Print Edition: April 1, 2015
My boyfriend’s parents are nice, but super traditional. I have to help cook and clean up after dinner when we go over and the guys don’t, and they talk down to me a little. Nothing insulting or overt, but I never know if I should say something or just go along with it for the sake of being polite. I’ve talked about it with my boyfriend and he’s not sure what to do either. How do I change things without insulting my potential future in-laws?
It sounds like your in-laws-to-be are engaging in benevolent sexism. A recent study reported on in the Washington Post found that benevolent sexism — defined as the well-intentioned attitudes toward women that perpetuate the notion that women are inferior — is a much more common foe of gender equality than hostile sexism, which is much more easily contested. If your future in-laws said that women belong in the kitchen, for example, you could have an up-front conversation with them about your views. Instead, you are left fighting an invisible battle of gender roles.
My advice is to first work through these issues with your boyfriend. He may not fully understand the implications of your being asked to help serve the food while he and his father wait at the table. Like many of us, he grew up with this kind of modelling and might not have questioned it. If he has — kudos! Once you’ve had the conversation, talk about ways in which he can help you feel less belittled while at dinner with the in-laws to-be.
It may very well be that your boyfriend’s parents simply don’t know you well enough to talk about things outside stereotypical topics. If they don’t know what you’re into, it’s easy to fall back on the tried-and-true “gender appropriate” conversation. I would suggest having him bring up conversation points that highlight your role outside the domestic sphere; have him set up a conversation where you have to explain your studies, or your responsibility in the workplace. This will allow them to get to know you a little better, beyond their traditional expectations of you as a woman.
Make sure that your boyfriend isn’t passive to his parents’ behaviour. If his mom asks you to help prepare the food, have him jump in and help out. Plan for him to serve the dessert. His parents may respond to these types of cues and further understand the nuances of a modern relationship.
If things worsen, don’t remain silent. The earlier you have the conversation, the less awkward it will be. Bring it up casually, and have your boyfriend involved. Don’t accuse them outright with being sexist. Not only will they not respond to this well, they might just not get what you’re saying. You can start with talking about your upbringing — “When I was growing up my mom worked, so Dad took over most of the household duties,” or something equally benign. This type of opener will spark a conversation about differing perceptions of women’s roles, and allow you to voice your opinion without being accusatory. Don’t expect to be able to shift their worldview — that’s not the goal. Rather, do your best to understand where you are coming from and how you expect to be treated.
Next time with Yours Truly:
Hi Yours Truly! I’m hoping you can help me out. I’ve been working at my new job for a couple of months; I’ve been getting along fairly well with some of my colleagues, but I’m not sure how to casually take things to the next friendship level: an outside of work hang out. I think we could be good real-life friends, but I’m worried about messing with our workplace relationship.
— Budding work buddy
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