Challenging Heteronormative Expectations | IWD 2022
Close your eyes and imagine this person...
They teach young children, they love their job, they give everything they have to the children in their care. They’re married and have been for a decade, they have children who they love with every fiber of their being, they are the child of divorced and happy parents. They sound like a healthy, happy, well-adjusted and productive member of society, and sound like someone you might want to get a drink with on a Friday after work.
Hold that image in your mind’s eye; let’s see if we share the same picture. In our shared imagining, it is likely that this is a woman who is white, she is aged somewhere in her early 30s, she is relatively middle class and educated to university level, she has a calm, gentle nature and shies away from conflict, and she is able bodied without a disability or neurodivergence.
If you imagined any of this, it is not mind reading and the preconceived understanding which led you to the image is fairly common in society. We are biased towards assuming a western, heteronormative vision of women.
When you finally meet the person we originally tried to imagine, and you find that she is a cis woman, married to a woman and identifying as lesbian, an adoptive mother and disabled, does it change how you view her? Does it change or challenge your assumptions of her life experiences or priorities? Does it help you see that her view of the world may be different to your own, with different privileges and barriers? Does it cause you to reflect on why we make those assumptions in the first place?
Even today, in 2022, there are certain presumptions and stereotypes which permeate society. The idea that people who teach small children are stereotypically female, is a strong, overwhelming assumption. However, once we agree that we are talking about a woman, it is the rest of the presumptions which can be most harmful to the mental health of the person and to women in general.
Especially in the teaching profession, the assumption before meeting an educational professional is: woman, white, straight and able-bodied. That is not to say that upon meeting a professional who defies one or more of these stereotypes, there is any kind of animosity - far from it - but the damage can already have been done in projecting expectations onto new acquaintances.
Queer Women Are...
As an out LGBTQ+ woman working in a professional field (to some degree, more so as a feminine presenting LGBTQ+ woman), the need to come out over and over again and break the heteronormative expectations can be overwhelming. Not only the act of coming out relentlessly, but also the expectation placed on you once you’re out. The expectation that you won’t require maternity leave somewhere down the line. The expectation that you will devote more time to your career in lieu of children and a family. The expectation that you’ll be a strong, powerful leader. These are all society’s preconceived ideas of what queer women (especially lesbians) are and how they live their lives. Further examples of how bias can negatively impact the mental health of an individual and the career progression of a marginalized group.
The trouble with being the women on the receiving end of these presumptions and biases is that there is a constant need to ‘come out’. The ‘Oh, right. Okay!’ moments when you meet a new colleague or superior for the first time and you explain your identity, take an emotional toll and slowly chip away at your self confidence. Straight, white and able being the ‘norm’, can make explaining your identity as something other feel ‘abnormal’, and that’s where the damage is done.
When we remove the bias and the preconceived expectations we have of women, not only do we begin to remove the barriers put before women of colour, queer women, disabled women and women from all marginalised communities, but we begin to see greater representation of women in all careers and fields. Creating spaces in employment without bias - be it regarding marital situation, parental leave, cultural/religious observance or disability - opens up the possibility of building institutions where all employees experience psychological security, where career progression is encouraged for all, and where a balance between work and home is not only supported but is respected and expected, regardless of gender identity.
This article was written by Evie (She/Her), a passionate, proud deafie, autism mamma, queerie, wife, teacher, writer and word geek. You can follow Evie over on Twitter here.