City Rats and Sexism

There are rats in New York City.  That probably doesn’t surprise anyone.  In fact, there are lots and lots of rats.  Estimates range from 2-10 million rats.  Even on the low end, 2 million rats is a lot of rats.  There are also people in New York City.  This, again, probably doesn’t surprise anyone.  In fact, there are lots and lots of people.  The current estimate is about 8.5 million people living there and roughly 50 million annual visitors.  The truly surprising thing is the sheer number of those people, especially those visitors, who have never seen a rat in New York City.

New York City is roughly 470 square miles.  That means there are (again using the low end of the estimate) 4255 rats per square mile.  It seems like with that many rats running around, most people would just bump into one every once in a while.  I know that the rats aren’t evenly distributed, but they go where the food is and the food is around people.  I know that rats are mostly nocturnal, but New York is the “City That Never Sleeps”.  I also know that the rats don’t want to be seen, but they are quite brazen about taking any food they can find and everyone who has been to New York has seen litter in New York.

I think I was in college the first time I saw a rat in New York City.  I grew up in Connecticut, so I had been to New York a bunch of times before college, but I never saw a rat.  I’m pretty sure I had walked right past them without seeing them.  I think that’s common.  The first one I saw was at Grand Central Station.  I was early for my train, but broke, so I was just sitting there waiting for the train.  I saw something move on the tracks.  I couldn’t figure out what it was at first.  I thought it was someone’s small dog that had gotten loose.  It was when it squeezed through a hole that I couldn’t even see that it clicked, that was a rat.

Since seeing that first rat, I don’t think I’ve taken a trip to New York City without seeing at least one rat.  I’ve seen them on the street, in alleys, under food stands, in trash cans and in the parks.  They really are everywhere.  I find it hard to believe I went the first 20ish years of my life without seeing one.  But, from talking to others, it seems that my story is fairly common.

There is sexism in the world.  That probably doesn’t surprise anyone.  In fact, there is lots and lots of sexism.  The statistics are everywhere.  Women only earn 79% of what men earn Only 4.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women1 in 3 women are victims of domestic violence.  I could go on and on, but even if this were all the sexism, that’s a lot of sexism.  There are also people in the world.  This, again, probably doesn’t surprise anyone.  In fact, there are lots and lots of people.  According to the best estimates, there are more than 7.4 billion people.  The truly surprising thing is the sheer number of those people who have never noticed an incident of sexism.

There are roughly 3.7 billion women on the planet.  That means that about half of the people in the world are possible targets of sexism.  It seems like with so much sexism and so many possible targets, everyone would notice sexism more than every once in a while.  I know that much of the sexism takes the form of microaggressions, but much of it doesn’t.  I know that most people don’t think of themselves as sexist, but that won’t stop people from noticing sexism in others.  I also know that victims don’t always talk about their experiences, but that can’t be an excuse.  No one would say a murder isn’t real because the victim stays silent.

I was in high school, starting my first job, when I first saw and really noticed sexism.  I know I had seen sexism before that, I just hadn’t really paid attention to it.  I see now that there was sexism in things like gendered chores and the fact that girls played the flute while boys played the trumpet.  But, as a kid, I didn’t really notice these things.  My first job was in a restaurant, cooking and washing dishes, and the sexism was impossible to ignore. There was the common sexism, like waitresses making more money by wearing tighter clothes, but it got much worse. There were sexist jokes, like calling the seafood platter a “hooker”. There was the fact that men could hold any position, but the women were only hosts or wait staff. There were the near constant discussions among the cooks about the women’s looks, clothes and what they might be skilled at. And there were even scheduling decisions based on who was cute enough for the Saturday night shift.

Since noticing the sexism at my first real job, I see and notice sexism all the time.  It’s in almost every school, workplace, club, movie, TV show, album, website and commercial I see.  It is everywhere.  Now that I notice it, I can’t help but see it.  I know I’ve been seeing sexism my whole life, and it’s embarrassing that it took me sixteen years to really start noticing it.  Also, it’s disheartening that that makes me better than many, if not most, other people.

It is easy to dwell on the negative, and clearly there is a lot of negative to dwell on.  I’m generally an optimistic person, though.  I choose to find something positive in my experiences.  That positive is the fact that even as an idiot teenager, I was able to recognize sexism and it has been impossible for me to miss it since.  I’m inclined to believe that the same would be true for others.  If we can get others to see and recognize sexism, they will continue to see and recognize it.  And more people recognizing sexism will lead to legitimate social pressures to curb sexism, which will lead to less sexism.  At least that is my hope.

The trick is getting people to recognize sexism when they see it.  Hectoring and yelling won’t do it.  That’s more likely to get people to close off than open up.  Illustrations probably won’t help much either.  Seeing a rat in a zoo isn’t going to help anyone notice a rat in New York.  People need to recognize sexism when they see it in its natural environment.  I can see the arts helping.  Most people are pretty good at seeing the connections between art and life.  But I think the most effective way is to just talk about it, especially with children.  When I say talk, that is what I mean.  Scolding and shaming won’t work.

We have a tendency to treat sexism as taboo.  We don’t talk about it in normal circumstances.  But I don’t understand why.  We talk about all kinds of other bad things that we encounter each day.  Many of us can’t wait to get to work so we can tell our coworkers all about that idiot who blew right through the stop sign.  And we take delight in sharing our experiences being stuck behind that person with at least twenty items in the express check out line.  So, let’s start talking freely about that idiot car salesman who only addresses the man when a couple walks in.  Let’s gossip about the jerk who thinks it’s OK to start talking to a woman even though she is clearly talking to her friend.  Talking can only help.

I’ll end this by saying that I know my analogy can’t be taken too far.  City rats and sexism are alike in that they are invisible to many people and once they are noticed, a person can’t help but notice them.  That’s as far as it goes, though.  Rats are actually pretty amazing creatures and I’m sure they fill an ecological niche somewhere.  Sexism has nothing positive to recommend it.  The sooner we recognize that, the better.