“Here, let me get that for you, Miss,” a man says as he proceeds to take her carry-on bag to stow in the overhead compartment before she can respond. It’s not uncommon still to see such gestures, fully intended to be helpful and kind, even in today’s world of independent women. But sometimes, the intention of these benevolent actions and the message sent are two different things depending on the setting.
This already sounds overbearing, I know – but it’s pertinent. There are now many examples of women being offended by simple gestures of help from men, taking them as an indication that they’re viewed as weak or less [here’s one for example] and believing that these men are sexist.
Millennial women have grown up in a world that sends them constant, conflicting messages about what our role is, our rights, our abilities, and what we can strive to achieve. We also get conflicting messages from our culture on what men’s roles are, their nature, and the collective opinions of women. It’s all very muddled.
Some of us look at the world and believe we can be the next president. We believed the reality is that, in the United States, we can create every opportunity for ourselves to pursue that goal.
At the same time, other millennial women look at their world and perhaps see what is lacking. They may doubt their opportunities are truly equal to the men around them. They may see a gender wage gap, a workplace or entire field, like engineering or the military, dominated by men, and believe it means they are still living in an era of inequality. If a man takes over while she’s changing her tire on the side of the road, she may see that intervention as a message of “you can’t.” If a husband takes the remote while she’s trying to program the TV, that action may come across as “you’re inept” (I’ve had that exact reaction to that scenario before, myself.)
For some women, simple, traditional gestures of help and kindness like grabbing that dangling grocery bag from her arm, or holding the door open from behind her after she’s already started to pass through, can indicate condescension or an affirmation of their role as “the weaker sex.” When this is the case, the intention doesn’t outweigh the message being sent in their mind, and that’s worth addressing.
None of this is to say that men shouldn’t be helpful, or that women shouldn’t accept their help. Men being chivalrous is a good part of our society and culture which cultivates an atmosphere of respect for women – which we want. But these gestures and how they’re received is actually not the point at all.
The point is mentality. Our own mentality is the only thing we have 100% control over. Today, we as Millennial women have more opportunities available to us than any generation of women in the United States before us. And we want to seize, steward, and grow those opportunities for ourselves and those behind us. Of course there will be obstacles. Everything worth achieving requires struggle. But the very first step is to adopt a mentality rooted in our very own worth, equality, and ability. When this is our foundation, simple gestures of “here, sweetie, let me get that for you,” go from being offensive to completely insignificant OR can allow us to see good intentions regardless of delivery.
Yes, inequalities still exist, and archaic mentalities (such as the one that led to the unfortunate Google memo indicating that underrepresentation of women in engineering roles is partially due to “biological issues” – Forbes) can lead to environments where women feel undermined. We can’t change these mindsets overnight – it took nearly a century and a half for women to win the right to vote after the founding of the United States. And another 50 years before the first woman was elected to the U.S. Senate. We live in a country where a woman has won her party’s bid for the presidential election and who lost in an extremely close race… yet also the same country where a star quarterback laughs at a reporter’s question about his game simply because she’s a girl.
What do we do? With each budge, we must build momentum. Another female will run for president, based on her individual merits and qualifications – and win. Another woman will become a sports reporter, and when she speaks, she’ll be respected as a peer because of the incident with Cam. Another woman will enlist in the military and follow a career path into the formerly all-male Special Ops profession. All because a woman before her said “I can.”
We have to find the right ways to channel the drive to be equally qualified for any opportunity. Another important thing for millennial women is to focus on ourselves when it comes to achieving our goals. Susan B. Anthony saw the inequality surrounding her in a country that denied her the right to vote because of her sex – so she fought, and created lasting changed. And she voted, alongside countless other strong women.
In 2017, the U.S. Navy opened its SEAL and other special operations programs to allow women to enroll. No other requirements for performance were changed, only the restriction of their participation based solely on sex. Although there has not been a woman YET to successfully complete BUDS the door has been opened, and women have stepped through it. This is monumental progress, overwhelmingly due to social change brought about by the mentality and drive of strong women who looked at the world and said “I am equal and I deserve the same opportunity to try as anyone else.” This is amazing.
So, what do we do with this wide-open playing field? Former Navy SEAL Clint Bruce has said that he wants to see young women take on the SEAL mentality – whether they choose to pursue a career in the military, Special Operations, politics, engineering, medical or any other field – and to approach it with all the drive, dedication, focus and confidence of these elite competitors.
The take away is – if there is something you have set your sights on, and if there are people who say that you “can’t” (there will be), prove them wrong by giving it your most dedicated, assertive effort. Even if you fail, you’ve won the long fight. You gained experience, you know you did the right thing, you had the audacity to strive; perhaps you’ll even be that pioneer who makes it possible for the next person. And that is the most important thing we can do.
You’ll never get into an Ivy League school if you don’t apply, you’ll never become a fighter pilot if you don’t enlist, you’ll never become a published author if you don’t write the book, you’ll never become an expert in your field if you don’t do the research. And you’ll also never feel “lesser” than anyone else if you decide that you are not. The commonality here is “you”.
We have many great role models and success stories from pioneering women who have come before us to learn from as we navigate our place in the world as millennial women. The first female combat pilot flew for the French in WWI. She was also a mountaineer and an awarded athlete. Madame Curie was the first female Nobel Prize winner in Physics in 1903. Jeanette Rankin became the first U.S. Congresswoman in 1916. In 1960, Marcy McGee became the first official female motorcycle racer. And in 2017 Patty Jenkins became the first woman to direct a feature length studio super-hero, live action film: Wonder Woman.
Instead of looking at the ways our society can make us feel “less than,” let’s look at these forerunners as examples of women who defied constraint and helped build the foundation of this world of opportunity we live in. Let’s look to the success stories, the accomplishments of the men and women around us and see what we can learn from them, what we can apply to our own path, and how we can take that Navy SEAL mentality and use it to shatter glass ceilings and defy industry stereotypes. Let’s do exactly what they said we “can’t” do.