Sharing space and power across gender

Opinion: Columns

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By Linda Francis

Director Success of All Youth

I have to admit I am seriously concerned for our country and for our community. In addition to the work that needs to be done to address the damage and discord caused by racism and climate change, we are also still struggling, mightily, with gender relationships. Whether in the halls of the capital, Oak Park village government, or many of our own homes, we are still struggling with how men and women share space and power. I am also struck by the differences with which generations are handling this challenge — or not.

Earlier this year there was a forum held where high school students of color, mostly female, spoke about the challenges of advocating for their respective demographic groups and their work for change. All of the groups mentioned that this work was mostly being done by females, and though they welcomed the participation of males, struggled to secure that participation. Lest we think this challenge is purely one for people of color, I had yet another eye-opening experience. I met with a high school club that I knew began as all white and male. I was surprised to find a table of all white females. When I asked them about the shift, they explained that after they joined, the club became co-ed. After the elections — in which all females won — the males left and the club became all female. I asked if this bothered them and the answer was no.

OPRF High School recently held a workshop for female students to encourage them to consider taking business classes, which currently are very heavily male. I asked my daughter, a recent grad, why she had not considered taking any of the business courses despite liking AP Macro and Micro Economics and initially considering business. She responded that she preferred to avoid the guys who would often be in those classes. Upon further probing, she said she found a general personality type that made class with them difficult. I am not taking my daughter's perceptions as fact, but merely acknowledging that the perception exists and there are repercussions.

So what is going on? It's pretty clear when it comes to the clashes happening with older adults as women continue to fight to secure places of power and agency over their own lives and those of other marginalized folks. We have put considerable effort into raising strong, empowered young women who are confident in taking the reins with regard to their interests and future. But adults have not put the same type of effort into preparing young men for this new reality. This has led to a lack of agreement and clarity on roles and behavior. 

And here's the interesting part: Unlike older women, Gen Z, and increasingly millennial women, have no interest in trying to make it work with young men. If they can't "get with the program," they essentially ignore them. In fact this phenomenon is happening in many modern societies around the world. Young women are not interested in living their lives in a small or confined way. They are taking up more space. In the absence of dependency for livelihood, security or social acceptance, the question looms: Is the effort for coexistence worthwhile? Sadly, the answer from too many young folks, particularly female, is no.

I hope we begin to put more effort into figuring out why and what binds us together across gender and how we communicate this to our children as we raise them to live together in ways that are mutually fulfilling. Quite a bit has been written lately about the challenges young white men face regarding their male identity, particularly in light of increases in violence wrought by disaffected young men. This has been a challenge for many young black males for some time now; however, it does foretell what can happen when young men lack a sense of belonging and place. I have heard this blamed on efforts to achieve racial and gender equity. This is like blaming population growth on improving water quality. We must constantly seek to improve everyone's quality of life and do better at planning for the likely effects. 

As I often say, change is inevitable. The question remains, what will we do about it? How can we raise our boys and girls to share space and power respectfully and equitably? How can we become better models for what that should look like? 

It might begin with acknowledging that we are learning, too, but that we are committed to making it a reality.

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