when they try to speak in meetings. The company has no systems in place to help employees balance work and family responsibilities. It is too small to be required to offer federally mandated family leave. And flexible scheduling is not available. A woman who asks if she can, for example, come in early one day a week so she can leave early to accommodate a child’s schedule is told no and criticized for expecting special treatment. And don’t even think about a place and break time to express breast milk.

This company treats women the way it treats men, and it expects them to act the way men do. If they can’t or won’t, they eventually are forced out. Instead of treating women the way it treats men, this firm needs to start from scratch and rethink the way it treats everyone. Flexible schedules should be offered, where feasible, to all employees — and what is feasible should be determined in an open-minded way. A family leave policy should be adopted, with both men and women eligible. And of course, sexist comments, harassment, and assault should not be tolerated, ever.

Another problem with the question is that it’s binary. Our group did not have time to address this issue. But many policies and systems in this country need to change to reflect the growing acknowledgement of a wider range of humanity than simply female or male.

I don’t want to be treated as a man. Male should not be the default. I want us all to be treated as equally worthy of respect. And that’s a very different thing.

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