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On 'gender-neutral' Oscars and workplace discrimination

The woman who advocates gender-neutral Oscars talks about her stand -- and about the major gender issues in every workplace.

Earlier this month, Kim Elsesser, a research scholar at the Center for Study of Women at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote a New York Times op-ed calling for "gender-neutral" acting Oscars. The piece sparked sharp debate.

I called Elsesser last week to talk about the op-ed -- and about her research on gender in the workplace.

What inspired you to write the New York Times piece?

It was inspired by when Halle Berry won for Monster's Ball [becoming the first African American woman to win a best actress Oscar]. The NAACP came out with a statement and I think Halle herself gave several interviews where she said, "OK, now it's a level playing field and everybody can compete fairly with one another." When she said that, I thought, "Well, actually that's not the case." Race barriers were certainly broken, but everybody is not competing together. Men and women aren't competing together. And because it's such a tradition with the Oscars, nobody seems to notice that. I just wanted to point it out and start a discussion on it.

Do you really think the Academy will do away with the best actor and actress categories and let men and women compete against each other?

I don't think it's going to happen in the short run. I think as time goes by and as people do start discussing it, they may come to realize that there's no point in separating the awards. An intermediate step might be for them to not eliminate any categories, but to add a category for best performance. Men and women could compete together and it would have the added benefit of adding more drama and suspense to the production.

Many people have disagreed with your opinion on blogs and message boards. How do you respond?

I think people are just so used to it, they don't see it as discrimination. One of the biggest arguments is that women play women's role and men play men's roles and the roles are so different that it makes sense for them to not compete together. But if you think about it, the same argument could be made for older and younger actors. For example, a child actor certainly doesn't portray an Alzheimer's victim and an old person wouldn't portray an adolescent, but no one's suggesting we have different awards for old people and young people. The same could be said for comedy or drama roles.

Was there a larger goal behind the op-ed?

Yes. One of the reactions to this was, "Don't we have bigger issues to worry about?" [But] I was much more concerned about the 4 million viewers who see that women are separated in categories. That just perpetuates stereotypes that men and women are so different and that they can't compete together. I wasn't concerned about the individual actors and actresses, but about the message it sends separating them.

Your research focuses on gender and the workplace. What are you working on now?

Right now I have a paper out [with a co-author] on the differences in perceptions of male and female bosses. Our findings were that when people talk about their own boss, they have very little prejudice. They talk about their male bosses pretty much the same way they talk about their female bosses. But when they talk about male and female bosses in general, then they show more prejudice in favor of male bosses.

What's the most pressing issue in terms of gender and the workplace?

It seems that people are thinking maybe there are no more gender issues in the workplace; that we're past that. We're not yet. It still needs to be focused on. There are still issues to be looked at and women do still face prejudice in the workplace.

You wrote a paper in 2006 about obstacles to friendships between men and women in the workplace. What was the biggest obstacle you found?

People talked about all different types of obstacles. But the one that I talked about mostly in the paper -- because it hadn't really been talked about elsewhere -- was what I labeled "the glass partition," which is people being afraid of sexual harassment and that creating a barrier between men and women in the workplace. People were afraid to make friends with women or men because they were afraid that their friendly gestures would be perceived as sexual harassment.

Photo: Courtesy of Kim Elsesser

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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