It's not about sexism, it's about patriarchy

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It's not about sexism, it's about patriarchy

Nov 15, 2010

Patrick St. John

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I happened across a very thoughtful essay on gender issues in the design field by John Mindiola, over at Smashing Magazine:

Walk into any design classroom, at any college in America, and you’ll see a comfortable mix of male and female students. Turn your attention to the front of the classroom, or down the hall to the faculty and staff offices, and that wonderful gender balance starts to skew. Travel outside the campus, and there’s really no balance at all.

But why? If there are design classrooms across the country with a 50/50 blend of men and women — and in many classrooms, there are more females than males — then why doesn’t the design field represent the same ratio? Why does creative employment still showcase a male-dominated presence?

It's definitely worth a read, and it touches on gender issues in the larger tech field.

Of course, things got ugly in the comments section. A sampling:

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Sorry if this comes out wrong
but as a guy, why do I care?

Obviously if women wanted to be designers, they can be. There is nothing stopping them from being designers and developers. If they are under represented, then there is a reason for this, less women than men want to be web designers / developers.

People in the United States rise and fall within a particular field because of talent. If they are talented and have drive, then they will succeed. In other countries this might be a problem, but the United States has gone past this. If you are seeing discrimination in the hiring process, then perhaps you should look at your portfolio and not at the “oppressive men” holding you back.

I don’t see this concern towards men in female dominated human services fields whatsoever. I don’t even see any concern about the decreased ratio of men to women in colleges and universities either.

I wonder why women so badly want to be like men… the bigger the difference between men and women the stronger is the society. Men and women brains works differently that’s why there is women and men predominant industries.

Meh. I dont really see what all the commotion is about. If you do good work, you will succeed. If you dont, you wont. I have a hard time believing that this is something people think about when hiring and it seems like a self fulfilling prophecy.

Exactly, i just don’t get why these articles get written, at work, the people i work with are “designers” I don’t then sub divide them into male/female or brown eyes/blue eyes etc. I think anyone who writes an article like this must be inherently sexist, because they have obviously made a distinction in their mind between men and women, this distinction should not be popping into your heads, just like the distribution of blue eyed/brown eyed people in your office has never occurred to you.

Naturally there were also a lot of good and constructive comments too, including a number of anecdotes from women working in the web design field.

The design field has always had its own particular issues with race, class, and gender - even among the activist design subset. For example, two years ago Adbusters launched a design contest for a flag, one which would embody the idea of "global citizenship". Quite a ruckus was raised when they unveiled their list of contest judges: they were all white men.

The Design Observer's commentary on the controversy generated much the same kind of comments as I posted above, ranging from the well-intentioned to the malicious.

When we talk about discrimination, prejudice, and bias, especially to a non-activist audience, before we say anything we need to do our part in smashing the common wisdom that things like racism, sexism, etc. are things that only individuals do to other individuals, and that aside from a few isolated incidents, we're a meritocratic society. When we don't debunk that framework right out in the beginning, we leave the door wide open for comments from people with privilege talking about people being sexist against men, racist against white people, and "heterophobic".

An easy way to help avoid this is to stop using the term sexism when you're talking about the social denigration and subordination of women. Use the proper term: patriarchy. Likewise when talking about people of color: use white supremacy.

If we were living in some futuristic utopia, someone judging another because they were a woman would be just as bad as someone judging another because they were a man. But we live in the real world - one shaped by millenia of social structures and institutions that very consciously privilege one group and oppress another solely on the basis of biological characteristics.

That's why, even in a society like ours that still has so much white-straight-male privilege, someone proclaiming Latin@ pride gets a very different reception than someone proclaiming white pride.

Everyone needs to understand and talk about issues of oppression and privilege. Even Especially those of us in sectors that pride themselves in forward thinking and enlightened sensibilities.