Ask Women Questions

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A few years ago, Bill Gates spoke at business seminar in Saudi Arabia. One audience member asked if he thought the country could reach its goal of becoming one of the world's most competitive economies by 2010. Gates, looking at the audience segregated by a large partition, men on one side, women clothed in full length burqas on the other, responded "Well, if you're not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you're not going to get too close to the top."

woman sitting on chairNone of my guy friends considers himself sexist. Neither do I. We've evolved past that. Any culture that institutionalizes discrimination (much less violence) against women should be denounced. Rape is unforgivable. Sexual harassment should be investigated and prosecuted. It's unfair and criminal that women still earn less than men for the same jobs. Women have every right to enter any profession they desire. Notions that there's a universal female feebleness with math (or any other discipline) are antiquated and embarrassing. Same with jokes about women drivers. Advertising that oppresses women with unrealistic standards of beauty is bad. As is an entertainment industry in which "average" women are depicted as perennially young, thin, beautiful and always perfectly made-up and coiffed (and often paired with genuinely average or downright schlubby men). Any progressive man has plenty of women in his social circle. No guy is good in bed if he leaves his woman unsatisfied, and no guy considers himself bad in bed.


But no matter how evolved a man considers himself to be, there's millennia of cultural baggage to overcome, much of it embedded at an unconscious level.


Our very language implies that men are the default gender. Wo-men are the variation (the opposite of the biological truth, incidentally). Pairs of terms coupling masculine and feminine usually place the masculine first: men and women, husband and wife, brothers and sisters, boys and girls, his and hers, he and she, guys & dolls, he said she said, masculine feminine. In the last couple of decades certain words have been changed to imply gender neutrality: chair for chairman, handmade for manmade, humanity for mankind. In practically every case the change was from the masculine. And these terms are still recent enough to serve as reminders of the concession to political correctness a person makes when using the new form.


Western culture has been run by men for a long, long time. The majority of figures you're likely to read about in any history book will be men. Most scientists have been men. Most philosophers, too. And spiritual leaders. Most literary names (as well as painters, composers, sculptors, etc). Most heads of state. Explorers. Military leaders. Industrialists. Inventors.


Of course, this is due to the fact that it's a recent and still limited phenomenon for women to even be educated at all, much less to reach a position of power and prominence in any field that receives notice across the gender divide. But it's very easy to absorb an unconscious impression that men are intrinsically more interesting. More capable. More significant. Worthier of attention.


woman smoking a cigaretteAs much as there's been progress toward equality in the last hundred years, our public discourse is still dominated by male voices. Politicians are usually men. Same with the clergy. And tenured professors. Produced playwrights. Stand-up comedians. Textbook authors. Radio personalities. Political pundits.


Male movie and TV stars consistently command bigger salaries than their female counterparts. Movies with women in the lead roles get labelled "chick flicks," implying that men should avoid them at all costs, unless trying to get laid.


The Hollywood machine is staffed by men who display what Roseanne Barr described as "staggering sexism" in a recent New York Magazine article, and "blondes in high heels who were so anxious to reach the professional level of the men they worshipped, fawned over, served, built up, and flattered that they would stab other women in the back."


The current literary world seems much more gender balanced, but plenty of guys never read novels or short stories written by women.


Why not?


How many men have an aversion, conscious or not, to reading or watching the story of a woman's experience?


This impulse can easily, and stealthily, slip into the everyday realm of conversation.


A friend of mine told me her litmus test to gauge a first date: how long does it take for the guy to ask her a question? Quite often, he never does.


I explored this in a Facebook poll, asking women how often the men in their lives asked them questions of any kind. Two responded "all the time!" A few others said it was restricted to things like "where are my keys?" The majority said, quite emphatically, that it never happens at all.


Why not?


Do you ask women questions?


In an article collected in The Worst Years of Our Lives, Barbara Ehrenreich relates how sociolinguist Pamela Fishman found that "topics introduced by men 'succeeded' conversationally 96 percent of the time, while those introduced by women succeeded only 36 percent of the time and fell flat the rest of the time."


How would the men observed in this study react if they were made aware of how dismissive they are? How would you?


woman sitting on a chairEhrenreich also describes how sociologists Candace West and Donald Zimmerman found that "men interrupt women much more often than they interrupt other men and that they do so more often than women interrupt either men or other women."


In Carol Shields' novel Unless, one character describes how she has never had a conversation with a man without the man trying to "win."


Do you try to win conversations? Do you steamroll female "opponents"? If you do ask a woman for her opinion, is it because you want to be enlightened by her perspective, or are you looking to see if she agrees with you (and to overpower her with your opinion if she doesn't)?


If a woman offers a view different from your own, how willing are you to consider it? Do you take it differently than you would if it came from a man?


Would you have read this article if it had been written by a woman?


None of these questions is meant to accuse, but to explore. In his book When the Body Says No, Gabor Mate describes the value of compassionate curiosity: looking at one's inner processes not with judgment and condemnation, but with interest and a desire to understand.


Enneagram author Russ Hudson described curiosity as an attribute of any person operating at a high level of personal development. Curiosity about oneself, and about the world. Always asking questions. Always seeing what you can find out, from everyone and everything.


As men - especially as first world white guys - we enter a world predisposed in our favour. We ride a great tide of privilege that was firmly established long before we got here. This privilege comes at the cost of others, women prominently among them. It's very easy to ignore that. Or to consider it the natural order of things. It's humbling and counter-intuitive to step down from one's inherited pedestal.


We can choose to be curious about our relationship to this privilege. Curious about our interactions with women. Curious about any unconscious beliefs manipulating our conversations.


A fertile curiosity can take us out of the paths we've grooved in our minds and show us things we've missed.


Curiosity can spur us on to ask questions, to women and men alike. Actually listening to the answers we receive can get us asking more questions still. And eventually seeing the familiar world in a new light.


Ken Wilber said one of the best ways to evolve is to learn to see from different points of view.


If there was some inner mechanism blinding you from fifty percent of human experience, would you want to know about it? If you had the opportunity to free yourself from it, would you?


What might the benefits be of learning to utilize the vast, ignored resources around you?

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  • Comment Link Hallie Wednesday, 01 June 2011 18:25 posted by Hallie

    Could it be more accurate to say that because Western culture has been run by men for so long the majority of figures we are likely to read about in history books will be men? Most known scientists, philosophers and spiritual leaders have been men. Most published authors (as well as painters, composers, sculptors, etc). Patented, produced inventors. How many contributions by women have not necessarily not been made, they've simply gone unnoticed?

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Wednesday, 01 June 2011 20:46 posted by TJ Dawe

    Very true, Hallie - thanks for pointing that out. very similarly, how many movies haven't been green lighted because studios believe no one wants to see a movie about women?

  • Comment Link Ken Dresen Thursday, 02 June 2011 22:15 posted by Ken Dresen

    I was surprised when the author asked, "Would you have read this article if it had been written by a woman?" I hadn't considered it up to that time, but earlier as I was reading, I thought of the left-brain, right brain, and how language is also prejudiced in favour of the left hemisphere. Men, I have read, are predominately left brained, where women have the facility of using both hemispheres; I wonder if there is anything more to that?
    Great article, man(?)

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Friday, 03 June 2011 16:54 posted by TJ Dawe

    hey Ken - thanks. I've heard similar things about right brain/left brain orientation, but I can't recall ever actually reading it. Do you have a link you could post for a study on the subject?

  • Comment Link Barb Kreher Saturday, 04 June 2011 03:04 posted by Barb Kreher

    TJ--missed you at the Orlando Fringe this year!

    I saw a great show there--"Bitches of the Kingdom". I expected it to be men in drag, but instead it was an all-woman show about the heroines of fairy tales (Snow white,Rapunzel, etc.) and how they hadn't been prepared for what came after "happily ever after". The talent was awesome and I would have seen it again except that it was all sold out.
    It was breathtaking to watch women who were brainy and smart and funny and relating to each other without any men around.

    So--how about the "James Bond syndrome"? You know the one--Bond's boss tries to show him how a supercharged (look out, Freud!) car works, and Bond waves him aside and is off like a pro from the get-go. Bond asks no questions.

    There's a perceived subservience to asking questions. Women know this and this is why they ask, "Do we have enough gas?" instead of stating, "We need gas."

    That actually happened in my ex-husband's plane and we landed on the highway, the plane totaled and the 2 of us walking away; after which he blamed the guy who'd filled the gas tank.

    did I mention he's an ex-husband?
    Barb Kreher

  • Comment Link Mich Saturday, 04 June 2011 23:11 posted by Mich

    Good article. Interesting choice of painting -- a woman in a very short skirt, which is in focus, while her head/mind literally disappears! The second drawing looks exactly like a hooker!!

    I'm guessing that was an intentional metaphor for how some men view women?

  • Comment Link Temujinna Sunday, 05 June 2011 23:55 posted by Temujinna

    When is the last time you saw a man ask another man a question?

    Only recently during a related discussion with another vendor, our conversation gravitated to points of facts he was unaware of pertaining to the science we were discussing. Because he did not know and understand as much as I did about the science or equipment, he felt challenged by me, and he got louder, and more interruptive toward me. I viewed it as more disrespectful, and he acted as if as if I were going to back down. I did not, but only adamantly persisted with facts relating my points of the science conversation without getting loud. Also, when he interrupted me, I re-interrupted him.

    After our conversation and he left the area, I told another person nearby who had heard the entire proceeding, that I felt like I had to whip out my dick and show him it was bigger in order to win that conversation. While any woman would view this as fully disrespectful, I was enlightened by my boyfriend when he shed some light on this subject. This is a typical conversation among men. They display dominance over others whenever possible. Hence, the "my fish was bigger", "my win was bigger" kind of conversation that occurs among men.

    Not only do men behave like this to many women, but notice also how they behave like this toward other men. It is a normal behavior among men, so all this cannot be taken as disrespectful to women, but instead as a sort of "language" among men. Women want to be thought of as equal, but do not understand the language among other men, and evaluate it when we don't get what we want. Both sexes complain about the other sex, because of the misunderstanding between the expectations of both. The best thing to do is talk, and ask questions if you want to know.

    If a woman is "alpha" enough to hold her ground, then good for her. Her packaging is only that....packaging. Too often, the packaging hides the goods, and too often it is used like a venus flytrap, or a distraction, to entice for the kill.

    In the article it was mentioned Carol Shields book Unless, she's never had a conversation with a man who wasn't trying to win. Notice conversations between men, they are always trying to outdo each other, so while we women take this as a personal dismiss of sorts, it is only their nature you are taking personally. Don't. Just become strong enough to hold your own. This is the alpha pecking order, established among men also. Women call it stabbing each other in the back, and often it is. Men do the same thing, to get ahead.

    Back in 1984, Bill Gates took my boyfriend out to dinner with four others, to recruit computer language programmers trying to get "windows" written. While there were some awesome women language programmers, none of them were at the table. When is the last time you saw a woman CEO at Microsoft? Even Bill has fallen victim to the invisible sexism, but he does hire women. I would probably believe there may not be one strong enough among his wolf pack to be the alpha.

    Again, how often do you see other men asking questions to other men?

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Monday, 06 June 2011 02:01 posted by TJ Dawe

    Mich - to be perfectly honest, I hadn't had that intention with choosing the images, but your interpretation certainly works.

    There are no visual references in the article that needed images, so I searched through google images with key words and combinations like "ask women questions" or "ignored women" and didn't like anything I found.

    I can't even remember which words led me to the images I ended up using. But I'd be open to using new ones if you've got any suggestions. Quite honestly, they don't need to be there at all, but I like to break up the text if possible, make it that much more reader friendly.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Monday, 06 June 2011 02:14 posted by TJ Dawe

    Temujinna - excellent points. Something briefly mentioned in the article is Enneagram teacher Russ Hudson's description of curiosity as a facet of any person operating at a higher level of development. Very few people are actually curious. Thinking and talking usually involves us confirming what we already believe. Russ said he could count on one hand the number of people he knows who can actually think - meaning, to sit down, and through the reactions of the mind alone, arrive at a different belief than the one they started with.

    And Barb, this ties in with your comment about the subservience inherent in admitting you don't know something. There's a vulnerability in doing that that it's very easy to see a great many men being uncomfortable with. In George Carlin's book When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops, he writes:

    "a man has to make believe he knows what he's doing at all times. And while he's doing whatever it is he's doing, he has to make believe he doesn't need any help.

    "He has to make believe he can fix anything. And if he can't fix it now, he'll fix it later. And if he can't fix it later, he has a friend who can fix it, and if not, it was no good to start with , it's not worth fixing, and besides, he knows where he can get something better, much cheaper, but they're all outta them right now, and besides, they're closed. This is the male disease. It's called being full of shit."

    So, few people are truly curious, male or female, and our culture insists men know everything and be able to do everything already. To be open, curious, vulnerable and humble, it's perceived, is to have a dick the size of a thimble.

    And the way around this is... to be curious about it. And paradoxically enough, admitting you don't know something and asking about it increases your knowledge with every question you ask.

  • Comment Link Msarjorie Wednesday, 15 June 2011 23:49 posted by Msarjorie

    little by little progress is being made in the field of woman being considered equal to men. These types of articles help.

  • Comment Link John Stauffer Saturday, 02 July 2011 15:17 posted by John Stauffer

    I appreciate the article in that I am the father of four daughters, four grandaughters and multiple nieces, a wonderful 96 y.o mother a sister, sister inlaws and female friends. As the man the see I hope that I do not represent any of the negative figures that I have read about. Oh, but so sad, I have been some of them at some time. As I learn I purpose to change. My maleness is not a banner of betterness unless it allows for my thought to always in my attempt to submit to the beauty of my wife, my daughters, grandaughters and others in a manner that goes beyond the physical.

  • Comment Link Mark Drew Tuesday, 23 August 2011 15:06 posted by Mark Drew

    First off, I find half of this article rediculous and completly irrelevant to myself. "Chick Flicks" being a movie about women? No, it's a movie meant FOR women, The lead role could be a guy, and it's all love and romance and I'm frankly not interested.

    In regards to men interrupting women and not asking questions. I almost never interrupt anyone. When I do interrupt someone, it's because they wont let me speak, because they never close their mouth. Men or women. I admit though, I forcefully interrupt men more than women. I ask questions about what women's interests are often as well.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Tuesday, 23 August 2011 23:55 posted by TJ Dawe

    Mark - that's an interesting distinction you point out. Can you name any movies you'd classify as about women rather than for women? Also - I'm curious as to why a movie directed at women doesn't interest you. It's not inherently bad that it doesn't, I'm just curious.

    If you ask questions about women's interests, whether you realize it or not, you're probably earning the gratitude of all the women you meet. So much of the feedback I've received on this article has been from women who tell me that guys never ask them a thing, unless the question is perfunctory excuse for them (the guy asking the question) to jump in and sound off on a topic they know very well. So many men take it as a given that the correct and appropriate relation between the sexes is that women support men and listen to them, and... that's that. and I get the sense women are very hungry for someone who's actually interested in them, what they think, what they experience, as a matter of respect and genuine interest in them as people.

  • Comment Link Millie Thursday, 12 January 2012 05:43 posted by Millie

    I enjoy conversations around what I feel will be the answer to world peace...
    Great article!

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Thursday, 12 January 2012 17:07 posted by TJ Dawe

    Thanks, Millie. Any ideas you'd care to share on the answer to world peace are welcome here. In fact, I'm working on an article about exactly that, inspired by Barbara Ehrenreich's book Dancing in the Streets: a History of Collective Joy. Her suggestion to bring about world peace: more collective celebrations, in which we all participate.

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