men, masculinities and gender politics

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When being good is bad for you. (How society punishes women and girls for being nice.)

There is an old nursery rhyme that says: “Sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of.” And women and girls often are very nice. And being nice is a great thing!

Unfortunately, our patriarchal world does not much value being “nice.” And because we like to think that everything in our society of men, by men, and for men is working just fine (thank you very much), we tend to change our approach only when we encounter truly dramatic things like brute force, fierce aggression, or great disruption.

But because we have forced women into the “nice” box, they rarely cause these kinds of disturbances. And when women do speak out or act up in order to get their needs met, we punish them. In society’s eyes, the exact sort of behavior that looks like assertiveness in a man makes a woman look like a total b____. The message we send to women is this: “Be nice, ladies. No matter how badly we may treat you.”

We have put women in a very tough situation: speak up and you will be treated with hostility. Don’t speak up, and your needs will be ignored.

Cut off from contact. This phenomenon of ignoring women’s needs was clearly in action the other day when twenty-nine women prisoners were removed en masse from a nearby city jail, loaded onto a bus, and hauled off to a rural correctional facility nearly 300 kilometres (180 miles) away. The rural facility is actually a youth centre that has long been underutilized. (It seems that the kiddies in this part of the world just aren’t quite criminal enough to justify having built such a large prison to house them!)

Until just recently the facility has been used to house adult male inmates along with the young people. But now the government is shipping the men out and shipping the women in. And from here on every incarcerated female in the region will be housed in this “centralized” location that is centralized right in the middle of nowhere! And because several new facilities for males have been built throughout the region, it is only women inmates who will be forced to travel so far from their home communities to serve their time.

That’s not fair. And it’s not smart, either.

The moving of the urban female jail population out to the hinterland was immediately denounced by a local nonprofit organization that had been providing services to these women. The organization pointed out that this decision will prevent the women from having contact with their families and friends, many of whom lack the resources to travel to the new location for visits.

And the decision to ship the women out of town also means that the nonprofit’s award-winning program called “Read Aloud” has been suspended indefinitely. This program allowed women inmates to record themselves reading children’s books. They would then send these recordings to their children so that the kids could have the experience of hearing their mother read to them – even though the mother was physically absent. For many of these kids, this was the only ongoing contact they had with their mothers.

Over the years, through this program, incarcerated mothers had been able to read 7,000 books to their kids.

But no more.

An odd sort of rehabilitation. The Department of Public Safety has said that by putting all female inmates out in this remote youth facility, the women will get better access to educational and rehabilitative services. Included in this list of supposed benefits are yet-to-be-specified “gender-specific programming” and “reintegration strategies.”

The research suggests that it is in fact an excellent idea to provide gender-specific programming and reintegration strategies for incarcerated women. However, when it comes to meeting the unique needs of female inmates, the research is also very clear: the most effective rehabilitative strategy for women who are involved in the criminal justice system is to connect them with a healthy social network that will be there to support them when they finish their incarceration! But that is a damn difficult thing to achieve when most of these women are serving their time hundreds of kilometers away from their social networks!

Relocating female prisoners to a remote location is probably just about one of the worst things you can do if you actually want them to be able to successfully reintegrate into society upon their release. It’s pretty much the opposite of what gender-specific programming for women would suggest that we should do. Relocating women hundreds of kilometers away is not a reintegration strategy. And it is really unwise.

No doubt this is all part of a plan to save money in these cash-strapped times. And it may save money – but only in the short term. At the same time, this plan threatens to seriously jeopardize these women’s successful reentry into society. And that is going to cost an arm and a leg when it comes to recidivism and re-incarceration.

In another incredibly short-sighted attempt to save money, the government has also decided to stop giving inmates a bus pass upon their release. So now we will have women who, once let out, will find themselves hundreds of kilomtetres from home without a solid return plan. That hardly sounds like a sound, female-friendly, gender-aware reintegration strategy to me!

(Some people may argue that people who are incarcerated deserve only punishment, with no effort made toward their rehabilitation. If you take that position, then let me appeal to your sense of economic self-interest: since these women will be getting out of jail, would you rather have them be successful, or would you rather continue to pay for their continuing recidivism and re-incarceration?)

But what does this have to do with women being punished for being good? Aren’t prisoners bad? Perhaps most of these women have behaved badly. Perhaps even all of them have. But that’s not what got them sent hundreds of kilometers away. (Men who do bad things here can serve time near their home communities.) In my opinion, what got the women sent away is that their being female solves an enduring problem that the government has been facing.

Until now, the government had been housing adult male offenders in this youth facility alongside the young inmates. And that solution has been untenable. The government’s own Child and Youth Advocate Office has long had problems with this co-housing of adults and kids, and in 2007 the Advocate called for the facility to be shut down and for the youth to be transferred to more appropriate settings.

So what’s the government’s solution? To house the adult female offenders there rather than the adult male offenders! And although this has not been said out loud, I believe that a principal reason for making this change is the fact that the women present far less of a threat to the youth who are there. Co-housing adult and youth prisoners together might not be ideal – but at least now it’s the women inmates who are up there, and not the adult males!

It is my belief that these women are paying the price for the fact that, by and large, they are more pro-social than the men. Because they can be trusted to be around children, we are sending them up to the remote youth jail. We are taking advantage of women’s gentler way of being. Because these women are quieter and kinder than the men, society can ignore them. Ship them far away. Forget about them.

Bad boys get the resources. Good girls get ignored. This situation of ignoring the needs of female prisoners is totally unacceptable. And it all feels just a little too familiar. Things like this happen all the time. And not just in our prisons, but in our schools as well.

For years we have been ignoring girls who have ADHD and other attention deficits. Only now are we becoming aware that these conditions have been going hugely under-diagnosed in girls, and that many more girls than previously thought are in fact afflicted with attention deficit disorders.

Boys are far more likely to show symptoms of attention disorders by being disruptive, by jumping up out of their seats, and by engaging in behaviors that interfere with the educational process of their peers. The boys come to our attention, and receive behavioral and/or medical intervention. They are the squeaky wheel. They get the grease.

But what of the girls? Instead of being disruptive, females with ADHD are far more likely just to “zone out” into their own little world. But because they are sitting there quietly, they do not attract the attention of the teacher or of the school administration. Because they are kinder, because they are gentler, their situation goes unrecognized. They get no resources in order to ensure that their needs are met. They pay a terrible price for being “nice.”

Experts estimate that between 50% and 75% of girls with ADHD are never accurately diagnosed, and that when girls finally are diagnosed with an attention deficit disorders, it is on average 5 years later than their male peers! Boys tend to get diagnosed at age 7. Girls at age 12. (source: http://www.aboutourkids.org/articles/girls_adhd_overlooked_underdiagnosed_underserved)

Five years! That is a huge amount of wasted time and lost potential for girls. If they are even ever diagnosed at all...

A similar pattern is emerging in the case of autism and aspergers. Like ADHD, autism has historically been more frequently diagnosed in boys than in girls. But some researchers are beginning to question whether those numbers truly reflect reality. And, again, it is girls’ general levels of good behavior that lead us to miss the signs. Girls with autism spectrum disorders tend to act out a lot less than boys with autism. The girls throw a lot fewer tantrums. And when they are being assessed for autism, it is thought that because the girls show a greater desire to please the investigator and do what he or she asks, the girls’ scores are inflated, and the true severity of their conditions is obscured. Again, girls are nicer and more pro-social than boys who have the exact same condition. So the girls’ needs go unrecognized, and the resources that the girls require are never put in place.

Time to stop ignoring girls and women. Because they are kind, because they are compliant, because they do not cause a ruckus, females with autism spectrum disorders are ignored. Their needs go unmet. We just push them out of the way. Just like we do with females with attention deficit disorders. And just like we do with female prisoners.

In a world where the squeaky wheel gets the grease, we have taught our girls not to squeak. And we punish them when they do. So while the boys and men get resources and support, the girls and women go without. And that is not acceptable.

It is time we started paying attention to the things that girls and women are trying to tell us.

They have so much to say.

And we have so much to learn.

If only we cared to listen.