A Survey About Gender
A couple of months ago, I asked a score of friends about their gender. Specifically, I asked four questions about how gender consciously influences their thoughts and behaviour.
I’ll introduce the questions in a moment; but let me first disclose my intentions, which were threefold. (1) I wanted to hear some wider perspectives on gender so I could test and inform my hypotheses; (2) I believed my questions sufficiently important and thought-provoking to warrant making my friends think about them (a few agreed that they were mildly interesting); and (3) I magnanimously wished to give my friends a taste of eternal fame and glory, by disseminating their thoughts to the masses who read my blog.
Because I was keen to get honest, frank responses (or maybe because I allegedly have a penchant for testing the patience of those around me), the questions were presented and responses collected through an anonymised online form which is reproduced below. It would be great if you took a moment to think about the questions; and if you feel inspired to submit your own response, please go ahead and I’ll put it in the comments at the bottom of the page.
So when I was thinking about the issues that were to eventually give rise to these questions, I did so from two perspectives: first, that of a heterosexual man (familiar terrain); and second, in an attempt to use my modest powers of imagination, as a heterosexual woman. I quickly came to the hypothesis that women are more aware of being women than men are of being men.
Now this is not to say that my maleness is unimportant to me or that it doesn’t affect my behaviour (though if you thought about the above questions, you may have been surprised at the difficulty in abstracting yourself from your self to put your finger on when it’s particularly influential). I am certainly aware of gender, as a means of categorising humans, when thinking explicitly about some social question involving sexism or gender inequality. And my category is made obvious during such mundane tasks as choosing which public toilet to use, or filling out forms which demand to know one’s sex.
But I feel my gender most acutely in social situations: probably most of the time in the company of men, and probably all of the time in the company of women. From this it would seem that my self-awareness is a reflexion of my awareness of others.
Paradoxically, though, the better I get to know someone, the less obvious their gender can become. When speaking with close friends or intimate partners, such categorisations may be temporarily irrelevant and superficial – it is their person and their personhood that takes the foreground.
And yet, to contradict myself a second time in as many paragraphs, these are the people with whom it is most important to empathise. And to do a good job of empathy one must take gender into account – because in their interactions with other people who don’t know them so well, the superficial categorisations are important, and will absolutely influence behaviours and experiences.
So much for my musings, let’s get back to the interview. I expected that my thoughts, or at least something in their general direction, would be fairly standard among the (self-proclaimed) male respondents; and this indeed turned out to be the case.
(Before diving into the responses, I should clarify that I intended my interview questions to be a little vague, to give people the freedom to share their own experiences and thoughts, rather than having my agenda forced upon them. And it turns out that, of the handful who responded, a couple took me at my word, writing contemplative and carefully worded musings which came close to ignoring my questions altogether. This, together with the small sample size, means I can’t develop a robust and consistent narrative: I simply need more data and more time and less data.)
However, among the male responses (including my own) there was a definite theme: gender plays a relatively minor role in their immediate personal experiences, and they are seldom aware of it. For instance [please note all quotes have been excerpted and edited for flow (but obviously not for meaning)]:
I don’t think about my own gender very often: I don’t feel like the rigid structures of gender affect me psychologically at all, and I don’t feel any expectations or oppression or anything (not related to gender at least).
For a while I was the only child, and I simply assumed everybody had a universal experience.
Consciously, gender affects my perception very little.
Due recognition was given to the fact that our conscious experience of the world is a tiny fraction of our mind’s activities:
Though when I reflect on my reaction to a person or an event, I notice that gender may have had some unintentional role in how I perceive him/her.
Eons of evolutionary history are at work, and we as a species have come to accept this dual mode of classification as more or less “default”. My thought patterns and perceptions about the world are inextricably linked with a lifetime of conditioning regarding what men and women look like, what they do, how they behave. This also goes on mostly in the subconscious, unnoticed.
The notion of cultural conditioning came up a few times, clothed in tones ranging from resignation to resentment. There was a common view that categorisation according to gender seems a superficial and misleading way of seeing the world.
Any time I’m with another human being that isn’t a close friend, I’m reminded of society’s simplistic binary view of gender.
(This is also consistent with my earlier points about gender awareness being a reflexion of others’ expectations, and further that such categorisation are relevant only when a sense of personhood is not yet developed). A more abstract example of this is:
At a personal, intellectual and spiritual level, the awareness of gender is really just reflection of our tendency to categorize things in order to “understand” them (the irony being that this funnels and often limits our perceptions, reactions and behaviors). I believe gender is very rarely an important or useful factor in how I understand and relate to myself and others.
But in spite of these opinions about the fundamental meaninglessness of gender on an interpersonal level, every response acknowledged the social and societal differences in expectations for men and women. Unsurprisingly, this came up most frequently in answers to question 4 – it was when the male respondent empathised with a woman that the differences emerged. The ensuing discussions centred around both issues of societal sexism and perceptions of gender.
She thinks about her gender fairly often, especially in social situations. She’ll realize people treat her in ways that she doesn’t want and doesn’t feel she deserves.
When I put myself in her shoes, as I try to do as often as possible when confronted with gender issues, I imagine that the gender dichotomy was presented at a very early age. It’s easy for someone to go on without realizing their privileged position, but I imagine it’s easier to realize your disadvantaged position. I also imagine that the topic of gender is brought to mind much more frequently than for someone who identifies as a man for the same reasons. Though probably much more severe, I imagine that it’s similar to how I think about height more so than a tall person. Whenever I hear facts about how the average height of presidents or CEOs are a certain height, I can’t help but wonder if that naturally gives me a disadvantage.
I really like this last quote, as it nicely elucidates a point pertinent to all forms of inequality: it’s invisible unless you are the victim. Indeed the principle applies quite broadly to any instance of ill fate – for instance, you are most aware of health when you are ill.
All this ties in with my original hypothesis: it would be natural to expect that women are more aware of gender because, as a group that have historically been barred from (or at least under-represented in) positions of societal influence, they may be more keenly aware of the privilege associated with gender.
I’ll return to my hypothesis later. Now let’s hear how the self-identified women answered my questions.
In the last section we briefly contemplated the view that the whole male/female dichotomy is unhelpful on a personal level and distracting to interpersonal communication – and in case it wasn’t clear, this chimes with my instincts. Perhaps it’s a touch ironic that I’ve split up the responses into male and female categories; but ultimately there’s no contradiction, because even a concept that is theoretically vacuous might still be highly meaningful in practice. In this case, we have to participate in the social construction whether we want to or not.
(Race is another obvious example. Though we may believe it fundamentally wrong to make distinctions (socially and legally) between people of different races, the fact is that our culture has accorded immense importance to skin colour, and, as I have noted before, we should respond to how things are in reality rather than our counterfactual idealisations of how they ought to be.)
Some points made in the women’s responses have already been covered in the last section, and it seems unnecessary to discuss them all again. So we have another irony, this time of a darker hue: once more the women get less credit for their contribution. (I hope you’ll understand that I started with men because that’s closest to my experience and I’m in charge of the blog. But since writers throughout history have typically been men (and one could further claim they have been men writing about important “men-things”), and since they too would feel this ordering more natural for them, inevitably a deeper cultural trend emerges where the male perspective is seen as the “default”, while the female perspective is additional, contrasting or even anomalous. So yeah, perhaps I should have started in less familiar territory to make a point (a feeble point, but a point nonetheless). But I didn’t and we should get on with the survey. The women have plenty to say.)
On the central question of gender-self-consciousness, the responses that I got from women were more mixed: from
I think there are few instances throughout the day when I’m not aware of my gender.
I don’t ever really think about my gender identity (unless someone asks me about it) and don’t see it as a big factor in how I consciously live my life. It has never prevented me from doing something I want to do, which is probably why I don’t think about it. For me it is neither a choice nor a societal burden, just a sort of meaningless circumstance of my life.
Note that though the first quote is consistent with my hypothesis, the second quote aligns with what I expected to be the “standard male view”. All respondents agreed, however, that interpersonal situations pronounced their self-awareness:
I would say that I’m more aware of my gender in the company of other people than when I’m on my own. And particularly when interacting with men.
There was a time when I was very aware of what I wore to work and was worried about accidentally looking inappropriate and/or distracting. I started making choices to look as neutral as possible, so in this case I was very much consciously affected by my gender/other people’s perception of it/my perception of other people’s perception of it.
The last quote speaks explicitly to the idea, encountered in the last section, that gender is irrelevant on a purely personal level: it is only when we have to second-guess the expectations and responses of others that our awareness and behaviour changes.
Particularly striking to me was the exasperation expressed by all female respondents at being underestimated by others:
I often feel as if I’m not being taken seriously, as if I’m being patronised, because I’m a woman.
I become aware of my gender when offered help that I don’t need, or when I feel I’m being treated as incompetent, or when I’m complimented for achieving a very easy task: I wonder if it’s because I’m female. I’m aware of my gender when I feel the need to “prove myself” in a task that is assumed to be an inherent ability of males. Like, something got fixed at home? Must have been my male partner.
(From the responses, it wasn’t clear to me whether men alone, or both men and other women were responsible for this condescension. In other conversations I’ve heard experiences from both sides. It goes without saying that shitty behaviour is shitty no matter who does it, and there’s little to be gained from shifting blame around unless it’s truly for the purpose of understanding which people we’d like to behave differently and how.)
Other grievances included the importance of looks, and of being expected to behave in a “womanly” fashion. But I’d like to close this section with:
I was at a bar in Ireland, and in my group of six the four men had Guinness and the two women had cider. Jokes were made about Guinness being manly and cider being feminine. Now when I’m in Ireland, I order Guinness exclusively despite not actually feeling that strongly about the taste. An essentailly meaningless change to my life that is admittedly a bit silly.
A nicely-balanced anecdote, whose levity one can enjoy while nevertheless being conscious of a chronic underlying frustration.
Though there was a good deal more interesting material in the interview submissions, in the interests of narrative and brevity I shall move on to the next bit, pausing only to make a couple of remarks in summary. While the male respondents by and large came across as personally indifferent to gender (which perhaps allowed them to take a more abstracted view of the issue), the female respondents all had at least one negative thing to say about their experience of being female. No woman said anything explicitly positive about being a woman (which I hope is because we all naturally think of the bad stuff, and not because all women hate being women). That said, the men didn’t either, except in some cases to acknowledge that they might have benefited from cultural favouritism.
In the answers from both categories there was, implicitly or explicitly, an understanding that one’s personal experience of gender and the effects of being categorised into a gender by others are two very different things. The former being much more difficult to tease out, I was pleased that everyone made really interesting points.
Limited though my data were, I feel justified in pressing on with my hypothesis – that women tend to be more aware of being women than men are of being men. Now I have to come up with an explanation.
We already encountered consciousness of privilege as one possible factor; and I alluded to an idea that the female perspective is regarded as anomalous or secondary, which would certainly make women more aware of their gender. and I’m sure you can come up with a plethora of others (as usual I’d be delighted ,if you left your views in the comments box). For now, I’ll touch upon three possibilities: one of a personal-biological nature, one which is more cultural, and one concerning the historical structure of society. (None of them are that convincing, but hopefully food for thought.)
The personal-biological reason is simply that women might be more aware of their bodies. Puberty occurs at an earlier age for girls than for boys, and is arguably more extreme. I’m talking periods, pads and tampons, the (sometimes debilitating) cramps, the various fluids that appear in underpants. And all this is to say nothing of the incomprehensible realisation that, yes, you can grow another human inside you. The occasional embarrassing erection or wet dream doesn’t come close to this level of bodily disruption (though the squeaking while your voice breaks can be dreadfully embarrassing).
Moreover, for a twelve-year-old child to grow such conspicuous signifiers of sexual maturity as breasts and hips, is inevitably for their relationship with friends and strangers to change, sometimes in upsetting ways. This brings me to the next point: the predatory nature of some men in their interactions with women (or other men). It could be a single incident or a trait of character; and it could be anything from a lascivious glance on the street, to serious sexual violence like rape.
How does this influence one’s consciousness of their gender? During an act of sexual violence, both attacker and victim will be powerfully aware of their gender at some level. But trauma, and the fear of potential trauma, gouges deeper into the psyche than mere lust (whether lust for sex or lust for power). So while the attacker is likely aware of the attack while it is happening, the victim – indeed, the whole class of potential victims – will be aware of the (potential) attack at all times.
Visibility as a Prerequisite for Knowledge
I shall now address the final, societal factor. Consider historical gender roles, where women inhabit the “domestic” sphere, and men the “professional”. By its very nature, the domestic sphere is private and relatively invisible to outsiders, whereas the professional sphere is public, worldly and visible – for instance, one might read about it in the newspaper.
An immediate consequence of the historical gender roles is that, (1) men are aware of their own sphere but have little knowledge of what women do and how they operate; and (2) women are aware of their own sphere (because they inhabit it) and furthermore they do understand something of what the life of a man entails.
So in broad terms, whereas a woman knows she is not a man because she sees what men do, a man does not know he is a man because he is never exposed to an alternative. Thus, women will have a greater awareness of their own gender than men. And if we accept that even those women and men who in modern times have transcended their historical roles are nevertheless influenced by persisting cultural imprints, we conclude that my central hypothesis should still hold today.
Crowding in a Sphere
When the thoughts expressed in the last section are seen in the context of developments over the last decades, they lead us to some interesting conclusions about the future of cultural perceptions and social policy. The various movements for women’s rights and representation have been enormously successful in liberating them from their traditional roles (at least in some parts of the world). These gains, though hard-won and incomplete, have made it possible (and moreover commendable) for women to enter the professional world.
Has the same transformation of expectations happened to men? Have men received sustained encouragement to enter the domestic / caregiving sphere? Undeniably yes – just consider the social democracies of Scandinavia. But few would contest that these efforts have been small compared to the programme for women. It is no accident that we see professional roles as better, as more useful, and as conferring more social capital than domestic roles; and as such the dialogue of women’s liberation has focussed on the promotion of women out of their domestic drudgery, into positions of power and influence formerly restricted to men.
The vilification of domesticity has turned out to be a double-edged sword because it makes the path to betterment a one-way street. While women “ascend” to the professional sphere, men have no alternative but cling on to the status quo. From their perspective, their sole historical role of earning/providing is under attack by women who have the freedom of two options. (By the way, the title of this post, “Skirts and Trousers”, alludes to the fact that women routinely wear both, whereas for a man to wear a skirt is an exceptional circumstance.) And it is no stretch to imagine that this increasing pressure at the “top” will result in a culture of resentment and competition in which men start with the upper hand. Inevitably this contributes to the toxic mess of misogyny which is all too common in the professional world and society at large.
So my claim is that the hauteur of the professional breadwinning class has for too long gone unchallenged. Indeed, it has been aggrandised further by exploding demand. Perhaps we are reaching a stage where this attitude outlived its usefulness, and we must now work, as a culture and as a society, on elevating the status of domestic work and caregiving so that both men and women can pursue either without stigma.
Trends in Unpaid Labour
Encouragingly, economists have in recent years begun paying more attention to the value of unpaid domestic work (the majority of which is still done by women, “even” in Western industrialised democracies). For example, a recent report from the UK government’s Office of National Statistics found that, even if we ignore the shadow economy, upaid labour contributes £1 trillion ($1.4 trillion) to the UK economy annually (childcare by grandparents and other relatives accounts for over £300 billion). That’s half the country’s GDP; and the figure is rising.
Though I hesitate to advocate measuring the value of an occupation, service, or resource in purely monetary or fiscal terms, in this case it is heartening to see that an invisible workforce, unpaid, taken for granted, and utterly indispensable for the functioning of the traditional economy, is finally being recognised; and that its importance is being translated into the language of the political and economic mainstream. Given that spending time with one’s children and elderly relatives, doing home DIY projects, promoting community cohesion and environmental stewardship and the like, are actually among the most societally beneficial occupations; and given that they deliver a great deal of personal pleasure if financial pressures are removed, it seems like madness that they are stigmatised.
And to return to the original discussion, this is absolutely a gender issue: as I already mentioned, the majority of unpaid work is still done by women, who are therefore likely to be financially dependent on their (male) partners. The partners in turn experience the miserable pressures of being the principal breadwinners, and, crushed ever more into the drudgery of work, are barred from participating in the real pleasures of family. A fairer and truer valuation of unpaid labour may shift these imbalances of responsibility, freeing both men and women to participate in domestic and professional roles.
To summarise: I had an idea that women are more conscious of their gender than men are, and I asked my friends a bunch of questions to explore the issue further. I posited a few reasons (among many!) why this might be so, and ended up advocating a true appreciation of domestic roles as not only the crucial next step in the struggle for equality between women and men, but also as a way to improve the quality of life for everyone, allowing them to do what is socially important and personally enjoyable.
Of course, the problem with any solution to social inequality is its sheer inadequacy. Attitudes toward, and inequalities of gender are multifaceted, they existing on personal, cultural and societal levels. Each such level demands its own plethora of interconnected interventions. The best we can do as individuals is to try to identify the root problems, and trace the consequences of putative solutions. And most importantly, keep these kinds of discussions alive.