Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Sexism Hurts. So Does Rudeness

Yesterday, I was unpleasantly surprised by an unexpected and ugly instance of demeaning sexism in an email. Not an email just to me, but an email sent to a large distribution list. The offending two paragraphs were written in a joke-y, "of course we all think this way" tone, and they reinforced demeaning stereotypes about relationships between men and women that were already outdated in the 1960s.

Anyone attuned to these things has no trouble finding them everywhere. From the clods on the campaign trail who yelled "Iron my shirts!" at Hillary Clinton to the ignoramuses who write magazine articles insinuating that men are incapable of being nurturing parents (the kind of sexism, like the two offending paragraphs in my email yesterday, that manages both to degrade men and to define women in a limiting way), there is no shortage of prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination on the basis of gender in our everyday lives.

I hate having to be a good sport about sexism, knowing that my silence amounts to tacit approval and makes me a collaborator. Still, I understand that you have to pick your battles unless you want to be battling all the time. I also recognize the need for a sense of humor. Sexism is unfortunately so embedded in our society, our lingo, and our consciousness that even people who do not promote it sometimes find themselves contributing to its continued existence.

As strongly as I feel about this issue, I want to battle it effectively, and I've concluded that taking on every casual instance I run across is not the way to do that. I tend to nod and smile pleasantly and change the subject when people assume my husband's income was what funded our early retirement or ask me who's going to take care of him when I travel on business, or even when someone tells one of those ubiquitous jokes that portray women as for sex only and men as lumbering buffoons.

But yesterday's email came from someone who is widely known and admired. Whether he intends to be or not, he is a role model. I stewed over his sexist paragraphs for a while, then decided that because of his reach, I didn't want to let this one go.
I wrote a polite 3-sentence response that gently objected to the sexism. The last of the 3 sentences read: "I seriously doubt you really think this, and hope you won't mind a friendly reminder that stereotypes don't help anyone."

Once my email was written, I thought it over, bounced it off a couple people whose opinions I trust to rein in my more knee-jerk reactions, and then sent it.
It's now 24 hours later and he has not seen fit to respond. This rudeness further offends me. We're dealing with someone who is always hooked in, who never lets his cell phone out of his sight, who communicates frequently and well. I have the ability to call him out publicly. Shall I?

2/9/09 Update: Sincere thanks to all who've commented on this post, either below, on Facebook or via email. There was nothing private about the email with the paragraphs that offended me. It went to a distribution list that I understand exceeds 50,000 people. There is also nothing private about my reply to the sender. So here they both are.

The paragraphs I objected to opened the 2/3/09 afternoon HARO email. HARO stands for Help a Reporter Out, an innovative free subscription service that connects reporters with sources. HARO emails go out three times per day on weekdays, and each edition is sponsored. As far as I know, Peter Shankman, whose brainchild HARO is, writes the opening paragraphs. In any event, he is the "I" referred to in them.

The edition in question opened as follows:
This HARO is thanks to those words no guy wants to hear: "Why hasn't he proposed yet?!" Well, celebrity relationship experts, TV personalities and husband/wife Matt Titus and Tamsen Fadal have the answer for women who can't get their man to pop the question in their latest book, "Why Hasn't He Proposed?" Go From The First Date To Setting The Date. A real married couple, they have the answer to how you can land the ring on your finger with their fool-proof six week plan to get him to commit without saying a word! This book comes on the heels of their first book, "Why Hasn't He Called? and their Lifetime show, "Matched In Manhattan," a reality show based on their lives as married relationships experts and a real life couple. Plus, Matt and Tamsen are giving away the chance to win a free diamond ring with the launch of their new book!
[Links & contact info deleted].

The above book, which virtually every female on HARO is now buying, is enough to scare me into having absolutely nothing to say in my opening monologue. :)

Here's the text of the email I wrote in response:
Hey, whoa, ease up on the sexism, OK? This female would not only not buy this book if it were the last book on earth, but is disappointed to see someone so evolved playing into outdated notions that women are all about trapping men and men are all about eluding women. I seriously doubt you really think this, and hope you won't mind a friendly reminder that stereotypes don't help anyone.

I should also note than I'd previously emailed him to inquire how one went about becoming a HARO sponsor, and he responded to that email immediately.


Aprill said...

When sexism is compounded by rudeness, you have to wonder if the rudeness is borne of sexism(?).

Meghan said...

Well, I think if he doesn't seem fit to respond to what sounds like was a fair and respectful email, then he should be called out, in my opinion. People need to know that it's NOT ok. Just because it gender bias, people get away with it. A lot of people would never say those kind of things if it were racially or culturally biased, yet have no problem if it's gender biased.
Call him out. He had a chance to privately respond & chose not to.

wordsforliving said...

Wow, that is tough. I honestly don't know what I would do. I tend to not pick any battles, thinking there's no way to change someone that ignorant. I also think if someone is sexist, he would disregard a female, but would listen to another male setting him straight.

April D said...

You've done your part. No need to more. He may not have answered yet ou of embarrasment. He will definitely think twice before future emails. Give him a chance. Call him out next time if you see fit, but for now give him a little time to grow up. It doesn't happen overnight.

readergirl said...

he might be too embarrassed to say something to you, or might not be comfortable putting anything in writing. perhaps, if you are feeling up to it, speak to him privately in person? great post, btw!

i work in a school setting and even though it is dominated by ladies, the male teachers can do anything, say anything, etc. it is incredible. one male teacher repeatedly stood outside his door while i was pregnant with my 4th child to tell all parents whether or not he thought i was moody that day.(i never was- i am a professional). That did not stop others from believing it, though and it hurt my reputation. sadly, nothing was ever done, even after my union rep spoke to him.

in other words, i hear you! and being the victim of a stereotype is really painful!

twitter me: readergirl

Lance Godard said...

Debra: putting up my comments from Twitter (only slightly edited...):

I think the underlying question is what good would come of outing perpetrator? Will it make him stop being sexist? Is that even possible? Or just make him shut up (can be a satisfactory result)?

Public shame probably does not produce the best results. I've seen this more in terms of nationalities, such as email jokes about certain nationalities (think "Freedom Fries") that circulate with no regard for who is receiving the email. In those cases, when confronted the offender was often completely clueless to offensive nature of the joke. Cluelessness is a different problem to fix than sexism. On the other hand, it might be relatively fixable.

Anonymous said...

Great post, and tough dilemma!

I had a new boss a few years ago who made a sexist comment about a female coworker:"if a man had done it the job would have been done right" I replied that "if a person with better attention to detail had done the job it would have been done right." He turned and walked away without replying, but for the next 3 years I worked for him I never heard another sexist comment and we developed a lasting friendship.

I don't think calling this man out is the smart move, as tempting and irritating as it might feel. I would guess that he's very embarrassed and unsure of how to respond. I echo other comments that urge you to talk with him in private before taking any public action.

Debra Snider said...

Heartfelt thanks to all of you for the comments so far. This perpetrator is not someone I work with or know personally, so the email I sent him was my only way to speak to him privately. Had he responded, I wouldn't even consider calling him out.

That said, I'm still not inclined to name him. I'm leaning toward thinking he hasn't responded either because he's embarrassed or because he's decided to pretend this never happened. If so, his reaction is juvenile, but it should be enough to make him think twice in the future.

Liz Carver said...


I'm not even going to look at the other comments so that I can feel that my gut instinct alone is what I post here. And that is:

Wait it out. Give him 24 hours additional, maximum, on the rare chance his mother died. We are passionate people, yes, but we are also rational people. Second, when you don't hear from him, I think a private message saying "I'm giving you a chance to respond before I go public with this" would be in order. That's what we used to do in the news business: Give 'em a fair chance to respond, but let 'em know you mean business, especially public officials who know they are responsible for public response.

Third, wait again, until you feel he has had plenty of response time, and perhaps even until you feel less passionate about it, so that whatever public mention you make of him is tempered with your calm eloquence and the benefit of some perspective.

I don't say all this because I think he needs this much opportunity, but because you deserve to be the one who is seen taking the high ground.

Liz Carver said...

... and when I say "less passionate about it", I mean "less angry" -- because we'll never be less passionate about this topic. Sorry for the confusion that statement might have caused ;) - Liz

Kim Pittaway said...

Umm, you're all assuming he actually got your email. If you don't know him personally, it's also possible that your email has ended up in his junk or spam filter.

Or he may actually be taking the time to think over what you said and will reply in a day or two. Just because email can be sent instantly doesn't require that it be responded to instantly.

Not defending his sexism. But am suggesting that what we see as rudeness is sometimes just the universe reminding us that we're not the centre of it--the other person's universe, that is.

Nancy Krause Jones said...

While I agree with some of the comments that he may think twice before sending out e-mails or other communications like that again because of Debra's e-mail, I think it's more than likely that he will only think twice before sending only Debra an e-mail of that nature. What troubles me is that this is a supposed role model. If this is the case, people who consider him as such should be aware of his actual opinions, so his lack of response is something that should be considered in addition to his initial e-mail comments. I believe he should be responding not via a well-crafted e-mail response, but by personal contact to Debra. If he doesn't I would subtly call him out.

Retro Heather said...

You did the right thing.

It's possible that he's taking his time to carefully craft his reply. It's also possible that he's brushing you off. I'd give it a spot more time.

I think it's wise to pick your battles. That increases the likelihood that your words will be read and heard, and possibly hit home.

Lea Curtes-Swenson said...

IMO, your polite but firm response was not only the right thing to do -- it was also pretty courageous. Nice one, Debra.

You're wise to temper your knee-jerk reaction, get others' opinions. In my experience, the longer I wait to respond to something that lights a fire in me, the better (and more effective) that response is.

Best of luck -- and thanks for standing up for women everywhere!

Speaking Diva said...


Why not call him out? Expose him for who he is. Taking the passive route only gives him and others power, the power that we as women need to take back. I support whatever you decide to do 100%.

Jenny said...

The thought of having to "trick" someone into marrying me makes me ill, and I can't imagine the majority of women feel any differently. I agree his e-mail was stereotypical and unfair.

fellow-ette said...

Ugh! When I emerge from my feminist/progressive bubble and realize how many people still think in these cartoonish ways, it's so disheartening. You TOTALLY did the right thing by responding!

Annie @ PhD in Parenting said...

Wow. I'm a HARO subscriber, but I skip right over the intro paragraphs every time. I never read them and now I'm hoping there are many other people like me out there that didn't read that drivel.

I think it is awful that he wrote that and awful that he didn't reply to you (FWIW I sent him an e-mail once and he replied almost immediately, but I wasn't criticizing him).

I think what he is perhaps missing is a policy about what type of sponsors he will accept and not accept. I have no idea how he could possibly have written an intro for that book that is not sexist. So it goes back further than just his words, it goes back to the point in time where he agreed to take that book on as a sponsor.

Anonymous said...

Hey Debra,

This is the first time I am visiting your blog, and I must confess that I am glad I visited!

Great post this, and I appreciate your confronting the issue and sharing with the readers. Whenever I have shied away from confrontation (whether I was snubbed, mistreated, misjudged or maligned), I have lived sorely for never ending days...the anger gnawing at me...and finally it was just too late to do anything about it.

That said, (I know I am putting in a suggestion quite late in the game since this post was up months ago), I would not call out this person, after I had already written a private email to him (like you did).
On the other hand, if your first response was to 'reply all', with the same articulation, I would have endorsed that course of action.
Does that make sense? If I try to explain further, I run the risk of getting too verbose! :)