The world is divided into two categories of people. One who think that the world is divided by two categories of people and the other who are wrong.
We simply love putting labels on everything. Friend or foe. Black or white.True or False.Good or Bad. Vegetarian and non vegetarian. Indians or Pakistanis. Indians or firangs. Married or divorced. Hindu or Muslim. Pro-choice or anti-choice. Pro-gun or anti-gun. Left or right.
What is the first characteristic that we recognise when we meet an individual? It is the gender of the person. That’s the power of the gender categorisation. Our entire behaviour changes depending on the gender of the person we are about to face.
When we come across any other mammal or animal, we are not too concerned about their gender. Kittens, puppies and cubs, we do not seem to care. When we see a human baby, we first want to know the gender of the child. When you hear about a colleague who has just had a baby, the first questions is about the gender of the child, even before inquiring about the health of the baby and the well-being of the mother. Why does the gender matter?
Why is gender the biggest label that we seem to assign ourselves? If you can imagine the biases and confusion with two existing genders, imagine the confusion as we begin to accept alternate genders, lifestyles and sexual orientation into the mainstream.
Urban Myths of Gender
Why is a bald woman or a man with long tresses seen as a rebel? Why is a stay-at-home husband even a topic of discussion? Why is a man wearing a skirt big deal (unless he’s from Scotland) but a woman wearing trousers is considered cool?
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Someone said women find men who cook very sexy. My response was does the chef at Shiv Sagar, Sagar Ratna qualify? Why does a woman who cooks not qualify as being desirable? Unless you are Nigella Lawson, in which case you have a mile long line at your doorstep.
The problem with labels is that once we stick a gender label, we tend to predict gender-related outcomes.
Media bestsellers have categorised us as citizens of two different planets, travelling in two different orbits, destined to never cross paths.
Deconstruction of the Venus-Mars Myth
Bobbi J Carothers and Harry T Reis are two researchers who analysed 122 different characteristics across 13,301 individuals. They have scrutinised various measures of stereotyped hobbies and physiological characteristics (physical strength, muscles, height, ability to throw objects over long distances). Psychological indicators included sexuality and mating (sexual attitudes and behaviours, mate selectivity, sociosexual orientation), interpersonal orientation (empathy, relational-interdependent, self-construal), gender-related dispositions (masculinity, femininity, care orientation, unmitigated communion, fear of success, science inclination, Big Five personality traits), and intimacy (intimacy prototypes and stages, social provisions, intimacy with best friend).
They have systemically debunked the theory that women are from Venus and men are from Mars.
They found that indeed there was a difference in the physical attributes of height and muscles. Other studies have shown that men are better at throwing an object over longer distances and hitting a target with greater accuracy. Studies have shown that women, on the other hand, are better at manual tasks that require dexterity. In some aspects, they found that watching pornography and boxing was more biased towards men. Keeping a scrapbook or using cosmetics were more biased towards women.
The need to show empathy for others or caring about close relationships and the importance of having a close friend was the same across both genders. Gender did not play a significant role when it came to the desire to have sex with multiple partners, masturbation and willingness to have sex outside a relationship.
Even when it came to the fear of being successful or an interest in science, you could not predict with any accuracy if the respondent was male or female.
Interestingly, what they also found that the presence of a certain trait had no bearing on the outcome of other traits.
For example, if a man was interested in mathematics or science did not show any relationship with aggression or masculinity. A person who is interested in mathematics might not value attractiveness while selecting a mate. Similarly, if a woman is high on empathy, it does not mean, she would not show a preference to mathematics or not like sports or display aggression.
The simple point being made is that men and women may display some psychological traits more, but they are not fundamentally or characteristically different.
The Gender Similarities Hypothesis
Let’s take the favourite subject of mathematics and gender. There is a popular hypothesis that boys are better than girls in mathematical problem solving. It is said that boys are better at solving complex problems and girls are better at solving basic mathematical computation.
Janet Shibley Hyde developed a hypothesis called The Gender Similarities Hypothesis. She conducted a meta-analysis to bring together a few hundred studies. For computational skills, the scores do favour girls, but only in elementary and middle school. In high school, the difference in gender was small. For complex problem solving, the difference was minimal in elementary and middle school, but a small difference appears in high school.
How is it that over a few years an entire mathematical skill set seems to deteriorate and for another category of people, they tend to improve?
Social roles and Internalisation
We tend to carry out the social roles that have been transmitted from the society and cultural norms. We tend to stick to the traditional definition of a male and female role in society. Think about it, while growing up, what was your family’s, siblings’ and friends’ expectation of the gender role? Did boys and girls play together? What kind of relationships took place in the playground? How did the adults around you react to the friendships? What was your response to the family definition? Do you dress differently if you are meeting a man or a woman?
The key here is what was your reaction to the expectation? How did it affect your interest in say taking up a profession of nurse, cook, pilot, designer, scientist, engineer, or an accountant?
Context and Gender
Hyde introduces a very interesting concept in gender called context. Participants were asked to play a video game where they defended and then dropped bombs. When participants were made to identify themselves by wearing large nametags the women dropped far lesser bombs than the men. When the participants did not identify themselves women dropped more bombs than men.
Interestingly, men in the anonymous condition became more passive. They did not see the need to play the role of an aggressor. On the other hand, women could play the role which they wanted to play.
In another interesting research by Brown and Josephs, participants were called in to take part in a mathematics test. Half the participants were told that the test had a gender difference (without specifying the gender it favoured). The other half was told that the test was gender fair.
In the “gender-biased” test, women underperformed men. In the fair test, there was no difference in test scores.
Just a simple context, erased or enhanced gender differences in performance. Women assumed that the test would be biased against them.
What is the economic and social cost of the gender myths?
At education: Watch out for headlines such as ‘Bangalore girl tops JEE’. Inflating the focus on the gender sends a signal that it is a rare occurrence. This might even dissuade girls from pursuing a career in mathematics and science. The headline of ‘Pune Boy tops SSC’ will have the same impact.
Research has shown that the parents expectations on mathematical performance, strongly correlates with the child’s confidence and performance.
The discussion of careers needs to be around strengths and interests rather than gender compatibility.
While growing up: It is now well documented that both boys and girls at the adolescent stage suffer from lower self-esteem. On the one hand, we may focus on bulimia in girls but we need to pay as much attention to the protein and muscle enhancing advertisements that seem to attract teenagers.
As individuals in the workplace: Men are raised to think that they cannot be caring and nurturing. Further, a man who is seen as nurturing might not be seen as tough, ruthless, and therefore incapable of taking tough decisions. “Not only am I incapable of being a nurturing man, it is not advisable to be seen as a nurturing person”.
Research shows that women have to behave in a feminine manner to improve their chances of being hired or even liked in their companies.
The image of a tough female boss does scare off many men and women alike.
In relationships: If we approach relationships with a Mars-Venus paradigm, the first victim is our ability communicate with our partners. Interestingly homosexual couples have the same issues as heterosexual couples. Therefore the issue is not gender related, but individual related.
When dealing with conflict, we stick a labels like “All men think of is sex”, “Men are cheats” or “All women spend too much time getting ready”. Men are taught that they are not as good as women while reading and dealing with emotions or they are told they are not good communicators or conversationalists.
I want to conclude by a suggestion from Janet Shibley Hyde,
It is time to consider the costs of overinflated claims of gender differences. Arguably, they cause harm in numerous realms, including women’s opportunities in the workplace, couple conflict and communication, and analyses of self esteem problems among adolescents. Most important, these claims are not consistent with the scientific data.”
So when you come across a juicy proclamation of a fundamental difference, in gender, do stop to probe into the research before you agree.
Just agreeing that men and women are from planet Earth would be a good step in reducing gender conflict.
The author is the Founder of The Positivity Company where he helps business leaders become more positive and productive. Birender can be reached on email@example.com.