Friday, March 20, 2009

Splitting the Pie: observing a cultural artifact

As I have begun thinking more about gender issues, I have seen some interesting things. I wish to write about a pie that I saw today.

My Physical Science professor brought a homemade pumpkin-pecan pie to class today in response to an anonymous student comment, who in a note complained about always being hungry in class. The pie was cut into 12 equal slices and offered to students who answered questions correctly. Out of the seven pieces given away during the lecture, only one went to a female. At the end of the lecture, five pieces remained. The professor said that anyone who wanted a piece could come and get one. Within seconds, all of the pieces were in the hands of four eager males.

But weren't there five pieces left? Yes, one man was carrying two pieces. It's not what you think, however. When this man reached the table where the pie sat, he turned to his sister and asked, "do you want a piece?" She nodded, and he took a piece for her.

Now, how does this relate to gender issues? I think it's a good example of what is happening in many parts of our society today. In many issues, men and women have equal opportunities, at least in theory. Like my story, the pie is cut evenly is offered to each person. Why then does the pie end up in so few female hands? Do women not like the pie as much as men? Are they not as hungry? Perhaps, but I think the answer is more subtle.

When a suppressed party gains freedom, does it automatically become a 'normal' functioning member of society? Are there no traditions, ideas, or behaviors that carry on? Perhaps for some this is the case, but for the majority, change is slow. In other words, women, who were seen as inferior for so many centuries, may still be hesitant to take advantage of many of the freedoms and possibilities granted to them because of the culture from which they came.

Consider females in the classroom. While there is a small number that participates in class lectures, the majority remains silent. In my story, only one girl received a piece of pie by participation. (And I should point out that there is no shortage of women in the class.) When the five remaining pieces were offered to everyone, only men took them. I know that running to get free food is looked down upon by many people, both male and female, but could it be that females also are reluctant to compete with males for a piece of the pie? Was it lack of interest, or lack of confidence that kept them from claiming a piece of the pie?

I don't think we can point the blame to any one party, but I do believe that both can improve the situation. Like the male who offered his sister a piece of pie, men should be more understanding and mindful of their female counterparts. They should encourage women to stand up and speak out and claim a piece of the pie. To overcome cultural artifacts, they must do more than cut the pie evenly and offer it to all. They must prove to the women that they really do care about equal opportunity and reassure them that it exists.

Women, on the other hand, need not be afraid to claim a piece of pie. If there is something you want to do, do it! If there is something you want to say, say it! If there is something you want to be, be it! There have been many courageous women that have reached out and taken their own piece of the pie. Women can follow their examples and make an increased effort to get what they want.

Now, before someone misinterprets my point, let me clarify. I am not suggesting that women should compete against men. I am saying that just as men compete for a piece of the pie, so should women, with the men. We are obviously not there yet, but if men acted with more understanding and thoughtfulness and women acted with more courage, we would be well on our way. Doing so would break down the cultural artifacts that continue to suppress women in our "equal opportunity" society.

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