In this piece, Natalia Ann Vaccaro builds on Maria-Louisa Vichou’s introductory article about the dangers and impact of gender roles.
Tell me about your hobbies? What are you naturally good at? What field are you built for? These are all neutral questions but unconsciously for many, these questions can lead to gendered answers. Boy, girl, anything. We have seen how these binary codes of society have forced women into dresses at a younger age than they could walk and men into ties before they can even speak. It was all so cute then right? When we were exactly one thing or another because clothes belonged to one sex only.
But we are past that. Now you choose your clothes in the morning, put on your shoes and walk to your job. You make choices about your life, and those are not because you identify as a male, female or other. Right? Things such as clothes, toys, even who you decide to play with - those are all individual choices, either made by you or by your parents, maybe even your school. We as developed adults want to believe that we make decisions that are personally informed, not inherently biased towards something we already know is wrong. Sadly that is not necessarily true, at least not for everyone.
Take livelihoods, for example, the job someone chooses to pursue after many years of studying and striving for. You have to enter a field through the same channel as everyone else, meeting men, women, and others who share your interest, your interest. However, even within neutral fields, there are gender biases that permeate and discourage female participation. Such fields include STEM. Now including women in STEM fields has been a constant effort, with outreach programs spanning the globe. Still, less than 30% of STEM researchers identify as female, even less so are women of color (Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, 2020). Why is this? According to Nobel scientist Tim Hunt, “female scientists cause trouble for men in labs…. [they] ‘fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry'’ (Miner, 2018).
According to him and other experts in the field, women just are not built for science, math, or engineering. This idea is not based on any empirical evidence, only an assumption that has been woven within society. One that starts with the frilly pink dresses and ends with a feeling of incompetence. According to research, the main reason why women were less likely to pursue STEM was due to stereotypes that women were not as good at it; something that’s perpetuated since they were old enough to learn about science or because they were actively deterred once entering the field (Miner, 2018). This means we have the unconscious voices of years upon years of incorrectly telling women they are not equipped for these fields and then men, (don’t worry, not all men) screaming it at them. Something like wanting to study chemistry should be easy, yet for women it was meant to be hard.
The concept of gender as strong and soft, smart and dumb, cold and caring, those things permeate every aspect of life and yes, even the individual decisions that you think you are making all by yourself. Imagine you are in a classroom and you’re struggling with math for the first time so you ask for help. The teacher says that it is just not for you, you just are not good at it naturally, and that’s ok. Then the boy next to you had the same problem, but he is told to try harder and is given actual tools to succeed. Do you still think YOU chose to not be an engineer?
You may feel like you were meant to be something or someone but when it is so clear what the world wants you to be, it is hardly destiny. It is the predetermination of society, not you. If you were meant to be a writer, it would occur regardless of whether you were a boy or a girl. It should not be because of appraisal of handwriting or being tasked to write thank you notes. Boys can have good handwriting as well, and what if your natural ability was just swiped away by a singular comment on how it is simply not good enough for an intractable reason such as sex? If you are talented, it is because you are talented or if you like something, it is because you like something, YOU. You exist before what society expects of you.
Now let's progress to hobbies and interests. Interests are diverse and yes, sometimes a gender can take over a larger population of a hobby and there is nothing wrong with that as long as you can still participate in that hobby either way. However, let's think about how highly revered that hobby or activity is based on its general audience. Let us look at something easy, movies. Why are rom-com movies considered vapid and shallow? I can summarize those movies with boy + girl + problem + funny = movie. It is heteronormative mind candy, yes. But what about action movies? Boy + squad + explosion + hot girl = movie. It’s not that much more complicated, it just replaced all the other variables with explosions. Yet the one predominantly watched by females is too simple, shallow, and a chick-flick. It is not the audience behind the movie that makes the movie, but the perception of the movie is based on the audience. The stereotypes of gender not only infiltrate our clothes and jobs, but they even go into our interests or hobbies.
Think about why you hated One Direction or Justin Bieber at a time when everything was overproduced. Why did we hate them? One idea could be that they have young girls adoring them so of course, their music must be dumb. How we view musicians, movies, activities, and disciplines are reflective of who loves those things. Even I was a victim to these societal standards and perceptions growing up, hating One Direction and the color pink simply because of who liked it, yet still I was fervently quizzed if I liked boy-interests like Star Trek, treated like an outsider for connecting to a critically-acclaimed franchise.
I love biology, and I am good at math if I try hard. I love the color pink, but only the softest tones of it. I study behavior and want to go into academia. I love science fiction movies and fantasy novels. None of these things occurred because of my gender yet when these things are expressed, it is intrinsically linked to it. Everything we touch and love becomes minimized by gender as if it's important, as if those things do not stand on their own across from us alone. Not only are men, women, and others blocked by gender perception and societal expectations, gatekeepers by rules that no longer apply, it is becoming an invisible battle. Yes, we are all just people, so why do we need to talk about gender all the time? If we are equal then we are equal and that's it, right?
Well no, because if we leave the world as it is now, put everyone at the same start line and stop acknowledging gender biases, we minimize the struggle of those who still have to go against an ever-present tide that continues to deter equality. It is not all about gender, but we made it that way and now it is. We have to acknowledge the roadblocks placed by society and remove them, while also lifting those who were stopped in their tracks by years of discouragement, whether it was loud or quiet. One day, maybe one day, toys, clothes, jobs, family structures, interests, all those things can become ours, as people, not as men or women. It will not be all about gender. We will be more.
Miner, K. N., Walker, J. M., Bergman, M. E., Jean, V. A., Carter-Sowell, A., January, S. C., & Kaunas, C. (2018). From “Her” Problem to “Our” Problem: Using an Individual Lens Versus aSocial-Structural Lens to Understand Gender Inequity in STEM. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 11(2), 267–290. https://doi.org/10.1017/iop.2018.7.
Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) (Quick Take). Catalyst. (2020, August 4). https://www.catalyst.org/research/women-in-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-stem/.