For the first installment of #WHIPIT, let's further discuss labels, and the two kinds of meaning that they can carry in our society today
MANILA, Philippines – When you are asked to introduce yourself, how do you respond? Don’t we often say something like, “I am a wife and mother to two kids.” Or do you prefer to say, “I am a businesswoman and yoga instructor”? People like asserting their identities through the roles that they hold in society, yet some insist on using labels that they think women “play” in society.
But which identities prevail, and which are curtailed? Some roles we are born into. Some roles we are taught to do. And some roles, we choose to take on ourselves. Other people tend to put labels on these roles. Sometimes, we are guilty of using these labels ourselves. Most times, society also puts gender biases into these labels – and this is where disempowerment happens.
Labels essentially pertain to stereotypes which may carry negative connotations, such as “loose,” “flirt” or “irresponsible.” However, there is also the concept of the archetype, which is the idealized version of what that label ought to represent. For example, the “mother” archetype as caring, nurturing, and domesticated, or the “wife” label as pertaining to a loyal and subservient partner to the husband. From these images, all succeeding types ought to be molded from, like a prototype.
The problem with archetypes is that they impose certain restrictions on the roles a woman can play. When a woman challenges the “mother” archetype by leaving her kids to spend long hours at work, she creates the negative stereotype of an irresponsible, selfish woman.
Is this necessarily true? How do we go beyond this kind of labeling, then?
Let’s hear it from women who not only beat the odds but who also overcame certain labels and types.
Time to whip it
This week, Rappler begins a series called #WHIPIT, which focuses on the issues that women face today. The context for this project stemmed from an October 2013 study conducted in the National Capital Region which revealed that perception-wise, certain forms of gender bias still exist in today’s society. In cooperation with Pantene, Rappler hopes to encourage women to challenge these stereotypes and push on to shine boldly.
During the campaign’s launch last Nov. 26, six distinguished women shared their own experiences in battling stereotypes and overcoming discrimination in their respective careers. To start our Whip It Wednesday series on women empowerment struggles and stories, we will give a closer look on the challenges and successes that some of these women had in handling the labels thrown at them.
We will first focus on women who wielded their power in the field of business, information technology, and media: Karrie Ilagan, the first Filipino to be appointed as Microsoft Philippines’ Managing Director; Feli Atienza, the finance stalwart who facilitated the first-ever management buyout of a Meryll Lynch International office, and Giselle “G” Tongi, a popular and versatile media personality.
When these women make acquaintances, they have no qualms about being introduced with a litany of their successful titles. However, this is not always the case.
If you ask any finance expert, they’ll declare that Feli is a force to be reckoned with. And in the midst of making waves in the business world, she was also working it in the home front. Yet somehow, a woman who is more accomplished than her peers still carries a certain stigma.
Feli knows this all too well. “I always had to downplay what firm I’m working for, what school I went to. [One guy said] ‘You know Feli, the problem with you is I don’t know what I can offer you. I need a damsel in distress,’” she says.
As someone who is in the corporate world as well, Karrie offers the same thoughts on being a hyphenated multitasking woman. “I’ve been called pakialamera [busybody]. That’s the label that I got because you got yourself involved into many things,” she quips.
For someone in the entertainment business, G is aware of similar labeling strategies. “Stereotypes will always persist because people need a way to identify others. And by defining them in boxes, people tend to be less threatened. When people can categorize others in a stereotype, they are able to manage expectations of the other.”
But when faced with scenarios of labeling, G has a hard and fast rule. “I honestly refuse to acknowledge people that resort to name-calling and labeling.”
Despite these impressions, these women have learned not to mind the negativities. They opt to focus on what’s important.
“I knew that my success would ultimately really rob me of what it means to be a woman,” G says, when she recounts what made her decide to drop her earlier showbiz career to head to New York. “So I took the chance and I said, I had to get out of this in order to really empower myself.”
Stripping the labels
Aside from asserting their place in their professions, how do these women continue to dispel negative perceptions, and focus on succeeding in their own terms?
Karrie acknowledges that the competitive environment of the I.T. world enabled her to succeed through merit more than anything. “I’m fortunate that I’ve worked for companies in my life where diversity is a big thing. So women empowerment is a cool thing. Whether you’re a man or a woman if the situation calls for it you just have to do it.”
For Feli, it’s all about displaying grace under pressure. “I’m constantly being challenged but that’s also part of my management style. I lead by example. I accept opinions, and I always tell my people that ‘I will not take it against you.’”
Meanwhile, G sees her craft as a way to creatively bend perceived notions on women. “Being an actress, stereotypes are perpetuated even more by the stories in teleseryes [TV melodramas] and Filipino films, so portraying them with more dimension than what’s on the page is challenging and frustrating at the same time,” she says.
While all of them agree on the importance of looking at one’s self, it is also important to realize where labeling has to stop and when its use could be put to an end. “Education really also begins in the home and I really think that there’s such an ingrained stereotype or roles that we place our children into. The moment you find out you [have a] girl, you paint the room pink, you buy them dolls, you buy them cooking sets,” Feli points out.
G also realizes the same sentiment, and tries to impart her knowledge on her own family. “Since I grew up moving around a lot, as my mom was a single mother and we were always travelling, I always associated archetypes with unconventional terms. My mother was always the strong personality in the family and so it’s important for me to foster and encourage individualism in my children.”
Stereotypes will persist because it’s a way for people to identify and set expectations for each other. The challenge for women is to find a way to bravely bend and revise these stereotypes, and encourage more people to acknowledge that roles can be varied – for example, a “mom” does not have to be one kind of mother. Creating acceptance for more kinds of roles and identities is one way that women can enjoy more freedom in society.
Labels can continue to exist, and be imposed, but a woman can choose to redefine them. As Feli, Karrie and G have attested, it can be done.
The next step is yours.
#WHIPIT – A challenge for women to be empowered and shine boldly by defying beyond labels and stereotypes
Watch out for the full results of the survey and more discussions on gender bias here on Rappler. You can also join our #WHIPIT Wednesdays conversations.