Last summer the Utah Women & Leadership Project conducted a survey asking women about the ways they have experienced sexism in Utah. As we analyze and categorize the results, I am saddened but not surprised when women report sexist comments from bosses and boyfriends and bishops. But the comments that fall under “internalized sexism” especially break my heart. My hope is that women will rally and support each other moving forward and not judge.
One way this manifests is with the so-called “mommy wars.” For many women, especially those in traditionally conservative faith traditions, the message to prioritize family is often translated into women prioritizing homemaking and men prioritizing career. If someone hears this message often enough, it can be tempting to look at women who work for pay (because most women are working in one form or another) and question their choices. One survey respondent shared that when a fellow mom found out she worked, she was accused of “letting someone else raise her children.”
This is a result of an either/or mentality. If we teach people that only women who stay home with their kids truly value family, then we are creating judgement. And the flip side is dangerous, too. Several women shared being ignored in a social setting when others assumed they were “just wives and mothers,” as if being interesting comes from a paycheck. If we teach that only women who have careers are leaders, capable, smart, then we are denying the value of so many women and perpetuating judgement.
Many of the comments about internalized sexism occurred in the workplace, where some women seemed to refuse to support other women. This is the result of a system that has denied women opportunities in business, government or any sphere outside the home.
While things have greatly improved, some still cling to the idea that there is only so much power allotted to women. This scarcity mindset can lead women to see other women as their greatest threat, fearing that if there is only one female, then she has to guard her territory fiercely. But the opposite is true. The more women we have in every setting, the more we can support and amplify each other, thus sharing and magnifying our influence.
I have seen the benefits of supporting and valuing women’s choices and not judging others on the decisions they make. A true sign of emotional security is to see someone embrace a life totally different from your own and not feel that her choice is in some form a criticism of your own life.
When a man runs for office, no one says, “Who will watch your kids?” When a man applies for graduate school no one says, “Why are you bothering getting more education? Won’t you just quit when you get married?”
One of the issues can be that sometimes girls and women don’t know all of their choices. For example, they don’t think they could even choose a college major in STEM or business or government. It’s so important for all our kids, boys and girls, to know all of the options available. Leading is not a “boy thing” and nurturing is not a “girl thing.” We are all capable of both.
Bottom line, I believe everyone deserves education and training. Seeking enrichment does not deny or preclude staying home with children. And if women work and have kids it does not mean they don’t value family. And women who never marry and never have kids are not less valuable either. We need to respect people’s choices, understand that not everyone gets a choice, and trust that everyone is making the best of their situation.
Remember, empowered women empower women. It’s time to better support our sisters.
Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman endowed professor of leadership and the director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, Utah State University