New feminist message gives more positive outlook

Story by Katie Bane, NewsNetNebraska

Feminism is on the minds of students and faculty as the national media plays up the movement’s possible resurgence.

A media firestorm surrounding feminism re-emerged when Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, addressed the issue in a 60 Minutes interview Sunday night.  In her new book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” which was released on Monday, she writes about why women should stick their necks out in their careers even if they are mothers, too.

Sandberg’s stance won the admiration of University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty member Maureen Honey.

“She could do her corporate executive thing and just keep quiet and have her own individual success,” said Honey, an English and Women’s Gender Studies professor. “But she cares enough to put herself out there and say, ‘Look.  I know what discrimination is. I’ve experienced it, and this is how I think it can be dealt with.’  I’m impressed.”

Feminism still has a highly negative connotation when the prospect of change is seen as a threat to some members of society.  But restarting the gender equality conversation can help women learn how to empower themselves in the workplace, Honey said.

“Anything that inspires women . . . and gets women excited is wonderful.”

But for some students the issue still remains contentious. Abby Johnson, an 18-year-old advertising, public relations and art double major, said she thinks feminism is sometimes thought as an “anti-men movement” that wasn’t so much about equality as it was about women being the “dominant gender.”

Many people are still reminded of the bra-burning antics of feminists in the 1960s.  That negative perception of the then-radical movement can still make some people uneasy about identifying with its message today.

Johnson also said she thinks feminism is about female equality, but she wouldn’t label herself a feminist until she knew more about what its supporters stand for.

Honey blamed the media for making the issue controversial.  She said feminists push for change and are met with resistance, and then the media stirs up the controversy by sometimes playing up its stigmas.

In her book, Sandberg said women needed to reach for promotions and raises even if they thought they might raise a family some day.  She said women often curtail their aspirations because society tells them they must choose between their family and their career — and family often comes first.

She said she didn’t help build the powerhouse of Google or become a top executive at Facebook by passing up promotions.  She is the mother of two but said she is proud of her work-life balance.  This also isn’t the first time she has addressed the inequalities facing women in business.

Yuqi Cai, a 21-year-old psychology and philosophy double major, said she recognizes that there are vast inequalities still facing women today.

“Sometimes, unconsciously, people think you’re a woman and you need to be taken care of,” she said.  “This can really impact women in careers like medicine and law … and especially in politics.”

Society’s perception of womanhood and gender role stereotyping play key parts in the ongoing fight for female equality.

Women are socialized to stay quiet and have limited self-confidence, Honey said.  It’s important for women to have role models who show them they don’t need to conform to submission behavior in order to be “normal.”  They can still be themselves, be loud and proud, but be successful, too.

But Honey doesn’t think Sandberg’s interview will kick-start the feminist movement.

“Feminism is about all women,” she said.  “I don’t see it as driven by women in the upper-income echelon. … Most women are not there.”

She explained that most women struggle in the middle and lower classes to pay their bills and live their lives.  Ninety-nine percent of women are unlikely to ever meet resistance of the glass ceiling not just because of gender inequality but because the jobs are so limited, Honey said.  It will take a middle-class insurgence for the movement to move forward with a positive message, she said.

Cai said that although she might define herself as a feminist she wouldn’t stand up and call herself one because there is a “potential bias,” and she wouldn’t want to deal with negative backlash.

Johnson also believes in gender equality, but hesitated to identify with feminism.

Honey said hopefully the media picks up on the more positive aspects that feminists promote such as fairness and equality for everyone.  And putting good ideas out there, like Sandberg did, can play an important part.

“(Ideas) filter down and get translated,” she said.  “You could take some of her advice and apply it to the more normal job situations, and that’s a great thing.”

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