I was scrolling through my Twitter feed this morning and came across a comment thread by a lady named Mary Robinette Kowal. She tweeted this photo of two astronauts working aboard the International Space Station. At first blush, this photo seems fairly innocent, as both crew members share the task of recording whatever observations they are making through the porthole window. But, maybe, my many female followers will be able to detect what is happening that prompted Mary Robinette Kowal to tweet as she did. From my male perspective, I first looked at this photo and saw, what looked like, gender equality on display. I felt good that both scientists were working collaboratively, in apparent harmony, as true partners in this experiment of theirs. But, when Mary Robinette Kowal looked at this photo, she saw inequity; an inequity that is a feature of life for most women living in a man’s world. Let me explain.
A few years ago, when I was still teaching primary-aged children, we had the good fortune to learn about the International Space Station from a Canadian astronaut named Chris Hadfield. Commander Hadfield was as skilled a communicator, as he was an astronaut. As part of his mission, he sought to educate children about space so, he would accept questions from school children and would answer them by making short videos. One child asked him how he slept at night without floating away. He replied by demonstrating how each crew member had their own sleeping bag tethered to a wall inside a compartment. He climbed into the bag, zipped it up and pretended to sleep, staying perfectly in place the whole time. Then, he went on to talk about doing his scientific work. Commander Hadfield said that whenever he had to stand still and perform a task or look out of a window, he would place his feet under a blue bar that was attached to the floor. By doing that, his feet would hit the bar and he would stand, rooted in place. So, what does this have to do with inequity, you ask? I want you to look back at the photo and find the blue bar on the floor. Now, look at how the astronauts are conducting their experiment of looking out of the porthole and recording their results.
Mary Robinette Kowal pointed out that the male astronaut had his feet tucked up under the bar but, the smaller, female astronaut could not use the bar to stabilize herself and still do her job of looking out of the window. She pointed out that the female astronaut was still able to complete her task but, that she had to do so by compensating for the fact that the International Space Station was built with male astronauts in mind. That, declared Robinette Kowal, is an experience shared by many females all throughout life.
Among the many thing Mary Robinette Kowal has done in her life, she is a professional puppeteer. She gave another example the contortions many women face in the workplace by describing her time spent working on The Muppet Show with master puppeteer, Jim Henson. She said that Henson was six foot, three inches tall and that because he was the main puppeteer, the sets were built to accommodate his body size and not her, much-smaller frame. She talked about wearing special shoes with six inch lifts, standing on boxes, etc. and how the mere act of bringing her characters to life in Jim Henson’s physical universe caused her discomfort and pain, at times. I never got the sense that she was complaining about her treatment on set by her male co-workers. But, I did get the very real sense that in order for her to work on set, she was expected to “do what she had to do” to reach the proper heights or, in other words, like the female astronaut above, it was assumed that she would compensate for working in a male environment.
I am a man. Yes, I am. I like to think that I am relatively forward-thinking when it comes to issues of equity but, just the same, my male privilege colours my experiences in life in ways that will always be different. For example, I never think twice about walking down a quiet street at night. The bill is almost always given to me to pay in restaurants after our meal is done. When trades people come to our house for any reason, they always direct their discussions toward the “man of the house”. Finally, at school, I was, almost always, accorded respect by parents because I was a male teacher. I was rarely challenged for my comments on report cards, certain students were placed in my room so that they could have a “male influence” to guide them and so on. None of these things make me superior but, they do serve to highlight that my life experiences are different in many ways because I am a man. The problem comes when, as a society, we accept these differences as being normal….so normal, in fact, that we don’t even see the evidence in front of our eyes, as in the photo above.
As a man, I remain a work in progress when it comes to issues of gender equality. I fully support issues of pay equity, for example and I try very hard to champion the accomplishments of females and to advocate for equal opportunities for all girls and women in life. But, admittedly, I accept my privilege easily, too. And, if I still have a way to go then, what about the majority of other men who don’t give gender issues a second thought?! So if you are a female reader of this post, I would like to learn from your experiences, just as I did from Mary Robinette Kowal and her tweet this morning. If there was one thing that you would like men to know about your own experiences that you feel they don’t they even realize, what would that be? Is there something that men should know that may help create a positive change in our behaviour? If so, let me know in the comments below. My blog is your blog this day. Let class be in session. As men, we all have much to learn. Thanks, in advance, for sharing your knowledge.
*I will add that those readers who know me in real life may feel safe in their knowledge that I am a good person and that I will welcome their words. For those who do not know me in real life, please know that my blog is a safe haven for your thoughts and advice. I am not a troll waiting to ambush you. Asking for trust is asking for a lot, I know. But, if you come to know anything about me, know this……I am a gentleman. I was raised right. You are safe with me.
I look forward to your comments and your wisdom.