Post No.: 0671
We mightn’t question them because they’re so ingrained in our everyday usage but words or expressions are often gendered and sexist – like men are called ‘dominant’ while women are called ‘bossy’, men are told to ‘act like a man’, women are ‘feisty’, there’s ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘ladylike’, men are ‘masters’ when women are ‘mistresses’… and all that these are supposed to connote.
Until relatively recently, ‘man’ was used to represent all sexes in legal texts. Terms like ‘fireman’ were used instead of ‘firefighter’. Gendered language and sexist heteronormative expectations in job advertisements can discourage certain people from applying for them. We generally expect men to be masculine (e.g. to not be househusbands) and women to be feminine (e.g. to not be boxers) and to fulfil these expected roles in the home, workplace and society. There are gendered spaces like ‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen’ and construction sites are for men.
There are traditional sexist divisions of labour at home and who should take charge of the finances and make the important domestic decisions. A man who isn’t the main family breadwinner is emasculated. There may be biological differences between men and women, yet that doesn’t mean they must fulfil gendered roles beyond who can gestate, give birth to and breastfeed a child. (Please read Post No.: 0661 too.) The rest is influenced by culture and thus can change over time (e.g. more women becoming the main breadwinner nowadays).
Traditional marriage in most cultures highlights a sexist patriarchal society (e.g. the wife takes the husband’s surname, the father gives the daughter away). A woman who doesn’t marry is considered defective.
Less so nowadays but women in movies, commercials and other media are more likely to be depicted as less-intelligent sexualised objects, who are typically in lower-status roles while they serve their male bosses or look for husbands. And any strong women who break this mould are depicted as cold ‘ice maidens’ or ‘she-devils’. Increasingly more movies pass the ‘Bechdel test’ (where at least two named women talk to each other about something besides a man) but the princess cliché is someone who’s demure, innocent and needs to be rescued by a prince, who must be fearless and strong. There’s usually a tired (white) male saviour trope.
Women are judged more by their appearances than men (e.g. obese women get more flak than obese men). We don’t ask male tennis players to give us a twirl and show off their outfits! Women must dress physically attractively, yet not too much otherwise they’ll be considered sluts. Women are called ‘whores’ if they’re promiscuous yet ‘frigid’ if not, whilst promiscuous men are called ‘legends’! Older women can’t be wrinkly or ‘silver foxes’ like men can. Shaving products for men are depicted with hairy before and shaved after images, whilst shaving products for women are depicted as if women have nothing to shave in the first place(!)
The media transmits influential messages about socially-accepted or even ideal behaviours, and (often unrealistic) ways to appear. The media somehow has to portray reality yet not perpetuate the sexist attitudes that need to be challenged. The way people are treated in the media informs how we should treat others too (e.g. how people, including women, have copied calling certain types of women the pejorative term ‘Karen’.) The media shapes who ought to be praised, ridiculed, considered attractive or ugly.
So gender inequality isn’t just a problem of religion, legislation, policies or who’s in government or parliament but is perpetuated by nearly everybody in everyday ways we mightn’t suspect. Our attitudes toward sexist stereotypes need to shift. Lots of us think a change of law is all we need and a problem is then solved – but we need to all do our bit too. (This is true with many things including tackling climate change.)
Although legislation is a contributing factor for achieving furry gender equality – the behaviours, mindsets and socialisation that occur on a daily basis need to also shift. Everyone must be educated to recognise why equality is important and to agree that particular changes are necessary. Attitudes inform practices. When we start treating and speaking of all genders in equal terms in everyday conversations – this’ll be the most significant driver for change. Woof!
Diverse representation in positions of influence, like in politics and senior roles in business or filmmaking, is still crucial though for they don’t only immediately benefit the incumbents but play a key role in directing the lives of others through their policy-making and decision-making. They also act as role models. All genders should be represented in diverse and meaningful roles on screen, inclusive of all ages and regardless of narrow perceptions of beauty.
Government policies can influence our perception of gendered roles, like shared parental leave compared to only allowing maternity leave. However, the take-up of paternity leave is currently low in the UK, partly because men are usually paid more than women even if both parents are in work, and it makes more sense for the lower-earner to take extended time off work; which further impacts upon the progression and future earning potential of women. This is only one example of how interconnected, multi-layered and compounding many inequality issues are, and how we cannot truly tackle one issue without firstly or concurrently tackling another because there are systemic or structural obstacles. In this case, if we want to encourage more equality at home and in positions of power – we’ll need to tackle the gender pay gap too.
‘Gender mainstreaming’ concerns making policy decisions that consider their impact on all genders, and recognising that they may be each affected differently. Governing bodies should reflect the composition of the society and its interests it represents – so if ~50% of the population/employees/customers is/are female then ~50% of parliamentary/board members should be female. Men sometimes do consider the perspectives and needs of women, but women logically do this better.
Sometimes when we see something as being someone’s choice and they choose it – like fewer girls choosing engineering over humanities subjects and careers – it might be because of their socialisation and the expectations placed on them by the present culture? It’s like lots of women choose to shave their fuzzy armpits without complaint whilst most men don’t bother – is this really a free choice made by women or a pressured ‘choice’ essentially inculcated by social expectations whereby they’ll get ostracised through ‘othering’ if they don’t conform to these norms?
Indeed, what choice exists that isn’t either influenced by how we’ve been particularly raised, by the present immediate culture, by our present individual circumstances and/or by our biology? We might argue that leaving everyone to do whatever their raw genetic instincts tell them to do is the most natural, free and unfettered thing. Yet children must be raised and deliberately taught things otherwise it’d be considered neglectful, and they cannot be shielded from all external culture otherwise that’d be considered cruel and abusive.
This question is present regarding the ‘choice’ made by some female Muslims to willingly wear certain headwear. But this question really applies to anything that anyone ever culturally ‘chooses’.
And it’s contentious because, say, if a parent is carefree about teaching social norms and allows their son to dress ‘as a girl’ or do ‘girly activities’ as he wants to, and then he enters the outside world and gets severely bullied for it – is this a case of good or bad parenting?
Our present circumstances also shape our choices. It’s like arguing that it’s a teenager’s un-coerced choice to join a local gang for living in a rough neighbourhood, or to commit petty crime because their family is poor.
If a woman senses she won’t be promoted in a company, she’ll likely make ‘choices’ like leave that career to try something else, which makes it appear as if women simply aren’t as ambitious as men. It’s been coined the ‘freedom fallacy’. Choices are always made in the context of the existing structures of power, including sexist norms and things like the availability of affordable childcare services, and the embedded sexist assumptions and expectations about childcare being ‘women’s work’. It’s therefore impossible to truly understand ‘choice’ outside of the context (e.g. the historical and existing structures of power) in which a person who’s making a ‘choice’ has formed their understandings.
Yet simultaneously, if a woman wants to be a housewife, wear pink and be chatty and ‘girly’ and is genuinely happy about all that – she shouldn’t be pressured to be independent or a feminist, lest she be shamed for ‘letting her gender down in this fight for equality’. There may be biological reasons why women tend to be more caring and less aggressive than men, for instance. What’s free-market-driven too? For instance, women, as well as men, need to watch more women’s sports to support them, if they want women’s sports to be as lucrative as men’s sports. Yet we can’t force women to watch more women’s sports.
This means that efforts to change perceptions about assumed roles and career paths shouldn’t be viewed as impositions but as the opening up of opportunities. All roles and paths (e.g. carer, entrepreneur), whether women or men predominantly undertake them, need to be equally valued in society too. One of the challenges is identifying the extent to which gendered behaviours are down to biologically-driven choice, to social stigma, barriers or discrimination, or to self-stigma (stigmatising oneself if one doesn’t conform to perceived gender expectations borne from how one was raised or socialised)?
Achieving gender equality at home is intriguing because home is a comparatively private sphere to the workplace, and families have a right to private family life. Thus there are fewer codified legal protections for equality in this domain and it’s largely down to private individuals to govern.
Gendered roles and stereotypes play a significant role in shaping expectations and attitudes, and these need to be tackled from a young age. It’s believed that children begin to form an awareness of gender from as early as 18 months old, and this becomes fairly set by about age 6 or 7. It’s therefore vital for children to be exposed to family dynamics that express gender equality and challenge sexist stereotypes and norms, including by not gendering domestic and working roles, showing the value of unpaid as well as paid work, and sharing the unpaid domestic work – men aren’t ‘helping’ women in the house but simply doing their share of the work.
This needs to also be supported by public opinions about how good mothers can be good workers too, men shouldn’t be emasculated if they take the more child-caring role at home, and organisational practices should support family-friendly working patterns. So the ‘toxic masculinity’ that men face needs to be extinguished in order to help women too. Having to conform to a masculine ideal of being ‘dominant’, ‘tough’ and ‘owners’ is also linked with bullying and domestic violence against women. (Men can be victims of domestic abuse too, although far less so than women.) It won’t be possible to change expectations regarding what constitutes ‘womanhood’ without also challenging what apparently constitutes ‘manhood’. (Even the slang definition for ‘manhood’ suggests that adult men are reduced to their penises, hence men are objectified too.)
We need to recognise that there are multiple masculinities, femininities and everything inbetween, and that there are overlapping or shared attributes. It also shows that what happens at home is inextricably intertwined with what happens at work and in society more widely, hence the causes of and solutions to gender inequality require a complex, multifaceted understanding. Change in one area – home, work, society – won’t lead to sustained change unless complemented by change in other areas since they’re overlapping and mutually-reinforcing.
Woof! Overall, we, of all genders, and the media, need to change our attitudes towards expected normative behaviours if we want to address sexist beliefs and conducts.