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Op Eds

In Spite of Subtle Sexism, a Cracked Glass Ceiling

By Chloe A. Shawah
Chloe A. Shawah ’22, a Crimson Associate Editorial editor, is a Statistics concentrator in Cabot House.

Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris — then-Senator Harris (D-Calif.) — was discussing immigration policy in a 2019 Democratic primary debate when her seamless use of female pronouns next to “President of the United States” sent a jolt through my two X chromosomes. She promised to “ensure that [the] microphone that the president of the United States holds in her hand is used in a way . . . that is about reflecting the values of our country.” It brought back memories of my six-year-old self demanding my grandmother offer me a good explanation for why no “girl” had ever been president.

In an election where there was so much at stake — racial justice, pandemic response, humane immigration policy — fixating on Harris’ gender identity may not be the first thing on anyone’s mind. But for the half of the population that has been relegated to First and Second Lady for the 230 years of this nation’s entire existence, Harris’ election is monumental. And the fact that the first woman to hold this office is Black and South Asian? All the more significant.

Harris does not stand alone as a woman who broke barriers for females in government — Congresswoman Shirley A. Chisholm, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and Hillary R. Clinton come to mind — but Harris’s accomplishment and its timing is especially significant for me because it is only in the past few years that I’ve begun to experience what sexism is and how it operates.

When I was 16 years old, during Hillary Clinton’s run for president in 2016, I did not feel like I was treated any differently than my male peers, other than maybe the dress code. Maybe sexism was not there, or maybe I did not know to look for it. Because I was not aware of it in my own life, I did not see it in how the media treated Clinton. But now, in college — even Harvard College — I have become disillusioned. Now I see what Clinton, Harris, and all of these women had to overcome to accomplish what they did (not even including the additional challenge of systemic racism faced by Harris and Chisholm).

It’s called a glass ceiling, not a concrete roof. Sexism is often subtle, so much so that you will drive yourself crazy trying to discern if it is really there. New things happen to me in college that did not happen to me in high school: In office hours, other classmates will ask my male problem set partner what he is working on, but will not address me. I find myself gravitating towards female group mates who I feel will take my input more seriously and because it removes the stereotype threat. It is even internalized, as I will occasionally catch myself assuming that a man would be better for a given role than a woman, without knowing enough about either party. Sexism is so interwoven that it affects how women perceive the roles and abilities of other women and of themselves, and most of us may not even notice it.

These anecdotes by no means define my experience, but they are illuminating and fit into a much larger narrative. They provide context for why there are more CEOs named James than female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. For why men still outnumber women in every single state legislature except Nevada. For why no “girl” has ever been elected president or vice president of the United States — until now.

I now understand that sexism can be stealthy: lurking in societal structures, the subconscious thoughts of peers, and even in our own minds. Seeing Kamala Harris introduced as vice president-elect makes this unwelcome discovery over the past few years feel a little less daunting.

However, her election does not mean that our systems are absolved. I was actually irritated when Joe Biden pledged to select a woman as his running mate back in March. Announcing that he was only considering female candidates made it sound as if his future vice president’s only important virtue was her ability to balance a ticket. The fact that it is men who have the power to elevate women to positions that they have always deserved can create a complicated dynamic. Sometimes, the way men help women dismantle the patriarchy can feel, well, patronizing.

Women should not be at the mercy of men who select them as running mates or colleagues merely because they have decided that they now need a woman — but I’ll take this victory. Listening to Kamala Harris speak, I do not think there is any doubt that she will bring far more to the office than representation (though much needed) in the form of estrogen and melanin. She is intelligent and experienced, and will be a force to be reckoned with in the new White House — just take a look at how she conducts a Senate hearing.

There is lots of progress needed to break down the often invisible barriers women face, and lots of work for Biden and Harris to do come January 2021, but right now, let’s celebrate. My six-year-old self — and 20-year-old- self — are giddy. Today, the glass ceiling has a few more cracks in it.

Chloe A. Shawah ’22, a Crimson Associate Editorial editor, is a Statistics concentrator in Cabot House.

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