Young Women Shocked by Chivalry? - Leslie explains why

Is chivalry so foreign to Gen-Y women that they can’t recognise it when they see it? Apparently so.

In a scathing article this week, university student Sasha Burden described the systemic sexism she encountered during a “horrific” two-week internship at a Melbourne daily newspaper. According to Burden, the Herald-Sun’s male staff are in the habit of opening doors for women and regularly stand back to allow a woman to exit the lift before them.

But it wasn’t just episodes of door-side deference that riled Burden, she was equally unimpressed with what she described as the “patronising” attitude of senior staff towards her. Writing in Melbourne University’s student magazine Farrago, Burden described her fortnight at the newspaper as a series of ageist humiliations: ‘'Throughout the weeks, I was consistently subjected to patronising attitudes, being referred to as 'Little Bud’, ‘Champ’ and ‘Kidlet’.'

Burden’s complaints may seem trivial, if not outright inflammatory, but she does deserve some compassion, says ethicist Dr Leslie Cannold. Workplace behaviour that many of us might describe as polite, or friendly, may be completely foreign to someone of Burden’s generation, observes Cannold. “I suspect that what’s happened here is that she’s been blindsided by it.'

Dr Cannold, the Australian Humanist of the Year in 2011, says the first couple of years in the workforce can be unsettling for young women who have been educated as equals or surrounded by strong female role models in feminist-oriented, girls' schools. “They’ve been told ‘you can be anything you want to be’ but the reality is that women are truly struggling to achieve this.”

While young women are largely sheltered from sexism at school and university, Dr Cannold says the business world is still primarily a man’s world. Female graduates complain of not being taken as seriously as their male counterparts, says Cannold, and the persistence of sexist jokes can be an unwelcome eye-opener: “They think they’ve grown up in a world where all that’s past. That’s the theory and the reality can be shocking.

‘'Young women say they don’t want to be treated like ladies and put their energies into the struggle against the upside of being a lady. Other women are worrying about the remnants of the downside, and they think 'well, if we can’t have it all, at least they can bloody well open the door for us’.‘’

“Good old-fashioned chivalry should make us very happy,” remarks business etiquette specialist Lizzie Wagner, but “[Burden] would have been completely out of her depth. She wasn’t used to it, she wouldn’t have been exposed to it before, so it was offensive to her,‘’ Wagner surmises.

Far from offensive though, chivalry is about consideration for others, explains Wagner. ‘'These gentlemen were trying to do the right thing to this lady. I still believe in young men being taught to stand and open doors for ladies. Who wouldn’t like doors opened for them, flowers and courtesy? Young women may feel awkward because they’re not used to it but part of being gracious is accepting courtesies and compliments gracefully. If they don’t, it shows they don’t feel good within themselves or deserving of compliments. It shows a low level of self-esteem.’'

In Wagner’s view, courtesies are learned behaviours that modern parents are less likely to model for their children. ‘'How do you know about conversation skills, table manners, negotiation skills and conflict resolution if you don’t sit down as a family to eat?“ asks Wagner. "Chivalry can be a little overwhelming – someone going to an effort doesn’t happen very often – but it’s lovely that there are gentlemen out there.’'

And where they’re to be found, chances are they’re of European background, says prominent public relations director Sara Dagres – who last year married a Greek Australian. ‘'European men are different to Australian men – they open car doors, help seat you. Aussie men should take note of how to treat women. Women like to be treated well.’'

So we do, but it seems that the definition of “good treatment” is rapidly changing.

Publication history

Sexism: a young woman's burden?   The Sydney Morning Herald