By Kaitlyn Duchien | Contributor
Feminism is a dirty word that carries negative connotations. Feminists are man-haters. Feminists don't wear bras in public. Feminists aren't grateful for the privileges they already have as women in society.
At least, that's what many assume about feminism.
In reality, feminism is simply the belief that women and men are both human beings with equal value and worth.
Feminism should really be called "gender equality" because it advocates for both men and women to have the freedom to be whoever they want to be. Society places individuals in boxes based on their gender: girls are sweet and gentle, whereas boys are energetic and rambunctious. Girls cry when they are sad, boys get mad.
While these cultural norms may seem innocent, they gradually build walls around individuals, trapping them into "acceptable" molds and hindering them from achieving their fullest potential. Every time a little girl hears "You're so pretty" instead of "You're so smart," she internalizes the belief that her physical appearance is more valuable than her intelligence. When a boy is told to stop crying when he falls down and scrapes his knee, he is taught that his emotions must be concealed to protect his masculinity. Subtle comments throughout childhood gradually define identity and result in adults who live in prescribed roles that limit their personal expression.
When I was in middle school, other kids teased me for getting good grades. I was often called a nerd or a teacher's pet and shamed for my academic achievements. However, none of my male classmates were ever bullied for their successes. They were congratulated by classmates and praised by teachers. As a result, I learned to diminish my skills and downplay my accomplishments in order to be more liked by others. I still do this as an adult. And I see this pattern of behavior exhibited in the workplace.
This past summer, I interned at an insurance company in Fort Wayne and realized there is much more involved in the gender pay gap than a simple salary difference. When I asked my female colleagues why they never pursued a promotion when they were equally or even more qualified than their male peers, they consistently responded in two ways. Either they downplayed their successes and claimed they really weren't qualified, or said they couldn't take the extra work commitment because they had kids or aging parents to care for at home. My guess is they gradually developed this behavior over years of being told their worth comes from being a good wife and mother, that too much intelligence is unflattering and that a girl who takes initiative or authority is bossy. Thus, while the gender pay gap may be partially influenced by sexist employers, the majority is due to the willing decisions of women themselves who have been conditioned to take a subordinate role in the workplace and in society as a whole.
So what can we do to reverse this cycle of role restriction? Start small. Acknowledge the power of words and the unspoken meanings behind them. Recognize when subtle sexism happens and stand against it. Speak on behalf of the little girl who is called bossy because she likes to take charge of situations. She may become a future CEO. Refuse to let "boys will be boys" be an excuse when young men rate a woman based on her physical appearance. They may become sexual offenders because they never learned this behavior is unacceptable. Do not fall prey to the bystander effect: the belief that someone else will do something to fix the problem, so therefore it is not your responsibility to act. It takes small actions by many people to shift the ideology of an entire society.
Let's create a world where feminism is no longer a dirty word but simply a movement that celebrates the equal dignity and worth of men and women alike.