For my last column of Women’s History Month, I want to address a topic that has been on my mind a lot this past year: male privilege.
I’m no expert on this topic — I studied economics and public policy — but for many years I’ve been interested in how power, authority and expectations of behavior work differently for women and men. I also see how our educators, as they work with students, face numerous related questions every day.
Opening our eyes to Male Privilege
Author Peggy McIntosh likens male privilege to an invisible package of unearned advantages that are constantly at work but which most people don’t notice. These patterns help build males’ innate sense of confidence in seeking or wielding power, while the opposite is often true for females. In our country, we continue to see stark disparities between men and women in access to the highest positions of leadership — in politics, board rooms, in sports and academia.
Male privilege also works in daily, often subtle ways, such as who is heard, who interrupts whom, who takes on what tasks and who is objectified.
Stereotypes, Standards and Judgment
Seeing a man pursue power is unsurprising, and he is often respected for doing so. When a woman puts her hand up to compete for power, she is often judged, either overtly or subconsciously.
Our stereotypes are powerful, and seeing some people defy them can make others uncomfortable. On the other hand, our notions and representations of leadership and power are changing. As women, people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, people with disabilities and other diverse individuals and groups step forward to make change, our definition of what leadership looks like shifts and grows.
Competition vs. Cooperation
Our traditional notions of leadership styles are changing, too. Historically, in America at least, leaders (typically heterosexual white males) have been represented as individualistic, charismatic, competitive figures who drive change through sheer talent and will. But we are also developing and enacting broader notions of leadership, focusing on cooperation, collective action and distributed responsibility.
Women of all races are leading this movement, as demonstrated so powerfully in January’s Women’s March.
Why I Am a Feminist
Patriarchy, the societal embodiment of male privilege, represents a system that names some people, namely women, as inferior to men. It accepts and validates a belief that men are better suited to hold power, make decisions and control property. It is an oppressive system that is harmful to everyone, not just women. Because I believe women and men are equal, and that everyone is equal, I am a feminist.
A Message to Our Boys
Despite much recent and ongoing progress in reducing sex and gender inequality, our grooves of patriarchy and male privilege are deep. Some glass ceilings are cracking and breaking, but plenty remain very sturdy. I urge our boys and males to pay attention to these patterns and consider taking action, even in small ways. Listen to females, hear their wisdom, speak up for sex and gender equality, reflect on privilege.
I am so hopeful that our students will continue to set new norms and patterns for gender equality, working against oppression and building understanding and justice.
Myong Leigh is interim superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District.