October 1, 2014

Gender Equality: Women’s Rights are Human Rights

By Andrew M. Harrison

By Wells B. LaRiviere

Note: Sex refers to the biological assignment of reproductive anatomy, while gender refers to a spectrum of social and cultural roles associated with sex. This post touches on both, but for the sake of brevity, I will not explore this complex subject further.

On the afternoon of September 18th, 2014, Dr. Karen Hedin (Professor, Mayo Clinic Department of Immunology) hosted a discussion entitled “Women in Science: Problems and Brainstorming Solutions,” an important extension of the ongoing discussion of sex equality at Mayo Clinic. The conference room on the 15th floor of the Guggenheim building was well past capacity and overflowed with students, staff, and faculty alike. However, just as Rielyn Campbell (Education Coordinator, Mayo Clinic Office for Diversity) had observed at a related event in June 2014, the vast majority of those in attendance were women. As she notes in her article, this is problematic because we cannot arrive at a state of true equality of the sexes without the participation and cooperation of men.

Men must join women if we are ever to arrive at a society free of sex-based discrimination, because true equality among the two sexes can only be established through mutual respect and a reciprocal investment in the well-being of both sexes. Furthermore, the moral imperative for men and women to be treated as equals is recognized as a national and international priority. With this in mind, why is it that men are not more concerned with the prevalence of sex-based discrimination in society?

Unfortunately, I cannot say I am surprised by the lack of male representation at these events. As an American man, I am well aware of the normative behavior that discourages men from joining women in the struggle for equality. The cult of masculinity in American society pressures men to embrace a machismo defined by stoic self-reliance and material success girded by intellectual and physical prowess. Strikingly, these traits are defined in opposition to qualities that are traditionally ascribed to femininity: deference, compassion, sensitivity, and tolerance. For this reason, men who do not succeed in defining themselves by these terms are often treated with gendered and/or homophobic slurs, denigrating their self-worth and ostracizing them from the fraternity of masculinity.

Given that men have been socialized since childhood to embrace this confining and oppositional definition of masculinity, is it a surprise they are absent in the struggle for gender equality? As Dr. Hedin mentioned in her talk, the qualities that are associated with leadership—confidence, decisiveness, and dominance, to name a few—are also qualities that men have been socialized to regard as distinctly their purview. The effect is twofold: many men not only have difficulty envisioning their female colleagues as leaders, but they often cannot sympathize with the difficulty women face in their pursuit of professional success. As men, they have been reared from birth to assert themselves leaders; why can’t women simply do the same? Furthermore, this means men often feel that they must be on the defensive when women argue for equal rights. Many men view the struggle for gender equality as an attack on the validity of the success they have enjoyed, and are thus aggressively dismissive of the very real obstacles that women must overcome to be considered equals in a professional environment.

What many men fail to realize is that the very same gender norms that prevent women from being treated as equals also place an enormous and unsustainable burden on the male psyche. The narrow and one-dimensional masculine character to which we are expected to conform leaves no room for the normal range of human emotion. Feelings of sorrow, vulnerability, and inadequacy are well within the natural range of the human experience. However, as confined as we are by our own self-imposed gender role, we view these states as pathological and disgraceful. In the context of a career, this makes failure all the more devastating; the same machismo that has anchored our success can also sink our dignity to the bottom of the ocean.

I should clarify: this is not to elevate the victimhood of men over the injustices that women have suffered, and continue to suffer, due to gender-based discrimination. Even were I interested in quantifying such a thing, it would be meaningless to compare the viciousness with which women have been subjugated throughout human history to the crisis of masculinity. My point is this: as men and as women, we are all victims of the same senseless and self-inflicted cruelty. It is rooted in our inflexible gender norms. As men, we have an obligation to both ourselves and to women to actively embrace the struggle for gender equality as one of human emancipation. As long as we continue to view women as others, will we continue to confine ourselves to a suffocating definition of success and self-worth; alienating not just the women in our lives, but our own humanity as well.

For this reason, I hope to see far more men at the next on-campus event dedicated to women in the sciences. Men cannot continue to identify this important campaign for equality as somehow separate from, or oppositional to, our own self-interest. We must realize that the fight for women’s equality is the fight for human rights. Bringing about true gender equality is an obligation we must embrace for our mothers, sisters, female loved ones, and for ourselves.

Wells and FamilyWells (center) with his brother Evan, sister Lane, and dog Bailey.

Wells B. LaRiviere is a student in the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) at Mayo Clinic. He was born and raised in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Editorial comment (Andrew M. Harrison): In one of the two previous blog posts referenced above, through another editorial comment, I mentioned the continual failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment for nearly 100 years. With great interest in women’s rights among Mayo Clinic trainees and employees, stayed tuned for more posts on this subject in the coming months. Also, a welcome to the Mayo Clinic Rochester Women in Technology MERG (Mayo Employee Resource Group), formed in 2014.

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