Sexism and Salsa

Women are infiltrating the workplace at an alarming rate. Who can doubt that gender equality has been well and truly achieved when women make up 47% of the UK workforce? And it’s not just grunt work either, they’re actually leading. More women than ever are taking the top positions in the world’s most successful companies. In fact the proportion of female directors in the FTSE 100 is at an all-time high at…17.3%. Really? Well what of the Fortune 500? There, women make up…16.9% of board seats and 14.6% of CEOs. Hmm.

Perhaps they’re faring better in politics. Sure enough, the number of women MPs has never been so high. There are 147 in total which translates to just over…22% of the total. Well, at least we had a lady PM once!

Admittedly it’s an improvement on previous years and decades but still, celebration seems a bit premature. Before I gripe too much I should give credit where credit’s due and acknowledge that the UK has come a long way in a relatively short time. After all, it’s been less than a century since women were even afforded equal voting rights. The fact that any have made it into top leadership positions is surely one up for the good guys, right?

Maybe, or maybe there’s some basic groundwork that we’ve missed out on somewhere down the line. The idea of women leading may not seem so strange anymore but it’s still certainly very far from the norm. I have spent some time wondering why this is and recently, one possible answer struck me from an odd direction.

Some of you may know that I’ve developed a love for salsa. Despite being told by a number of people that it’s solely the purview of fifty-year old housewives, I enjoy nothing more than heading down to my local salsa club on a Sunday night and spinning about the floor in my shiny, shiny dance shoes.

However, recently, I was troubled by a rather uncomfortable thought. Despite having danced for a while now (and developed sufficient skills to avoid giving most of my partners black eyes) I have no idea how to follow.

In salsa, and indeed all partner dancing, it is simply the case that the male leads and the female follows. The man has near complete control over every move performed and it is his will, his whims that the woman bends and spins to.

Now, lest I be accused of only telling half the story, I should note that, among the group I dance with, there are a good number of women who know how to lead and frequently do so with great skill. However, it’s notable when such an event occurs it’s often not preceded with the phrase ‘I’ll lead’ but rather ‘I’ll be the man’. More worryingly, outside of a teaching environment, I have never seen a man follow. And yet this is accepted as perfectly fine and normal and few people, if any, bat an eyelid.

I began to wonder why this was and took to the internet for answers. Yahoo and Wikipedia provided little enlightenment, attributing it to ‘etiquette’. Unfortunately, ‘etiquette’ is merely a  fancy word for ‘tradition’ stating merely that ‘this is how things are done’ without giving any reason as to why.

Then, I came across this article which purported to give some answers. Have a brief skim before continuing.

My first reaction was one of puzzlement as many of the arguments seemed not only confused but blatantly false.

The first argument, that ‘someone has to lead’, is just silly. Of course someone has to lead and someone has to follow, I doubt anyone would argue otherwise. The relevant question is why should the role be necessarily attached to the partner’s gender and fixed for every single dance?

The author attempts to provide some answers to this. He follows up with the facts that women are generally weaker and shorter than men, and that them leading could result in damage and injury to both parties. In my admittedly limited experience, this still seems rather dubious.

Now, I’m not the most beefy guy, in fact I’m positively weedy, but I have still managed to drop women of my height and taller while causing very little injury (which I blame on my technique rather than my strength). In fact, I actually find it less convenient to dance with a much shorter partner than someone of equal or greater height as our differing reaches tend to result in awkward contortions.

Still, it may be true that there are a few moves which short and weak women would be unable to pull off. However, the very same would be true of short and weak men. A few extreme cases seem an odd foundation on which to build a convention.

I could go further and examine arguments six through ten but rather than doing that I’d like you to do me a favour. Read through the article’s headings again and imagine that instead of talking about partner dancing, the author’s talking about men and women’s roles in the workplace. I’ll wait.

I’ll admit that it might take some jiggling of verbs and adjectives for the point to become salient but in case you missed it here’s where I stand:

Even if masculine and feminine styles of dance (or management) are markedly distinct and worth preserving as such, there seems little to no reason to attach all but complete control to one gender exclusively. In fact, I would argue that doing so is purposefully harmful.

Even if it is aesthetic for men to present as strong and firm, for women to be pretty and wiggly, what does absolute control of one gender over the other really convey? For all the talk of ‘collaboration’ it is still excruciatingly clear who chooses the direction, the rhythm, whether to come together and break apart. Why should we accept this inequality in our social lives if we wouldn’t at work or at home?

Finally, let’s finally take look at point five from the article. This, I think, is the most abhorrent line of reasoning in the whole piece, more so because it represents a destructive notion present in the back of many modern minds, both male and female. Good old Lloyd says quite openly that men and women learning each other’s parts would result in twice the work and half the attainment. In short, that a lack of distinction between our roles would result in all of us being worse off overall.

This ‘separate but equal’ rhetoric has been applied to many causes over the years, most far worse than this one. But even leaving the grotesque undertones aside, the argument is obviously false. I can’t imagine any universe where walking a mile in another’s shoes (be they high heels or flats) would result in anything less than understanding and improvement. I wholeheartedly believe that if I were to spend some time following I would gain whole new perspective on how I should lead. And no, I’m not just talking about dancing.

In short, when we talk about equality we often limit our discussion to public spheres: education, employment, politics. All too rarely do we examine what we’re doing privately, and we really should. It’s not our legal and human rights that define who we are but our hobbies, our interests, our innermost thoughts and it is these that determine how we behave towards others. And it’s because of this fact, we should take extra care with anything that might lead us to believe that an imbalanced state of  affairs is in any way acceptable.

I, for one, know that despite everything I’ve said here, if a woman were to try to lead me when I next go dancing, I would be completely embarrassed, even emasculated and all because I’d temporarily surrender the control that has always been my privilege. But I wonder, what would I think of the matter if I had learned to follow as well as lead from day one? That niggling challenge to my manhood might not exist, I might understand my partners better, and, who knows, my dancing might be even more phenomenal.

Harking back to the start of this post, I’ll restate my initial puzzle: Why, in our modern and progressive society, don’t more women lead? Surely the answer is another question: Why should there be, if men don’t know how to follow?

2 Comments

  1. Where’s the mentioned article?

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