Calling Out Unintentional Sexism:

Kate Mangino
Jan 24 · 5 min read

And why it matters in the battle for gender equality.

I recently made some travel arrangements for my immediate family — nothing out of the ordinary, just vacation planning. Over the course of three weeks I spoke to a travel agent several times on the phone, and we exchanged a number of emails and texts. When plans were finalized, I sent in my credit card details and she asked for the passport details for our travel party. At the end of the process I got a computer-generated email that read…

“Dear Mr. Evan Mangino, Bon Voyage and thank you for

Hmmmmm.

I did all the research and all the planning. I handled 100% of the communication with the travel agent. It was my name on the credit card. And yet my husband received the thank you email? Why did he get the thank you when I did all the work? Was it assumed that he paid for the trip — and so he deserved the thank you? This stuck in my craw. It nagged at me. I slept on it for a few days, but I couldn’t let it go.

I wrote a politely-worded email to the travel agent explaining why this small detail bothered me. I told her it felt overly patriarchal, given that I was the only one she had communicated with so far. I even gave her an out — suggesting that perhaps the computer system made a mistake. I read my draft over 10 times before hitting send, making sure my words were respectful.

I wondered what the agent thought as she read my email. Did my concern give her genuine pause for reflection? Did she tap out a response with no thought at all, telling me what I wanted to hear so she could get back to work? Did she turn to the woman in the next cubical and say, “Hey Stella! Get a load of this! My client is offended because I listed her husband as the head of household. What a snowflake. Some women get so uppity about stuff. She needs to relax. I feel bad for her poor husband.”

But whatever her internal dialog, the agent responded decently. She said that the computer system requires her to enter the “head of household” first in every travel party, and so she deduced from the passport information that it should be my husband, Evan. She didn’t intend it to be sexist or patriarchal. She ended with, “In my 16 years of experience, no one has ever expressed a problem with me listing the husband as the head of household.”

I thanked her for taking the time to respond and ended the conversation.

And now I can’t stop thinking about it.

HEAD OF HOUSEHOLD? Does mainstream America still use that term? Do most Americans consider the man the head of the household simply because he is a man? Or is it somehow loosely contingent on income? What about in same sex and queer couples? What assumptions are made then?

The strongest association I had with this term was from the IRS tax code. A quick google search informed me that to file as Head of Household you have to be unmarried, you must have dependents, and you must be paying more than 50% of the domestic expenses. So, according to the IRS this phrase is reserved specifically for single parents. And if you’re a single parent, then presumably you are indeed head of your household. Kudos to the IRS for being gender neutral.

But IRS aside, does the term “head of household” still have a place in our modern social order?

In my instance of booking a vacation, I can see why a computer might ask for a “primary contact” for email correspondence and payment responsibility. But I don’t understand why the phrase “head of household” would be needed; it seems a wholly inappropriate use of the term.

Making assumptions about the man being the “head of the household” for no other reason than the fact he is a man is harmful. Labeling one person the head of household suggests that the other is the subordinate, which simply reinforces a traditionally unequal relationship many of us are desperately trying to overcome.

The term “head of household” perpetuates the social norm that men are leaders, providers and decision-makers. It relegates women to support roles. These invisible social cues maintain the notion that women are dependent on men, and fuels the imbalance of power that results in unequal pay, political representation, workplace harassment, gender-based violence, and limitations on women’s reproductive healthcare.

Calling out unintentional sexism.

I can fully understand how many people might read up to this point, generally agree with the linkage made between the use of the term “head of household” and the social norm around women’s subordination. BUT you might think … this is so small, so minor. Rather than done purposefully, it was simply a bad choice of wording. It doesn’t mean anything. Why waste the agent’s time to complain? Why be one of “those women” that feels the need to make a big deal of it? This isn’t worthy of an article. In the grand scheme of the world’s problems today, this seems to rank pretty far down the list.

I agree this is a small point, and an unintentional offense. And yes, in the context of environmental degradation, conflict, corruption, and poverty — it seems a small, hardly noticeable, unimportant detail buried in everyday life.

But It is because it is a small point that I take the time to write about it. According to Philosophy Professor Regina Rini, we must call out these micro-aggressions to support “a culture in which no one is denied full moral recognition.” Small offenses should not be waved off as unimportant or “just how things are done.” The minutia of our everyday lives matter. It is precisely the sum of these small points that normalize and perpetuate harmful gender roles. The myriad little ways in which our society raises men up and knocks women down give misogyny its backbone.

So, notice them. Let them stick in your craw. Say something about them. Talk about them. Because when we stop calling out these small acts of oppression, we lose the battle for equality.

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