In an ideal world, feminism would be, quite clearly, unnecessary. Our world is, however, unideal to an almost tragic extent. Signs of structural oppression of both minorities (racial, ethnic, national, sexual) and non-minorities (women, people of lower classes) are plainly visible in everyday life. Nonetheless, I understand that privilege can be extremely blinding (I have first hand experience with this effect) – so I am not surprised when privileged people (mostly middle- and upper-class white cis males) – claim, probably in all honesty, and probably with great deal of confusion – that there is no such thing, because they looked and could not see it. This can be, I believe, excused. Nonetheless, we have established methods for examining things that we cannot see and an educated person ought to know better than rely on intuition alone. After all, we don’t run around exclaiming that there is no such thing as an atom just because we can’t see it.


The established method is of course called science, and has, unsurprisingly, tackled these issues. And it has found so much evidence, and the consensus is so solid, that people who claim structural oppression does not exist are, plain and simple, science denialists. Like with all other science denialism – climate change, vaccination, cancer research – the deniers will dig up a study or another to support their position, dig in their heels and make up conspiracy theories about how scientists are in fact corrupt. All this is, basically, the result of not understanding how science works. This is, unlike individual blindeness, unexcusable – again, at the very least, for people with higher education.

(As an aside… The problem of denial has another interesting aspect: while few people claim to be experts in physics, nearly everyone is an expert in sociology (and climate science). Where does this difference between hard and not-so-hard science come from is hard to pinpoint. If we look back at ancient times, “armchair physics” used to be about as widespread as “armchair sociology” is today (again, in the well-educated strata of the society). You could maybe argue that a physical experiment is qualitatively different from a sociological one: nonetheless, looking at modern physics, particle physics in particular, a large proportion of experimentation is statistical in nature. In other words, the difference in methods is not as big as we make it to be. And as more and more degrees of freedom appear in our experiments, we will rely more and more on statistics to look for our results.)


We have established (by examining the scientific consensus on the matter) that a problem exists, but what exactly is this problem? Early on, I have used the term “structural oppression” without saying what it was. What I mean here is that the structure of society itself causes major disadvantages to certain groups of people. Structural oppression is sneaky and pervasive: it turns unsuspecting, well-intentioned people into oppressors, often without them even noticing.

In the society as it is, it is extremely hard to look at a woman (or a black person!) without some very subtle but very damaging prejudice. Did you ever meet an accomplished, professional woman and your first thought was “oh, she’s pretty” (cute, sexy, whatever)? Surely there is no harm in that? Well, not as such – this is a symptom of a much bigger problem. The fact of the matter is that we (the white cis hard-working etc. etc. “core of the society” types) all sometimes do it (even those of us who consider themselves educated in this regard). And every time we do it, we casually discard a lot of merit, and this is not without consequences. Maybe you try to conceal this weakness in your conduct, knowing that it is, after all, inappropriate… but more likely than not, the subject of your sexist thinking process will notice the subtle hints that you couldn’t help but drop. And maybe you weren’t really trying that hard – well, isn’t it a privilege to be admired on your looks when you are a woman, anyway?

But, every time this happens, the victim gets a little reminder that what they do doesn’t really matter. That it is more worthwhile to spend time and money on beauty salons, fitness centers and pretty (expensive) clothes than on education or entertainment. That you should find an accomplished husband instead of trying to do something productive, or creative, or just generally fulfilling yourself. That were you a little less lucky (or worked a little less hard on how you look), you would be basically worthless, regardless of all your other achievements. This is extremely, grossly depressing. And for the women who don’t stand out as pretty, or desirable-looking… well, unless they are absolutely stellar in what they do, the best they can hope is to be “X’s girlfriend” or “Y’s wife” and the occasional “your girlfriend does Z, that’s cute” (when you think about it, the average white dude in an average boring job gets a lot of respect for their mediocrity; that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the fact it’s only the white dudes that get it, is). And even if they are absolutely stellar, there will always be a guy who will simply have to let them know how much better he thinks he is (most likely being completely wrong, just to add insult to injury).

Well, the picture may not be as bleak as that, but that’s mostly because of how women can put up with all that shit and not jump off bridges in droves. I suppose if the dominant groups in our society were subject to that kind of treatement, with our fragile egoes, we would in fact be jumping off those bridges en masse.


In the short term, there really isn’t a magic bullet. A lot of progress has happened over the decades – the oppression used to be much more palpable and much more intentional than it is today. In the west, women are no longer labelled as second-rate explicitly, they are “merely” treated as such, and the perpetrators of the oppression are (usually) not malicious, only misguided.

Can you help? Maybe. Structural oppression is an emergent property, like many of the other horrible properties of civilisation. Vast majority of people that make up the society don’t consciously oppress women, yet the oppression is there on a large scale. Likewise, most women are not being particularly targeted by the wider society (of course, some are, especially when they speak up to point out prejudice… you know who you are, and you have my admiration), but again, on a large scale, the oppression is there and is undeniable.

Being aware of the problem is the first step in fixing it. Like with other emergent phenomena, it is very tempting to brush it off with “everyone does it, even if I do the right thing, this won’t change anything, I am just one person against thousands and they will stick with the wrong thing”. That is wrong. Precisely because emergent properties are emergent, composed of myriads of seemingly uncoordinated, minor actions, a top-down approach doesn’t work. You can’t legislate attitude. The feminists of the past decades have fought (and won) many of the top-down battles (voting rights, property laws, the things you can legislate); the underlying emergent oppression is, however, unlikely to be defeated this way. When looking at a complex, chaotic system (like society undoubtedly is), it is hard to link the high-level behaviour to low-level phenomena. A number of innocent, obviously harmless behaviours and actions and attitudes add up to a damaging effect.

However, we have plausible theories (some of which I have expounded above) on how structural oppression works; yes, these are theories and it’s hard to gather evidence, nonetheless it is the best that we currently have. And the requisite shift in individual conduct is not big and certainly not detrimental to the individual undertaking it, whereas the oppression we are trying to tackle is damaging and harmful… on balance, that definitely sounds like it’s worth a try; it’s not even such a long shot after all. Most importantly, this is a bottom-up battle… humans are great imitators, and if you are confident in your actions, those actions will be emulated – slowly, maybe so slowly you won’t be able to notice anything; but if you become a better person… someone else will probably think, hey, they seem to be a decent person and it doesn’t seem to be hurting them, maybe I could be a bit more like them myself. And that’s how bottom-up battles are won, one person at a time. And one of those days, another phase change will happen, as a critical mass of people will find certain behaviours unacceptable and the rest will (mostly) comply. Of course, nobody will be arrested for mansplaining or for tasteless “displays” in an attempt to “impress” a female colleague… but everyone will (rightfully) think they are an idiot and someone will probably tell them so. And the victims will be able to brush off the perpetrators with ease, since they’ll know that society is firmly on their side.

– 26.2.2015