Gender-neutral Oscars – It’s Time


It’s awards season again, and it’s a pet peeve of mine that the Academy insists on awarding separate Oscars to male and female actors.  Not many share my opinion. When I published my plea for gender-neutral Oscar Awards in The New York Times a few years ago, the response was overwhelmingly negative.  Arguments as to why this was a bad idea flooded my inbox.  From Fox News to NPR, everyone I spoke with seemed to think it was a ridiculous suggestion. One blogger even crowned me “Idiot of the Week,” for proposing such a ludicrous idea.

Objections to my plea for gender-neutral Oscars primarily fell into three categories.  The first centered around the fact that men and women are cast into different roles.  Cate Blanchett wouldn’t play Jordan Belfort from the Wolf of Wall Street and Jasmine from Blue Jasmine wouldn’t be the same if Leonardo DiCaprio had the role.  Clearly, my detractors said, different roles warrant different awards.   But I don’t believe the different role argument justifies separate awards.  Although men and women typically do play different roles, the same can be said for comedians and dramatic actors – Leonardo DiCaprio wouldn’t play Ron Burgundy from the Anchorman films and Will Ferrell wouldn’t be cast as Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort.  Yet separate awards don’t exist for comedians and dramatic actors.  These actors are judged side by side on how well they portrayed their particular role, just as male and female actors should be.

“Women wouldn’t win” was another popular rationale for retaining a female-only category.  Since women generally have fewer meatier roles in films, my critics said, female actors would be less likely to go home with a gold statuette.  Again, this claim just doesn’t hold water.   Female directors don’t win as frequently as men, but there’s no separate category for directresses.  Let’s see if women would win, and if there are inequities in Hollywood, we should highlight these injustices rather than hiding them in separate awards.

Finally, there were those who didn’t like the idea of an Oscar show with fewer awards.  (I guess these people just don’t have to get up in the morning).  But if the Academy wanted to preserve the number of awards, there are several reasonable alternatives.  Awarding separate Oscars for comedic and dramatic roles, for example, would preserve the number of awards without gender bias.

To be fair, not everyone hates the gender-neutral idea.  After reading my piece, Howard Stern commented on his radio program that it would be weird if the Academy offered an Oscar just for Jews, so why have a separate award just for women?  Recently, MSNBC host Krystal Ball asserted it’s sexist to have separate awards for men and women.  Stern and Ball, that’s a start.

One last reaction to my call for gender-neutral Oscars was “What difference does it make?”   Making this change would not only effect male and female actors, but would positively impact the perceptions of women in all professions.  From Beyoncé to Obama, everyone is discussing how to  help women’s status in the workplace.  Suggestions range from teaching women to lean in to offering even more childcare.  Yet we allow one of the most-watched television shows of the year to perpetuate stereotypes that men and women are so different that they can’t compete for the same acting awards.  If we want things to change for women, we have to make sure we practice gender equity everywhere, particularly in an awards program that is such an integral part of American culture.

What’s in a Name?

mom childI’m a Lucy Stoner.  Feminist, Lucy Stone, was the first U.S. woman to keep her own name after marriage, and other women who follow her example are referred to as Lucy Stoners. Current research indicates that only about 10% of married women in the United States are Lucy Stoners.

Many don’t realize the taking-your-husband’s-name tradition is primarily practiced only in English-speaking countries (with a few exceptions).  In many countries  –  China, Iran, Italy and Korea to name a few – women retain their birth name throughout their lives.   For English-speakers, our surname change tradition dates back to European Feudal times, when both husband and wife adopted the more powerful surname.  If the wife’s family owned more land, both husband and wife would use her surname after marriage.  However, starting in the Middle Ages, women were cut off from inheriting land – making the husband naturally more powerful.   Thus began the tradition of taking of the husband’s name.

Regardless of marital naming traditions, in almost all cultures, children take the father’s surname.  That’s the hardest part about being a Lucy Stoner –  having a different last name than my son.   When signing documents for my son’s school or his participation in sports, I always write ‘mother’ in parentheses, so they know who I am.  At the airport, when we show our tickets and identification, I feel like TSA agents are sizing me up as a kidnapper.  And when my son becomes President of the United States or is elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame, people will think I’m crazy when I claim to be his mom.

High divorce rates have increased the number of single parent households.  And, who is it that raises these kids?  About 82% of single-parent families are run by moms.  On their own, many of these moms are raising their kids who are using dad’s last name.  And what message does it send to our kids when all children take their dad’s name?  That dad’s name is somehow more important?

I think it’s time we start changing this naming “tradition.”  I’m not suggesting all kids get the mom’s name – that wouldn’t be fair either.  And hyphenated names are just too long and clumsy.   But  I bet we could find some sort of compromise (children born on odd days get mom’s surname and even days get dad’s, or first borns get dad’s name, and second children get mom’s?).

Taking mom’s last name is not as unusual as you might think.  Four percent of women are already passing their surnames to their children, and listed below are a few celebrities who chose to use their mom’s last name.  As for my son, I think it’s too late for a surname change – but it’s not too late to make him understand why this tradition is a bit unfair.

    • Barry Manilow
    • Diane Keaton
    • Garry Kasparov
    • Katy Perry
    • Eddie Vedder
    • Eric Clapton
    • Lauren Bacall
    • Pablo Picasso

Where are All the Wiki-Women?

pink pencilpink_wikipedia

Less than 15% of Wikipedia editors are women.  How can that be?  No one hires Wikipedia editors, so no one can claim gender bias or favoritism.  I’ve edited Wikipedia myself, and there’s no background check.  No need to prove you’re a credible source.   Anyone with internet access is free to edit almost every Wikipedia entry.  My ten-year-old could edit Wikipedia if he wanted.

So why are so few women contributing?  A recent piece by Kat Stoeffel in  New York Magazine suggested that socialization is to blame.  Women, she says, aren’t raised to consider themselves authorities on anything.   They don’t contribute, because they don’t think they’re qualified.  I don’t buy it.  Women outnumber men in graduate school in this country.   Women are earning more Ph.D.’s than men.  Women are experts , and they know it.

A second proposed explanation for the paucity of female contribution was free time. Greater responsibility for childcare leaves women with less free time than men.  Less free time means less time to edit Wikipedia.  I don’t buy this argument either.  Regardless as to which gender has more free time, women are more likely than men to volunteer, so why not volunteer to edit Wikipedia?   Lack of free time doesn’t seem like it holds up as an explanation –  women are just choosing to put their volunteer efforts into causes other than creating a giant encyclopedia.

Maybe it’s the internet – too scary and technical for women?  Sorry, but about half of all internet bloggers are women and women tend to dominate social networking sites.  Women seem to be able to navigate the internet just fine.

Still others have suggested Wikipedia’s argumentative culture isn’t attractive to women.  A survey of female contributors found a third had been assaulted, attacked, or treated poorly by colleagues on projects.  However, there’s no indication that this abuse is related to gender, and there’s no information on the percentage of men who have been treated poorly on Wikipedia.  I suspect the figure is similar for men.

In reality, we don’t know what’s keeping women from Wikipedia.  My guess is that women prefer to spend their free time doing something more social than editing an on-line encyclopedia.  Whatever the cause, we need women to get over it.  Otherwise, this massive encyclopedia will become completely skewed in its coverage.  According to Stoeffel, a single character from Grand Theft Auto currently has more Wikipedia citations than Sex and the City, and pages covering women tend to be less developed than those covering men.

Like it or not, Wikipedia is becoming the go-to source for many people.  It’s important that women, and topics important to women, are recognized in this encyclopedia.  This time, there’s no one to blame but ourselves, women.  Let’s get out there and contribute.

The Sex Partition

Check out my piece in The Guardian:  There’s a de facto ‘sex partition’ in the workplace

gender symbols

From Beyoncé Knowles to President Obama, it seems everyone is bemoaning the gender pay gap. Over and over, we hear how greater responsibility for childcare and failure to ‘lean in‘ can cause women to fall behind their male counterparts at work. However, my research suggests there’s a new culprit behind the pay gap – this time, organizations may be to blame.  I call the problem the “sex partition”, and here’s an example of how it plays out at work….. To continue reading, click here.