As sociologists, one of our (my wife and I) biggest pet peaves is gendered activities. These are activities where an individual is excluded from participation based on a superficial external sexual characteristic. You know the drill right? Only boys allowed! Only girls allowed. You can’t come in because you have a vagina. You aren’t allowed because you got a penis. It is exclusion and sorting based on sex and gender and to be honest and frank, as two counselors and social scientists working on healing the damage done by patriarchy, and trying to create a saner and just world, it’s a real annoyance.
Well, because gender based exclusion, one sex only activity, is quite literally the root of all female (and male) oppression in this world. We’ll stop short of saying it is the root of all evil because as we all know, the root of all evil is love of money. But it is definitely the root of all gender based oppression.
Now we know that’s a pretty bold statement, but bare with us for a moment. We all know that women are not treated equally in this world right? That’s the reality! Women perform 60% of work world wide, they earn 10% of income, and own 10% of the land (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 2003:243). Women are segregated into pink collar occupations, enjoy less financial stability, lower rates of pay, and are generally expected to sacrifice their career paths to raise the family while their men get ahead. Women are generally left at home to raise the children (an incredibly difficult and demanding job) with minimal help from their spouses and ironically, this is true even in relationships where the male and female are overtly egalitarian. You can go into a marriage with very high ideals but when the babies come, traditional scripts tend to come into play and it is the women who are the ones who bear the primary responsibility. Of course, take five or six or ten years off your career path to raise children and what do you get? Less raises and fewer promotions! It is a sacrifice that we have to make when we raise children, but it’s almost always the woman who makes that sacrifice. Ironically, this sacrifice can come back and slap ya in the face when the kids grow up, the marriage breaks up, and the female who made the career sacrifice is left with nothing but the pink collar ghetto. As a result of the “sacrifices” they make, women experience higher rates of depression, poverty, and social stigma. And not only that, women and girls are victims of spousal abuse and sexual violence far more often than men. Globally, around the world, women are oppressed and there is no denying that. If you were born female, you are born with a social and economic handicap that is going to make your life a lot harder than it needs to be if genders were treated equally.
And why is this?
Well, there are a lot of reasons why it happens but if you ask us it all comes down to the fact that we (and by “we” we mean the people of this earth) have convinced ourselves that boys and girls are significantly different on an emotional, intellectual, even spiritual bases. Boys are like this, girls are like that. Boys play with trains, girls play with dolls. Boys are the breadwinners, girls are the nurturers. Boys are stronger, girls are weaker. If you think about it long enough you’ll probably come up with a hundred oppositional differences between boys and girls.
And how is this related to gender oppression?
Well think about it for a moment. When you believe that there are significant differences between boys and girls, men and women, you have a ready made JUSTIFICATION for just about any gender based inequality, exclusion, or oppression that you might want to think of.
Why do women (why should they) stay home and look after the babies?
Because girls are different!
They are the ones who nurture.
Why can’t girls be doctors?
Because boys are different!
They are smarter and more capable.
Why don’t men participate more in cooking?
Because men are different.
They like mechanical things while girls like to bake.
Why don’t women get paid as much as men?
Because they are different.
They aren’t as motivated or committed as men are.
Why don’t women get promoted as fast?
Because they are different.
Why can’t women be priests in the catholic church?
Because they are different.
You get the picture?
In order to justify and support gender inequality and oppression all you have to do is invoke gender difference. It is that way because boys are girls are different.
Of course at this point some of you will be thinking, well the genders are different. Boys will be boys and girls will be girls. Girls are emotional, irrational, weak. Boys are tough, strong, achievers. Girls like dolls, boys like cars (though tell that to Danica Patrick). Girls are like this, boys are like that. Honestly though, all that’s a load of pseudo-scientific horseshit. There’s really no “scientific” basis to suggest that boys are all that much different than girls. For one, the scientific academy has a huge gender bias that makes any scientific defense of gender differences useless and indefensible. And you can’t argue this. When I did my psychology undergraduate degree twenty years ago, we knew there was a bad gender bias in psychology and psychologists knew they had to do something about it. Sad thing is, they didn’t! In fact after twenty or thirty years of awareness, the gender bias is still there. As much as they may not like to hear it, psychologist are still referencing reality on the basis of their gender perceptions and worse still, they are justifying their bias. In the article linked above the psychologist actually defends scientific methodology suggesting that when it comes to identifying gender bias, science works. But clearly it does not. If scientific methodology has been unable to make much progress against gender bias in research over the last thirty years, if gender bias still exists, how can anybody make a claim that science works or can provide us with valid knowledge about gender. The conclusions are methodologically straight forward. If there is a systematic bias in the research on gender, the research on gender is not valid. And if after thirty years the bias is still there, then it may certainly be fair to suggest that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we approach gender in science. Certainly it is more reasonable to suggest that than to say, despite the presence of bias, “it’s working.”
A second reason that you can’t really believe science when it comes to gender is the bell curve, or rather our misuse of the bell curve. As you all know, the bell curve is a graphed distribution of “characteristics.” You can put anything you want on a bell curve from height and weight to IQ to hair color. When you do that, or rather when you put the sampling means on a graph, you often get what a statistician calls a “normal” distribution. This normal distribution shows the purported distribution of characteristics in a population.
Now, there’s a lot of problems when it comes to using the normal distribution to describe human characteristics but putting those aside for now, what we notice when we graph male and female characteristics on a bell curve is not difference but similarity. You can look at the example graph in this article showing the height and weight of humans differentiated by gender and ask yourself, what do you see. Do you see the little bit of difference in the tails of the distribution, bend to the statistical indoctrination, and tell yourself the difference is highly significant, or do you look at the amazing overlap? In my view, when you consider the height and weight of male and female what is most striking are the similarities. That is, we are more alike than we are different. Yet if you were a psychologist, or a pop culture pundit, or a chauvinistic male, you might highlight the difference (perhaps because talking about difference makes it look like you’ve actually discovered something) without ever commenting on the similarity. It is a bit odd when you think about it. While it is true there may be difference in the extremes in abilities, sometimes, really what is so remarkable about the genders is their similarities. The truth is, male or female, we all have two arms, two legs, two eyes, an identical looking brain, an intellect, emotions, feelings, and all the things that make us human. We would argue that it is not our differences that are important (though admittedly they can be a lot of fun), it is our similarities and these similarities far outweigh any superficial sexual characteristics that might differentiate us.
Of course, the pseudo-scientific clap trap about gender differences, or the fact that we all chose to focus on difference rather than similarity, isn’t the main point here. The main point is that once you do that, once you allow for the idea that men and women are significantly different (even though it’s their similarities that are arguably more remarkable) then you have created the necessary ideological support (i.e. the rationalization and justification) for gender oppression on this planet. You buy into that dichotomy, you become the oppressor (even if you are the sex being oppressed). It really is as simple as that.
And what does this have to do with gendered activity? Well, gendered activity is the prototypical gender oppression. It is the prototypical exclusion upon which all other exclusions are based. Of course, I understand you might have a hard time swallowing this. I mean, what does a girl’s only baby shower, or a boy’s only hockey club, have to do with the suppression of women on this planet? Well, everything because once you polarize the genders, once you create a distinction, once you allow exclusion and sorting based on difference, then it becomes possible to rank, and sort, and organize and deny and exclude along any other indices you can care to think about. If you say, only girls can play or only boys can play then by default you give legitimacy to the mythology of gender difference. And if you give legitimacy to the myth of gender difference, then you have provided support for the reality of gender oppression. Of course, you may not like to hear this. You may be sitting comfortably in a life organized around gender based activities, but that doesn’t change the fact that if that is your life, then you are supporting the gender based oppression of women on this planet, even if you don’t want to. It is exactly like the feminists say, the personal is political.
So what are you going to do about it? Well, if you are a male and you have a wife, or a sister, or a mother, or a daughter, and you are interested in seeing them treated equally in this world, then you have to stop thinking about gender differences, stop supporting gendered activities, and start working towards gender inclusion. If you do anything else you are a part of the problem, and a component of the oppression. If you need help, take a page out of this grade school lesson book on peer exclusion and just say no (http://www.tolerance.org/activity/peer-exclusion)
Problem: Sometimes a group of children won’t let another kid play with them just because of their gender. Gender is whether you are a boy or a girl. Sometimes boys will say that a girl can’t play with them. Sometimes girls will say that boys can’t play with them.
Rationale: This isn’t nice. It is wrong to exclude someone just because they are a boy or a girl, or because of their gender. Not letting someone play with you just because of their gender is called bullying, and bullying is not allowed…
If you are a female and you don’t like the social, political, economic and (even) spiritual inequality that becomes possible when we allow gender difference and gender exclusion, if you don’t like the idea of maybe one day finding yourself on the wrong end of a glass ceiling, submerged in a pink collar ghetto, or crying as your husband of twenty years, whom you sacrificed your entire life and career for, leaves you to go hang with a younger female because “that’s what men do,” then take a page out of the same grade school lesson book on peer exclusion and just say no. You can’t say “you can’t play just because you’re a boy.”[ad#article]And just to be clear, just because you are female doesn’t give you free pass. You don’t get to engage gender inclusions and then complain about the sorry state of this world, or your life, or your daughter’s awful marriage to that “typical male,” down the road. The personal is political and change starts with you.
Oh an incidentally, everything we’ve said here about gender difference and exclusion applies equally well to ageism, racism, or any of the other exclusions, based on difference, that make the inequality of this world go around. As long as we keep thinking of ourselves as different and not as a unified human race, as long as we hang onto our “we and they” mentality (however we choose to spin that), we create the wedge that allows the inequality that causes the suffering that ruins the lives of the vast majority of people on this earth.
Eitzen, D. Stanley and Maxine Baca-Zinn. 2003 Social Problems. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Cite This Article
Michael Sharp (2012). Gendered Activities, gender difference, gender exclusion. The Socjourn. [https://sociology.org/gendered-activities/]
Lila, the RevolutionaryBy: William T. Hathaway
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