'Kid-tested, mother-approved' -- and highly sexist

September 23, 1991|By Elaine Richman

EQUALITY is not easy for women to attain. Our most recent reminder comes from a report issued by the Department of Labor stating that women are excluded from corporate "pipelines." These pipelines are conduits to top managerial and executive jobs. The labor report is based on a study of practices of nine Fortune 500 companies.

The report concludes that barriers to advancement are subtle -- so subtle, in fact, that the companies studied were not even aware that their practices created the inequities that were uncovered. Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin suggests that an outreach program be formed to make the companies aware of their exclusionary practices and to "keep the American dream alive."

There are many, many ways, some subtle and others less so, that women are kept down, out of the professional mainstream, away from high-status positions. The Department of Labor's study points out discrimination that exists for only a small number of women.

One need only open ears and eyes to know that American women everywhere continue to be excluded. The following three examples from newspapers, cereal boxes and television illustrate discrimination that exists against women, en masse, on a everyday basis. No formal study is required:

1. "Any medical man with even a touch of legal paranoia could tell President Bush that a rule banning abortion counseling at federally funded family clincs is a prescription for disaster." Medical man! This quote is from a recent editorial (July 23) by well-known columnist Ellen Goodman. What about the medical woman? Let's substitute the word "physician" to acknowledge that female doctors also exist, think and would have the sense to convey an important message to the president.

2. "Have Your Mom Help You Cut Them Out So You Can Put Them Together." "Kid-Tested, Mother-Approved." These two phrases are from cereal boxes. The first appears on Honey Nut Cheerios, telling kids to get help in cutting out a game on the back of the box. The second is a sales pitch for Kix. What is General Mills up to that it classifies the mother as the person to do the family jobs? Has the marketing department identified a trend where people are more likely to purchase the cereal if sex-stereotyped language is used? For purposes of equality, I suggest substituting the word "parent" for mom and mother.

3. "Cavemen." This word was used on "Sesame Street," the popular, forward-thinking program for children, in a vignette featuring prehistoric men and women. By using the word "cavemen" the Sesame Street writers excluded women from the mental picture. The same thing happens with words like fireman, policeman and mailman. It is not true that these words are androgenous and all-inclusive. Substitute cave dweller, firefighter, police officer and mail carrier. As long as the older, sex-stereotyped terms are used, women are denied equal status.

The Department of Labor study and my own observations are proof that women continue to fight an uphill battle for equality in the American culture. Today's use of terms such as "medical man," "mother-approved," and "cavemen" suggest that the women's movement is even backsliding toward an earlier time when the use of this type of language was routine and accepted.

When it comes down to it, Martin's proposed outreach program is really an update of consciousness-raising, the 1970s' single most effective tool for women against discrimination. All signs indicate that outreach is in order. Right on!

Elaine Richman is a consultant in biomedical sciences. She writes from Baltimore.

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