The Problem with “Gender Roles”

Here is an excerpt from a comment recently posted by a reader going by the name JW. Since he asks his question honestly and politely, I thought I’d respond with a post in kind.

“In the articles I have read of various feminists I always tend to read some kind of grudge within. It is as if the world is terrible because it seems to ‘demean’ women and deprive with of inequality. Yet, yes, there is inequality in this world and it is the right thing to do to fight for them but with feminism this delves into such areas as roles in ‘family’ units. For me, I understand that there should be roles within the family unit because there is a nature state there. Women, usually, naturally gravitate to child rearing and even things around the home whereas the male usually gravitates toward construction projects around the home. Just as I did today in installing a wooden fence to replace the junkyard of one that just somehow hung there even through hurricanes.

In my readings I get the feeling that feminists see this as inequality when I see it as a nature role of gender in society. Men and women are different inside and that differences usually becomes a kind of synergy when male and female come together in marriage.”

If I read his comment correctly, JW suggests that there are natural gender roles, and that feminists just need to accept this rather than fighting it. In response I would make four points.


First, JW and others who refer to the idea that there are natural gender roles often operate under the assumption that these different roles are somehow equal. Men and women should play different roles, they hold, but both roles are important and necessary and therefore somehow equal. The problem with this is that it simply isn’t true.

JW suggests that women “gravitate to child rearing” and “things around the home” while men gravitate toward “construction projects.” While JW didn’t go further than this, this kind of thinking generally leads to the idea that women should remain at home and raise children, because that is what they are especially suited for, while men should enter the workforce and earn money, because that is what they are especially suited for. This of course leads to a situation where women do the cooking, cleaning, and sewing while men rule the world. Suddenly this sounds a whole lot less equal, doesn’t it?

Second, a significant number of people do not fit within these supposedly “natural” gender roles. I know plenty of women who feel more comfortable under the hood of a car than they holding a baby. The comments that followed JW’s comment make this point clear. There are many families where the man prefers cooking and the woman prefers yard work. There are families where the mother would rather work and the father would rather stay at home with the new baby. The reality is that people are incredibly diverse. For every “naturally” nurturing woman, there is a woman who finds the idea of having children foreign and frightening. For every man who loves to fix things, there is a man who would prefer to take his car to the shop or call a plumber. I know so many people who absolutely do not fit within these “natural” gender roles that it begins to make the idea of natural gender roles seem absurd, or at the very least way too simplistic and highly problematic.

The reality is that this idea that there are “natural” gender roles pushes people into specific boxes whether they want to be there or not. I have female friends who aspire to be historians, judges, and scientists. Should they be told that they aren’t suited for these positions because they are female, and that the should instead start having babies and stay at home, because that is what they’re suited for? The idea that there are natural gender roles creates a situation that is extremely limiting for anyone who doesn’t fit, and this is a large part of why most feminists see the idea of “gender roles” as a problem.

Third, JW suggests that these gender roles are “natural.” I actually see no evidence for this at all. I have studied history, and I know that gender roles differ across regions and across time period. For example, some Native American societies were ruled by women, not men. In addition, the idea that women should inhabit the private sphere of the home while the man should inhabit the public sphere of the workforce, for instance, was literally invented in America – and in Europe as well – in the early 1800s. In the colonial period, women were just as engaged in the marketplace as were men and men assumed the primary responsibility for the religious and moral upbringing of their children. The gender roles so many people consider “natural” today are in fact socially constructed. Simply put, there are no “natural” gender roles.

Take, for example, the long-held idea that boys are simply better than boys at science and math. As a corollary, it is sometimes said that women are better at the humanities or are more nurturing, almost as an attempt to make things somehow equal. So we get the idea that boys should be engineers and scientists while women should be elementary education teachers and nurses. The problem with this is that it’s flat out wrong. Study after study has shown that girls are just as good at math as boys are, if, that is, you stop telling them they’re bad at it. In other words, girls are not worse than boys at science and math. Why, then, have they traditionally scored worse than boys at science and math in the U.S.? Because girls have long been socialized into thinking they’re not good at math. If you’re told something long enough, and you see it reinforced by teachers (who are more likely to call on boys than girls) or popular culture (see, for example, these shirts), you start to believe it.

Here’s another example. I know nothing about cars. I couldn’t fix one if my life depended on it. I seem to play into the “girls aren’t good at mechanical things” stereotype, right? This misses the question of why I’m not good at cars. As a child and a teen, I saw mechanics, cars, and construction projects as boy things, so I never tried to learn anything about them. In fact, because those were boy things and I was a girl, I actively avoided learning about those things. I am not ignorant of cars because I have two X chromosomes. I’m ignorant of cars because I bought into cultural stereotypes about what women can and can’t do.

One more point. Girls are supposedly more nurturing and cooperative while boys are more individualistic and exhibit more leadership qualities. The problem with taking this as an assumption is not just the exceptions to this (see point 2) but also the fact that girls are actively socialized to be nurturing and cooperative from birth while boys are actively socialized to be individualistic and leaders. Girls are given dolls and tea sets. Boys are given sling shots and books about explorers. What if you did the opposite? If we stopped socializing children into distinct gender roles, I’m convinced that gender roles would disappear. Gender roles, you see, are not natural. They’re socially constructed.

Fourth and finally, I would point out that feminists believe in eliminating gender roles completely rather than simply in pushing people into different boxes. In other words, feminists want a society in which people are allowed to be individuals with their own strengths and talents rather than being pushed toward any prescribed role. If a wife prefers to cook and a husband prefers to fix things around the house or do yard work, that’s fine. But what about the husband who prefers cooking and child rearing and the wife with the fulfilling high-level career? Those who believe in specific gender roles would see this couple as an abnormal, or even as problemic. It’s not feminists who try to tell people what to do: feminists are about people having options and not being limited or forced to be something they’re not. It’s those who believe in natural gender roles who try to tell people what to do, what roles they should or should not play. Feminists are for opening things up and allowing choice. They’re for eliminating the boxes, not for creating new ones.

And that, quite simply, is why feminists general have a problem with the idea of “natural: gender roles.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Anonymous

    Well said!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09075997712868423479 Shianne

    Love it!!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01412447819828301892 Dream

    "Take, for example, the long-held idea that boys are simply better than boys at science and math."Shouldn't that be "boys are simply better than girls"? In the sentence that is.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15172112981244682382 shadowspring

    I am taking College Physics, for the first time, at the tender age of 49. I am a woman. I earned a 96 on the comprehensive final. When I was in high school, I never even considered studying any kind of science, even though aptitude tests showed it was my strongest area. I didn't consider a career in science because no girls were encouraged to consider a career in science in the 70s when I was in high school. When i thought of college, I thought of history or literature. Why? Because that's what girls do.I am finding that I love science, and I wish I had been encouraged to enter the field back then. Oh, I also love being a mom and my husband loves being a dad. He has a career in IT. Whoever came up with the lame idea that science/math/logic and nurturing children are polar opposites is just seeing what they want to see. It is not true.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    Hear hear!I'm stronger than my boyfriend and better at organising and fixing staff manually like a broken utility in the house but he is better than me ata lot of stuff like the contability or the electronical stuff (he is a Telecomunications engineer :P). We fit the sterotypes in some aspects (I don't distinguish a car from another despite my big collection of mini cars as a kid :P), we don't in others but we are very happy how we are and if someone tried to try to put my tomboy's ass on a fixed box, they'd be sorry /jk :P@JW: There is nothing wrong about you asking and don't think we are trying to make you feel bad by this posts. We are just trying to answer your question :)

  • Anonymous

    I am 54 and a PhD candidate in the physical sciences at a top tier university. I attended my first American Geophysical Union (AGU)annual meeting this December. This conference is the largest scientific conference in the world. 22,000 scientists from around the world converged in San Francisco to present their research through oral presentations and posters.I was hoping to meet other women scientists my age. Many women are now attending graduate school and there seemed to be equal numbers of younger men and women attending, but women over 40 were very conspicuous by their absence. When I was a high school and college student in the 70s, women were discouraged from becoming scientists. One of the few older women was the AGU Deputy Director, who expressed hope that this situation would change as female graduate students became career scientists. However, this remains to be seen because the tenure system at most universities does not make raising a family easy.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    It always makes me laugh when people assume that literature and the humanities are the natural province of women. That's certainly now how it was a couple short centuries ago! Back then (and for a while, actually), education pretty much WAS humanities education. There was some natural science but almost no math. Math beyond arithmetic was considered something more specialized. You needed to learn it if you were going to be, say, a naval officer, and needed to learn navigation. But it was not part of a standard "gentleman's education." That was literature, philosophy, classical languages etc. Public intellectual life until very recently was almost completely humanities-driven.And of course, women were excluded from that sphere. They fought to be able to be published as writers, which they couldn't do until the very end of the 18th century. They fought for the right to be educated in the same things as men, instead of just "ladies' accomplishments" like drawing and dancing. They fought to be accepted to universities and to have their own universities that were just as good as men's, challenging the notion that if women read to much and were too educated, it would ruin their dispositions and redirect blood from their reproductive organs to their brains (not a joke.)And finally, they pretty much won, just in time for the sciences to take a larger role in public life. And the reaction? "Well of course women can do those things. Humanities come naturally to women."Ha! Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Jane Addams would have loved to hear that!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12117442983915295489 Jesse (Great Grandmother’s Kitchen)

    Wow do you have any idea how encouraging it is to read the comments from the other women on here?I'm 26, a college drop-out due to very serious issues with the birth of my oldest. I was also pressured to go into arts and literature, and am finding that now, with a better grasp of the world and myself under my belt, I want to get a degree in Mortuary Science! Something I never would have even considered before I grew up enough to realize that my family's comments about how I couldn't seem to "get" math and science as a teen and the 32 I got on the ACT tell two completely different stories! Even in college, I didn't try hard in math and science because I went in sure that I would do badly, even when I loved it (hello self-fulfilling prophecy!).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09522466658520053772 ViolinJuggler

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09522466658520053772 ViolinJuggler

    Sorry-bit of a grammar nazi. I noticed a few errors. Here's the edited version:I agree (and very much so) that "gender roles" as you define them are purely a social construct but I think that they appeared for a reason. I know that women and men are all incredibly diverse (I'm a guy who'd much rather sit and paint or write music than fix a car or go hunting) but I think that the basis for these gender roles (not the roles themselves) come from the very physical attributes that differentiate men and women. Now I have no doubt that there are many women who are more physically fit and stronger than I am, but the fact remains that the female body *most often* possesses less upper body strength than the male. As I said before, I am not the stereotypical guy who enjoys physical labor, working out, and the like, but I have found that I have significantly more upper body strength than many of my female friends who are dedicated athletes and spend hours a day exercising and building muscle. The male body is simply faster at building muscle. Likewise, women are *generally* more apt at reading people and interacting socially, and (I think nearly everyone should agree this is true) more social creatures than men. This, it seems to me may be the reason that women were picked to be the "Stay-at-home moms" and why they are stereotyped into "People person" jobs, because *many more* women can read people better than men. In regards to socializing, a guy may like a good party but it is not *necessity* for a man to constantly socialize. For example, I recently saw an old friend of mine for the first time in seven years and we merely greeted each other with a handshake, said a few polite words and went on our way. Yes, men can have long, engrossing conversations, but *in my experience* we are much less inclined to small talk and gossip (although most definitely not exempt from the latter). Lastly, the way men and women think is *generally* incredibly different. Men tend to have a more logical (as in formal logic, I'm not making a slight at the intelligence of women) style of "If…Then…" argument that can be defeated only if the standing premise is proven invalid. Women however, *tend* to build their arguments upon a pyramid of lesser premises that can be brought up at will, rendering a much more fluid and non-linear, style of argument. Both are equally useful and lucid methods of thought, but some are more useful in one area and vice-versa. Regarding the native american cultures you spoke of in this post, you are correct that many indian tribes were matriarchal societies, but there was a reason for that. These cultures were also matrilineal. Because of their polygamous society, one's lineage and clan could not possibly be traced by his father (which, more often than not was unknown) and so, one was sorted into clans by his matrilineal heritage. Yes, in these societies the women held great positions of power, but they still filled many gender roles (out of necessity) that women fill today. Though these societies were much more flexible in this area, women were still household-bound and you would never see a woman hunting. A man (at least one who had a wife) sewing his own clothes, would be a rare sight. One possible reson for this, in my opinion is that women are *most often* better at multitasking than men.I agree wholeheartedly that gender roles should not define us and that more often than not, they tend to try and force people into a mold, rather than let them define their own personality, but I think that they were useful, at one time. In the incredibly structured and rules based Victorian culture, it kept the social ladder intact. In today's society, however, when many professions that have long been male-dominated are finally able to benefit from female employees, gender roles really have no purpose besides, as you said, to put people in boxes and demonize individuality.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    *headdesk*Oh ViolinJuggler, where do I begin?How about this: You are conflating physiology and psychology which you really shouldn't do. Yes, it is a fact that men, in general, have more upper body strength and that a higher percentage of their bodies are muscles mass than women. This is knowable and not a matter of socialization, although the way the respective physical capacities of men and women are used are.All your other assertions are baseless speculations based on anecdata. Did you read anything that Libby (and others) wrote about socialization? OF COURSE there are observable differences between the way men and women behave and interact. That's what socialization is! Your style of interacting with your male buddies=/= some kind of conclusive evidence that men have an innate tendency to act this way. All it means is that they DO act this way. And no feminist argues this. What we try to figure out is WHY people act this way. Could it perhaps be because men who show too much affection for other men, or who cultivate emotional intimacy with other men often have their masculinity, or even their heterosexuality questioned? Could women often be more adept at "reading people" because the realm of emotion is NOT considered taboo for them? Or even that perhaps, such perceptiveness is a necessary adaptation in a world where they are routinely afforded less power? As my antebellum historian mother says, "The slave always understands the master better than the master understands the slave." This applies to a lot of relationships where there is a power differential. You are offering observations of general trends in society as evidence of why they exist. This is completely circular, nonsensical reasoning.Why is ironic in light of your views on how men and women think and argue. If the "if-then" style of argument (otherwise known as "the correct way to argue") is the province of men, then, I have to say, you are certainly an exception to the rule. And I am quite tickled to discover that I am apparently also an exception to the rule. I'm sure my female former philosophy professors, my academic mother, my 2 lawyer aunts and the multitudes of women that work in disciplines that require the use of formal logic, which is law, and all of academia, among other things, will be too.My experience from formally studying philosophy, where arguing is your job? Men tend to argue louder and more confidently, which can have the effect of giving the veneer of impressiveness to an argument that is actually so full of gaping holes as to be incoherent. Women, on the other hand, tend to second-guess their thinking more (gee, I wonder why?), which has the effect of undermining the actual soundness of their arguments in others' eyes.I'm sorry to bite your head off, but surely you see that your argument is the same old justifications for gender inequality, repackaged in Sensitive Guy terms."A pyramid of lesser premises" indeed!

  • jose

    First, most aspects of roles are completely made up and arbitrary. For example, blue for boys and pink for girls. Why? Just because.Second, averages and other central measures are completely made up, too. The only thing that is truly real is individual variation. Individuals are real. Central measures are generalizations by definition and that's why it's absurd to apply it to individuals. Saying "on average women tend to gravitate to whatever" doesn't say anything about any individual woman. If someone does that, s/he's either ignorant or ill intentioned.There is no "acting like a man" or "acting like a woman". At most, there is only "acting like this man" or "this woman".I couldn't agree more on your fourth point. I also want a society where individuals are not only not punished but actually encouraged to be individuals.

  • Anonymous

    Violin juggler. Don't argue with these people. Nothing you say will change their already made up minds. I believe there ate fundamental differences between men and women but they are vaguer than some might make out. VeryWell written. Too bad some don't want to be confused with reality T

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03105080714287793242 saraquill

    Violin said- "Men tend to have a more logical…style of "If…Then…" argument that can be defeated only if the standing premise is proven invalid. Women however, *tend* to build their arguments upon a pyramid of lesser premises that can be brought up at will, rendering a much more fluid and non-linear, style of argument." From this statement, it rather seems as though you have not interacted with a great many people. I could take you to my school, where you would be disproven in a heartbeat.Violin said- "Regarding the native american cultures you spoke of in this post….Though these societies were much more flexible in this area, women were still household-bound and you would never see a woman hunting."This is so very untrue. I can't speak for all the tribes, but for the Iroquois, women were out and about as much as men. Females were the ones in charge of agriculture, which they did not do indoors. Farming also requires a lot of heavy labor and logical thinking in order to do a good job.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03579073876698902653 Me

    I feel like the two camps here in the comments section are arguing two totally different things. One camp seems to be arguing that there are differences between the genders… But those that are arguing the feminist perspective seem to also acknowledge that and simply question the reason the differences are present. How can we focus this conversation so that we are at least having the same argument? Because it seems that one group of people is arguing something that has already been established.As for the two-sense I can include, from a Sociological perspective most of the differences would be nurture rather than nature. It can be argued that there are natural biological differences, but that the ones that people shuffle into that category are overwhelmingly NOT nature. In fact, a meta-analysis I use to teach my students about gender stratification states that almost 80% of the things that people in American society label as natural, biologically based differences between men and women are actually nurture-based instead (If anyone is interested I can find the citation. I honestly didn't feel like finding the book right this minute but will if asked.). In other words, four-fifths of the things that traditionalists point to and say, "see? We have different roles because we are different" is actually the genders being trained differently and then having the behaviors mislabeled. In other words, thanks again for a post that is rigorous and accurate.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00352307000387725294 Lusy

    A part of me always suspects that people who already believe that men are more logical than women find their beliefs to be reinforced – not because men are necessarily more logical than women, but rather because their belief that women are less logical than men makes them automatically dismiss women's arguments as being less valid simply because the person saying it is an "illogical woman".

    • mecia577

      Yes.

  • smrnda

    Okay, I studied mathematics and logic and computer science, so I have some acquaintance with logic, and I can assure you I see no evidence that you can make a case for men or women being "more logical" because, in life, it's tough to define what "logical" behavior would consist in. To pick a stereotypical "male" behavior, is it logical for men to scream at TVs when their favorite sports team doesn't win? Which is more logical, for a woman to want to be a stay at home mom or to want to work and have a more equitable child-care and house-work arrangement? Because too much of what would be considered "normal" or "right" is based on people's subjective values and priorities, it's tough to decide what is 'logical' behavior in people. I mean, I'd have to say that a criminal is logical as long as they are doing well at avoiding detection, even if what they were doing was morally wrong. It's just that frequently, just as Lusy said, some men believe their priorities or values or that they themselves are just inherently more logical so if a woman disagrees, they must be illogical. Plus, the whole "if then" versus "a pyramid" – depending on what type of issue you're talking about, you might not be able to make case using a method modeled on a mathematical proof, and using what would be more persuasive would be more "logical" in my opinion. As a person who has studied mathematics and logic a lot, the techniques of mathematical proof don't really work so well for discussing real world issues, since real life isn't mathematics. Also, there is and has been a huge difference among different cultures over different times in terms of what behaviors would be considered appropriate for men or women. I just read that the Aka people – a group in Africa – have been said to contain the most generally nurturing fathers of any society, and that mothers and fathers both take a very hands-on role in child-rearing. In Western societies it used to be pretty okay for men to write each other mushy notes and poems and be physically affectionate. Also, the "gap" in terms of performance in math or science isn't always significant in every nation, and even when measured state-side, it's small and always declining. As far as women being better at "people skills" it could just be that women are socialized differently – women get the message that it's their job to read people, it's their job to make people (particularly men) feel good about themselves, and many men aren't exactly socialized the same way. Women get socialized not to be assertive much of the time (though gratefully less than in the past) and men are taught that it's okay for them to be assertive. On top of that, I know men who work with young children who are very sensitive and caring, and I know women that tell me that they honestly don't like children at all. I'm sure that in the past women who didn't like kids just had to have them and shut up (or be spinsters) much of the time, and men were just taught they shouldn't like dealing with babies. Also, for baby colors – boys used to get pink and girls got blue. Blue was for the Virgin Mary, and since women got blue, men got red, so boys got pink. Little boys and girls also used to be dressed in kind of a unisex gown – I read this biography of Wittgenstein, and there is this young Ludwig Wittgenstein as a boy, wearing what today would be definitely considered a dress.

  • Anonymous

    I also don't think the way that brains are divided into humanities/science is a valid way to define things. I studied painting in college, but discovered I enjoy computer programming later on. I like romantic comedies and space opera. In college, the top two students in my symbolic logic class were me and another woman. I don't know much about fixing a car (changing the oil or battery is as far as I've gotten, and a car battery is pretty difficult for me to handle- that darn upper-body strength), but I don't doubt my own ability to learn it if necessary. I don't have kids (though I've been married 14 years), and may never have them. I wouldn't mind either way.One of the issues with gender roles is that parents who deliberately try to not instill them are rarely successful. There are two major reasons for that: the first is that people are not always aware of how they are presenting themselves to their kids (sure you tell your kids that a woman doesn't have to be the one to make dinner every night, but what do they see you and your spouse doing?), and secondly society in general is working to reinforce those norms. My parents tried to be egalitarian, and were successful in many ways, but even today my father assumes that handling power tools is a man's job by default. See author Cordelia Fine for a very good explanation of this process.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Anonymous 2:07, I heart you for mentioning Cordelia Fine! @ Saraquill–thank you for dealing with this idiocy about women being "housebound" in Native American culture (because apparently, there's only one.) Many Native American cultures were hunter-gatherer cultures combined with agriculture. It would be pretty hard to farm and forage if you never left the house!

  • Meggie

    Thanks Libby Anne. Great blog after yesterdays discussion. Reading your blog makes me grateful for my, what I now realise, gender neutral upbringing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11439024525253785948 Grikmeer

    Just a little thought: My fiancée has a habit of seeing things in a completely binary way. If [this] then [that]. It makes it really hard to reason with her sometimes because I operate from a more 'grey-area' position, despite being biologically male. Just another anecdote against the 'conventional wisdom.'

  • Anonymous

    I am the daughter of a research chemist, Ph.D. who was far better with children than my mother. Daddy was a magnet for all the kids in the neighborhood. Dragging out the old wooden box he sat on while tending his beloved roses was the signal for any kid in the vacinity to come and have a talk.The math part is true to. I was told again and again by mother that women weren't good at math, so they were the only subjects I got less than an A in. When I took the Grad Records Aptitude Exam, much to my delight and surprise my math score was the average for grad students in engineering! Much to my delight, my 14 year old granddaughter is in the gifted-advanced placement program in math and science. Barbara

  • Jenna

    Violin Juggler -I personally seemed to have missed the memo on women having social aptitude. I have always really struggled with social situations no matter how much I have intentionally pushed myself. Social conventions for how men interact with one another are far from universal. For example, this week I was talking with a family member who just came back from living in Ethiopia for a year. Even in a very traditional, religious society where homosexuality is illegal and taboo, male friends hold hands and cuddle in public, while husbands and wives never show public affection.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10543171815602322808 AmieLou

    But here's the conundrum, I find that the people I know who are so adamant about there being no natural gender roles just spend their time trying to reverse the cultural ones to prove a point. Example: a strongly feminist friend raised in a patriarchal family who is so worried about "not embracing traditional gender roles" that she will not lift a single finger to prepare a meal when her husband is not at home. When she homeschooled her kids, she made him prepare their lunches the night before and made primary school aged children (both girls incidentally) heat and serve it because she is "non-traditional" and, therefore, does not cook. What the f*ck does that prove? Nothing. And, btw, I'm a feminist and I LOVE to cook. And I'm damn sick of being required to apologize for it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03579073876698902653 Me

    Amielou- I am a feminist who loves to cook too. Mostly because some of the ingredients on packaged foods terrify me. LOL! You are not alone. I didn't learn that until I was an adult though.Jenna- Likewise. I avoid socializing whenever possible. I'm awkward at it, unless my husband is with me helping the conversation along or I have established things in common with the people I am socializing with (classmates I saw 3-4 times per week when I was in school, etc.). And even then, I tend to not become dependent on those people for deep friendships.

  • jose

    "the people I know who are so adamant about there being no natural gender roles just spend their time trying to reverse the cultural ones to prove a point."Not to prove a point. To make life better.Sometimes people forget this is not about internet bickering out of boredom, but about actual people and problems that matter.*…skipping personal anecdote…*Nothing wrong with cooking. Are you asked to apologize for cooking very often? I guess that's the same obnoxious feminists who demand you to burn your bras, right? I don't think you are asked to do that at all. I think you say that to make feminism look bad, and I think you say you are a feminist so people won't accuse you of trying to make feminism look bad. That's not nice.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Well, you're definitely not asked to burn bras because nobody ever was. That never actually happened. It was a hyperbolic statement made by one journalist who covered the Miss America demonstration (where they had a trash can where some woman threw in a bra) and it went viral.Annielou–you need to find some better feminist friends if you are constantly being made to feel guilty for cooking. I love to cook and I never feel like anyone looks askance at it. I also like to bake, crochet, play with little kids, and I scream when I see a centipede. I've never felt like this makes me less of a feminist and I've never felt anyone I hang out with thinks that either.In the case of your friend, I think it's kind of understandable that she reacted so strongly against her upbringing, though. Maybe not fair, but understandable.

  • Jen

    I've been reading about this issue a lot, and I have to admit that I'm reluctantly coming to the conclusion that there are indeed biological and neurological differences between men and women. Generally, men prefer Things vs. People, and women are the opposite. The thing is, it seems like there's a continuum, though; there are certainly some women who are more logical and dominant, and there are certainly some men who are more verbal and sensitive. Not everyone fits into the neat little boxes of sexual dimorphism. Anyway, the best explanation I've seen for this thus far has to do with one's exposure to prenatal androgens. For example, women with a genetic condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia were exposed to very high amounts of prenatal androgens. Growing up, their behavior was often more male-typical (e.g., preference for rough play, lack of interest in dolls and other girly things, more interest in Things vs. People, etc.). Even heterosexual women can have more male-typical brains, and men and women can fall anywhere on the spectrum. I've also read that one way you can tell the amount of prental androgens you were exposed to is to measure the ring and index fingers on your right hand. If your ring finger is longer than your index finger, then that's said to be a good indication that your brain was influenced by prenatal androgens, oddly enough.Simon Baron-Cohen, who studies autism (which is theorized to be an extreme version of a "masculinized" brain) and gender differences/brain types, developed tests to see where you fall on the spectrum. This one is kind of fun and interesting:http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sex/add_user.shtmlBut yes, I do think that socialization plays a role to some extent, but at the same time, I think that socialization tendencies tend to be at least partially born out of the general differences between men and women.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Jen–as someone who's also done a lot of reading about autism and cognitive science, a lot of this sounds awfully reductionist and dubious.Even "credible" popular sources have a bad reputation for cherry-picking and misrepresenting scholarly data when they report on it. People really, really, really want to believe that gender differences are biologically based because, including journalists.The way you speak of nurture and nature as if it were a dichotomy (either it's socialization OR it all happens in utero, which is a very out-dated belief) makes me think that a lot of your sources are suspect.

  • smrnda

    Jen,there was an article on alternet.org that stated that some of Baron-Cohen's experiments and studies weren't really so reliable, and some of his experimental results not only couldn't be replicated by other people, they also couldn't be replicated by him. the article ishttp://www.alternet.org/story/42034/and it deals, more broadly, with the weakness of studies that point to sex-based brain differences. i've done a lot of work in the psychology field and typically, once and experiment or study is "interpreted" to the popular press the actual details of the experimental methodology are kind of erased and the conclusions are made to seem much stronger than they really are. I mean, you have people concluding things about sex based brain differences in people from experiments that have to do with mice or nonhuman primates, but in the popular press sometimes the fact that the experiments did not use people at all is left out. A good book on the topic written by a woman who is a neurobiologist is "Pink Brain Blue Brain" by Lise Eliot. The problem with the idea that socialization is just born out of innate differences in boys and girls is that socialization starts immediately as soon as a child is born, and those socializing a child already have been socialized themselves.For example, I do lots of volunteer work with children, and I really don't seem to see a hard division between types of play, but part of this might just be that children these days are less socialized to play in a gendered fashion as children were in the past. I haven't done any precise, quantitative studies, but I note that the little girls play with trains and tools more than I ever see anyone play with the dolls. Though sometimes I might be looking at what is termed in psychology as a demand characteristic – some of the toys are in more prominent locations than others – the train stuff is in the centre of the room which might just get it more attention. I just don't get the idea that you can divide human behavior into "logical" or "illogical" in any way. What I mean here is I don't think human behavior – because so much of our behavior and what goals we pursue are based on subjective values – can be measured as "logical" or "illogical." Is it logical to want to make lots of money, or is an obsession with material possessions itself illogical? Is it logical to want to be good at chess, or is it illogical since playing chess isn't an intellectual activity which produces something useful? I just don't see how this term is really very meaningful when applied to human behavior. I mean, how can you decide if a man is more "verbal?" Does he have to talk more? More loudly? Use a larger vocabulary? Owing to socialization, in many settings where both men and women are represented men tend to end up talking more. (I note that I tend to find this behavior is more pronounced the more socially conservative the setting, though that is a purely personal, anecdotal assessment. When I go see art or a play, with a more liberal crowd, I think it's split about 50-50 with who is talking. On occasion when I've been invited by people to church functions it just strikes me as odd that the man are almost always doing most of the talking.)

  • jose

    "Well, you're definitely not asked to burn bras because nobody ever was."Exactly. That's exactly my point. That's the reason I used it as an analogy for having to apologize for cooking, see.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    I'm, hopefuly, finishing up my Medicine degree and the first thing they teac you in bioestatidistics class is to never EVER accept an study that hasn't all the standards of the scientific method starting with a randomised selection of individuals and ending with at leat a p<0'01. The minimun number of studies that are left after that could surprise you.About cooking, my boyfriend and I looooove cooking and we spent a lot of time on it wen we can or when we have people visiting (although this year my boyfrined is the one doing all the cooking on workdays because of circumstances)… actually I think if there's someone saying that you shouldn't cook because it's demeaning, because men said women have to do it, so we never should or some absurdity like that.. they are daft… Feminist have fought so we have a choice, it should be stupid not to use it and enjoy cooking if you like it.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    Now that I'm here: Happy Holidays everybody!!!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00373059673228550524 Ragnell

    Here's the thing about biological and neurological differences. As a young child, your brain is still forming. That is why we play with children and speak to them from an early age and encourage things like imagination and music, that is how the human brain is developed properly. That's why it's so hard to change your behavior as an adult, because learning happens on a neurological level as a kid. If we're rewarding some behavior in little girls and some behavior in little boys, and treating them differently EVEN AS INFANTS (which is why we dress them up in pink and blue), we are actually growing the sort of brains that match those differences.So yeah, a neurologists studying adult women and men might say "This part of the brain is greater than this size in a higher percentage of women than it is in men, suggesting they have better skill at reading facial expressions," but did it start that way from birth? Do we form that way in the womb, or is that part of the brain better developed for women through social conditioning that begins the moment the doctor says "It's a girl"?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00373059673228550524 Ragnell

    (What I said above is pretty much what smrnda was getting at and what's probably laid out in "Pink Brain, Blue Brain" which I haven't had a chance to read, but so far we're discussing behavior so I thought it was worth noting here that the actual physical makeup of the brain is affected by socialization as a child.)

  • Caravelle

    In my experience of debating people over the internet, while I haven't seen differences between the logical abilities or arguing styles of men and women, I HAVE noticed that people's ability to do logic is inversely proportional to how good they claim to be at it.I'm talking people who couldn't follow a basic inference here. (and this is ability to DO logic I'm talking about – actually knowing something ABOUT reasoning is a much higher bar)

  • Caravelle

    Violin juggler. Don't argue with these people. Nothing you say will change their already made up minds. I believe there ate fundamental differences between men and women but they are vaguer than some might make out. VeryWell written. Too bad some don't want to be confused with reality T Now, why would you say such a thing ? I'm sure most people here could absolutely get their minds changed by stuff Violin juggler said – such as statistically significant experimental evidence from well-conducted studies, and when there are several well-conducted studies with differing conclusions, a well-conducted meta-analysis. Or such as a valid logical argument. That kind of thing.I do agree that an argument consisting entirely of anecdotal evidence (explicitly signposted that way with *asterisks*, too !) isn't very likely to change anyone's mind. But why would a logical person think it would in the first place ?Or maybe it's an exercise in building an argument over a pile of lesser premises that can be brought up at will in a fluid, non-linear kind of way ? That would explain a lot, as I was rather confused by what that paragraph even meant. If so, I'm afraid I'll have to go with Petticoat Philosopher here : there is only one correct way to argue, and that's not it.(although I like to think he was referring to deductive logic vs Bayesian reasoning, because that almost makes sense. Except for the bit where it, again, makes correct reasoning the province of one gender only – except this time it's women)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01280125006011865326 justanotherbeggar

    I appoligize for not being able to read all the comments above at the moment. Just have some thoughts…you wrote,"Girls are given dolls and tea sets. Boys are given sling shots and books about explorers. What if you did the opposite? If we stopped socializing children into distinct gender roles, I’m convinced that gender roles would disappear. Gender roles, you see, are not natural. They’re socially constructed." I am a feminist, women's advocate and studied gender roles out of facination in college. In my studies I read many research studies done on this topic. They seem pretty cute and dried. The research supporting the ideas that we train social roles into children. As you mentioned, anthropology supports this conclusion as well.That said, I think it is important to distinguish between gender roles and gender stereotyping. It seems that your commenter JW was entering into the world of stereotyping…seeming pretty bibilcal in his viewpoint. If that is the case…his comment had more to do with his VIEW of genders and his stereotpe than the "nature" world he attempted to get into.We do train gender roles into children to a point. But I can see evidence that no matter how a child is trained. Boys do gravitate towards things that some girls do not. A little boy I nannied had a obcession with trucks. Always finding them on the road, even if I could not see them. When one drove by he'd hear it and run to the window. Pretty stereotyped on the surface. Only I knew his family. He was the youngest of 3 girls. Most of his hand-me-down toys were dolls and girlie things. While he was giving trucks as well, he had a definate bent towards them and a natural interest in them.My daughter, who is not conditioned to gender rolls as far as I can help it. She has cars, trucks and dolls to play with as she wants. She is the one who will walk into the room making truck sounds. She seems to gravitate, however, towards her dolls…lots of imaginative play with caring for them without any intervention from me.I used to believe it was very cut and dry. We as a society train gender into our children and they become and work out the "roles" we tell them to. I don't beleive it's that simple anymore. I think our roles are as diverse as our personalitites. I went through a phase where all I wanted to do was "boyish" stuff…I wasn't discouraged from it. But it faded into a super girlie phase of doilies and tea cups. My point is that while gender roles might be trained into individuals, some pressured into being what they otherwise would not by the culture around them. I'd like to see a study that statistically showed whether GROWN males and females were in their desired roles and how true those were to their core personality. That is where you'll really see if there is true conformity in gender typing that you speak of.

  • Caravelle

    @justanotherbeggar : From all I've been able to see looking at all the studies the whole thing seems anything BUT cut and dried. There are many studies showing gender differences, and lots of things like the existence of transgendered people suggesting that gender is in the brain, but what does that mean ? And many other studies show that the effects of socialization are more pervasive than we could imagine, and that many purported gender differences are affected by this. And then you have to look at the quality of the studies on either side of the issue.Overall I don't think the evidence is there to say there definitely aren't any innate gender differences – or that the differences are A, B and C to X extent and nothing else. But the evidence to say the opposite definitely isn't there either, so it's rather comical to see people talk so confidently about how different men and women are as if it were settled fact.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15172112981244682382 shadowspring

    My genius son and I were discussing this post this morning, and he pointed out that gender training goes way beyond what sort of toys a child is given. His example: Child A is playing with a truck. Child B comes and takes the truck away. Child A cries in frustration, summoning an alert adult.If Child B is a girl, she will be told to give back the truck back to Child A, and encouraged to think about how Child A feels. "Look, Child A is sad because you took the truck. Child A you because that wasn't fair and it made him/her angry. Give the toy back and say you're sorry. Now give child A a hug. Good girl."If Child B is a boy, the scenario (n my son's opinion) will go more like this: Child B is told that his behavior is bad. He will be told to give the toy back. He might be sent to time out, or he might be distracted by another toy. My son believes the boy is more likely to remain the target of whatever intervention the caregiver decides upon, with much less to no emphasis on being responsible for the other persons feelings and most if not all emphasis on the offender's behavior.That's one teenage boy's perspective, a very nurturing and kind teen, I might add.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15172112981244682382 shadowspring

    *Child A (hit) you because….

  • lucrezaborgia

    If gender roles are so natural why do we have people bemoaning on blogs and in books how we need to train this nature into our children?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11439024525253785948 Grikmeer

    I think it's restrictive to isolate yourself to any particular side of the nature/nurture debate. I am of the opinion that almost everything in our lives is affected in some way by our genetics, but ALSO by the society we grow up in, and some other factors (the conditions in the womb can affect how a child develops as a teenager in some cases)That said, the enforcement of strict gender roles drives me insane. I hate that girls have pink toys and are told that their main function is to look pretty, while boys are encouraged to be violent warriors. The other way round would be just as bad…

  • http://dukesofearl.blogspot.com Joy

    Traditional gender roles are just fine for the people who fit them and are happy in them. However, personalities within sexes vary probably more than the variance between sexes–and so there are a largish number of men and women who don't fit in with those roles on at least one point that's important to them. I've seen feminism encapsulated as "the radical idea that women are people," and I agree with that. Stop trying to stuff people into roles that don't fit and let them be who they really are. If you're a woman who, say, likes traditional domestic arts, math and science, playing sports, and building and fixing things–follow your bliss, and find a partner who loves you and has strengths that complement yours. Enjoy life.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12364384110531146273 Psyence

    If you haven't heard of it, here is a very interesting study conducted in 1974:http://www.garysturt.free-online.co.uk/bem.htm

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12364384110531146273 Psyence

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12364384110531146273 Psyence

    Basically, trends can be observed from these social constructs you talk about. These trends create stereotypes (in the statistical sense) and these stereotypes are simply an observation of the majority. For example, female stereotype tends to prioritize cooperation over competition, passive agressive behavior over physically agressive. These are "stereotypes" which we do not need to adhere to. But we must realize that by being "feminine men" or "masculine women" we are just not part of the majority since that majority is exactly that which creates the stereotype, which itself is maintained by people who are more likely to mate with people who correspond to said stereotype, keeping the stereotype alive, even in the biological sense.Even more impressive is psychological androgyny, some sort of an utopian middleground between those stereotypes. The closer you get to this, the more sucessful you tend to be. At least, that was the hypothesis behind the study. If you find more information about and would like to share, let me know! :)There also IS a part of it which is innate and as much as we dislike to think about it, our brains work in different ways. That being said, just like two different kinds of computer CPUs can be tricked into emulating each other using the right software instructions, men and women can achieve the same results by using their brains differently. In a way we are not really equal, in another, we can be as equal as we wish to become.Sorry if the ideas are a bit scattered, this is what ADD does to people and I'm a bit too tired to sort it out… :)

  • Appalachian Australian

    Psyence, I would venture that the differences between the brains of individuals are more significant than the differences between male brains and female brains as a whole.There are obvious differences in the male and female brains that can't be denied, as much as we dislike to think about it (as you said). A good example would be the bonding of a mother to a newborn child attendant to the flood of pitocin after childbirth. But these kind of unequivocal differences are few and far between. I would argue that differences between male and female brains of children are even less pronounced; the author points out that this is when advocates of gender role stereotyping think it is most important to force those roles onto children.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Some thoughts:I find this statement: "But we must realize that by being "feminine men" or "masculine women" we are just not part of the majority since that majority is exactly that which creates the stereotype," very problematic. Is it really that simple as the majority creates the stereotype? They don't have any help at all from various power structures within society that have a strong interest in things being a certain way? And do they simply reproduce the stereotypes as a matter of biological reality, without the interference knowledge of social norms, desire to conform, a sense of shame about difference, all of which tend to encourage people to just shut about the way they deviate from stereotype and just try to blend in?A few months ago, a good friend of mine who served in the military and has about as much manly-man-cred as anyone can have, "confessed" to me (after a few drinks) that sex isn't much fun for him without emotion and that he worries that this means there's something wrong with him, especially given the way all his buddies talk about their escapades. I told him that his buddies are most likely harboring their own "secrets" that they may or not be drunkenly confessing to THEIR intimate female friends in the wee hours of the morning, and if he could hear them, he'd probably realize he wasn't so weird after all. And I believe this. Because if I had a nickel for every experience with a male friend I've had like this–he starts feeling confessional and reveals to me something "feminine" about himself that he's mildly ashamed of–I'd be rich. Are these traits so feminine if so many men are secretly harboring them, often with unnecessary shame? You'd never guess just from the way they act on a normal basis. They're just "the majority."Human beings aren't just an aggregate of individuals that act independently of each other. We are social animals that are affected by social expectations, group identities, a desire to belong, etc. We are a SOCIETY. This is what statements like the one I quoted seem to miss. The way you get a "majority" acting in a certain way is a lot more complicated than it can seem.

  • lucrezaborgia

    "Because if I had a nickel for every experience with a male friend I've had like this–he starts feeling confessional and reveals to me something "feminine" about himself that he's mildly ashamed of–I'd be rich."Cue the Bronies! http://www.wired.com/underwire/2011/06/bronies-my-little-ponys/

  • lucrezaborgia

    This article that is linked int he bronie one seems apt here too:http://www.wired.com/underwire/2010/09/new-sincerity/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10853868724554947854 Sheila

    Fascinating discussion. I always wonder how much of our gender-specific behavior is innate, and how much is learned.On the other hand, I don't think it matters much. I'm a stay-at-home mom, which is the dream job for me. I am interested in cooking, the politics of things like breastfeeding and childbirth, and anything health-related (I was always a biology nut, might get my masters in that someday). How much of that is because of how I was raised, how I saw my parents interact, and how people around me acted, and how much is innate? Does it matter? I am what I am and I'm into what I'm into. My husband is into some of the same things I am, like child psychology, and bored to tears by others.I don't think much of "gender roles," though. I think of "spouse roles" — that is, within a marriage, each spouse chooses those things that are their responsibility or their interest. As long as the couple mutually agrees on which are whose, who else's business is that? If my husband lost his job, or I got offered a great one, we might switch up who stayed home. Then *all of a sudden* I'd be considered a liberal feminist instead of a traditional little woman. But I don't think what gender each of us is has any bearing on what we *should* do. It does have some bearing on what, statistically, men and women tend to prefer, whether by nature or nurture. But there is no "should" in any of that. There's only "is." And if it works for a certain couple, how dare anyone else object to that?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12364384110531146273 Psyence

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12364384110531146273 Psyence

    Let me try to clarify my thoughts: Psychological androgyny is more like a spectrum with an infinity of possible personalities, each proportionaly feminine and masculine to a certain point. Some men are outraged to get back home and find that the dinner is not ready and some men like me find that extremely insulting and backward. From the point of view of an even more backward man from Afghanistan, we are both being too kind. Who is right? Me, of course. Some women just dump every boyfriend they meet simply because they feel like having multiple partners while society expects them to only have one at a time. Obviously, lots of masculine women must be confused by this as we speak; if they just sleep with anyone they are shunned by society and called sluts. So to avoid this, they just find a new boyfriend all the time. They're not sluts anymore than the men who can more easily afford to sleep with multiple partners but without being expected to commit as much. These people just feel like having sex and do not crave stability as much as the more "feminine stereotyped" people. And let's stick to heterosexual because otherwise it gets even more complex.So please don't get me wrong, you don't just divide people in three categories: androgynous feminine and masculine leaving only 6 possibilities. Instead, within that spectrum of infinite possibilities, the closer you get to the male and female stereotypes (the oposite ends of that spectrum, besically) the more likely you are to be annoying and dumb (but hey, that's perhaps my perception as a more androgynous person, as unbiased as we may try to be, don't we all tend to find others smart on the sole basis that they think like us anyway…)So I am not trying to disprove anyone here, just hoping to add some interesting data to the discussion.Suppose on a scale of 1 to 11 where 6 is ANDROGYNOUS and 1 is MASCULINE sterotype and 11 is FEMININE stereotype. I could evaluate myself as a 7 but then I decided to ask a girl friend of mine, very intelligente and open minded, she could obviously grasp the concept I'm explaining, and she said 5. And perhaps did she say that because they felt that saying 7 would somewhat hurt my "male pride". Stereotypes, even when we dislike them, affect us much more deeply than we'd like. I would hesitate to tell a woman who sleeps around that she is masculine because she would associate it to me calling her a whore or a lesbian or whatever. All this is really useful but most people get offended by the very idea that there may be some of both sexes in their brain… We can thank our wonderful psychology-deprived high school education curriculum for this. >.>This gender role issue is more complex than it seems, because social expectations from men and women are constantly changing, no matter how we try to fight the stereotypes, they just change. Which mean that is the 1974 study about androgyny had been conducted 50 years later, or 50 years before, it would have produced completely different results. Different people would be classified as androgynous, even if they're completely different; because the middle of that spectrum would be expected to be different by society. The 1974 study was based on social constructs at THAT time; these have since changed. This makes it even more complicated.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12364384110531146273 Psyence

    I understand why the writter objects to gender roles; so do I. But the main reason why we do is that these roles do not fit our personal expectations of what we would like to do with our lives. As a somewhat feminine man, I find it extremely annoying that if I get an anxiety attack and burst into screams and tears and start throwing stuff out of desperation, people are going to call the police thinking I'm actually beating someone. If I had been a girl, neighbors would have instead assumed that I was being agressed. Not much I can do about that, except try to stay calm and repress any of these feelings. As a man, I must never scream, even when I'm extremely pissed. My girlfriend can cry and scream as much as she needs, it isn't perfectly acceptable, but it isn't viewed as badly by society because she is just a victim by default. The writer of this blog problably objects to that victimization too. Unfortunately, there may never be enough men who publicly object to the male side of that issue, only feminists who go out in public and object to the problem because they are socially allowed to say how say how they feel. I guess I am an exception since I am pissed about it and expressing it, but even then… this is just an internet forum; as a man, you can imagine I don't go out and talk about my anxiety issues in public, and you probably know why I don't.It is thanks to such objections that stereotypes change and allow for some freedom, so I think it is a very good idea to object about gender roles. Regardless, these role expectations and stereotypes will change, not dissapear. Because stereotypes are just unnacurate representations of actual observations. Trend can be encouraged, trends can be changed, but trends are. One day, it may be unacceptable to make a difference between gifts given to a girl or boy, based on their gender. Even that will be an observable trend over which we have very little to say about.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00180993672268077454 JW

    I intend to comment on the post but it will be right after New Year's.JW

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17507446648186799208 Steve Schuler

    Interesting article and comments!As I have scanned through the comments I have noticed a significant lack of empirically based arguments, or links to such discusssion, which might substantiate the various opinions that have been forwarded. There actually has been quite a bit of research done in the field of neurological differences between men and women and there is a wealth of scientific and scientifically based literature available for anyone interested in exploring this area of enquiry. A quick web search came up with one example, a book written for a popular audience titled, "Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women" by Anne Moir and David Jessel at Amazon.com:http://www.amazon.com/Brain-Sex-Difference-Between-Women/dp/0385311834 I've taken the liberty of copying a review of the book from that page:"If men and women are equal, why have males been the dominant sex virtually throughout history? Here, geneticist Moir and BBC- TV writer-producer Jessel argue convincingly that the answer lies in the difference between the male and female brain. Writing with clarity and style, and documenting their data every step of the way, Moir and Jessel explain how the embryonic brain is shaped as either male or female at about six weeks, when the male fetus begins producing hormones that organize its brain's neural networks into a male pattern; in their absence, the brain will be female. Not surprisingly, there are endless variations in degree of maleness, and mishaps can lead to a male brain in a female body and vice versa. Moir and Jessel include a brain sex test that lets the reader discover just how masculine or feminine his (or her) brain is. For the nonscientist, they translate considerable research into the structural and organizational differences between male and female brains, demonstrating how these differences make men more aggressive and competitive and better at skills that require spatial ability and mathematical reasoning, and women more sensitive to nuances of expression and gesture, more adept at judging character. Women, it seems, are more people-oriented than men, who are more interested in things. Moir and Jessel assert that it is necessary to “accept who we are before arguing about what we should be,'' and that denying gender differences means ignoring their value. A literate, entertaining, and, for some, surely wrath-provoking presentation of scientific data about the differences between the sexes."No doubt, some will want to dismiss the notion that there is any merit to "brain sex" out of hand, but I think you do so at peril of compromising 'reality as it is' for a lesser version of 'reality as I want it to be'.Sorry for such a long post, but given the weighty nature of this topic I hope it is warranted.

  • Anonymous

    I'm a 27 year old mother, I'm working on finishing my PhD in chemistry over the next 6 months and I've been given a full scholarship to a top 100 law school that I plan on accepting in the fall. I have three children, and my middle one is a girl.I've personally always failed at "girl things" and I was never part of the "in" girl crowd in high school or college. The majority of my classmates are either american boys or foreigners. (interestingly enough, many foreign women come to the US grad schools to study science, I think its to escape some of their own societal discrimination against women)BUT as a mother, I have to somewhat disagree with this statement:"Gender roles, you see, are not natural."While they may not be natural for everyone, I do believe they are natural for SOME people. My daughter for example, is "all girl". She loves pink, she loves Barbies, she loves purple, she loves butterflies, she loves BABIES, and she loves puppies and all furry things. She's not at ALL like me.I put her into sports, and she wants the "pink baseball glove". I'd have DIED if I had to wear a pink baseball glove. I had children because I failed at birth control NOT because I loved babies. And I would have died before being caught with a barbie doll.What I can say, is I respect HER to be HER. And I'm not going to make her be ME. And I don't mind if she's girly, but I'm not going to allow her to think of herself as submissive. I'll encourage her to be a good mother, but I don't want her thinking thats all she's good for. Maybe she'll be a professional ballerina or something? (God knows I can't get her into a basketball game…. /facepalm)i.e. all I'm trying to say, is some people are BORN and NATURALLY go in different directions. I don't think there is anything wrong with that. BUT I completely agree with your other points in the blog, that they should NOT be put into a position of less authority in society, whether they dance in a ballet or whether they're in a research lab.-mae

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08060294887790881860 Cindy

    To those who are concerned with having only a "Biblical approach" to gender roles, take note that there is only one word that comes close to the concept of "roles" in the New Testament. The word used to refer to "operations" and had a more pragmatic sense, but in terms of religion it morphed into something else. Our English term, as it is used today, derives more directly from the French term which refers to acting in a play, reading the role.In Greek, there is only one word that talks about roles. It is the word that we translate as "hypocrite." It refers to behaving in a way that is not genuine, how the NT addresses role play. Gender roles are hypocrisy.

  • Anonymous

    I am really amused reading this post because of something that happened to me in college. At my small private college, they made all the incoming freshman take what was called "The Strengths Test," a survey which offered fifty-some personality strengths that a person could have and showed you what were likely your top 5 strengths. My top strength proved to be "empathy." It made sense in a gender-roles sort of way, since I was female, right??Until the very next person I met with "empathy" as their top strength turned out to be a man. :)I'm still laughing almost a decade later. :)RED

  • Caravelle

    @Steve Schuler: There is some sleight of hand in those author's arguments the way you present them. They present evidence that brains are innately gendered, and there is such evidence. But to go from there to deduce that all brain differences in adult humans are also innate, and that this is the main cause of observed gender differences in behavior and abilities, is a step with much less evidence to back it.I know after reading this page and a few others I found a "find the sex of your brain" test on a BBC website in one of my open tabs that I didn't know how I got to; if it's in any way related to the book you're talking about then I'm very skeptical of the scientific rigor of the authors. If nothing else you'd expect such a test to avoid the very obvious pitfall of reinforcing at each step that this test differentiates men from women! Women tend to be better at this, men are better at that!

  • Anonymous

    Just wanted to point out that a nurse actually does need to know math and science. Nursing is rather physical, dirty work. And it pays well. I actually earn almost twice as much as my husband. It maintains it's sterotype as a pink-collar profession, but as a nurse, I think it should be anything but.

  • Anonymous

    Existence check: I, a woman, was raised in a house with fairly enthusiastic gender roles (not CP, but heavily into dolls-are-for-girls-here-are-your-cooking-lessons things). I had dolls. I was taught to stand on the little footstool and stir the jam. I promptly ignored the dolls and…. caught frogs outside. (I tried tag-and-release with white-out until somebody found me at it and explained that I was probably hurting the frogs.) My grandfather had model trains. I wasn't allowed to play with the trains, but I would sit and watch them for HOURS. Then he died and I didn't have the nerve to snag a train but I asked for a little toy car he'd built, to remember him by, and I got it and made dirt tracks for my little toy imaginary racecar outside for MORE HOURS. I am now an engineer with no kids and am heading out for dinner tonight because I ran out of cheese dip. I am either the weirdest person alive, or my mirror check is still revealing the wrong anatomy, or these evo-psych theories… have holes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17507446648186799208 Steve Schuler

    @CaravelleI haven't read that book myself, I just used it as an example of what is available out there. The notion of "brain sex" is not without controversy, but from the little that I do know about it's proponents is that they do not use the concept to promote the perpetuation of gender stereotypes, as such. No doubt, the cultural environments that we inhabit have a huge effect on us, particullarly in the critical developmental years of chidhood. I think that "anonymous" (27 year old mother of a 'girly girl') has a very sane approach to the problem of 'gender roles' and how any particular child might conform to, or deviate from, anybody's hopes or expectations.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05601036781073261878 John

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00180993672268077454 JW

    LibbyI have been able to read your post more in full and I do agree with alot of what you have said in it. I am not a avid student of history although I should be to be more well rounded.My comments shouldn't suggest that males and females always go their 'natural' ways because that is how they are built. My words are more a general thing. I am not interested in alot of what the typical guy likes. i.e. I have no interest in cars, not much in fishing (anymore), never hunted, and frankly I don't have alot in common with guys in general because of the ego. I am more of a peacemaker type and I seek to avoid in your face confrontation, if I can.I know that there are ladies out there who are more interested in what we think of as traditional male oriented subjects such as hunting and trucks and guns and so forth but I don't think you could take a poll and find that the majority of women are into traditional male things and vice versa. Now, I am guessing on this-could I be wrong? Sure, could I be right? sure.You mentioned the boys and science and girls and humanities. My women's studies professor said something that I found interesting but I couldn't tell you if it is true or not. He says that the reason why we don't see more women studying science related education is because when they are in high school they would much rather be seen as dumb but have a social life then smart and be seen as a nerd with no social life. Could be true.I definately understand your words "Feminists want a society in whcih people are allowed to be individuals with their own strengths and talents rather than being pushed toward any prescribed role. If a wife prefers to cook and a husband prefers to fix things around the house or do yard works that's fine. But what about the husband who prefers to cooking and child rearing and the wife with fulfilling high level career?'This line here, I think is very acceptable to many people although many still have expectations of roles for men and women. What isn't acceptable is when words are stated that displayed a hostility about gender roles. Maybe I say this because I am more of a peacemaker type and not one to 'get in your face' with issues except to ask questions. I surmise that you get this from my posting here already?I hope to hear what your opinion is on my paper that I sent to you on fundamentalism and feminism. I have had one other lady tell me her thoughts on the paper.JW

  • Caravelle

    JW : Pretty much everything you say makes sense. I just have to ask about this bit : This line here, I think is very acceptable to many people although many still have expectations of roles for men and women. What isn't acceptable is when words are stated that displayed a hostility about gender roles.You yourself point out that you probably think this because of your own personality (you're more of a peacemaker). But I'm sure you'll agree that when we speak about what's "acceptable" and what isn't we're usually talking about community standards, i.e. trying to regulate other people's behavior. Which is fine, but can you justify your personal line for what is "acceptable" and what isn't as anything more than… your own personal line ?Many of the women you feel are too "angry" have been actively harmed by people imposing gender roles on them. Why isn't it acceptable of them to be "hostile" to those gender roles and those who would promote them ? (or more to the point, are you in a position to tell them it isn't ?) Many other feminists have had extensive experience talking about feminism and have found that a blunt and take-no-prisoners approach worked best to achieve their goals. Others prefer a softer, more conciliatory approach and still find their message rejected by people hostile to feminism. On what basis would you argue that only one of those approaches is "acceptable" ?And note that while feminism can be said to have a single over-arching goal, there is more than one subgoal and way of achieving them. So some people say that if the goal is to convince other people of feminist arguments then one should make those arguments in as conciliatory a manner as possible. But aside from the fact this is NOT always the best way to convince people, that argument presupposes that every feminist's goal should be to convince others of feminist arguments, and that is not the case. There are tons of feminists out there and they don't need to all be doing the same thing. Many feminists have the goal of curbing sexist behavior, or of creating "safe spaces" where women (especially women who have suffered from sexism a lot) can relax their guard, and other such goals which are also important to improving women's lives but aren't served by being conciliatory to those who are hostile to such efforts.I hope you took me up on going to the "Finally a feminism 101 blog" blog, I think it would interest you. You might also be interested in looking up racism 101 and things such as LGBT, transgender and disability issues. Although all of those groups have different issues many concepts come back again and again (many related to the concept of "privilege"), so seeing them from many different angles might give you a more rounded idea on all that stuff.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12130718224295515997 Rebecca

    Excellent post yet again. It is true that if you tell someone that because of their race, class or gender that they will be worse on a task, they will have a lower performance than if they had not received this information. There are many documented findings of this; search under "stereotype threat". Sorry if someone has already stated that – I only skimmed the comments.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    Stepehen Fry just tweeted about this website: http://www.diversityrolemodels.org/It tries to tackle the problems caused by gender stereotypes.

  • Max

    This is a serious topic for me. I am a very “manly” woman, age 31. As a child I hated dolls and pink and tea sets, but my mother put me in wide, prim hats and gowns, then admiring my outside. It was frustrating and annoying. Walking, talking Barbies nicknamed me “Butch” and called me a LESBO at school. My friends knew I was a tomboy. I liked being called Max, not Maxine. I still do now. Everyone is different and not all folk fit into the pink makeup kit or blue toolbox.

  • Rosie

    Thing is, all the evo-psych studies in the world, all the studies that “show innate differences between men and women”, won’t erase the fact that SOME people just don’t fit those molds. You can argue forever about how many “most” is (or even if it’s a majority), or why “most” fit into whatever you’re describing, but I don’t think that really matters. What matters is that such studies are *descriptive* at best (and quite possibly, as argued above, not even that), and never should be taken as *prescriptive*. What matters is how we as a society make room for, or fail to make room for, those who don’t fit the mold. (At least, that’s my considered opinion, as one who utterly fails to fit the mold no matter how she has tried.)

  • mecia577

    I don’t really care if women are “normally” anything – I care that each woman (and man) gets to be who they want to be. I have friends who very neatly fit into the standard gender roles and many more who do not. In my household I do most of the cooking AND car maintenance. I aced logic and geometry, and then studied music. My grandmother, who was born in the 1940s, went to college for the first time 4 years ago to be a massage therapist – a very nurturing profession that requires a lot of scientific knowledge. This isn’t about anything other than whether we as a culture are going to allow people to be who they are, or try to force them to be something else.

  • DavidM

    There are natural gender roles, but that doesn’t mean what you apparently think it does: that every individual conforms to the kind of role that is natural to his or her sex. IOW, it seems you’re criticizing a straw man here.

  • Christine

    I admit, that coming out of engineering at the top of my class, I’m a little less sensitive to this sort of thing, but I’ve always seen a bit of natural gender roles. Men cannot feed babies nearly as well as women. Yes, there are breast milk substitutes available now, but it’s a lot more work to use those.

    After that, almost everything everything else is how we’re socialized. And even if it is true that “men tend to A, women tend to B”, the key there is “tend to”. Any truth in that statement applies to the population as a whole, not to individuals. I don’t like statements like that, just because people take them to mean “All men A, all women B”. And even a lot of what we think is biological is cultural. There are cultures where women do the heavy lifting, not men, despite the fact that men tend to have higher testosterone levels, which makes them more likely to be able to build large muscles.

    That being said, the trouble I have with gender roles is that my husband and I are falling into them perfectly – he’s finishing his PhD, I’m home with our daughter. We’re living off his studentship, scholarships and TA jobs (mostly), with some supplement from me consulting, teaching knitting and the child benefit (student income is tax-free, so we have very low official income). He earns the money, I do the budget. He works outside the house, I do the cooking & cleaning. Neither of us want me to go to work anytime soon, because two engineering jobs just aren’t feasible when there’s kids in the mix. On top of that, I am much better suited to staying home than he is – I multi-task better, he focuses in on one thing, and any distraction costs him a lot of time. Oh, and he’s the one who does the carpentry around the house (he doesn’t knit much because he finds the needles too small, and I don’t even know building code).

    I don’t want my daughter growing up thinking that these are gender-based things, rather than just how her mommy and daddy make things work, but neither does it make sense to avoid it just because.

  • Lucy

    Brilliantly, solidly argued and I agree wholeheartedly!


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