Women’s Work
     2014-11-13      By Craig R. Christiansen   
In high school, my daughter lettered in volleyball, swimming and dance. Those interests, plus softball, triathlon and half-marathons, led to a master’s degree in sports administration and a life’s career. She once questioned why there were no girls’ sports in my high school yearbook. When I went to high school, boys played sports and the girls watched or cheered. It was a reflection of society at that time...and, in some ways, still reflects the fact that many women and girls watch the success of men from the sidelines.

My grandmother used to talk of “bloomers” — the pants that some daring women wore in the late 1800s to allow them the freedom of movement to bike, hike or play sports. Amelia Bloomer, a vocal proponent for women wearing pants, was belittled and ridiculed for what society now accepts as perfectly natural behavior. Bloomer was fighting against a cultural norm that did not expect women to wear pants.

When my daughter asked why girls did not play sports in my high school, she was really asking about an institutional norm — a regulation — that did not allow girls to participate. While Iowa has had girls’ school sports since 1898, Nebraska did not allow girls to participate in school sports until much later. These are institutional norms — laws, regulations, or institutional expectations.

Invisible Practice

When institutional rules are coupled with cultural norms of behavior for girls, the ensuring barriers to opportunity, participation — and achievement — is formidable. But this is not just about who gets to play in high school sports. The majority of most school boards — and school superintendents — are men. The overwhelming majority of teachers are women. Surprised? This is not a result of law or regulation. It is my daughter’s question: why do women and girls have to watch the success of men from the sidelines?

The practice of gender discrimination is so prevalent that it is often invisible. Many of the institutions in our lives have significantly higher expectations — and opportunities — for men than for women. Women are in relatively fewer positions of leadership, tend to earn less money, and tend to be regarded as less competent or experienced in important, sought-after characteristics for candidates for advancement or leadership positions. We are all familiar with job application forms that ask for experience related to the available job.

The cultural barrier for women is that much of women’s expert experience is disregarded. If an applicant reported deep experience as a transportation pool coordinator, budget analyst, human resource counselor, procurement officer, training manager, or bookkeeper, the prospective employer would be very impressed. If that experience came from a young mother with a family, most employers could be expected to completely ignore it. It is a common example of cultural, and for many jobs, a structural bias against the competent experience of women.

An Impossible Task

Most western European countries provide state-sponsored childcare, based on the ability of the family to pay. In our society, most families, especially single mothers, must work out a delicate balance between work and childcare. It is often an impossible task that mothers in other industrialized nations do not have to face. In our society, the high cost is not only in childcare, but in the barriers to success for women who work hard to succeed without the structural or institutional support they need to ensure either their own or their child’s success.

Many girls in our communities will not have the same future that boys can expect. Our daughters, sisters, and nieces deserve better. Our society deserves better. Working towards true equality for women in all of this society’s institutions, including our community’s public schools, ought to be the work of all of us. It is not, and never has been, only “women’s work.” What part in this work will you take?

The Nebraska State Education Association was founded in 1867 and has 28,000 members across the state.

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