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Everyone deserves to feel valued regardless of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. However, these issues are still a work in progress. Today, I wanted to share a bit of a personal story of small moment that felt like a smack in the face – a small example of a much larger problem and moment of realization of how much we as a society need to change.

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In model UN conferences, you are put in a committee ranging from the usual ECOSOC to the more quirky Lord of the Rings or historical Potsdam Conference post-WWII. Then, you are assigned a position that you represent for the duration of the conference. During CHOMUN (the model united nations conference hosted at the University of Chicago) last year, I represented Richard Nixon in the historical House of Un-American Activities during the Cold War. After packed weekend of intense debate and resolution writing, delegates used Sunday (the last day of the conference) as an opportunity to have fun. A couple of delegates from the National Republican Convention of 2012 thought that it would be funny for me to go into their committee in character as Richard Nixon and give a speech. They handed me a pre-written speech where I was to act like a president who had somehow time traveled to the 2012 convention to berate the senators for their incompetency, and walked me over to their committee room.

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Once at the republican committee room, I stood at the podium, cleared my throat, and looked out at the large, overwhelmingly male (for some reason, the gender-ratio always seems to be skewed at these conferences) committee. As I began my speech, I noticed that people weren’t paying much attention and were talking over me. I was annoyed by the disrespectful audience but didn’t think too much about it… it was the last day of committee and Sundays at model UN conferences are infamous for being a “shit-show”. So, I upped my volume and hurriedly continued my speech.

However, as I tried to finish up, I heard a guy in the audience say:

But [how can she be Nixon], she’s a girl!

My felt sick to my stomach when I heard that. I felt really embarrassed and uncomfortable, quickly finished my speech and got the hell out of that room. I felt a mix of emotions after that moment: I was angry that that guy felt that it was appropriate to say something like that and that no one seemed to notice, I was hurt that I wasn’t taken seriously because of my gender, and I was embarrassed. To be honest, I was so embarrassed by the incident that I never told my team mates about it – frankly, I was worried that they would think I was a drama queen over something that wasn’t a big deal.

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But now, a year later, I’m realizing that this was just one, small example of something that happens around the world, every day… and that it is a big deal. Feeling belittled or undervalued due to one’s gender, race, religion, sexuality or other difference is a big deal. And I hope that speaking up about these little moments and recognizing that they are examples of a large issue that is a big deal is a move in the right direction.

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It was just a moment, just one off-handed comment, but it hurt. And it still hurts. CHOMUN attracts students from leading universities in the country, from government majors at Harvard to international relation majors from Georgetown. In a decade or two, these future leaders will not unlikely be in the positions of the very people they are simulating.

 

As Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg discusses in her talk, gender inequality still remains a pertinent issue even in corporate America. Women at the highest ranking positions in the most competitive industries continue struggle to get their voices heard and to be taken seriously in the work place. And, if the incident at CHOMUN is any indication, we young people still need to take steps to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to get a seat at the table.

Food for Thought (please let me know in the comments!):

  • If you were me, what would you have done?
  • Have you ever felt unfairly treated based on your gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.? How?
  • Does my story demonstrate a larger issue, or is is an off-handed comment that shouldn’t be taken too seriously?
  • What do you think about Sandberg’s talk?