Monday, October 13, 2008

Can We Afford To Ignore Sexism?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I am proud to attend a university headed by Shirley Tilghman, an accomplished molecular biologist who served on the Princeton faculty for 15 years before becoming the first female president. Throughout her career, she has pioneered efforts to foster greater inclusiveness for women in science (she was quick to denounce Larry Summers' comments about the natural inferiority of women in math and the hard sciences), although a majority of her appointees to positions at Princeton have been men.

At a panel on Friday, she and Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College, discussed the challenges facing women in higher education (I didn't attend, because I wasn't aware that it was happening...I wish events on this campus were better advertised!). Tilghman's advice, according to today's Daily Princetonian (link to the article here) was that the best solution to sexism was to ignore it (just like your mother always said to ignore those mean bullies in elementary school). She said that she found it easy to ignore sexism, and instead worked to improve herself as a president.

This is all very well for a woman who has already risen to the highest position of leadership at one of the nation's best universities. But Tilghman's rather empty rhetoric is disappointing. Where Malveaux encouraged women to promote their skills (remember, ladies, we can brag too), Tilghman told the women of the campus to “seek opportunities to expand [one’s] horizons and … embrace [the] opportunity to take leadership.”

Even for women at Princeton, this advice is only somewhat sound. We have already pushed our way past much of the system's latent sexism, or we were lifted above it by the circumstances of our birth. I disagree that women benefit more by ignoring sexism (especially in academia) than struggling against it (imagine if we said the same for racism, or even homophobia), but this outlook is particularly narrow when considered in the context of the millions of women who do not have the privilege of attending a highly ranked university, who are struggling daily against poverty and discrimination because there are no laws which defend them from unfair pay, and who do not have full control over their reproductive functions because the cost of birth control has still not been lowered.

Princeton subsidizes the cost of female students' birth control, insulating them from the skyrocketing costs that resulted from an "inadvertent" complexity in a Medicaid bill which passed in 2007. Likewise, women in the Princeton community are insulated from many of the truly crippling results of sexism. We cannot allow ourselves the privilege of ignoring sexism, just because we don't feel many of its effects. Instead, we need to use our advantages to help women who are falling through the cracks.

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