Is Chivalry to Blame for Socialized Sexism?

As a boy I was pulled aside by my grandmother on the streets of Belfast and scolded for not holding the door open for a woman trying to enter a store as I exited.

“You hold the door open for every old lady and every young lady. Actually, you hold it for everybody.”

Recently I read an article about the negative impact chivalry apparently has on women in today’s world. The lady who wrote it went on to discuss how chivalrous acts sent the wrong message to girls and women because it placed upon them a sense of dependency.

While I can see where the basis of the writer’s point, I do not agree with her. I do not believe chivalry to be a bad tradition, nor do I see it as a subconscious way for men to make themselves the holders of doors while women are made to be subservient.

Of course, I am not a woman and cannot speak for the many who will no doubt disagree with me. But my so-called chivalry (I would just call it politeness) isn’t set out to make women different. It is little more than a traditional form of social conditioning developed by our culture. And my grandmother.

Despite the article being a couple of years old, I began to question broader themes of sexism in our society.

I am a feminist

To the male readers who don’t know, feminism is about gender equality, not “pro-woman/anti-man” propaganda. Like many feminists I believe women and men should have the same legal rights and social justice. I do not believe governing bodies centered on men around the world’s capitals have the right to decide what a woman can and cannot do with her body. And of course I believe in equal pay for equal work, biology aside.

The article did make me think of women in the business world and the troubles they faced. One often mentioned point is the fact business is a male-dominated entity and women struggle to break in and survive. The culture, according to many, is highly masculinized and places women at a disadvantage.

This is no doubt true. Yet if we are told we must change our national culture, that we must stop holding open literal doors for women, then why do we need to alter the culture of business to hold open the figurative doors?

She wasn’t a He

The fact women find it more difficult to be successful in the professional world is more or less indisputable. It is extraordinary how few women reach the higher executive levels in major corporations, let alone the Chief Executive.

Mary T. Barra, CEO General Motors

When Mary T. Barra became CEO of General Motors it was a bigger news story than it should have been. Why? Because she was a woman. The reports didn’t go on about her qualifications, but focused on her being the first female in charge of a major automaker. She was judged differently, questioned more harshly and shown more doubt for the fact that She wasn’t a He.

Women who climb the ladders and push boundaries are often treated by the press, entertainment industry, by discussions in social groups as being hard, cold, and are ultimately labelled “Bitch”.

Female referees in male sports. High ranking female officers in the military. Female doctors instead of nurses. Female police chiefs. Women in typically male job roles are judged more harshly, spending the years of their career heights on what has been dubbed the “glass cliff”:

Like the glass ceiling that keeps women from rising higher, the glass cliff is what counter-stereotypical individuals (such as female police chiefs) are in danger of falling from.

Women who are working their way up industry ladders in whatever sector they find themselves will face challenges men will never truly understand.

Years of social conditioning have taught us women must become more masculine to cope in business. Stylistically this usually entails short, cropped haircuts, dropping skirts and donning pantsuits. The late Baroness Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister, had to adapt to her testosterone powered world; as well as altering her clothing choices she was told to lower her vocal pitch to sound less shrill and more husky. In essence, she was ordered to speak less like a housewife and more like the man-in-charge.

Many women have followed this course of action, some by choice others by necessity. Yet either way the outcome is usually the same: these women are branded “Bitch”.

What about the men…?

The Koch Brothers

The men in these high-level roles are not exactly portrayed as humane. Most of us have male bosses. Most businesses are managed and owned by men. Do we consider them to all be warm and friendly?

Do we heck.

Rupert Murdoch. The Koch brothers. Dick Cheney. John Boehner. Vladimir Putin. Kim Jong-un. Xi Jinping. Rex Tillerson. Jamie Dimon. Ali Hosseini Khamenei. Jeff Immelt. Sepp Blatter.

That’s just a short list of literally thousands of men who are or have been in significant positions of power in media, business and government. These men are not what you would consider the most approachable or personable people on the planet. Many of us would call them names considerably more explicit than “bitch”. I know I have.

Our gender stereotyping makes us automatically judge women more harshly than men when it comes to positions of power and responsibility. Can their femininity really allow them to make the tough choices? Can they get their emotions under control? (Funny we ask this of women yet Boehner was not reprimanded for his numerous crying sessions in television interviews.)

But did that stop Hillary Clinton from being the woman in close reach of the American presidency, or the current poll-leader for the Democratic ticket in 2016? Does Mrs. Barra look back negatively on the troubles she faced while she sits comfortably in her Chief Executive office?

Baroness Thatcher became a pariah in British politics and was scorned by millions in the public and press, even members of her own party, during her term as Britain’s primary. Did she suffer more attacks, become a more divisive figure than any before or after her because she was a woman? Did that stop her, or did it make her stronger?

And what about Queen Elizabeth I? In her time the monarch’s word was still law. An unmarried woman, Elizabeth rose above doubt to lead Britain to a new dawn of prosperity.

Did any of these women really lose their womanhood to become successful outside the home?

Hillary Clinton Awarded The 2013 Lantos Human Rights Prize
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

Business isn’t for doughboys!

The fact is, the business world is tough and anyone who is considered too soft for it is scutinized. This includes men, who “lack cojones”, and sadly most if not all women.

Baroness Margaret Thatcher

There is sexism in the business world. But it doesn’t prevent women from rising to the top. Women can, and do, succeed in business. And they are treated as cold because our culture has familiarized us with the fictitious woman who bakes bread and wears aprons and a faultless smile.

The culture of business, however, is not really prejudicial against women. It is just business. And it is the same for men and women.

We have defined femininity as warm and doughy, masculinity as sharp and metallic. Men who enter the business realm on the doughier side of the spectrum must either harden up to survive or are kicked to the curb. The main disparity is how circumscribed gender norms means the majority of women must suffer this struggle.

The article that started all this told me we had to stop holding doors open for women so we didn’t subconsciously create a sense of submission. But we’re also told the business world needs to change to accommodate women.

Neither is correct. The only thing we have to do is eradicate our social gender norms. And not just to allow women to achieve outside the home where centuries of “tradition” (I would call it “repression”) kept them from professional careers, but to also allow men to become a doughier version of themselves without compromising their masculinity.

There is prejudice in our culture, across the world, but we favor to focus on insignificant problems rather than dealing with the bigger disputes.

And at the end of the day, I’d like to think acts of chivalry could continue as being nothing more than acts of kindness. But either way, I won’t stop holding open doors or offering up my seat to ladies I see in public. That’s just the way I was brought up.

Plus, I’d rather not face another public scolding from my Gran.


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