She’s had enough. For the last seven years, she has had an all-female coaching staff. “Women need the opportunity. They deserve the opportunity,” she says. Asked whether she plans to ever hire a male coach again, she doesn’t hesitate: “No.
The ‘she’ in question is Muffet McGraw, the wildly successful head coach of the Notre Dame Women’s Basketball team. It has been a little over two months since she answered the question and set off a flurry of praise, criticism, and questions about just what it means in the spectrum of equality and fairness. Within that same timeframe I was hit with a bullseye of a question by a woman in the audience of an empowerment event I was facilitating. “Does what Muffet McGraw said about not hiring another male make her sexist”, she asked.
I could not answer the question since doing so would have put my facilitator neutrality in jeopardy. As such, I tossed it back out to the group to gauge their thoughts. For the very most part, the audience saw the comments as sexist, even as some of them supported said sexism. As one participant put it, “of course it’s sexist but we need this type of sea change, even if this is how we do it.” This train of thought resonated the most throughout the discussion. But is it accurate?
Two months later, the dust has settled a bit and I’m more keen on responding. First, some understanding and context.
Sexism: 1) prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex; 2) behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex; 3) attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of gender roles; 4) discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex or gender, as in restricted job opportunities, especially such discrimination directed against women; 5) ingrained and institutionalized prejudice against or hatred of women
These are five definitions that crop up from www.dictionary.com and www.merriam-webster.com when you type the words ‘sexism definition’ into your favorite search engine. When there are so many definitions available around for the same word, look without bias and you will very often find some common threads throughout. There are three within the definition of sexism:
- Prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination;
- Typically/Especially against women based on;
- Stereotypes of social/gender roles
Let’s unpack, starting with a couple of additional definitions.
Discrimination: the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.
Prejudicial: harmful to someone or something; detrimental.
Muffet McGraw may never hire another male, this much is clear. This could be unjust and prejudicial to someone — particularly otherwise qualified male coaches. Who knows, Muffet’s words may even garner a lawsuit or two against her and, by extension, Notre Dame. But do her words make her sexist?
The words ‘typically’, ‘especially’, and ‘against women’ shine an obvious light on the genesis of the term sexism and its intended focus. And while this does not discount the existence of sexism against men, such accusations require deeper questions, deeper investigations than some of us may be willing to explore. After all, it can be easy and logical to conclude that discrimination and sexism exist in the same vacuum at all times. Except they do not.
The real question centers around Muffet McGraw’s rationale for not hiring another male coach. Is it a result of a stereotype or generalization of mens roles or abilities or is there another reason? A few months ago, I had a female colleague tell me that men should not go into nursing or daycare because, from her lens, they do not have the necessary bedside manner or emotional availability “to give to others in these fields”. This represents a clear stereotype against the institution of men that, if put into practice, would lead to discriminatory hiring or promotion practices against another person on the basis of sex. This is sexism in full play.
On the other hand, Muffet’s rationale was not about what men could or should not do but instead about what women could do and were not given enough opportunity to do. As such, while her statement and her intention are discriminatory and prejudicial, they do not meet the definition of sexism. Muffet has made a choice to utilize her power and influence to enable more opportunities for women. Again, Notre Dame may face litigation if and when qualified men apply for and do not get selected for coaching positions on her staff. What’s more, the fact that she verbalized her intent to not hire another male will make it difficult for Notre Dame to combat the claims. Still, discrimination against men can exist without it being associated to sexism.
This may sound asinine, even offensive to a lot of people and I understand why. After all, men are frequently yielded the sexist adjective for making discriminatory and prejudice statements about women; why wouldn’t the reverse be true?
Although its origin is unclear, the term sexism emerged from the so-called “second-wave” feminism of the 1960s through the ’80s and was most likely modeled on the civil rights movement’s term racism (prejudice or discrimination based on race). Sexism can be a belief that one sex is superior to or more valuable than another sex.
To be clear, the genesis of the term sexism is directly associated with the history of prejudice and discrimination directed towards women. We must wake up to the reality that there was a time when a large percentage of men believed that they were the more superior or valuable gender. This was true even as they respected and loved their mothers, sisters, and wives in the ways that they felt were right. Intent aside, societal damage to the long-term views of and opportunities for women was already being done. For centuries, women could not vote. Women were not taken seriously for most jobs. For women, a degree was seen as an unnecessary accessory to an apron. And although we are a lot further down the equality road, the word ‘sexism’ and its intended meaning still sticks.
Beyond the word, an impassioned call for change has taken root picking up undeniable steam that resonates across gender lines. Fact is, McGraw’s comments did not have the same national outcry that would have existed had a man made the same comment about not hiring women. For while some outlets picked up the story and wrote opinion articles, the overall pulse rated somewhere between a non-major golf event and a corpse. Why? Because the level of interest in promoting women’s equality exceeds that of the misguided anger that would shoot her words down. The sentiment behind it is not too far removed from that of affirmative action. Either you believe that the sins of our past have hurt the abilities of women and minorities to the extent that we need to level the playing field or you don’t.
If you don’t, you will find Muffet McGraw’s comments sexist — definitions aside.
If you do, you will find her comments to be letter-of-the-law discriminatory and prejudice but otherwise honest and necessary commentary in the continued struggle for women’s equality.