Monday, March 06, 2006

The differences between girls and boys

When I was younger, my ideas about girls and boys were simpler than they are today. As I said in an earlier column, my parents encouraged me to aspire to be essentially anything I could dream to be, so I played scientist (observing bugs or testing chemical reactions of mixing various household substances) and played house with equal abandon.

I was a rough and rowdy little monkey -- climbing on trees and everything else and couldn't imagine why anyone would want to play "tea party" with all of their dolls set up neatly around a toy table -- so I was sure that this crazy notion of girls being more calm and dignified than boys was wrong and was just the product of parental expectations. Similarly, I excelled in Math, so I concluded that the only reason girls tend to shy away from math-heavy fields was because their sexist parents, teachers and society failed to properly encourage them.

Today the answers seem less obvious. As a parent observing the behavior of various young kids and their parents, it's pretty clear that there's something to this idea of little boys and girls having a somewhat different temperament -- at least on average -- that can't be entirely explained away by parental expectations. I still think that girls' avoidance of Mathematics is primarily a question of cultural expectations, but is that the entire explanation? I'm no longer sure.

There are naturally two conflicting strategies within feminism for dealing with the fact that traits and roles that are labeled feminine are typically looked down on and devalued. One strategy is to get society to value the traits and roles that are seen as feminine, and the other strategy is to stop negative traits and devalued roles from being considered inherently female.

If one of these two strategies were always the right answer in all circumstances and the other always wrong, everything would be a lot easier. But typically different women can't help but have different ideas -- based largely on their own experiences -- and that can cause conflict.

As a stupid example, it seems that people who are taller get more automatic respect. And I've heard that automobile safety systems are designed, crash-tested, and optimized for the average-height man: 5'8". Now I happen to be 5'8", and looking around and comparing various men's height to my own, I might be tempted to say that the suggestion that females tend to be smaller is just so much slanderous misinformation to be countered. And if my opinion on the subject helped perpetuate the the practice of treating 5'8" as the overall average height, that might be fine and dandy for me, but I wouldn't necessarily be doing a service for women in general.

On the other end of the spectrum, the fact that history is written by the victors and the fact that men are still a little ahead in the battle of the sexes has given us a lot of negative stereotypes about women like, for instance, the stereotype that rational reasoning is a male trait. It would be easier to take this in stride and calmly counter it like so many other insulting stereotypes if it weren't for the fact that so many women (the most irrational ones, perhaps?) accept and embrace it.

Astonishingly, I've read arguments from women claiming to be feminists that if society were less sexist, the female means of deduction (intuition) would be as highly regarded and trusted as the male means of deduction (logic, reason, facts, evidence). It makes me angry to even hear people suggest that reasoning strategies are gender-based in this way, and my inclination is to fight to the death anyone who would consider that a feminist position, or really anyone who would consider the above statement anything other than offensive. I'm not sure how rational a reaction that is...

In between these two extremes, there is the more complex question of what to do about traditionally female professions such as nurse, schoolteacher, and homemaker. Should we work to valorize these jobs or work to change things so that they're not exclusively women's jobs? I would say both.

Professions like teaching and nursing that require intelligence and competence yet society won't pay a lot for end up being womens' work since there are a certain number of bright, ambitious women out there who -- traditionally cut off from most professional ambitions -- will take what they can get and do it well. But when women aren't arbitrarily cut off from most jobs, then traditional women's professions will have to compete for qualified personnel, and hence society can't just take for granted getting competent people cheap to fill them. Society is forced to re-evaluate the role (upwards) accordingly. So both goals are met at once.

Similarly with homemaking. Since homemaking doesn't require formal training nor is it paid, it's very easy to place homemakers on a pedestal of empty slogans of respect and esteem while deep down thinking "you do this because you don't have the skills or talents to do something more challenging."

In our modern feminist world, the situation is the opposite. Plenty of women (and even men) who have the talents and opportunity (or potential opportunity) to earn money and respect in the business and professional world choose nonetheless to stay home with their kids instead, demonstrating that homemaker is not just a role that one settles for but is a role that has value.

A while ago, on a fun little apostate/exmormon Internet bulletin board, some people were discussing the popular blog feminist Mormon housewives. There wasn't too much debate as to whether it's contradictory to be a feminist and a Mormon. Even though the LDS church actively organized against the Equal Rights Amendment, so many of us have moms who are feminists at heart that there was really no question about the fact that it's quite possible to be a feminist and a devout Mormon. There was some question however as to whether it is contradictory to be a feminist and a housewife. One of the guys quoted a feminist writer as saying the two were contradictory, but the ladies (working women and stay-at-home-mom alike) agreed that being a stay-at-home-mom is indeed a feminist role if it's the role that the woman chose for herself.

It may seem contradictory or hypocritical for me to say that since I have pretty young kids and I work full time outside the home. But you may rest assured that like all good working moms, I'm all defensive and guilty about it. I'll be happy to explain at length how we can't afford to do otherwise: we have no car, can't afford necessary repairs to our house that is 100 years old and looks it, much less afford luxuries, and besides that I managed to arrange to work from home when I had small (nursing) babies.

I'd rather say that we should praise and value those people (male and female) who have made sacrifices in order to spend more time at home with their kids without necessarily heaping shame on the shoulders of working parents who didn't have exactly the same skill sets and opportunities.

So we can all be feminists or not in our own way.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor February 22, 2006.


Sideon said...

The last couple of weeks in my Organizational Behavior and Theory class we've been discussing gender theory and equality. The range of responses to discussions has been amazing: rage, depression, fear, and sometimes denial.

Some question the need to discuss gender in the sense that people should be evaluated on their strengths instead of looking at an assumed gender bias first and foremost. Women (and some men) argue differently, that because organizations follow a "rational" model (cf beaurocracy, which implies a male dominated heirarchy), then women and the humanistic and compassionate approaches are often ignored or relagated to non-prominent areas.

My approach to gender is with a more fluid mindset. Granted, there's the biological aspect of male, female and transgendered, but men and women both have male and female aspects. I think true strength is not only striking a balance between the two, but actively integrating both aspects.

C. L. Hanson said...

In my personal life I like to take a more fluid approach as well.

I'm very far from being stereotypically feminine (not that that's bad or anything, it's just that I'm not). But I'm certainly not masculine either.

I had loads of fun trying to write from a male perspective for some of the segments of my novel. Spending time contemplating what it would be like to be male was an eye-opening trip (through my own psyche at least) as I explored -- almost for the first time really -- what I think men are like as opposed to what I think women are like.