The trivialization of women’s interests throughout history and what we can learn for the future
In the 1920s, flight attending was a predominately male profession. Passengers were fearful of this new mode of transportation; having an all white, male staff reassured them of the safety of commercial airlines. These men were perceived as capable, competent members of the crew, right alongside the pilot in importance. It was only after World War II, when women took over the job as men left for war, that flight attendants lost their respect, instead becoming sexualized and trivialized.
Three U.S. presidents launched their political careers through the highly respected and valiant sport of cheerleading. In 1911, one newspaper claimed that cheerleading “ranks hardly second to that of having been a quarterback” in terms of importance to a young man’s career. The first women to participate were deemed too masculine — too masculine because they were cheerleaders. Yet, just as quickly as women took interest, cheerleading stopped being seen as a sport for strong, capable leaders.
The list goes on. With its strong and warlike undertones, the color pink was formerly reserved for little boys; its delicate counterpart, light blue, was for calm and dainty little girls. The name Stacy, despite being derived from “Eustace,” has become an exclusively feminine name in recent decades. Even putting aside the theme of masculine traits becoming feminized, work that has always been women-dominated, such as housework and nursing, never had the chance to be considered important, desirable, or powerful to begin with.
It has been said, over and over, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The history of women in the workplace always tells the same story: women enter a male-dominated profession, only to find that it’s no longer a respectable field. Because they’re a part of it, so men leave in droves. Because women do it, and therefore it must not be important. Because society would rather discredit an entire profession than acknowledge that a female-dominated field might be doing something that actually matters.
Acknowledging and learning from women’s treatment throughout history is vital because this is still happening. Though it’s easier to identify these trends once they’ve ran their course, observing changes in public opinion right now is necessary to figuring out how to reverse this trend. Encouraging women to enter male-dominated realms does little to challenge gender stereotypes if the field loses respect as soon they join. Rather than allowing this trend to succeed yet again, we have the chance to break the cycle.
How do we identify fields that are at risk for becoming trivialized? By examining our own language and attitudes towards that field. Product managers aren’t as important to a team as engineers. Higher education is a waste of time and money. Front-end software engineering is not real engineering. The common link between these opinions is that they are directed towards places where women are starting to gain traction.
At this point, skeptics must be chanting to their screens, “But those things are trivial! They shouldn’t matter, regardless of gender.” In response to this, I return to the fact that they were considered important when men were doing it. What inherently makes football more respectable than cheerleading when they’re just different types of athletics? Why is it more respectable to rave about the latest Apple product than it is to be excited about the fall fashion line when both of these are just forms of consumerism? The point is that there are things that are trivial and then there are things that are ridiculed and the overlap between those two is nearly always where women are the dominant audience.
Our power is in another castle. In Super Mario Bros, Mario fights and fights to reach the castle where Princess Peach is being held hostage. Just as he reaches his goal, it turns out Bowser has already taken her away to another castle. Women fight to enter a field that promises power and respect, but by the time they make it, that respect is already long gone.
There is a deeper problem here that needs to be challenged. It is so inherent and so ingrained in our minds that it’s rarely noticed: Who decides what is powerful? Certainly it’s not women; cheerleaders, nurses, and elementary school teachers everywhere can attest to that. When we talk about gender diversity, it’s always focused on getting women into male-dominated fields like engineering and sciences. It’s about pushing women into areas that men have deemed important, which is an insidious way of perpetuating the idea that women’s interests are not. There are two sides to this coin: we need more women in male-dominated fields, but we also need to realize that women’s interests can have their own credibility.
Mario is required to save the Princess. We are not required to chase after someone else’s definition of power. When someone dismisses a field for being too feminine, the response doesn’t have to be to blindly encourage women to pursue something that’s male-dominated instead. That strategy will end the same way it always has: Sorry women, but the power is in another castle. Yes, the fact that there are monsters in that castle (sexism, harassment, discrimination) needs to be addressed for the women who do want to be there. But we also need to talk about the assumption that someone else can decide where power lies and we’ll just chase after it without question.
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Originally published on Medium.