What’s the issue with gender?
Gender can be an elusive concept but since it is so embedded in the fabric of our identities, and day to day life and culture, we perceive its nature to be as natural as the air we breathe. In other words the very nature of gender makes it almost impossible for us to think about it as what it really is; a code.
When we wake up in the morning, we do not usually think about gender, or how we are going to make our behaviour fit within the limits of the gender identities we have grown into, or how others expect this to be the case. Any alteration to the rules, any breaking of the code, will attract other people’s attention and sometimes their censure.
But what is gender?
Is it about what sex we are?…Identifying as a woman or a man? Being male or female? Being masculine or feminine? Behaving masculinely or femininely?…
Sex and gender are sometimes used interchangeably despite having different meanings; sex is about biology and gender is cultural.
A very useful gender definition is the one adopted by the World Health Organisation:
Gender refers to the array of socially constructed roles and relationships, personality traits, attitudes, behaviours, values, relative power and influence that society ascribes to the two sexes on a differential basis. […] Gender is an acquired identity that is learned, changes over time, and varies widely within and across cultures. Gender is relational and refers not simply to women or men but to the relationship between them.
Gender goes beyond identifying ourselves as men or women or being masculine or feminine; gender is a whole acquired identity and in the process of acquiring that identity we also acquire notions of power, influence, privilege, expectations and restrictions of what we can expect in life. We learn what is acceptable and unacceptable according to our acquired gender role and we also learn to accept these standards and not to challenge them due to their perceived naturalness. In a way, it is a kind of code that we all generally share and agree to abide by; a code that cannot be challenged or changed straightforwardly and without consequences for the challenger.
To understand this we need to have a look at how we, humans, ‘get’ our gender.
“It’s a girl!”
As soon as we are born, or now with the help of scans even before then, a name is assigned to us, “appropriate” clothes are bought for us and our bedrooms are decorated according to what gender we are expected to grow into; images of footballs, Spiderman or Disney Princesses will feature in our lampshades, duvet covers and curtains, and toys will follow. A trip to any shop selling baby equipment, clothes or toys shows how entrenched such views are and how much is marketed in terms of learned gender norms.
As we grow, we see our parents and other people around us performing gender and the understanding that we get from those performances is reinforced by other similar consistent messages coming from the behaviour of other people, and from popular culture – songs, music videos, games, books, celebrities, films, cartoons, etc. –
After two years of a constant exposure to fairly consistent gender messages, we start internalising them and by the age of 3 we already know whether we are a boy or a girl. Moreover, by the age of 5 our ideas of gender stereotypes are well developed and by the age of 7 they are fully fixed.
There would not be anything wrong with all this except that when we internalise our gender identities we also internalise other notions which will expand or limit our opportunities and expectations according to notions of relative power which, by the way, historically have been imbalanced and which informed a way of thinking and acting that resulted in inequalities some of them still happening these days.
- 2300 years ago, Aristotle thought that: “The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior, and the one rules and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.”
- Women were first allowed to inherit property in the UK only 133 years ago.
- Women were allowed to vote in the UK only 87 years ago; 39 years ago in Portugal; maybe this year women will be allowed to vote for the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia and there are no prospects of women being allowed to vote in Vatican City in the foreseeable future.
- Out of 196 countries in the world today, only 17 have a woman president or prime minister.
- Out of 650 seats in the House of Commons, 191 are occupied by women. That’s 29%; compared with Rwanda 63.8% and Bolivia 53.1%.
- Women are portrayed in media and advertising as sexual objects which fit the male gaze; women’s bodies are objectified in everyday life.
- Children’s toys ………Dolls like Monster High are highly sexualised.
- It becomes natural for Young men to see pornographic images of women and to objectify them.
- Men feel pressure to be macho and not be emotional
- Men learn to direct emotions towards anger / Use of violence and link to masculinity is internalised / Power is constructed as a capacity to dominate and control
- Many expectations of masculinity are impossible to attain, six-packs, rich, decided, etc.
- Men are in general at greater risk of suicide
- Men are subject to violence from other men if they don’t conform to the stereotype
- Poweris constructed as a capacity to dominate and control others.
- At least 85,000 women are raped on average each year in the UK.
- 72 million children around the world are not in school; girls are the majority.
- 759 million adults around the world cannot read or write; the majority are women.
- 25% of girls in relationships in the UK reported physical violence.
- 60,080 domestic abuse incidents were reported to the Police in Scotland in 2012/13; 45,916 (76%) were women abused by a man.
- 45% of women in Europe have suffered from men’s violence.
- In 2013, the gender pay gap in Europe is 2%. Women would need to work an extra 59 days in a year to match the amount earned by men.
- In the UK, men earn 17.5 % more than women on average per hour.
- Globally, 603 million women live in countries where domestic abuse is not yet considered a crime.
- Over 60 million girls worldwide are child brides, married before the age of 18.
- FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) is most commonly carried out when a girl is 5-8 years old but it can happen from infancy to the age of 15. More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut and at least 23,000 girls under 15 could be at riskof FGM in England and Wales.
- 1 billion women in the world will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.
- Prostitution is still seen by some as “work” or as a “career” and some men (we are talking about millions here) feel entitled to buy sex.
- And this list could continue…!
Rewriting the Code
There is hope! … And everyone can make a difference, however ‘small’
We have to bear in mind that gender norms and parameters are not fixed and can be changed.
If we start looking at the ‘taken-for-granted’ reality of our everyday life with more inquisitive eyes and start spotting the gender rules we all follow we will be better prepared to start challenging and rewriting them.
A practical way of challenging these norms is by example; for instance, at home men could take responsibility for or share traditional ‘female’ tasks like doing the laundry, ironing, or cooking. At the same time, traditional ‘masculine’ tasks like mowing the lawn or doing home repairs could also be shared. These behaviours will be seen and adopted by the couple’s children and part of the norms will start being rewritten.
Parents could buy gender neutral clothes and toys for their children and encourage gender neutral play; parents could also avoid encouraging boys to be strong and girls to be gentle as the stereotypes dictate. Comments like “Don’t kick the ball like a girl”, “Stop being such a wee girl”, “Stop crying, be a man” should be avoided.
We could also choose deliberate challenging behaviours in our professional worlds; e.g. a male colleague may offer to be in charge of the teas and coffees prior to a meeting or tidying up afterwards. What is more, people could deliberately look at what kind of language they use and favour gender neutral language like: ‘chair’ instead of ‘chairman’, ‘humankind’ instead of ‘mankind’, etc.
Developing our understanding of the restrictions imposed by gender norms and challenging the expectations associated with them can be the start of a process to rebalance the position of women and men in society, to develop a more equal and fairer society that can be enjoyed and built by both women and men equally for the benefit of all.
Luis Pombo – Research and Information Officer, Domestic Abuse and Violence Against Women Partnership
Kerry Herriot – Development Officer, Domestic Abuse and Violence Against Women Partnership
Jo Kopela – Health and Wellbeing Specialist, DG Health and Wellbeing Team
Lynsey Fitzpatrick – Equality and Diversity Lead, NHS Dumfries and Galloway @lynseyfitzy
We would like to take this opportunity to warmly invite any NHS or Dumfries and Galloway Council staff to the second of our joint NHS/Council interactive events exploring the issue of gender equality. Through film, discussion, evidence, the influence of the media and the impact of privilege in society, we will continue to raise awareness and develop a shared understanding of how everyone can contribute towards promoting gender equality. This event is taking place on Monday 9th November 2015 at 2pm at Garroch Training Centre, Dumfries. If you would be interested in coming along, please contact Lynsey Fitzpatrick on 01387 244030 or at firstname.lastname@example.org