Mind the (gender) gap

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Boys and girls are different. From the start. Certain biological differences cannot be denied, and these certainly guide our development, our perception of the world, and our identities. But current gender stereotypes are restrictive, limiting, one-dimensional, boring… and even in some cases harmful.

My main point here is that parents (and society in general) go overboard with gender stereotypes and force children (and adults) into restrictive and one-dimensional boxes. There should be more room to breathe, more freedom to ‘be’. For all of us!

If we try to view children and people in general as being along a spectrum of gender identity (having a mix of various ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits), rather than either of two polar opposites (having exclusively ‘male’ or exclusively ‘female’ traits) – immediately a whole range of options open up for us all to express our gender identity and fulfil our different gendered roles.

This freedom to ‘be’ would allow everyone more room to breathe, to move, to explore their unique personality/ character/ temperament/ identity… and their place in this world, in relation to others – without constant fear of being disapproved of (or even punished) for not fitting into someone else’s pre-determined criteria of what is ‘normal’.

Whilst I am intentionally trying to avoid using an overly academic manner or style, I must explain briefly that by ‘gender’ I am referring to what academics would view as the socialised identity people have, based on their biological differences.

In other words, biology (or ‘sex’) is pre-determined, but many intellectuals in fields such as gender studies, feminism, sociology, anthropology and psychology argue that gender is ‘socialised’ (through upbringing, education, culture and social interaction).

However, my view on this complex subject attempts to take what I view as a more balanced approach than either the conservative belief in predetermined gender identities and roles, or the intellectual argument that we are simply (or mostly) products of our social environment.

On the one hand, many intellectuals and feminists, especially some of my least favourite lecturers (the chip-on-the-shoulder types) would scornfully dismiss what I see as basic, observable, common sense (‘boys and girls are different, from the start’) as ‘gender essentialism’ (speaking about boys and girls as if they are essentially different, rather than raised or socialised to be different).

On the other hand, I don’t feel enough attention is paid to the many ways in which biology does determine who we are and what we do. Whether we like it or not!

Our biological sex determines the very rate and focus of our development – and many studies have shown the various ways in which these differing biological imperatives in turn affect our abilities, and even our perspectives, reactions and desires.

Right from the womb, our brains develop differently, with male and female development focusing on different spheres of the brain. This has huge repercussions for our journey through life.

It’s the old ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate which rears its head in all social sciences at every turn. One side seem to disregard biology and its obvious practical implications, while the other side ignore our own role in ‘shaping’ ourselves and each other through our beliefs and interactions.

As with many arguments, the issue is created by the polarising ‘either…or…’ views – which could be replaced with a more constructive ‘both…and…’ approach.

This, by the way, is a classic conflict resolution and peace-building tactic, and one which I hope could also resolve the biggest conflict I see in the world today – the ‘gender gap’.

This ‘gender gap’ exists between men and women all over the world. I see it in our marriages, our parenting, our friendships, workplaces and churches. Everywhere.

As I have noted already, what I am referring to here as the ‘gender gap’, has been contested terrain since feminism took over the conversation about society, and the relationships between men and women.

This is one of the main reasons I cannot call myself a feminist, even though I passionately believe in equality between the sexes. I see us as ‘different but equal’, while feminism appears to be trying to squeeze us all into the same, undifferentiated, bland box…in the name of ‘liberation’.

No, I say, ‘vive la différence!!!

Yet at the same time, I really feel strongly that part of the problem is that we have been raised to believe we are so very different that we will never completely understand or value each other’s different views, priorities, desires and responses. What hope is there of a peaceful or happy future with this as our foundational belief?

So an over-emphasis on ‘gender essentialism’ – what most people would call ‘stereotypes’ – is unhelpful and disempowering.

Instead, it is helpful and empowering to remember that since much of our gender identity is socialised, it could therefore be ‘taught’ and expressed in many different ways to the current norms. In other words, we could think of gender in new and different ways, and then raise our children to express their gender identities in these new and different ways.

Education and social norms could all be changed over time, to reflect more varied and inclusive notions of how a boy or girl ‘must’ look/think/want/behave…

The new ‘normal’ could look a lot more colourful, multi-dimensional, vibrant, gracious and free…

How this looks from a parenting point of view, is far more simple than the preceding discussion might suggest: keep an open mind, a flexible approach to all you do with your children. From the toys and clothes you buy, to colours and decor in their room, to activities you encourage or allow, and later subjects chosen at school.

None of these things could ‘turn’ a boy into a girl, or vice versa (how ridiculous this sounds, but for many there is an underlying fear along these lines…) – so why not allow, even encourage, experimentation and discovery, without being overly anxious or judgemental about the choices your child makes?

At best we can be loving and wise guides along this journey, and good role models for being ‘comfortable in our own skins’ and relating to others with grace and flexibility.

Anyway, much of what they do may be a passing phase, before they settle into their individual way of doing things, and their own unique preferences and behaviours.

As parents (and educators), we could view our roles as facilitating this journey of self- and world- discovery, rather than attempting to enforce any external blueprints (socially and culturally predetermined) upon our children.

As our children’s facilitators, we will then be less likely to dictate, judge and limit, and find it easier to encourage, inspire and empower.

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