I was watching a movie recently in which two men are interacting online, one certain he is flirting with a woman, while being maliciously pranked by the other. Gender was assumed via language and context.
In fact, without those assumptions, the exchange would never have taken place.
The same “fill in the blanks” presumptive process plays out when we overhear a conversation and interpret its agenda. Expressly aware of it or not, words are colored by assumptions as to the sex of the speakers.
Studies tell us that when we meet someone, the brain collects information on race and sex before all else. So does this mean that racial and sexual bias is inevitable?
Ideally, we wouldn’t consider either at all in most circumstances: skimming resumes or portfolios, completing a performance appraisal, or selecting candidates for a leadership program.
Yet research has shown that changing names on CVs (to reflect gender) alters their consideration, as it does in cases of applications of various types. (Similar research has been conducted, changing names to suggest race.) And when we think about it, even when reading a short story or a novel, we know – or believe we know – the sex of the author. Doesn’t that knowledge also shape our emotional responses and perception of the quality of the writing?
Social Change: Tricky Business
So how does social change occur? Why have we come so far in accepting sexual orientation and letting go of at least some racial prejudice, yet gender remains stubbornly problematic?
Offering examples in education and environment, The Stanford Social Innovation Review describes the power of “collective impact” to achieve change, and the need for “cross-sector coordination” especially for issues that:
… require many different players to change their behavior in order to solve a complex problem…
… recognizing that social change can come from the gradual improvement of an entire system over time…
How do I interpret that when looking at gender issues?
We’ve had a hell of a lot of time, and insufficient “coordination” – political systems, education, healthcare, business. We may love the refrain that we’ve “come a long way, baby” – but the reality? More back pedaling than we may wish to acknowledge.
Gender: The First Thing We Notice
Now for anyone who thinks we don’t live our lives based on gender right from the start, shall I remind you that the first question we ask when a baby is born is this: Is it a boy or a girl?
And when we don’t know the sex of the person we’re dealing with, aren’t we, depending on the situation, surprisingly uncomfortable? Don’t we remember the disorientation we felt – played for humor – of the gender-unknown character, Pat, on Saturday Night Live?
So how do we change that, or is changing it impossible? Should we only seek to shift it in certain ways – equal educational, professional and health care treatment, for example – while celebrating the range of inherent differences?
Can we come to “own” our successes at a younger age and without conflict, regardless of gender? For instance, praise the girls for their leadership, and the boys for an empathetic nature?
Does Change Flow From the Top?
While I might believe that more women at higher levels in organizations would be a good start, that is only a piece of the puzzle – and a very generalized statement that doesn’t address cultural bias anymore than it recognizes data more cogent details pertaining to those leadership roles.
Along the “many players” and “cross sector” lines mentioned above, I believe that change happens from the bottom up as well as the top down. Moreover, it is multidimensional, overlapping, and doesn’t happen in discrete and sequential fashion. Rather, it ebbs and flows with the proverbial two steps forward, one step back, and sadly (in the past decade), many steps back for women, which I can only hope will surge forward ahead again.
In keeping with the notion of systems, change to liberate us from gender barriers – whether a matter of health (reproductive rights) or profession (equal pay, equal access) – also requires greater infrastructure support (childcare, education) so women with families feel less of the squeeze from all corners. Succinctly stated in this article by Pamela Haag at Big Think, reflecting on gender data from many angles:
Anyone who has a child or who has parents knows this: Children get sick. Schools have snow days. Parents fall ill. Tending to these real humans that we love has to happen, somehow. Most parents, and children, want some of that care to be from their family because, after all, that’s what family is. We don’t have enough work cultures that accommodate this basic reality.
The Importance of Individual Responsibility
The need for systemic change shouldn’t absolve us of individual responsibility anymore than knowledge that our brains process race and sex first should have us surrendering to bias.
We are responsible for our actions as parents, as siblings, as aunts and uncles, as adult children, as teachers, as physicians, as judges, as recruiters.
And if an all-female college works wonders in encouraging women to find self-confidence in achievement, does it remain one viable way to approach education? Does the evolution away from single-sex institutions of higher learning shut down opportunities rather than expanding them?
Is it helpful when we are constantly comparative, as in this article in The New York Times on women as “better” decision makers than men? Would writers, myself included, do better to frame these data sets without potentially pitting the sexes as adversaries?
Nature vs. Nurture
When I was in college, naively, I thought nurture trumped nature by a huge margin. At least, when it came to gender roles, attitudes and behaviors.
I would no longer use the word “trump.” I would no longer use a magnitude of “huge.” Having and raising children – boys – and having watched friends raise children – girls, mostly – reinforced it. Moreover, as I have mused on what makes a man tick and also, what makes a woman tick, my own view is something I once referred to as “biology and boundaries.”
It would be ridiculous to say that nurture isn’t enormously significant. Among other things, it shapes our psychological health, our inner dialog, while both prescribing and proscribing behaviors that carry forward throughout our lives. As for nature, it recognizes something inherent in each of us in addition to biology. Haven’t we observed the focused, gregarious and confident achiever, raised by seemingly reticent parents? How about the talented athletic girl, raised in an academically inclined household?
Observing my own sons, both raised primarily by me, more and more gender-based behaviors emerged over time – continuing to shift my (uninformed) 20-year-old college perspective. And yet, there’s little question that the values, priorities and passions acquired and reinforced in the home have become a fundamental part of who they are.
If we believe that gender issues are a matter of both nature and nurture, can’t we consciously choose to modify behaviors and systems to afford all of us greater options?
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