One Foot Off The Gutter

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We were playing “One Foot off the Gutter” in the street, in front of our house. The person who is “it” stands in the middle of the street and the rest of the players stand with one foot on the sidewalk and one in the gutter. They then try to run across the street without getting tagged. My cousin opened the window of our house and yelled down “ it’s a boy!”  I stomped my foot on the ground with flair and said “ darn!” I was eight years old. My mom had just given birth to her fifth child and fourth son. It was the first time I recall pretending to feel a certain way because I thought I was supposed to. Everyone felt sorry for me because I was the only girl. Four brothers and no sisters. Secretly, I was happy to have another brother. It was what I knew. Brothers were fine. I had no idea what sisters would be like.  All of the kids in my family were treated the same. I did not have more or fewer chores because I was a girl. I was not offered different opportunities than my brothers.

When I was around 10 years old I  went down into my brothers’ room to play Monopoly. I was standing in the doorway unnoticed. My older brother Dan was holding an empty coffee can with a lid. He farted into the can, quickly snapped on the lid, ran up to my younger  brother Pete and said “you want to smell it?”  Pete  nodded his head and lifted his nose to the rim of the can. Dan cracked the lid and Pete squealed. “ Ewwwww…ackkkk!”  They both broke into peals of laughter so powerful that they ended up on the floor. I looked at them both and thought “gross”. I couldn’t help but smile at the two of them, knowing deep in my soul that yep, boys and girls are different. Wait, I can’t believe I just wrote that. I just boxed girls out of being able to like fart slapstick and I boxed boys out of being able to think it’s gross. I drew a broad conclusion about the inherent personalities of boys and girls just because I, personally,  don’t want to smell someone’s farts in a can.

 I went back and reread the first paragraph to see what other stereotypes I might be unwittingly justifying. “All the kids in my family were treated the same, I was not offered different opportunities”.  Inside my house this was true. My father was a physics professor. This was in the 1970’s. The great majority of his students were men. He died young so I never got to ask him whether his motivation was broader than just getting his own daughter interested in math but he encouraged me to study math. “ You should be an engineer.” “ You would be good at physics.” While I ignored his advice,  his intention stuck with me. Outside of our house, things were different. My family loves baseball. I watched as my brothers one by one marched out to the local playground and got on the baseball team. To this day I can’t honestly say whether my ambivalent feelings about baseball are genuine or built by the fact that girls were not allowed to play on a team. I remember trying one day, my brother showing me how to hold the bat, the pitcher winding up and throwing the ball. I closed my eyes, held my breath and missed. I thought to myself “ yeah. I am no good at this”. The rest of the guys agreed that I was no good. This seemed right because I was a girl, after all. If girls were allowed to play baseball would I have pushed myself and learned the game? 

The differences between men and women have been extrapolated into myths about gender that are untrue, and that tend to limit womens’ options. From a very young age, both women and men are inundated with these stereotypical messages.  “Women don’t like to get dirty.” ”Women aren’t good at math."  “Women don’t understand business”.”Women can’t play baseball.”

If you google “grading girls in math” a bunch of articles come up about how teachers give girls lower scores in math when they know it is a girl taking the test. When the tests were given anonymously the girls either equaled or outscored the boys.

“Perhaps most unsettling is the study’s finding that teachers perceive girls with nearly identical mathematical abilities—and identical behavioral profiles—to be significantly less able than their male counterparts, and that bias itself is part of the reason girls end up doing worse.” 

I read an article recently about musicians and gender bias in the hiring in symphony orchestras. In the 1970s the percentage of female orchestra members in the five highest ranked orchestras in the country was 6%. After these  orchestras agreed to try “blind” auditions the proportion of women musicians increased from 6% in 1970 to 21% in 1993.

“Using a screen to conceal candidates from the jury during preliminary auditions increased the likelihood that a female musician would advance to the next round by 11 percentage points. During the final round, “blind” auditions increased the likelihood of female musicians being selected by 30%.” 

 In 2016 a study found that more than half of the musicians in 250 of the top rated orchestras are women.

I know now that every kid who stands on the mound the first time and gets pitched to by another kid freezes, or closes their eyes. In the same way, every person who picks up a hammer and a red hot piece of steel for the first time will swing and hit the anvil. I have been involved with the blacksmithing community for 14 years. At the moment, it is a heavily male-dominated field. However, this should not discourage anyone who wants to try it. I work with and watch accomplished male blacksmiths like Mark Aspery and Dennis Dusek as they teach and support beginners at blacksmithing events. They don’t care who you are. They love what they do and they want to share it.They live the idea that anyone interested in blacksmithing has the potential to be a master blacksmith, regardless of gender. I am sure they have blind spots, just like I do. But they are approachable. As a female professional blacksmith, often times I don’t know if or how my gender played a role in the success or failure of my work. I don’t always know whether a client, gallery or organization hired or did not hire me because of my gender. Most of the time when people are being prejudiced they hide it, or maybe they don’t even recognize it. This can be frustrating. Am I a token? Did I hit a glass ceiling? In some cases I will never know. Blind juries are helpful. I won the Victor Thomas Jacoby Award earlier this year. It is an award that requires that no identifying information be given to the jurors.  So I know I won it fair and square. I have built my career by surrounding myself with accomplished smiths who believe in my potential and by ignoring those who don’t. I tell myself that the work will speak for me and so the work is what I need to focus on. Discrimination is out there, everywhere. Consciously or unconsciously we all do it. My only options are to investigate, communicate and try to change my own biases with the hope that others will do the same.


Monica CoyneComment