The Problem with “Gender Roles”

The Problem with “Gender Roles” December 23, 2011

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.

“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 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, 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 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.

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