Overestimating Gender

Have you ever considered pink high heels as something very masculine? Do lightly dressed women strike you as typical political leaders of the Middle East? For the first, you don’t have to go that far: in 19th century England pink was considered a masculine colour while girls wore blue, and the first high heels were actually designed for men in 17th century France. For the latter, take a look at the reign of female pharaohs, such as Hatshepsut, who was successful in warfare and massively expanded Egypt’s trade relations.

These facts serve as proof of something very obvious: gender is a social construct. Looking at world history, we see a variety of matriarchies, patriarchates and egalitarian societies. Most of all, we see different interpretations and performances of gender. Until a couple of days ago, I felt very free in this performance. I believed that in the 21st century, at least in our culture, people had realized that it is completely insane to link personal traits and talents to whatever lively form of whatever you hide between your legs.

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Then something dramatic happened. I had a pint. This was not particularly dramatic in itself, but I had this pint with a group of fellow students, all ‘progressive and liberal’. “If you want to do best for society, stay home and get some children,” one of them told me. All he knew about me was that I’ve been very good at my studies. Others were less radical but still completely convinced that all 7 billion people in this world could be put into just two boxes: male and female, who differ completely in distinct identities, talents and ways of thinking.

A wrong assumption here would be: only women are affected negatively by this binary view. Yes, female stereotypes can still be harmful career-wise and this has got to definitely change. But the stereotypes here are something larger a wrong-doing to all female and male individuals, their personalities and talents. And these stereotypes are employed by both, men and women. A friend, a male teacher to be, faces this: on the one hand he is accused of “unmanly” clothing and on the other hand told by professors and students in class. “Of course you can’t understand these topics. You’re not as sensitive as a woman”. A group of aspiring elementary school teachers had a similar experience when they were told by their female math lecturer: “As women you don’t have to understand these calculations.”

Ironically, research shows that there are actually more differences among men and among women than between these two groups when it comes to talents, feelings and traits. Tests of various age groups and countries show that when it comes to intelligence, math skills and memory, it’s education that matters, not gender. The same applies to brain structures: they don’t possess a constant structure, but are rather massively shaped by a person’s experience and learning (what we learn and experience is of course also influenced by our beliefs, such as our stereotypes). So there’s no constant “male” or “female” brain but many different brain structures. Why then do we still cling to clearly wrong gender stereotypes?

It’s mainly because we confuse social identity with biological sex. We believe that a difference in body and sex must result in a difference of behaviour and thinking, when actually with this belief we only create the difference. Based on this mistake we prescribe certain gender norms and call them “natural”. Early on children learn about “masculine” and “feminine” roles in society and are encouraged or discouraged to develop certain talents and interests.  The role only keeps its state of “naturalness” as we try to confirm what we think others expect from our performance and are confirmed again by their performances. Gender roles are, however, extremely fluent and just a glimpse at history shows us how ridiculous a belief in their “naturalness” is.

When it comes to equal treatment, certain laws and regulations are absolutely necessary, but besides that, it’s our perception that is most essential. It determines the words we say and the actions we take, which influence other people’s perceptions themselves. This happens already in everyday conversation how do we react to other people’s performances, do we prescribe certain norms? It happens in the way we make decisions – do we still give gender any importance when hiring or promoting someone or when deciding who is more fitting for caring for children and household?

Luckily today, we as actors and actresses have an immense power in creating our own social roles and no one is burnt at the stake anymore for doing so. This doesn’t mean that a stereotypical gender role is necessarily bad in itself. It just means that it’s no more natural than any other role and can neither be prescribed nor expected. It means that this discussion isn’t about opinions science and history have already proven that genitalia can’t be linked to talents and traits. It means that in order to reach equal treatment, we need to rank individuality before gender. And most importantly, it means that we have a responsibility as a well as right to this: if we ourselves want to be treated as the person we are with the abilities we have, we need to stop defining others based on gender and other stereotypes as well.

“I won’t compliment you for treating men and women alike as it shouldn’t be the exception it should be the normal thing”, my boyfriend once told me. Until it is normality, however, we might want to remind ourselves that it’s the most liberating thing to have the freedom to be the kind of individual you want to be and to develop yourself, in whatever way it might be. And we shouldn’t let anyone take this freedom away from us.

Words by Isabella Freilinger