I have a few things to say about male privilege.
Look, I’m aware that “male privilege” is a hot-button phrase, that it’s something that puts a lot of people on the defensive, others on the offensive. But it’s going to become clear soon enough that that’s what I’m discussing, so we might as well get the term out of the way early.
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It’s an odd time we’re in with a resurgence of feminism and the sadly inevitable backlash that it brings. If that’s not enough, along comes Donald Trump, just in case vitriol and yahooism were somehow underrepresented in the “conversation.” We can be forgiven for not hearing the voices under the din. We can all be forgiven when we feel driven to raise our voices instead of listening harder. We need to do both, and the insane atmosphere we’re living in makes it hard to know which is needed when.
I’d like to address men who feel threatened by feminism. I believe I have some authority here because I’ve been a nurse for over twenty years. Along with elementary school teachers, social workers, and a few others, this puts me solidly in a “pink collar” profession – a profession dominated (in numbers, at least) by women. All through nursing school and since then, I have never worked in a setting or been in a classroom where my gender makes up more than ten percent of my colleagues. Every single immediate supervisor I’ve had since I stared working as a nurse has been a woman.
This is what I’ve experienced in my worst days of being the only, or one of the few men on the floor. In the past, I have experienced, at the hands of some of my colleagues:
A complete disdain for my professional abilities because of my gender. An assumption of my lack of empathy. When I’m starting a new position or learning a new skill, there are times when I cannot escape the feeling that I’m being set up to fail because somebody thinks that as a man I think I know it all. It’s sometimes assumed that because I’m working the floor, I should be called on to do all the heavy lifting. I fight a constant workplace bias that women are inherently better “multitaskers;” this is especially infuriating because “multitasking” is impossible. I’ve spent many a shift cleaning up after nurses who pride themselves as “multitaskers.” What nursing (and parenting, and many other endeavors) actually calls for is an ability to prioritize and re-prioritize on the fly, and an ability to focus intensely on what is actually most important. Nothing I’ve experienced as a nurse or a parent has taught me differently.
I hear from nurses what babies and wimps men are when it comes to pain or illness, even though anyone who’s spent more than two years in patient care has learned that pain tolerance and resilience is the one thing that truly cuts across all gender, age, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds.
I’ve learned to avoid break rooms and eating with my colleagues as a group. In break rooms, the loudest voices are the ones complaining about the men in their lives. I hear about worthless boyfriends, worthless husbands, worthless in-laws. I hear women describe abusive and negligent partners, then glance at me as if to say, “and you’re no different.” I hear mothers complaining about their own sons, describing genuine character defects as “boys will be boys.” I’ve heard mothers, some of them people I would not trust with my own child, tell me that all women are “naturally” cut out to be instinctive parents. When I’ve talked about a point of pride in My Knucklehead, something I believe to have been aided by years of attentive parenting on my part, I’ve heard, “his mother must have brought him up right.”
I’ve heard at least weekly unvarnished stories about sex and menstruation and childbirth and menopause, in far greater detail than I’m comfortable hearing from coworkers. Many of these are followed with cries of “Peter, you’re getting quite an education!” followed by shrieks of laughter. I’ve heard raunchy jokes from women I don’t consider to be my friends just because they like to see the only man in the room squirm.
In the break room I see coffee mugs that joke about how worthless men are. I seem to be the only person that looks at them twice.
When my son was in elementary school, my schedule gave me opportunities to do some volunteering at the school. I was never thanked,* I was never sought out for help, and the moms at the home and school association never contacted me though I offered. And then I listened to them complain that fathers never got involved in their childrens’ education.
At this point, I believe there are very few men reading this that aren’t nodding their heads in agreement. These are not outrageous examples, they are what I have been exposed to over twenty years of being in the minority. A lot of men will point to my experiences and their own as proof that men are discriminated against just as much as women are if not more. A lot of men will tell you that these reasons – and more – are why men are under attack.
I get that you feel that way, brother. I totally understand your thinking.
Now here’s why I think you’re wrong:
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All of what I described above is accurate and true. My Bride can tell you about the times I came home complaining about this. But it’s important to remember that my litany of woes was preceded by the phrase, “This is what I’ve experienced in my worst days….” What women have to experience on their worst days is much more serious.
I’ve never been sexually assaulted at work, or in the community. I’ve never had a doctor “playfully” kiss me in the operating room, as I witnessed as a student nurse in an OR rotation. It’s never occurred to me to wonder if I wasn’t getting paid as much as a female colleague. In fact, I can point to two positions I was given in my nursing career that I expect my gender had something to do with. I’ve never had to give a second thought to how I dressed for work because of how women (or men) might inappropriately react to me. I have had to make adjustments in my schedule based on child care, but I’ve never had to consider overtime because I didn’t know if a support payment due me was going to be missed. I’ve never been routinely and dismissively referred to by management as “the girls on the unit.” I’ve never had to think twice about going to my car in the dark after a shift by myself. I’ve never wondered if I didn’t get a job because an interviewer worried if I was going to take six weeks off for parental leave. I’ve endured feeling uncomfortable, even angry. I’ve never had to endure open hostility or assault.
I have been taken more seriously by some doctors than equally qualified female colleagues, but those doctors are idiots anyway, so that’s a wash.
And all those negative experiences I’ve had? Honestly, they’ve usually been the result of a relatively reliable subset of colleagues.
There have been nurses who have challenged me in my career, but not because they wanted to see the man fail. Some have challenged me because they saw in me a kindred spirit who shared a common desire to help our patients, and they worked me like a rented mule because they believed, A) I could take it, and B) it would bring out the best in me. I came to my current position as a hospice nurse as a middle-aged guy with all of the fear of change and setness-in-my-ways my demographic is famous for. Instead of throwing up their hands and saying “I can’t work with this!” the staff at my hospice (two women in particular!) had the wisdom, the grace, and the infinite patience to mentor me. I literally would not have made it this long without them.
Looking back, I have had several mentors in my nursing career, all of them women. All of them people who were smart, strong, experienced, and eager to encourage and educate someone who’s heart was in the right place. If I had let myself be swayed by the colleagues that got under my skin, I would have missed out on the friends and mentors that have made me a better nurse, and that challenge me still.
And for every mom who dismissed my contributions as a dad, there were women – comrades in parenting! – who appreciated my thoughtfulness as a father. These women, and a few dads as well, were the people I turned to for parenting support and advice. The people who didn’t respect me weren’t going to be helpful, anyway. The people who took me seriously I took seriously as well, and I made it through The Knucklehead’s childhood with the support of some good, solid co-parents. I like to think I was helpful, too.
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So here’s what I want to say to men who feel besieged: You’re not, but I understand why you feel like you do. You need to realize that the “discrimination” you’ve felt is infuriating, and that’s legitimate, but it’s not really “discrimination.” The other side gets what you do, plus a whole lot more. That doesn’t mean you have to like it when you hear how shitty men are, but you need to understand that that isn’t what feminists are complaining about. They’re complaining about problems that very, very few of us have ever had to face.
To women who don’t get male entitlement, this is where I’m supposed to plea with you for greater understanding, but I’m not going to do that. Please feel free to call out idiocy when you see it; god knows you’ve earned it. But if you really want to educate, it helps to know the other side. Remember: to these men, their pain is real. If the worst pain you’ve ever felt in your life is a headache, well, then that headache by comparison to the rest of your life is excruciating. If you deny their feelings, you’ve lost them. But if you tell them, “OK, that sucks, and I can see why you’re pissed off. Now imagine if you also had to go through this….” If they’re still beyond reasoning, the hell with them. It’s not your responsibility to fix what you didn’t break. Seek out those of us who are willing to listen. Maybe there are more of us than you think.
Soldier on, sisters and brothers. We’ll get this country there.
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Now, white privilege, that’s a whole different matter.
*Except by one teacher; thank you, Daria.