Tuesday, March 8, 2011

International Women's Day: What is Gender?

On this International Women’s Day, I would like to address the issue of Gender. But what is “Gender”? Is it sex? Is it the physical difference between men and women? Is it something to do with the cognitive differences between the sexes? What exactly is gender??

Ponder those questions, just for a moment. Before answering what is gender, read the story below.

Activity 1...

Gender Equity Activity - Crocodile River Story
It may help if you list the characteristics of each person next to their name as you rank the individuals in the story. When you complete the exercise, read on…

What was the most offensive to you? Without discussing the details, let's examine what influenced your decision-making process. To do that, we begin by exploring the answer to the first question, “What is gender?”

If you find that your answer is along the lines of “Gender is sex”, then what is sex? 

Simply stated, sex is the biological difference between men and women. To be clear, there are only five biological differences between men and women, and all are centered in the reproductive functions of our bodies: in men, the penis and testicals; in women, the breasts, vagina and ovaries. Beyond that, men and women are identical. 

If we are identical, what is the difference between the sexes outside of these biological differences? Answer: none. There are no cognitive or intellectual differences; no difference in capacity to function as a member of society; and no difference in their value as a human being. All are equal.

So, what is gender?

Gender is a social construct; it is how society views and judges men and women differently based on those five physical differences. To understand that gender is a social construct is to examine the effects of this construct in our own lives. Ask yourself, what roles women have in the household, in the family, in the community, in society and within culture. How do those roles differ from the roles of men? What are the expectations a given society places on women and men based on those roles. 

When we separate sex from gender, we begin to see the differences between men and women are nothing more than socially constructed differences. It isn’t that men are better decision-makers just because they have a penis; or that women are better caretakers of children just because they can give birth. These are all assumptions; social constructs surrounding reproductive functions, not based on fact.  

When and how do we take on these gender roles? Gender roles are the roles we are expected to embrace from the day we are born. How we differentiate a baby from being a boy or girl is based on the styles and colors they are clothed in. Generically speaking, blue for boys and pink or yellow for girls. People interact with male and female babies more less the same (gently), but from the day they are born we are wrapping them in social expectations and gender roles. Included in those roles are identities of masculine and feminine that the baby is supposed to adopt as s/he grows up. 

The toys we play with…

When children reach a playful age, people interact differently with boys from girls. It starts with the toys we give them. I recall a research paper I read while attending the university. I cannot properly site the paper here, as it has been too long ago and I do not remember the authors, but I will summarize. It was a study that wanted to prove 1) there existed inherent mental differences between men and women, and 2) those differences appeared in childhood. 

The researchers presented wooden blocks for a boy to play with by himself. A large percentage of the time, boys created buildings, or cities and streets out of the blocks. They did the same for girls and most often found that the girls would recreate the inside of houses complete with bedrooms and a kitchen. With their results they proudly proclaimed to have proven there is a difference between the way boys think and the way girls think. Boys are outward looking while girls are naturally caretakers. 

The study went so far as to associate the different outcomes with the biological difference – boys have their reproductive organs on the outside, so they are outward looking. Girls, however, have reproductive organs on the inside of their bodies, and therefore recreated internal settings. Seems logical, but is it realistic?

The study itself is easy to replicate. However, the researchers did not consider that for several years, boys have been given toys such as little cars, planes, and toy guns to play with. It would be within the realm of a boy’s reality to recreate an environment in which his toys can function; and the same for a girl, who is often given dolls and toy houses to play with. 

At very young ages we begin to take on those social expectations based on five biological differences. It begins with the toys we are given and what activities are reinforced by those around us. Our concepts of masculine and feminine are formed by social expectations and gender roles. In my work where I have conducted assessments in rural villages, I have often found that boys are allowed to play while girls are expected to help their mother and care for the younger siblings. Simply stated, gender roles introduced and reinforced. 

During the formative years of life, we accept such realities. Unless we are challenged to rethink, gender roles go unquestioned. What would make us question these assumptions? 

Activity 2... 

Think about the varying degrees of offenses we may endure in our lifetime, from being personally offended or insulted, to being the victim of a violent crime.

Here are five possible offenses: 
  • ignoring someone
  • raping someone
  • rejecting someone
  • laughing at someone
  • physically attacking someone

List them from the least offensive to the most grievous offense. 

Obviously rape is the worst offenses and deemed illegal and immoral in most societies. This is generally followed by physically attacking someone. Rejecting, ignoring and laughing at someone are personal offenses that have relevance, but not as serious.


How does gender influence your decision-making?

Take the list of offensive actions devoid of context and compare it to the answers you listed from the Crocodile River Story. What was the action of the most offensive character in the story? Was it to ignore, to rape, to reject, to physically attack, or to laugh? 

Reflect on the actions that are explained away as associated with gender, i.e. “men are opportunists”, or “that girl knew the risks.”  

Without going into all the possible ranking of offenders in the Crocodile River Story, the main point is that we come to see that gender is a social construct that has been formed since we were born. How we interpret actions and excuse behaviors is influenced by social constructs that we are often blind to. “It is just that way.”

In some cases like the story above, social constructs such as gender can invert what would otherwise be very clear to a logical mind – to rape someone is a crime and much worse than laughing at someone. 

Succinctly stated, the unquestioned assumptions surrounding gender roles and social expectations can be powerful – it can excuse the inexcusable on one hand, and blame the victim on the other.  

When we hear calls for gender equity, it is not just for gender equality in its simplest form. Gender equity is a call to correct existing imbalances and to re-examine our social norms in a way that puts an end to countless generations of discrimination and inequality that were initially based on five biological differences. 

This post is dedicated to all the women in the movement for gender equity, the women of Fair Trade, and in particular to Chou, my life partner and soul mate who has heart-fully joined me on this Journey for Fair Trade.  

It is my hope that this blog posting will initiate a self-evaluation for men and women alike, if one has not already been done, on the unquestioned assumptions surrounding gender; assumptions we hold so dear that to question them would require nothing short of calling for social change. 


Mitch Teberg, MA

For those who prefer reading black on white, here is the downloadable PDF format: 
What is Gender

1 comment:

  1. Hi, another interesting post.

    From my stay in Kerala I have had mixed feelings about the role of women in the Kerala society. Despite it being a very educated and forward thinking place, the family set up is still very traditional and this means the wife is there to serve the family (family meaning her husband's parents, along with her husband and children and possibly other family members too).

    I've stayed with a few families where this was the set up and the first thing to say is they were very happy families. I guess it's the divide between Western thinking which values personal freedom above all else, to 'Eastern'thinking which has a more collective outlook. In this way if you look at it from the point of view of the family then one family member being there to serve the rest makes sense. Whereas if you look at from the point of view of the value of the woman and her personal freedom then it isn't acceptable.

    When you dip into another culture it absolutely makes you realise how cultural gender roles are.