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Book Review: Sexism in America – Alive, Well, and Ruining Our Future by Barbara J. Berg, PhD.

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Are you aware of sexism around you? Would you recognize it?

I tackled flagrant sexism in my workplace during the '80s. I filed a complicated and landmark discrimination complaint (with additional follow-up complaints for retaliation) against the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. With nine consecutive top evaluations for all years of my employment, I was clearly the best qualified candidate and had the most education/experience; yet I was passed over twice for management roles as a United States probation officer, with both promotions going to less qualified males. The discrimination was blatant. Surely, I would win?

Years later, the U.S. Magistrate finally issued the first ruling (unfavorable), which I appealed pro se before the Eighth Circuit United States Court of Appeals. I represented myself because after around $30,000 in legal fees with the other side enjoying free/taxpayer dollar representation (I was paying 'twice'), more expense was not an option. The final opinion (again years later) from the U.S. Court of Appeals was in my favor — but I did not exactly 'win'. That was then and this is now. How widespread is sexism today?

Sexism in America – Alive, Well, and Ruining Our Future by Barbara J. Berg, Ph.D. traces sexism through three waves — I was part of the second wave. Maybe we've come a long way, baby; but Dr. Berg catalogs how sexism has gained ground — through our educational systems, presidential administrations and politics, the media, consumerism, health care, the workplace, fashion, and many other forums.

Although I do not agree with all points in the book, Sexism in America provides an intensive and startling wake-up call to all women and men to examine their lives and recognize both incoming sexism and ways in which they, even women, contribute to sexism. Sexism is both subtle and obvious, and damaging to both men and women — but especially our children.

The author offers a steady stream of historical and current data to reinforce her views. For readers who dispute, doubt, or simply want to research or tackle sexism, Dr. Berg provides an impressive 65 pages of resources and notes for tracking her sources of information.

My most startling discovery came in Chapter 15, "Trouble@edu." As a lifetime Missouri resident and double alum of the state university system, I was surprised to learn that just a few years ago the University of Missouri Kansas City had paid a $1.1 million settlement due to sexual harassment by two psychology professors and the related bureaucratic mishandling. (Why had this not been widely publicized? I had never heard about it.) The one married professor's lovers were receiving special treatment like being credited with writing papers they never wrote and the working environment in the lab was extremely hostile.

According to the charges filed … the [psychology] lab was an outrageously sexual environment where sadism, intimidation, and threats were employed to keep 10 students and two faculty members in positions of subservience and fear …

The voyeuristic pair [of male professors] hounded the female students for graphic details about each other's bodies. And they didn't refrain from discussing their own, comparing their penises to bananas and rulers. Penis size was a big topic. So was oral sex. All sex, in fact.(p. 185)

Post-lawsuit, the salaries of these two psychology professors increased and they were promoted.

In Chapter 6, "Welfare Queens, Herculean Women, and Sex Starved Stalkers," the author presents stories of sexism in the work place — the stress of groping, sexual intimidation, and worse. Dr. Berg revisits the experience of Anita Hill, an African-American attorney who exposed the uninvited and inappropriate sexual remarks of Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court seat vacancy. The two had worked together for a number of years at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Anita Hill's sexual harassment story reawakens the stark memory of my first year as a United States Probation Officer (USPO).

As the only female USPO in the district, I went to lunch with male colleagues. I remember Shakey's Pizza Parlor and the dark, shiny wood plank tables with the long benches. This was the setting where I was first harassed as to why I was married and did not have children. The supervisory USPO in the group, 20+ years older than I, commented, "Jump up on the table and I'll get you started." As the men snickered, I pluckily attempted to regain my grip, "You're old enough to be my father". Triumphantly, he responded, "And young enough to be your lover."

I was new on the job — and outnumbered. What could I say or do then but smile and nod and accept the culture of sexism? Hello, Anita Hill. I can relate to your reluctance in reporting blatant sexism. At 24, this was my third year in the grown-up workforce. Is this how adults behaved? Such behavior represented the routine climate of male dominance, which ultimately led to my formal discrimination complaint several years later against the federal court system.

Here is a mixed sampling of passages from Sexism in America:

 …condemning treatment that most women accepted as normal took a tremendous amount of will. Just understanding you were discriminated against was the first and most difficult step. And if you took it, then what? Would you chance being criticized, even ostracized?… (p. 26)

 … there is no one-size-fits-all feminism, but a uniting of all politically conscious women in their quest… for "gender justice." (p. 89)

A culture of hostility to women is evident throughout the military, starting with the recruiting process. (p. 123)

 … lack "congeniality." Legal experts… made a startling discovery: it (the term) refers to women who don't accept the traditional female role of making male faculty feel comfortable… The label is "a new wildcard for discrimination"… (pp. 183-184)

 The Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2005 stopped collecting data on women workers. What had been a valuable source for tracking women's wage, employment, and job loss patterns in America has vanished. (p. 195)

 A new report by the AAUW finds that the (gender) gap in pay starts immediately after (college) graduation and only increases over time. (p. 197)

 The lack of women at the top in just about all professions has barely gotten the attention it deserves. (p. 204)

 … hypersexualized clothing…(mothers) have seen a dramatic change in what's now being marketed… It's called age compression — a term used by advertising companies to push adult products to younger and younger children, pandering to the idea that kids equate being "grown up" and "cool" with sexy. (p. 238)

 …some girls and women see objectification as a kind of empowerment. There is a faux feminism permeating the atmosphere… (p. 301)

 With few women (journalists) in decision-making roles, 96% of news stories worldwide say little about issues of gender inequality. (p. 315)

 When Condoleezza Rice visited Wiesbaden. Germany, a Washington Post reporter couldn't stop fussing over her military style coat and her knee-high black boots with the slender heel– boots so "sexy" they made Rice look like a "Dominatrix!" (p. 319)

 … (consider) the media's obsession over First Lady Michelle Obama's appearance. It's as if her casual style and well toned arms are the most significant things about this woman with a distinguished career and degrees from Princeton and Harvard. (p. 330)

 …a recent survey published in Child Development reveal(ed) that 90% of adolescents girls experience sexual-harassment, including unwanted physical contact and romantic attention, teasing related to their appearance, and demeaning gender related remarks. (p. 330)

 Everyone who believes in gender equality— women and girls, men and boys, whether they call themselves feminist or shun the label— must join together to push for progressive policies that will enhance all our lives. (p. 331)

This is an important book. I chose it for review not only due to my personal experience, but because I have two daughters and a son in their 20s. Sexism matters and I see it impacting their lives.

For individuals who disbelieve that sexism is alive and well and for readers who would like to raise or validate their consciousness, Sexism in America is a must read. Dr. Berg presents a well documented and comprehensive view of sexism that merits attention.


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About Dr. Coach Love

  • Dr, Coach Love

    Hello, Jeanne,
    I sincerely appreciate your feedback on my review — especially your comments about memories and recent history not passing down credibly to the next generation. Tweens to 30-somethings often tend to normalize and tolerate sexism and relegate any mention of it as an old-fashioned view of gender relationships. As a group, they seem oblivious to the damage, distortion, and limiting impact of gender injustice, both to men and women. Nevertheless, they still bear the burden of its impact.

    My own three kids in their 20s only know the passing story of my personal battle with sexism. It was a high stress time—my older two were little and my third was born during the strife. I have always planned someday to breakout the court transcripts, exhibits, and boxes of documents to tell my story. Writing this review provided an opportunity to share small segments of my decade of struggle with sexism as a United States Probation Officer. Thanks again for adding your thoughts.
    Dr. Coach Love

  • An excellent review of what appears to be an important, timely book. People (women and men) often have short social/political memories, and even the most recent history seems to not get past its own time to the next generation. I’m appalled by the number of young women (from tweens to 30-somethings) who think sexism is a thing of the past and feminism is both passé and synonymous with puritanical and humorless. Thank you, Dr. Coach Love, for bringing this book, and this issue, to the attention of many — both those for whom it will be an affirmation, and those for whom it will be a revelation.