Sit up, take notice

Ever notice how in schools, girls are usually better represented in extracurriculars than boys are? There are typically more girl student officers, for one thing; and during events, it’s the girls who step up and keep things running smoothly. One would think that, with all this training, it’ll still be the girls running the world outside the walls of the university. But then again, they don’t. There are more men elected to government office than women; men occupy more positions of authority than women; and women are largely relegated to clerical work or, worse, used as decoration. Sit up, take notice. It’s happening right now.

With the disclaimer that I am not schooled in gender studies and all that, and that I am approaching this simply as a reasonably observant person, I have
a theory.

The difference between academe (where girls typically outshine boys) and the real world (where men dominate) is that in school, both boys and girls tend to be thought of simply as students, with no distinction between the sexes. This way of looking at them operates to defuse the gender-role biases most people have, even with regard to their own sex. Boys see nothing wrong with girls becoming student-council president; girls see nothing wrong with being
aggressive in the pursuit of their goals. Both boys and girls are expected to excel, and nothing more; all pathways to excellence are wide open to both, and so everyone is able to give free rein to their ambition.

Once they graduate and leave the confines of academe, however, the environment changes drastically. Boys are still only expected to succeed, and so continue to enjoy a great deal of freedom in charting their own course, basically the way they see fit. Girls, on the other hand, are suddenly not just themselves as they were in school—free to seize the day—but are now mothers, daughters, girlfriends; the fairer sex, inheritors of the burden of gender-role expectations and imperatives. Where in school, a girl would probably be encouraged to run for council president, a woman in the real world would be given backhanded moral support at best.

“Yes, definitely run for elective office, but make sure you’re home in time to cook dinner for your husband and kids.” “Oh, she’s so upwardly mobile, but she’s still single, isn’t she? Sad.” “She’s so intimidating, but that biological clock must be ticking so loudly now.”

Far from being free to pursue their own dreams, girls—women now—suddenly have to conform to the expectations of society. There are those who embrace these expectations, of course. And that’s perfectly fine. But for some, this effectively shuts down the goal of rendering public service via elective office; and for many, it means having to settle for dreams less magnificent than the ones they had when they were younger. Sit up, take notice. It’s happening right now.

Whether you agree with my conclusions or not, it is important to sit up and take notice, because this constriction of women’s freedom to dream and pursue their goals thrives in the shadows of our inattention. When we don’t acknowledge that this process exists, it is much easier to ignore; and how can you justify working to solve a problem that, for you, isn’t even is. So sit up, take notice. It’s happening right now.