Thoughts on gender identity

There have been a number of ‘Skeptics on the Fringe’ talks in recent years about the science of sex differences, mostly in the vein of debunking common myths. But one of the few things that stuck in my memory from these talks was a question from a parent in the audience who had conscientiously avoided gender-specific influences, trying to impart a sceptical view of gender stereotypes – only to find that their daughter was crazy for all things pink and girly by the age of 7. Where did that come from?

Obviously, associating the colour pink with girls is cultural; it’s socialisation, not genes or hormones. And clearly, children are exposed to many influences beyond their parents. I’ve started to see many examples in my own life of my unconscious conformity to arbitrary gender norms: one trivial example is the fact that I play the acoustic guitar, and am pretty motivated to learn more techniques on it, and yet, although I love listening to electric lead guitar, I can muster no real interest at all in playing that. It’s not that it seems beyond me; more that it doesn’t feel like “me”. I cannot think of any explanation for this other than the fact that there are many female role models for me who play acoustic guitar and sing, and a complete dearth of female lead guitarists by contrast.

But the confusing thing is, we don’t all respond to the gender socialisation in the same way. On one hand, there is the 7-year-old girl who defies her parents’ stereotype-free ideals by being super girly; on the other, there are people who turn out not to have a strong gender identification either way, or who identify as the opposite gender from that assigned to them at birth. What causes these differences?

Certain sections of the feminist movement struggle to accept the existence of transgender people. I understand that for at least some of these feminists, gender is an arbitrary binary that is socially constructed around biological sex – in much the same way that tribal identities are constructed, perhaps. In its current implementation, it unfortunately privileges one group over the other. The act of changing one’s gender is seen as reinforcing this binary, or at least, is seen as a tragic symptom of it – the fact that a man with “feminine” traits feels compelled to adopt a female identity and change his body accordingly, when there would simply be no need if traits were not seen as gendered. In other words, what they seem to believe is: your gender identity is a product of the overlap between the traits, interests, and abilities that you possess, and those traits, interests, and abilities that are associated with one gender or the other. And in their ideal world, there would perhaps be no such associations with gender – and thus no real personal gender identity at all.

I can see why this anti-gender view of things (which I admit I may not have understood fully) might appeal to women who are keenly aware of their lesser privilege as females. But it seems to leave a lot of unanswered questions (not to mention unfairly discrediting the testimony of transgender people). Why is there such a large range of responses to the gender binary: what makes someone – male or female – like the colour pink, or dresses, or electric guitar, or science for that matter? Why do some men like to wear dresses but still identify strongly as male? Where does sexual orientation fit into this – is it also just an artifact of the arbitrary concept of gender, and therefore, equally arbitrary? In that case why are the vast majority of people not indifferent to gender when it comes to partners? (Nearly twice as many people in this country identify as gay compared to bisexual. I would expect more bisexuals if socialisation was a big factor, because nearly everyone has been socialised into a default assumption of straightness.)

It’s possible that some aspects of our lives pertaining to gender are truly innate and immutable, whether due to genes, hormonal environment, very early conditioning or whatever. Sexual orientation is likely one of these aspects, in my view. Another possibly innate aspect is whereabouts on the gender ‘spectrum’ (it’s not a binary!) a person will identify themselves; while the details that comprise that spectrum are to some extent cultural. I guess what I mean is that a gender spectrum could well be a natural thing that would always arise in any population, just like language – although its details, in terms of the traits and attributes associated with the genders, might differ from place to place. It could be that our gender identity is instinctual, just as we have an instinct for verbal language – but we have to learn the language of masculinity and femininity through our culture, the same way we have to learn our mother tongue. This is the way I’m inclined to think of it at the moment. I don’t think it could be easily proved one way or the other, but it just seems to answer more of the questions for me.

What does this hunch mean for my budding feminism? It doesn’t lead me to believe that patriarchy or male privilege is inevitable; I can be ‘anti’ those things. Just as we can learn a new language, we can probably rid ourselves of the problematic aspects of gender, if we want to and work hard enough. I’m not convinced by hand-waving evolutionary arguments about certain gendered traits – like “nurturing” or “competitiveness” – being biologically innate; no-one can prove they are really any more than a cultural relic of our recent history; but even if there were some truth to these arguments, we can certainly choose to structure our social world in ways that neither exaggerate these differences nor over-value and over-reward some traits compared to others. Easier said than done, of course. Plenty of work for feminism to do.

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7 Responses to Thoughts on gender identity

  1. caraboska says:

    My parents taught me that there is exactly one difference between men and women, namely their plumbing. They also explained to me that the rest of the world thinks differently and will attempt to exert an enormous amount of pressure on me to conform to its norms. And that my job is to see to it that I not conform to its norms.

    I was raised to expect that I would work even if I were to marry someday and have children, but that it was in no way obligatory for me to do either of the latter things. Indeed, I was taught that almost everyone who has children is doing it because society expects it of them. And that that is not a sufficient reason to do it myself.

    I was not even allowed to play with baby dolls. I was allowed to play with Barbie and Ken dolls, but it was very carefully explained to me that the “physicality” of these dolls is not realistic and is in no way to be considered any kind of ideal for human appearance. So I built bridges and restaurants for Barbie and Ken to take walks on and eat at.

    The result is that I live outside the gender binary – even in the purely physical sense, since I am celibate. It does mean that most probably I will never have a partner, as having a non-platonic relationship (in any physical sense of the word) does not make sense given who I am.

    I am also finding with age that being with ‘someone in particular’ limits the extent to which I can love other people, as I would be obligated to spend most of my ‘loving energy’ on my partner if I wanted to ‘do the right thing’ by him. Doing otherwise would open me to a charge of at least emotional infidelity.

    I even dress a bit ‘gender-bending’ – I wear the hijab, but if you look carefully, you’ll see that it has certain masculine elements to it. An iqaal to keep things in place. Or perhaps a kufi as an “underscarf” for my amira. Not to mention jeans and cowboy boots. Men’s – women’s versions of those items basically do not come in my size.

  2. Julian says:

    Hi Sarah, interesting thoughts as ever. I wondered if you have seen this Horizon documentary recently?
    The thing that struck me in particular was the experiment with monkeys playing with trucks and dolls and displaying preferences associated with their sex. The nature nurture debate will continue to rage I am sure and, of course, that is probably because you can never completely separate the two. Even as we learn more about the average differences that knowledge will not justify the naturalistic fallacy that something is right because it is ‘natural’, nor will it tell us which traits we should actually be valuing and rewarding. However, I still think it is important to recognise the statistical differences between men and women which may be a feature of genetics rather than cultural conditioning alone. For example, I don’t think it is a problem that some professions are numerically dominated by one sex or the other. We may just have to live with a fact that, irrespective of social conditioning, more men want to be engineers than nurses and vice versa (I use that example as you know I am qualified as both!). The problem is not that there are potentially these statistical differences in preferences rooted in our biology, but that those professions dominated by women are usually less well remunerated than those associated more with men and that even women in male dominated professions are, on average, paid less. Nursing is a particularly interesting example of this. Although men are very much in the minority, they hold a disproportionate number of the senior positions. Some argue that is because men are attracted to the managerial work more than women and whilst that is a plausible hypothesis, I would be very surprised if it is the whole picture. What is curious is that if there is prejudice at work here, men are still a small enough minority in nursing for one to reasonably suppose that it is women who are reinforcing the prejudice as much as the men themselves. That is to say that senior women are more likely to promote their male colleagues than their female ones. If that is the case, I wonder why it is.

    • Sarah says:

      Hi Julian, no I didn’t see that programme although I was aware of it.

      “That is to say that senior women are more likely to promote their male colleagues than their female ones. If that is the case, I wonder why it is.”

      Well, it’s simply because we’ve all absorbed the same stereotypes and unconscious biases. Women are not somehow immune to that. How could they be? The same thing happens with racism: Removing the external barriers isn’t enough: the internal barriers are just as strong. And unfortunately they make it all the easier for people to say there are innate differences in abilities, interests, personality traits and so on, because that’s often how it looks. That’s what I think is so difficult about all this – it’s difficult to remove a prejudice or unconscious bias from oneself when it does seem that the underlying stereotypes reflect current reality to some degree. It takes a lot of reflection to see the forces at work behind this, and to start working against them.

      I’ve looked a great deal into the science, and while I wouldn’t say there are *not* genetic differences in traits, I am sceptical of their importance for things like career choice. Firstly, in the basic cognitive skills that have been studied, the effect of learning dwarfs any inborn advantage/disadvantage. Second, science is never value-free, and researchers do interpret findings or observations through the lens of their own pre-conceived ideas. “Plausible” evolutionary arguments are incredibly easy to construct for just about anything, and usually very difficult to test. Thirdly, the distribution of males and females in job types is not constant throughout time and place. If you go to India you will find loads of female computer programmers. Is that a genetic difference between Indians and Brits? Or just culture?

      Given this, I think bringing genetic differences into the conversation does more harm than good, because it reinforces the status quo, making us all think that the way things are is simply destined by biology and cannot be changed. I think that would be an overly narrow view of human potential. I think you’re right of course that we need to start valuing traditionally female-dominated areas of work more highly; but I also think that a more even balance of males and females in most work areas would probably benefit those work areas, shaking up the entrenched norms in those work cultures associated with exaggerated and problematic characteristics of gender (and I know from people working in social work and social care that female-dominated patterns are not any better than male-dominated ones!) – true diversity has got to be a good thing in most human problem-solving, I think. This would also make these environments more accessible to both genders for the future, helping to break down our notions of what males and females are supposed to do. Starting this process is the hard part.

      • Julian says:

        Hi Sarah,
        I think your point about unconscious biases is important, and indeed, one would expect these to pervade culture across the sexes. I have been fascinated by experiments done to reveal these biases using things like reaction times to pictures and such like. I don’t have any references or links, but would be interested to look at them again if you know of any. I also think that more gender balance in the workplace is a good thing – having experienced highly unbalanced environments with opposite polarities (I am currently the only male therapist in a team numbering about a dozen and used to share an office with a female engineer who was equally outnumbered by men). However, I am uncomfortable with the idea that genetic differences should not be brought into the discussion. They clearly exist and to forbid their inclusion in the discussion is as potentially unhelpful as is overstating their importance. For example, it could lead to the supposition that we should have equal numbers of men and women in all professions and implement positive discrimination until we achieve that. I don’t doubt that more equal gender representation in many professions would be a good thing (I would like at least one male colleague for example!), however, we do need to have ways of identifying gender bias so that we can address it and even if counting the numbers of men and women in different professions is a part of that, I think it is only a part of it. Establishing what ratios would indicate an absence of bias is far from a trivial task – we certainly wouldn’t expect them to be 50:50 if the experiment with the monkeys reflects significant average differences in what male and female primates are most interested in. None-the-less, I still think it is worth asking should we expect a 40:60 ratio in some professions, or a 20:80 ratio perhaps. I am firing off thoughts fairly spontaneously though and am sure you have thought a lot more deeply about this, so I look forwards to hearing more about the complexity and nuances involved. Thanks for sharing.

        • Sarah says:

          Project Implicit at Harvard is about testing for unconscious bias:

          The more I notice things like my guitar preferences, which are so clearly about me expressing my sense of my own gender in a learned cultural language of what is “masculine” and “feminine”… the more I have to wonder how much else of what I think I like and enjoy doing is inherited from my culture in this way.

          “Establishing what ratios would indicate an absence of bias is far from a trivial task”
          Exactly, if not impossible. I don’t even have a sense that there’s some underlying “natural” state of affairs to recover, in terms of ratios – I don’t see how culture and its intersection with gender could ever be removed from the picture – it’s more a matter of, is the existing culture healthy, is it fair, is it just, is it constructive? I think the focus should be on challenging and deconstructing the ways in which we all contribute to keeping the existing systems of privilege alive and well. Not just sexism, but racism, classism, orientalism and so many other isms. Neil deGrasse Tyson has some words on the subject of using “genetic differences” to justify disparities, from his perspective as a person of colour:

          The trouble is that privilege is never obvious when you are part of a group who has it. To the likes of Sam Harris, genetic differences must simply be the only explanation for the disparities he observes. A really good article about privilege and its blindness to itself:

          I think “positive discrimination” in the form of recruitment policies that hire more of the under-represented gender would be a blunt, shallow, non-solution to the problem. Culture change is not just a numbers game, although numbers do help.

  3. Pingback: Delusions of Gender: more on work cultures | Meaning and Truth

  4. Pingback: Delusions of Gender: a gender instinct? | Meaning and Truth

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