My son eyed the huge triple-layer Dagwood sandwich and pondered how he would open his mouth wide enough to accommodate the first bite without dislocating his jaw. Amused with his self-inflicted plight—hey, he ordered it—I turned my attention to the books lining the booths and walls of the restaurant.
Whenever I visit this particular restaurant I always find an interesting book or three. On this day I noted a book on the ledge over my son’s head that was titled something like Gender: A Look Through the Prism of Difference. I’m sure I’m slaughtering the actual name and offer my apologies to the author.
While I didn’t take the opportunity to pull the book and browse the contents because I wanted to focus on my time with my son, the title got me thinking about that darn perception…what indeed does gender mean?
Recently my son told me he had visited an O’Reilly auto parts store. His mission was to buy oil for his car, but he wasn’t sure what oil would be best. As my son walked the aisles reading labels, a salesman came by and wanted to know how he could help. When my son asked questions about the differences between regular, synthetic, and blended, the salesman became insulting in both attitude and speech towards my son. Apparently there is an unspoken rule that if you are identified as male gendered, you are supposed to born with a mechanical-I-know-it-all gene. I now realize I let my son down in that regard because he knows and cares little about automobile mechanics. I did, however, give him extra humor and thoughtfulness genes, which seemed like the better option when I was pre-selecting my ideal recipe for a baby boy.
He told me as he left the store he felt angry that he had been belittled in that way, and angrier that he hadn’t said something to defend his rights as a customer. As we talked about it I offered that gender perception is a two-edged sword: he gets belittled for being a guy who is not interested in mechanical workings, and I get viewed as though I have a simple mind and incapable of understanding the big bad boy’s world of auto mechanics.
Several years ago while attending a psychology class taught by my friend, Dr. Claudia Kittock, we explored this very subject. Our assignment was to divide into teams and visit retail stores. Prior to the visit there would be an agreement on what we were shopping for—in my case it was a refrigerator—and then we’d have the same script for the male shoppers and the female shoppers. The point of the exercise was to see how salespeople treated a shopper based on gender. The reports back to the class were enlightening.
In general, the perceived gender of the shopper did alter how the salesperson asked questions and made recommendations. What was interesting was that the perceived gender of the salesperson also made a difference in the shopping experience. Female salespersons tended to listen better and to ask more user-friendly questions while male salespersons tended towards a direct, “let’s get this done” approach. I discovered I was more comfortable talking to female sales personal in general, but attitude was key. If the salesperson wasn’t connecting with me, I just wanted to get the information and leave. Gender mattered little, service mattered a lot.
As I get older I find I reflect on these topics more. There is a part of me that expects life to get better as I age, and that humans will become more tolerant of each others differences. But then hearing the story about my son’s oil buying experience makes me think not much is changing at all.
As I watched my son eat his Dagwood sandwich, I realized that food is gendered as well. It’s not uncommon for my husband to order a Caesar salad for lunch, and I’ll order a burger and fries. If a different server delivers the food to our table, who do you think gets handed the burger and fries? Yep. Everyone knows only girls eat salads. Sigh.