Earlier today I posted a link to a wonderful, thoughtful post by Choralgirl called "Little girly gesture language."
I take issue with one of the commenters, however, whose comment is here. You should read the original comment before going on with my response. I'll reproduce part of it here: "The first time I witnessed the writer conducting I remarked to my wife (in a TOTALLY non-sexist manner) that she conducted like a man!...I mean, by this, that there was not the over-compensation that I have seen in most women conductors...Is it possible that the superior woman conductor hangs up her gender at the entrance to the rehearsal space..." (Go read the whole comment - it's not long.)
Let's unpack that, shall we? I should state outright that I am using the following definition of sexism, and that I believe the sexism in the above comment was wholly unintentional.
First of all, it is not possible to say, "She conducted like a man!" in a non-sexist manner. That is an inherently sexist statement. That statement implies that there is a set of characteristics that all male conductors share; and that there is a set of characteristics that either all women conductors share or all women conductors lack. Since the comment was approving, it also implies that the "male" way of conducting is superior to the "female" way of conducting.
Then let's look at the last part. "Is it possible that the superior woman conductor hangs up her gender at the entrance to the rehearsal space..." That, too, is a sexist statement. Nobody suggests that a man should hang up his gender at the entrance to the rehearsal space, because the male gender is considered "normal" in conductors, and in no way a detriment. To suggest that a female conductor should set aside her gender is to suggest that somehow being a woman is a hindrance to good conducting. Why should I have to leave a substantial and integral part of myself behind when I conduct? Everything in my identity, all my past experiences, everything I am, lends strength to my conducting, and that includes the fact that I am a woman.
Finally, I want to address the core of the comment. I understand the meaning behind saying that the women conductors the commenter has seen tend to overcompensate with the size of their gesture in conducting. This actually could lead to a really interesting discussion. So let's have one. Surprise! - once again I disagree. And I think Choralgirl makes my point for me in her original post; she discusses the fact that the same motion will be read different from a man or a woman, and quotes Marin Alsop in Newsweek saying, "When a woman makes a gesture, the same gesture as a man, it's interpreted entirely differently. The thing I struggled with the most was getting a big sound from the brass because you really have to be strong. But if you're too strong, you're a b-i-t-c-h."* My own theory is that when people see a man making a grand, huge gesture, stretching to the limits of his arms, or giving a downbeat so hard his body shakes, they think of him as passionate or dramatic or active. But when they see a woman making the same gesture, they think, "I don't usually see women make those gestures. How weird. That looks awkward - she must be desperate for a bigger sound or something." I think the commenter sees women gesturing in a way he's not used to (let's face it, women are not expected to carry themselves in the same way as men) and thinks "overcompensation." I suppose one could argue that since women are not expected to carry themselves in the same way as men, this leads to some sort of awkwardness when they try to conduct in a strong manner. (I assume that by "overcompensation" the commenter means that the gesture is awkward in some way.) But I don't agree with this argument, and can't say I've seen that sort of thing from any women conductors I've ever worked with.
Finally, I do not mean to say that this commenter is sexist himself, or is not in any way a supportive and loving person to all the women in his life. I am just pointing out that what he said was sexist. I am using him as a cautionary tale as to why you should not try to compliment anyone in your acquaintance by saying they "conduct just like a man!" I am also aware that he did not intend it to be sexist, but as shrub.com points out, your intent does not absolve you. It's kind of like walking around with your fly unzipped. Nobody intends to go around with an unzipped fly, and yet sometimes it happens to the best of us. And when it does, isn't it helpful when someone gently points it out?
Further helpful reading (dealing with issues of racism, not sexism, but in this case with comparable ideas): Vignette 5 and Vignette 6 from www.learningdiversity.com.