Standing Up To Male Gender Roles: Chivalry And Benevolent Sexism
The contentious issue of the subway seat
Gender dynamics are often at play in our workplaces, homes, and communities—just about anywhere people are present. It should come as no surprise, then, that gender roles come into play on the subway, and in quite striking ways.
Much has been made of the manspreader, although I won’t be discussing him at any length here. (For more on manspreading, read Cliff Leek’s blog, “3 Ways You Might Be Silencing Women (And a Checklist for Fixing That)". I’d like to focus instead on the issue of offering up seats.
There are an established set of circumstances in which giving up a seat is expected. Public information signs on the subway proclaim that able-bodied men and women should give up their seats when pregnant, elderly, and disabled people are present. We can all agree on that.
But sometimes, women are included in this category. From time to time, I notice a man abdicate his seat for a woman, typically with a little flourish to ensure that his gesture doesn’t go unnoticed. Some might call this “chivalry” or “gentlemanly behavior”.
The timing of the act, however, tends to raise questions: What motivated him to give up his seat to that particular woman? Why not any of the other women standing nearby? What does that imply about how he views that woman? How might that make her feel? And what does it say about women, in general, that they are more deserving of a seat on the subway than a man?
The implications of the chivalrous seat offer
An examination of the answers to these questions and their implications reveals a heterosexual, patriarchal power structure. This is why we increasingly see what at one time would have been a gesture of common courtesy going out of style. And yet there are many women who still expect men to fulfill these gender roles.
And why not? Sitting down is a momentary pleasure, and when someone sacrifices something of value for you, it can feel good. Additionally, you may connect this momentary pleasure with an affirmation of your cultural views—that is, seeing someone of the opposite gender act in accordance with traditional gender roles.
For men who want to support equality, this feeling among some women can be confusing. We men also like to sit down. Shouldn’t we be allowed to take a load off, as well?
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A change between generations
A recent subway trip of mine saw these gender dynamics play out in an amusing way. I was riding next to a mother and her young daughter. After standing for some time, they were finally able to get a seat.
Turning to her daughter, the mother said, “That took so long. Men are supposed to give up their seats for women. That’s what men did when I was young.”
Her daughter, without missing a beat, responded, “Mom, you just like sitting down!”
What made the daughter’s view of the situation different from her mother’s? Aside from enjoyment at giving her mother a hard time, we can assume that unlike her mother, the daughter is not yet filled with arbitrary ideas about how men and women are supposed to act in relation to one another. She wouldn’t understand why a boy would give up a seat for her because 1) finders keepers and 2) she knows she’s perfectly capable of standing.
How gender roles translate to office life
In the workplace, we often see men treating women with the same seemingly benevolent concern. But have we stopped to ask ourselves: what is the effect of not offering more stretch assignments to women? Why do we assume women with children wouldn’t want high-profile roles involving travel, when we hardly think about offering the same roles to men with children? Why do we think women are too fragile to hear critical feedback that may help them advance in their careers?
Working successfully with women means believing they can stand on their own two feet. So when you see men and women being treating differently at work and out in the world, don’t take it sitting down—or do!
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This piece was originally published on Men Advocating Real Change (MARC), a community for men committed to achieving gender equality in the workplace.
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