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This Week in Sexism

Or, like, every week on the Internet.
Left: Ellen Pao (Photo: Christopher Michel/Flickr); Serena Williams (Photo: Boss Tweed/Flickr)

Left: Ellen Pao (Photo: Christopher Michel/Flickr); Serena Williams (Photo: Boss Tweed/Flickr)

On the Internet, every week provides more than enough fodder for a "This Week in Sexism" column. Here are just a couple examples from the last seven days that show that the patriarchy is thriving:


In recent months, the tech executive has become the face of Silicon Valley's gender diversity problem. Pao's failed gender discrimination case against her former employer, venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, made headlines earlier this year when the firm blamed her dismissal on a bristly personality. As Wired’s Davey Alba reported in March:

Using witness testimony and performance reviews conducted by Kleiner before Pao was dismissed from the firm, Kleiner has worked to show that Pao herself was the problem, not her gender. The reviews called Pao "territorial." She had "sharp elbows" and was "not a team player." She "raised her voice" at times, and yet "could not own a room."

The jury was convinced, but it would be easier for me to stomach that Pao's unpleasant workplace demeanor was to blame if women weren’t routinely penalized for personality traits that are celebrated in men. In the business world—and the world at large, really—men are rewarded for confidence and assertiveness (as they should be), but assertive women that go against the typical, feminine-as-submissive gender stereotypes are labeled as aggressive and problematic. A 2011 study found that masculine women who were good at tempering such he-man traits as confidence received more promotions than women who weren't so good at self-monitoring.

So it's not all that surprising that Pao took a lot of heat from the Reddit community when she tried to make changes last month (read: ban discriminatory and racist subreddits) or when Victoria Taylor, a beloved employee, was let go without explanation (though no petition calling for the removal of co-founder Alexis Ohanian was filed when he essentially took the blame for the staffing snafu).

For her part, Pao has said she decided to step down over differing views with the board over the site's future. Mitch Kapor, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the New York Times that the demographics of the Reddit community, which tends to skew toward young men under 30, put Pao at a disadvantage from the start. "In my view, her job was made more difficult because as a woman, she was particularly subject to the abuse stemming from the pockets of toxic misogyny in the Reddit ecosystem," Kapor said.


Last Friday, the New York Times published an article about how some professional athletes would rather fit our society’s arbitrary and volatile definition of "hot" than be good at their jobs. As the article’s author, Ben Rothenberg, mansplained it (before Serena Williams won her sixth Wimbledon title on Saturday):

Williams, who will be vying for the Wimbledon title against Garbiñe Muguruza on Saturday, has large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for years. Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to. Despite Williams’s success — a victory Saturday would give her 21 Grand Slam singles titles and her fourth in a row — body-image issues among female tennis players persist, compelling many players to avoid bulking up.

This isn’t exactly breaking news. In fact, the trade-off between femininity and athleticism has plagued female athletes since the dawn of women’s sports.

Maria Burton Nelson, a writer and former professional basketball player described the paradox in Self in 1998:

How can you win if you’re female? Can you just do it? No. You have to play the femininity game. Femininity by definition is not large, not imposing, not competitive. Feminine women are not ruthless, not aggressive, not victorious. It’s not feminine to have a killer instinct, to want with all your heart and soul to win— neither tennis matches nor elected office nor feminist victories such as abortion rights. It’s not feminine to know exactly what you want, then go for it. Femininity is about appearing beautiful and vulnerable and small. It’s about winning male approval.

Rothenberg adds nothing to the conversation but a list of athletes of different shapes and sizes. While he doesn’t explicitly endorse the idea that femininity and muscles can't co-exist in the same body, Rothenberg inadvertently perpetuates it. He provides no evidence to contradict the idea that femininity is about winning male approval, not winning championships, a notion which makes many sports fans feel entitled to tell female athletes: "be feminine, but not too feminine."

Since Title IX—which prohibits sex discrimination in educational settings—passed in 1972, women's participation in sports has exploded. But this has yet to trigger a major shift in our cultural valuation of women’s sports. "[W]hile women may be approaching equalization of opportunity, they are typically making these gains without upsetting the order of society that embraces existing traditions and male dominance," wrote the authors of a 2008 study on female athletes' perceptions of femininity and sports.

The study found that the female college athletes interviewed chose to portray their own version of feminine ideals, when and how they saw fit, as opposed to endorsing pre-existing gender norms: For example, in day-to-day appearances, dressing up for class involved "cute sweats" or, at most, jeans. "Many of the athletes seemed to have created their own reality that allows them to view themselves as women who are also serious competitors," the authors wrote.

While it's probably a good thing that athletes of varied body types can succeed (as Francie Diep reported earlier this month, young girls need role models that look like them), ultimately unapologetically powerful female athletes like Serena Williams may help to re-define femininity. In a the 1994 book Women and Sport: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, researchers Nancy Theberge and Susan Birrell wrote that "the potential for sport to act as an agent of women’s liberation, rather than their oppression, stems mainly from the opportunity that women’s sporting activity affords them to experience their bodies as strong and powerful and free from male domination."

Hopefully, given enough time to catch on, the sports media will get the message, and stop objectifying female athletes by asking them to "twirl," or by calling a goal celebration a "strip tease."

This Week In explores ongoing revelations and research on trending news topics.