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‘Complementary Sexism’, ‘Hierarchy of Harm’ Discussed at “Interrupting Sexism” Workshop

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Author: Sergei Kelley

A recent sexism workshop at Michigan State University highlighted alleged “institutional sexism” and “dismantling it individually.”

The event, “Identifying and Interrupting Sexism,” condemned what was described as ‘Complementary Sexism,’ which included characterizing women as having “a quality of purity”, fragility, or careers less successful than their husbands. Further, the instructor stated women being sexist is not backed by the “larger system.”

Hosted by MSU’s Prevention, Outreach and Education (POE) Department on February 11, 2020, the two hour workshop, run by Rae Chaloult, a Prevention Specialist, was primarily designed for faculty of the College of Education.

This “might be a workshop where folks feel discomfort. If this is your first time in ‘Gender Studies 101,’ welcome!” Chaloult began.

[RELATED STORY: MSU Director APOLOGIES for Calling All-Gender Bathrooms “Risky”]

Attendees were asked to split into groups, participating in activities which required defining sexism, forming goals for the workshop, and ordering “Gender Based Violence (GBV)” cases across the GBV spectrum.

After groups presented their definitions of sexism, Chaloult spoke about the University’s definition. “Sexism,” she explained, “thus prescribes how roles and relationships between individuals are or ‘should be,’ suggesting the superiority of men and heterosexuals and the invisibility of individuals who renounce normative gender roles.”

Following Chaloult’s comments, faculty members raised the possibility of women being sexist, questioning the notion of male superiority by citing women who hold superior positions in some situations. The instructor agreed with both ideas, but cited her definition of sexism as being better backed by the “larger system.”

Chaloult further went on to say that using “complementary sexism,” such as attributing strength, less emotion, and attaching men instead of women to certain jobs, like carpenters or construction workers, contributes to “the system” assigning roles. It further “automatically creates binary [male and female],” stated Chaloult.

[RELATED STORY: MSU Places “Everyday Feminism” White Privilege Guides]

Commenting on “the system,” which Chaloult suggested is known in the United States through a “Western framework,” she pointed to how “men make more money.” Finishing with explaining that the notion “women in the US are seen to be as smart as men, but not ready to lead,” leads to sexist outcomes within the system.

Elaborating on her point, a faculty member cited that all US Presidents have been men.

The workshop took a twist, moving to the “modernized change to the theory,” which is now inclusive to more genders.

Allegedly, even suggesting “sexism is men being mean to women,” is hurtful because it assumes a binary. Supposedly, this is also the case for the “lack of gender inclusive restrooms.”

Before moving to the next group activity of ordering GBV cases, Chaloult argued “all oppression is connected, but not the same.”

In an attempt to explain the difference between sexism and sexual violence, attendees were asked to place in order six different cases, ranging from forced sex to women being underrepresented in speaking engagements. Ordering was not meant to be based on harm, but instead on the degree of “community consciousness” or awareness to sexism and GBV, according to the instructor.

The goal of the activity was revealed when Chaloult asked, “what would it take to move all [of the cases]” within the “radar of community consciousness?”

As she concluded, she added, “we must have accountability. But in order to do so we must first understand the systems that sustain the narrative.”

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