Why the Gender Equality Gaffes at the Olympics are Great Teaching Moments

Social media is in an uproar right now about how some sports commentators are describing the female athletes of this year’s Olympic Games. Long-ingrained stereotypes and cultural “norms” are creeping into the color commentary, analysis and journalistic dialogue … unfortunately. Hard to believe that this is 2016.

This Huffington Post article, The Top 10 Most Sexist Things to Occur at the 2016 Rio Olympics So Far, highlights just a handful of the (now high-profile) blunders that left the lips or the pens of those covering the Games.

I distinctly remember raising an eyebrow over a few of these comments while watching NBC’s coverage: 1) announcers saying that gymnastics phenom Simone Biles can tumble and fly higher “than a man”; 2) announcers commenting on how swimming superstar Katie Ledecky has been said to “swim like a man”; and 3) announcers giving credit to the husband/coach of Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu on her 400-meter individual relay gold, immediately after she clenched it.

Was it any surprise that social media erupted the way it has?

But let’s focus on the positive, people: This eruption is happening. Loud and clear. I am happy to witness this rising up of voices, both female and male, saying that it’s not OK. It’s one of the rare times when I’ll actual applaud social media. It often gets attention for the most trivial of reasons; but in this case, the subject matter is not trivial. This speaks to a cultural conditioning that needs to change.

This rising up of voices is part of a wave in feminism that’s given new buoyancy to gender equality — which includes the language we choose to use. I, like so many other women, have been subjected to it and have witnessed it. I know each time that it is not OK. That it didn’t feel right. That it demeaned not only me, but my tribe of females around the world. I didn’t always speak up, though. That’s not the case anymore.

In recent years, I have begun taking every opportunity to point these things out to my male friends, family members and colleagues — when I witness it in the moment. I tell them it’s not a burn or me trying to be a chest-beating feminist; it’s just pointing out perceptions and attitudes that I’d like to see shifted, certainly for the next generation of women. I look at my nieces, Audrey and Ruby, and don’t want them to experience some of the bullshit I’ve had to “tolerate” at work and in the everyday of life. I speak up for them, as much as I do for myself.

This awareness-raising is a good thing. A very good thing. So let’s focus on that positive rather than put down the people who seem to be perpetuating old stereotypes, most of them unconsciously. That doesn’t help things and can even turn what could be fantastic teaching moments into emotionally-charged debates. Because I believe that most of these one-liner gaffes are not intentional, per se; it stems from “norms” burned into the (semi-collective) subconscious. We can gently weed it out, one voice at a time.

Instead of rolling our eyes or giving guys a pass, we can use these times as teaching moments. It’s up to us to call them out as we hear it, see it, witness it. It’s also up to us, collectively, to help the parents and teachers of small children to be mindful of language they use when associating the sexes. This conditioning starts young.

Social media is great to point these things out, of course … and the fact that a global event like the Olympics is casting a bright light on the matter is wonderful. But let’s be sure to speak up in real life, too.

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