Much like cancer, age-related sexism is not something that young women think about – until it happens to them, writes JULIAN VIGO
I was diagnosed with skin cancer six months ago and have recently begun treatment for basal cell carcinoma.
While this is generally not a deadly form of cancer, I nonetheless experienced the shock of learning of this condition, the fear of what this would mean for my current and future health, and of course, I panicked.
I recalled all those years of running about without sunscreen, trips to the beach, and tanning, oblivious to the health warnings of skin cancer. In fact, throughout my twenties there was this notion in the back of my mind that cancer is what happens to other people.
As I pondered my lifelong belief that I was somehow immune to illness, especially in my cocky youth, I realised that this behaviour of mine mimicked perfectly how I responded to older women who would forewarn me of sexism increasing with age.
I hand-waved these testimonials, similarly believing that sexism and the cocktails of sexism and ageism occurred to other people.
Surely I would be the exception and by participating in the team politics of my studies and employment, just like healthy eating and exercise I believed to magically inoculate me from cancer, I would fare my middle age with respect and poise.
Reality, however, is otherwise.
Based on 2012-2014 data, approximately 38.5 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lifetime.
More recent evidence suggests that fifty per cent of all people will be diagnosed with cancer and all evidence seems to suggest that this figure will rise as humans live longer since three-quarters of all cancer diagnoses are made to people above the age of sixty.
Despite these statistics, most people do not consider this prospect and buy into another industry of wellness and mindfulness that acts in complete negation of this data.
Similarly, ageism and sexism are entirely dismissed within mass media with the illusion disseminated in the west that women have finally achieved equality (or almost so).
Yet, there is sufficient evidence that sexism, especially sexism directed at older women, is alive and well such that it should raise alarm bells for everyone.
And those who should be most concerned are younger women who upon entry to the workforce are facing, roughly, a ten year window of paid employment before they are deemed disposable. In fact, the statistics of sex-based discrimination have not changed over the past twenty years.
And let’s not forget that maternity discrimination is at an all-time high in the UK alone with three out of four women reporting pregnancy and maternity discrimination. And I would never have believed this in my twenties that years later I would face similar discrimination.
For instance, when I interviewed for a teaching position at one of the UK’s top universities several years ago, I was pregnant and interested in finding a position for the new academic year.
Despite my high qualifications for the role as told to me during the interview, this entire encounter turned on my pregnancy with my interviewers (all female) asking me, “Are you sure you can handle the teaching load with a child?” and “Don’t you want to be at home with your child?”
The disgust of that experience revealed to me many angles of that larger beast which is institutional sexism where in the UK the assumption is not only that pregnant women or mothers do not need to work, but that they are also supported by one of several patriarchal structures — namely, a partner or the state.
The notion that a woman would want to participate in social projects outside the home are anathema to contemporary constructions of “woman” even today.
It is as if women are permitted a specific, temporary semblance of equality until that age when bodies behave in ways that social mechanisms kick in and when their age relegates them to the margins.
Women are consumable as sexualised images and tokens, exchangeable through exogamy or endogamy, and utilised as an unpaid and unrecognised work force for the family where there are no labour rights or freedom from abuse.
Yet roughly half the human population is raised within these oppressive structures and the collective construction of that social fable that it will never happen to you.
And miraculously, generation after generation of women in the west are raised to understand that the cards are entirely stacked against them, but that if they are a good sport, work hard, and show positivity towards others, that their reward will be a shattered glass ceiling.
As I sit here with a bandage on my nose avoiding the blinding sunlight in the garden from where I write, I realise that hats and sun screen might help me avoid future cases of skin cancer and that I will likely have to use both for the rest of my natural life.
I am, however, quite concerned that there are no such preventative measures against sexism which designates women as social outcasts from the moment they reproduce and/or begin to age in ways that defy the west’s hyper-sexualisation of females.