Quickie on social construction of gender

Gender is a fluid construct. It is not determined by our biology, but is a product of our environment, our performance, our choices, and our society.

Our society sets up gender as a dichotomy: masculine and feminine. Masculinity includes traits like brave, noisy, and strong. Femininity includes being timid, quiet, fragile, and nurturing. Nothing is genetically inherent in men to make them masculine, or in women to make them feminine. Global variations in behaviour and expectations show that gender is a cultural construct.

From early childhood, we condition members of our society to believe that sex determines gender. Dressing girls in lace and pink clothing that restricts movement is standard. Boys are dressed in camouflage and dark colours, and when they get dirty, we forgive quickly with statements that actually encourage this behaviour.

Physiological girls who display ‘masculine’ characteristics and physiological boys who act ‘feminine’ are censured for crossing gender lines. Intersexed individuals often struggle with gender identity issues. The cisgendered do not often realize how challenging and unclear gender identity can be.

Socially constructing gender is problematic. When gender defines acceptable behaviours and interests, it limits an individual. If a girl is ‘supposed to be’ interested in nurturing, not machines, she may not receive a full range of choices and opportunities to develop her interests.

On a larger scale, society also suffers. Fields like computing, which have historically excluded women, neglect half of a potential pool of knowledge and skills. When entire groups of individuals are discouraged from exploring and developing interests in an area, these fields develop internal biases and are skewed to the interests of a non-representative group of the population.

When society is constructed such that only women are nurturers, men are also unfairly limited. The public sphere, which has been historically male dominated, has little accommodation for the needs of the family and men are unsupported in their role as caregivers. As women have entered the paid workforce in greater numbers, working for change in terms of parental leave or leave for caring for sick children or parents has illustrated the bias against men as nurturers.

Society benefits from encouraging individuality, rather than relying on stereotypes to determine each person’s potential contribution to the community. Gender dichotomies create a hierarchy, preferencing one element over the other. This preference is then used to esteem one group at the expense of the other when with cooperation, both group’s contribution could be valuable, if the society were open to it.


8 Responses, Leave a Reply
  1. Coco
    16 July 2007, 1:44 pm

    Although I have great respect for the different views you offer in your blog, I feel compelled to respond here. It is quite a bold statement to say that our biology has absolutely nothing to do with our gender. The pendulum swings back and forth in the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate, but most everyone has agreed that it is both. Opinions vary on how much of our gender is “nature” and how much is “nurture”, but it seems absurd to dismiss one or the other. Just a simple example: men have much more testosterone coursing through their veins — would this not have an effect on behaviour and thoughts? This hormone makes it easier to build muscle — would this not have an effect on what one is able to do, what physical activities are easier or more enjoyable to a person?

    I like your open-mindedness, so I was surprised to read comments that seemed absolutist with regard to this topic.

  2. Anonymous
    25 August 2007, 11:49 am

    This is an excellent article that covers some of the issue I had while growing up. I would not act stupid or weak. I also would show my agner. This was considered inappropriate for a girl. My brother who was a slob, did not have to cook, clean or do laundry because he was a boy. I hated this belief that men were more superior in women. I did not believe in many of the beliefs of my culture and because of that I was considered an outcast, and accused of thinking that I was better than any one else in my family. That was not it. It was because I saw a better future for myself that was not constrained by the beliefs of my culture. Many women were held back by these beliefs. They were trapped with no way to get out. Marriage was their only option, and many stayed in abusive and unhappy relantioships for the sake of the family beliefs.

  3. Candace
    04 September 2007, 10:29 am

    @ Coco:

    There’s a difference between sex and gender — the first *is* biological, the second is sociological. Both are a continuum and research by Kinsey, Klein, and others describe this and its implications.

    Some women identify as more ‘masculine’ on this continuum than some men — and it’s fluid. At different points in a person’s life, their gender identity may lean more or less towards one end of the continuum.

    re: testosterone: some individuals who identify as men do have more testosterone than some who identify as women, but there are plenty of women who are stronger than some men. The argument that men are stronger than women is a fallacy that has been used to keep women out of certain types of work (firefighting comes to mind). It also takes a very Western perspective. In parts of the world where women are primarily responsible for physical work it is supported by the argument that women are stronger — men just are not physically capable of bearing the same loads as women. Again, socially constructed.

    The enjoyment of activities will have much less to do with the amount of hormone in a person’s body than their experiences and context — which is always socially constructed.

  4. Candace
    04 September 2007, 10:37 am

    @ Anonymous:

    It’s unfortunate that boys and girls have been stereotyped into these roles, but the key now that we’ve come to realize this is changing it. A simple thing like refraining from asking if a new baby is a boy or girl helps reconstruct our world as a place where people are more the same than different and gender is only a small piece of who we are, and more importantly, who we can become. Our gender does not need to hold bearing on who we are or who we can become. Once we slot a child into a pre-determined category it’s hard to break out of that and for others to see them any other way.

  5. ankita
    15 January 2008, 3:07 pm

    its really quikie ! helped to have idea about this topic!

  6. anonymous
    15 January 2008, 9:36 pm

    what about the scientific fact that women have smaller brains than men?

  7. Candace
    29 January 2008, 10:32 am

    @ anonymous: Not sure what your point is, but it’s not so much the size of the brain that matters here, as what it’s used for.

  8. girl from the spice isle
    21 February 2008, 2:22 am

    Candace i couldn’t agree with you more, it not the size of the brain that matters it definitely what it’s used for. Probably men have bigger brain because the brain cavity is just bigger so they need to fill it up. Doesn’t mean that bigger is better. Anyhow it only takes a man to talk about size since this is whats important to a man. Anonymous has to be a man. hope he can use his big brain worthwhile.

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