Gender equality. Privilege. Feminism. These hot-button topics are widely discussed—from political debates to dinner tables. Families, candidates, and leaders debate these terms in front of audiences everywhere. But do you know what they’re talking about? Have you tuned in to a gender conversation only to realize that you don’t understand the terms and topics that are being discussed?
The ever-evolving gender conversation is not going away. Today’s modern woman— like myself— is ready to stand up for herself. She is ready to discuss the daily injustices she faces. And, she knows men need to join the conversation (and anyone beyond binary gender identification). If you want to join the discussion, you need to understand the issues first.
Here are seven terms to know and understand if you want to join the gender conversation. Educate yourself and join the revolution. Please note that 1) these terms are not comprehensive and just a starting point and 2) I am not an expert on this subject, but I am human and dedicated to joining the conversation myself.
Seven Terms to Know to Join the Gender Conversation
Privilege is not unique to conversations about gender. Everyday Feminism defines it as “a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.” Privilege can help us understand discrimination across race, gender, class— anytime a group of people suffers while another group benefits.
TED speaker, University of Houston professor, and New York Best-Selling Author Brené Brown shares her unique perspective on privilege in her Netflix special, Brené Brown: The Call to Courage.
“To not have the conversation because it makes you uncomfortable is the definition of privilege,” she says.
In terms of gender, this term commonly, but not always, appears as male privilege. That is, the advantages men have over women simply because they are male. Brown was spot on with her statement on privilege in her 2012 TED talk. “And when people start talking about privilege, they become paralyzed by shame,” she says.
Gender discussions are uncomfortable. They often seem one-sided and accusatory. But they are necessary. Brown calls viewers to choose courage over comfort. We must be courageous enough to be uncomfortable and candid about our privileges in discussions on all injustices. We need to understand that we are all privileged in some way or another. We cannot have productive conversations about gender or any other topic until we are willing to acknowledge privilege.
Feminism, “the belief in social, economic, and political equality of the sexes,” as defined by Britannica Encyclopedia, isn’t new. The term has had a long and enduring presence throughout history as feminists fought for women’s right to vote and women’s rights to equal pay.
We all know what feminism is and know the battles previous feminists have fought and won to get to where we are today. However, the term feminism is still debated in modern gender conversation. In her TEDxMileHighWomen talk, Betsy Cairo explains that she is not a feminist: she finds the word polarizing and too focused on the differences between men and women. And, in her TED talk, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains why we should all be feminists.
Cairo uses the case of the same-sex marriage movement to convey her point: changing the language changed the way people thought about the issue. Changing the language from “gay marriage” to “marriage equality” forced public opinion to see the common ground: two people who love each other want to be married. With this language shift, people stopped thinking of this issue as being about two people outside of the norm who want equal treatment.
Cairo’s message is that we need to move away from gender-specific language and towards language that fully encompasses what we are fighting for. “Why are we using a gender-specific word when we’re looking for equal treatment?” Cairo considers herself an equalist— someone who believes in the equality of the movement rather than someone who focuses on the differences.
“When we change the language, we change the movement.” – Betsy Cairo
3. Gender Equity v. Gender Equality
I first met TED speaker Paula Stone-Williams at the TEDxMileHigh Imagine event in 2019. She gave a captivating talk about gender equity and her life experiences as a man and a transgender woman. I was blown away by her honesty and authenticity and her work quickly became the inspiration behind many TEDxMH blog posts: Cut Yourself Some Slack and How to Have a Productive Gender Equality Conversation
To write about her work on gender equity, I first had to fully understand it. That meant realizing the difference between gender equity and gender equality. Until I met Paula, I thought they were interchangeable terms. They’re not. There is a subtle yet important difference.
According to the United Nations Education, Science, and Cultural Organization, equity refers to “fairness of treatment for both women and men, according to their respective needs.” Equality, on the other hand, “does not mean that women and men have to become the same, but that their rights, responsibilities, and opportunities will not depend on whether they were born male or female.”
Pipeline puts it best when they say “if equality is the end goal, equity is the means to get there.” As we move towards gender equality, we work on gender equity. We strive to ensure men and women have the same rights and responsibilities by treating them based on their needs, not their gender.
4. Gender Credibility Gap
Ladies, have you ever voiced your opinion in a conversation only to have it fall on deaf ears? Better yet, have you ever voiced your opinion, felt like no one was listening, and then watched as everyone reacted to a man who repeated what you just said?
Newton has dedicated her work and studies to this phenomenon in which women are not taken as seriously as their male counterparts, or ignored altogether.
“Women’s words enter the universe, mix with all the things we cannot see—like oxygen, carbon, and unchecked sexism—until they reach their destination, sounding like something else entirely.”
Damon Young writes about the same problem and the trust issues men have with women when it comes to their feelings. When discussing his reaction to his wife when she’s mad he says, “My typical third reaction? After she expresses what’s wrong? ‘Ok. I hear what you’re saying, and I’ll help. But whatever you’re upset about probably really isn’t that serious.’”
This is the gender credibility gap. “It’s why we needed to see actual video evidence before believing the things women had been saying for years about R. Kelly,” says Young.
Newton has dedicated her studies and work to understanding why it takes so much longer for society to believe women than men. Can we fix this issue? Absolutely. And the fix is easy.
The next time a woman comes to you with her opinion—or a fact—trust that she’s not overreacting or being dramatic. Trust that she knows what she’s talking about.
5. Male Gaze
According to Psychology Today, the term “male gaze” originated in Hollywood by film critic Laura Mulvey. Essentially, Mulvey argues, many female film characters were based on a male’s perception of what a female should look and act like. This term may also refer to actual camera angles chosen by the male-dominated film industry in Hollywood.
What started as a way to describe on-screen characters has now moved into everyday life for women.
When society has a preconceived (male) notion of how women should look and act, women objectify themselves to fit that norm.
In other words, women look, dress, and act based on how they hope men will perceive them, not necessarily on how they want or how they feel.
While fashion magazines and social media also add to this self-objectification, the male gaze remains a top contributor. A 2004 experiment published by the College of William and Mary revealed that women who were told they would be subject to male gaze had increased feelings of body shame and social physique anxiety rather than women who were told they would be subject to the female gaze.
Like the term privilege, this word goes beyond the gender conversation and is relevant in all discussions involving injustices.
Microaggressions are more than just insults.
According to Vox, “They’re something very specific: the kinds of remarks, questions, or actions that are painful because they have to do with a person’s membership in a group that is discriminated against or subject to stereotypes.”
“You run like a girl!” A common, meant-to-be-a-joke microaggression that assumes women are not athletic and running like them is weak. And while come microaggressions are verbal, they don’t have to be. Unwanted advances, domineering body language, and unwarranted advice are other forms of microaggressions that many women typically face daily.
I’ve watched football every Sunday for what feels like my entire life. I went to a PAC12 college and didn’t miss a game day. I grew up in the house across the street from a professional hockey player and won my fair share of driveway hockey games. Sports are a big part of my life. But god forbid I comment on them because, well, I’m a woman and I don’t know what I’m talking about.
I know what qualifies as a completed pass in football. I’ve watched the plays, listened to the announcers, and I’ve even googled it. So when I ask, “Why was that pass considered incomplete?” out loud at a game, it’s because I don’t see what the referee sees, not because I don’t understand what a pass is. And yet, guy friends, family, even random (male) fans I sit next to at games take it as an opportunity to explain the entire game of football to me. This is mansplaining.
I have plenty of experience watching sports to know what qualifies as a catch and what doesn’t. I know what I’m talking about, and I don’t need an entire break down of the rules.
So guys, when we ask a simple question, don’t assume we don’t know what we’re talking about at all. Don’t assume we need a full lesson on whatever it is we’re asking about. Just answer our question. If we’re still confused, we’ll let you know. If you’re still confused, here’s mansplaining explained in one, simple chart.
Just a Start
These seven terms are a good place to start, but they by no means encompass the entire gender conversation. They merely scratch the surface. Academics like Jamie Newton and Betsy Cairo have dedicated their entire careers to understanding and furthering the gender conversation, a topic that can’t possibly be summed up in just one article. But start here. Keep the conversation going by understanding these terms, and continuing to educate yourself.