By Sara Wasef
I am currently in my third year of Biomedical Sciences at York University, a degree which does not give much room to authentic discussions about gender inequality and feminism in an academic context. For the past two years, university has consisted of cells, molecules and body systems. A year ago, I did not fully understand the meaning of feminism and the significance of International’s Women’s day (IWD). However, getting involved with the Psychology’s Feminist Voices team this year made me realize that being in university provides a unique opportunity for self-exploration, including my self-identification as a woman. Ironically, I stumbled upon a poster for the multi-speaker panel, “Reimagining Women’s Rights,” in one of my science buildings. The event took place on International Women’s Day and I instantly gravitated towards the speakers’ profiles; an ethnically diverse group of accomplished women.
Upon my arrival, I was disappointed that half the speakers were absent, and the room was only half-full. Unfortunately, a university strike has impacted attendance. Minha Ha, A Mechanical Engineering PhD candidate at Lassonde School of Engineering, shared the discrimination she witnessed as one of the few female students in her program. As a student in the hard sciences myself, her recollection of instances when her capability was questioned as a result of her gender truly resonated. Her attempts to raise awareness of the overt and subtle barriers that women face in the STEM field were often dismissed. Ha was subjected to comments such as, “women are not in engineering because they do not want to be here.” The constant dismissal of the existence of a problem needs to change.
As a Middle Eastern woman, from a background where the slightest comment about women’s rights gets men to roll their eyes, I gained new perspective on the importance of higher education. Receiving a higher education breaks stereotypes and makes a substantial difference in what others think women, regardless of background and ethnicity, can accomplish. Shyra Barberstock, as a businesswoman of Aboriginal descent, sparked a unique discussion about the historical origin of oppression, citing European colonization as the instigator of the spread of patriarchy. She cited her own tribe as one led by women since they are viewed in her culture as those possessing “vision.” In her experience, women are the ones valued and given power rather than men, a viewpoint in line with the anthropological origin of the differences in power between the sexes. Berberstock also encourages both women and men in the room to be mentors to others within business communities, as “doing what you do to set an example for other women is enough to inspire change.”
My mother is a specialized physician. Her work and study schedule was made profoundly more complex when she had me at the beginning of her residency. Growing up with an example of a strong woman who gave her all to raising her children and advancing in her career has encouraged me to do the same someday. However, not only were her efforts and accomplishments a source of inspiration but her constant exhaustion and self-sacrifice inspired doubts about my ability to manage a balanced life with a career and family. Returning to the International Women’s Day event, I am reminded that one of the most notable contributions was Kyisha Williams, director of Red Lips [Cages for Black Girls], who provided the audience with a portrayal of her strength and pride as a working mother. She did so by bringing her 1-month old daughter to the front of the panel and breastfeeding her as she addressed the audience. For me, this was a true embodiment of a woman’s inherent power; one whose success shines through her delivery of well-articulated arguments about women’s rights and their role today all the while maternally nurturing member to the next generation. Two complex roles which she navigated with seeming ease. Motherhood is by no means an obligatory role for women but to someone such as myself, who aspires to take on that role someday, Williams’ example serves as a powerful reminder of what career-driven mothers are capable of within supportive systems.
Ironically, some of the many stereotypes women face are perpetuated by other women! One of the highlights occurred during the Q&A period, when a woman from the audience corrected a characterization that was used by Barberstock during her discussion of making mentorship opportunities more accessible to women. Barberstock had raised the important point that men have it easier when they attempt to network with senior executives in the workplace, often fellow men, as it is natural for males to sit at a bar late at night, have drinks and bond with their bosses. For women, however, the same behaviour is not an option as they may find it inappropriate; that women feel uncomfortable sharing drinks with a man colleague for fear of being seen as sexually involved with him. The audience member declared that she disagrees with this idea as many women do feel comfortable going out to discuss work matters over drinks. I was glad that the commentator spoke up. Too often we subject women, and by extension ourselves, to the same stereotypes which we are constantly fighting to shatter. If we reinforce the idea, or concern, that the mere sight of a man and a woman drinking in a bar implies a sexual relationship, then we deny ourselves the opportunity to advance in the workforce. It is obviously an issue for those who find it uncomfortable, and not without cause given the ongoing issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, but we must abstain from casting judgement or creating unnecessary boundaries on women based on stereotypes and the actions of others.
Beyond navigating workplace settings and families, higher education students’ hyper-competitive nature can produce guilt for not being tired and stressed at all times. Working and volunteering while pursuing post-secondary education subjects many of my peers, and undoubtedly myself, to constant and chronic stress. Frequent discussions of mental health and the difficulty of “doing it all” may be part of the antidote to our constant exhaustion. At the end of the panel, a tribute to women’s mental health was given when a member of the audience inquired about the self-care strategies the panelists employ given their busy schedules and ongoing battle against discrimination. One of the most innovative strategies was the idea to “marry yourself.” It was argued that we tend to treat partners and loved ones better than we treat ourselves, but if we take equal time to consider our own needs, we will inarguably feel better and accomplish more. Ways to do so include buying ourselves gifts, treating ourselves to an outing, and dedicating some time to ourselves. This strategy ensures that time each day is dedicated to meeting our own needs. Another self-care strategy is to have a “self-care partner.” A dedicated self-care partnership can remind us to take time for ourselves. Barberstock credits her husband as her “checkpoint” when she is overworked and exhausted. Her anecdote about her partner support highlights the significance of men in the fight against the oppression of women. Men as we know play a critical role in creating for safe spaces for women. As was noted in the conversation, men standing alongside women advocating for women’s rights is more effective and powerful than women standing alone. If one man voices his disgust about sexual harassing comments, rather than condone this behaviour with silence, it can force other men to revaluate the acceptability of their behaviour.
As I celebrated International Women’s Day for the first time, I hope and pray that this year and its informative activist momentum translates into some change however small to make the world fairer for women at home, at school, and in the workplace.
Sara Wasef is an undergraduate student in the BSc Biomedical Science program at York University, Toronto, Canada and a member of the Psychology’s Feminist Voices team. Her research interests include health and feminist psychology, as well as the interdisciplinary study of the nature of body and mind when it comes to explaining disease. She is hoping to pursue medicine or a graduate degree in mammalian physiology.