Several weeks ago I visited my son’s eighth grade class and shared with them some of my experiences as an architectural designer 20 years ago. The kids were working on building models of famous structures and were very interested in the blueprints and drafting equipment that I’d brought to show them. We were having quite a lively discussion and then their teacher asked a question that stopped me in my tracks. She wanted to know if it had been hard to be a woman working in architecture back then.
Memories that had
long since faded came flooding back. The mortifying cat calls on
construction sites at a time when my perceptions of myself
were body-negative. The year that the guys in the office (which in those
days meant everyone else but me and the secretary) gave me a cake
decorated with male genitalia so that I wouldn’t feel left out. I wish I
could remember just how I cut that cake. Trying to go back to work
part-time after my first son was born and being told it just wasn’t
possible to do such a thing. Yes it was incredibly hard, and ultimately I
decided to pursue a different career path.
But convincing our children that women can pursue their dreams, achieve success and be leaders is a daunting task in a world where women are routinely objectified and frequently ignored by the media and entertainment industries and where women are not yet full and equal voices in the political or corporate worlds. A recent study of media coverage in 76 countries by the Global Media Monitoring Project found that women are grossly underrepresented and frequently ignored as both subjects and sources of news. Only 10% of the stories surveyed were about women. The study also found that female journalists were routinely relegated to soft news stories and that when women do make the news, it is usually as celebrities or ordinary women, not as authority figures. Women are also twice as likely as men to be portrayed as victims.
This was well illustrated by two stories that recently ran in the local media where I live. One was a huge feature piece in our local paper on people to watch in the upcoming legislative session. Only one out of 34 people mentioned in the story was a woman. A local magazine added salt to the wound by running a piece about the city’s 50 most powerful people. Only four women made the list.
Women are also routinely underrepresented in the movies that children watch. A study by See Jane, found that three out of four characters in the top 101 G-rated movies from 1990-2004 were male. Only 28% of the speaking characters were female, only 20% of the films’ narrators were female and only 7% of the films achieved gender balance. See Jane, a program founded by actress Geena Davis, advocates the increase in gender positive female characters in children’s movies.
The under-representation of women extends to the corporate and political world where women are, for the most part, missing in action. The Center for Women in Government and Civil Society at the University of Albany recently found that in the year 2005, women held only 24.7% of state leadership positions with only eight states having female governors. There are currently 61 women in the House of Representatives and 13 female Senators.
Women’s lack of access to corporate boardrooms is also at the point of being grossly outrageous. Corporate recruiting firm Spence and Stuart recently conducted a survey that found that only 16% of the directors only 6% of the lead directors of the top 200 Standard and Poor’s 500 companies were women.
Unfortunately the one area in which female imagery has sharply increased is pornography. Once relegated to plain brown wrappers at the back of the store, pornographic images of women are readily available to adults and children alike, on television, the internet, IPods and cellphones. Cell porn is a major growth industry, with global sales of $1 billion dollars in 2005 according to Juniper Research. Video IPods have spawned yet another market for pornography. One website, prominently advertises videos with titles such as “Gang Bang Squad” and “Teens for Cash” (despite prominent disclaimers on the site that all models are over 18).
As Dame Anita Roddick has pointed out, pimp and ho chic has become mainstream with shows like MTV’s “Pimp My Ride.” Playboy markets clothes and accessories to young women and Victoria’s Secret entices them with a revealing entry-level line of lingerie labeled, “Pink.” Even my local art museum is getting in on the act, with a line of t-shirts that read, “Art Slut.” Scantily clad women are regularly used to advertise all manner of merchandise, from cars to beer, leaving little doubt that sex sells and sending the very clear message that if you are female and want to succeed or get a date, you’d better be sexy.
It did not occur to me until I became the mother of two sons that the lack of female role models is harmful not only to girls but to boys as well. While I feel reasonably sure that in the long run my sons have healthy attitudes towards both men and women, we have had some interesting conversations along the way about the porn I caught them perusing on the internet and why you don’t refer to the girls in your class as ho’s.
Every time I raise an objection to pornography, I inevitably get some heated replies that it is not a question of sexism but rather a free speech issue. As a writer, I am a strong supporter of free speech, but pornography isn’t a stand-alone issue. Rather, it is a component of the continuum of patriarchy that depends on objectifying, trivializing and ignoring the human rights of women. When we talk to our children about women, this is the mindset we must overcome.
Lucinda Marshall is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the Founder of the Feminist Peace Network. Her work has been published in numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad including, Awakened Woman, Alternet, Dissident Voice, Off Our Backs, The Progressive, Rain and Thunder, Z Magazine, Common Dreams and Information Clearinghouse. She blogs about media coverage of violence against women at: wimnonline.org.
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