The pressure of choosing a good partner for class projects is all too familiar to us college students. But even worse than having to choose is getting stuck with the incompetent kid your Graduate Student Instructor randomly assigned to you. This scenario became all too familiar to me last semester in my physics lab when, every Thursday morning, I would walk to my classroom in Randall Laboratory and sit next to a complete stranger.
I wish I could say my mind raced with thoughts like, “I wonder if this one is smart” or “I hope this one knows what he or she’s doing,” but the fact of the matter is my mind would already be two steps ahead by the time my partners even uttered a word. My assumptions were pretty binary. For guys, it was, “Thank God, he seems smart,” and for girls, it was, “Looks like I’m on my own this week.”
The longer I thought about my physics lab, the more I realized that this was far from an isolated instance. I say this as a self-proclaimed feminist: I am sexist. But how could I not be? By age 6, society had already ingrained in me that my gender wasn’t cut out for the big leagues. I was raised to hail names like Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, to gawk at CEOs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. As I grew older, I learned that seats for women at male-dominated tables were limited and competition with my own gender was the only viable path to success.
By the time my 19-year-old self reached physics lab at the University of Michigan, the logical side of my mind that staunchly supported the advancement of my fellow women was no match for those disgusting but subtle implicit biases that had been festering in my mind for years.
It is certainly important to acknowledge that women have made massive strides toward gender equality, but these past advancements should not overshadow the ones that have still yet to come. Modern day feminism faces a uniquely difficult path ahead. Our foremothers have largely battled and defeated the flagrantly obvious injustices toward women, but now it is our responsibility to defeat those injustices that are not so glaring — the ones that hide in our subconscious and manifest without notice.
It is a common but destructive belief that because these forms of sexism are so subtle, they are less important. But in fact, it is these hidden biases that hold women back, even when the tangible metrics like access to health care and education have significantly leveled out. The University’s own Ross School of Business Class of 2020 master’s students currently consists of 43 percent women. While shooting for an eventual 50-50 gender ratio should undeniably be a major focus for business schools, we cannot forget that these advancements in higher education are meant to reap greater rewards in later life.
Women are 15 percent less likely to earn promotions than their male counterparts. And to make things even more disturbing, when the prevalence of females grows in a certain industry, wages for those jobs tend to see a decrease, even when factors like required education and relative difficulty are accounted for. This is not an issue of merit. Our society subconsciously values male labor more than female labor, and when industries see an influx of females, those jobs are subsequently perceived as less difficult and less valuable.
When we talk about programs that seek to advance women and minorities in the workplace and academia, we almost exclusively debate them as policies that give an upper hand to the disadvantaged and the less qualified. We debate these programs as if the inferiority of women is a given, and that the sexism of institutions is not. It is time we shift the conversation, not just regarding these programs, but regarding all barriers to female advancement.
Our history textbooks love to teach in terms of major milestones. The Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote, Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in federally supported education programs and Roe v. Wade upheld a woman’s legal right to an abortion. But when it comes to eliminating the sexism that makes me feel relief upon getting a male lab partner but irritation upon a getting a female one, our future textbooks may never find a one-sentence landmark moment.
Our generation may never be able to entirely shed our sexist tendencies, but we can take action to minimize them. We all need to make a greater effort to simply recognize and acknowledge these instances when they happen. Everyone can be, and often is, sexist — not just men or women or conservatives or liberals, but everyone — and we, as a society, must come to terms with that if we really want to achieve equality of opportunity.
I have spent my entire life staring at celebrations of successful men, and I am sexist as a result of this. We need to allow women their fair share of successes, and even further invite women to share the stage with men who are already in the limelight. Otherwise, our sons and daughters will grow up no differently.
Amanda Zhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.