Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Gender, Research, and Role Construction

I still remember the summer when Larry Summers, former President of Harvard University, had made comments regarding the aptitude of both men and women, something about men being better at math and science due to brain differences. There was and still is a lot of controversy around such statements. Many women, who had built up careers around math and science, were quite offended and the coverage caused by it all was my first introduction into the biological/social arguments of gender roles and construction.

I have no problem with opinions like that, provided you've done research to back it up and I'd have no problem if it were fact. Then it would be similar to the fact that women get pregnant, men do not, it's a fact of life.

I do, however, have a problem with labeling people based on their gender (or race/class/orientation/creed/etc) and making arbitrary statements based on such factors. When we have a society that labels people, we have a society that prejudges people, and consequently, we depart from our values of freedom and egalitarianism. It's not facts I have a problem with, it's attitudes, judgments, and arbitrary decisions that lead to the loss of freedom based on superficial qualities.

For example:
1. An argument the other day: One thing I've always noticed is that, with the parenting of kids, the father gets twice the kudos for doing things a mother would do. When I made this statement in class (and was backed up by many other students and my professor, who had witnessed similar occurrences), another student justified it, telling me that women should be more responsible, since they have a "biological connection" to the child. But what about men who just happen to be more nurturing? What about women who, while they love their children, are not the "perfect, stay-at-home, constantly with the kids" mom model still embraced by society, to some extent? What about adoptive parents? Doesn't that negate the love they hold for their own children, because they don't have the "biological connection" given by pregnancy or breastfeeding? What about abusive biological parents? Apparently, the "biological connection" doesn't make them nurturing at all.

2. "Women have less spatial ability": while there is some US research to confirm this fact, is it because they naturally don't have it or because we constantly tell them that they don't and don't really give them a reason to have any? For example, from a young age, many of the toys for boys (blocks, etc) encourage spatial ability and (albeit, very basic) engineering skills. For girls, the toys mostly revolve around fashion, beauty, motherhood, and kitchens. Nothing wrong with the toys themselves, but not a lot of scientific/spatial ability/etc going on with those. Also, in countries with more egalitarian expectations for boys and girls (i.e. former Eastern Bloc countries), they have found that girls' spatial abilities equal those of the boys.

3. "Girls can't do science": Problem is, I have intensely for five years (i.e. most of my secondary education and my first year of college). I did pretty well too, until I burned out my freshman year of college. But I did it! And I still retain a lot of those skills, which I use in my social science classes (data collection and analysis, mathematical formulas, etc do come into play in my economics and poli-sci classes). Also, the knowledge I've gained helps me understand and explain causes important to me, such as about HIV/AIDS medicine, pro-life, the environment, and other things. I may not become the doctor I thought I would be in high school, but I still see myself going into fields like public health and making a difference there. I know this one has been about me, but I'm just saying, my femininity has not prevented me from understanding scientific concepts. Also, what about famous scientists like Mme. Curie, etc?

4. "PMS makes women too angry for politics": Excuse me? Well, if we're going to bring hormones into it, then men shouldn't be in politics at all because their high testosterone levels will make them too violent and they will destroy the world through nuclear warfare. Seriously, the only point I'd find it appropriate to even ask a woman about her cycle would be in a medical setting, the only judgments made being about health issues or pregnancy. Most women, you wouldn't know unless a) she told you or b) ladies, you know what I'm talking about on this one. While it is true that hormonal influxes can cause emotional changes, most of us adults can keep a lid on our extreme emotions, regardless of whatever our bodies are doing (unless we're in dire conditions, but that's another story). It has no bearing at all on whether a female politician is going to lead us into Armageddon.

I could go on but I think I've made my point. Find your facts before spouting off opinions. Remember, even if research is done, it often begs more questions than the ones originally asked. Finally, instead of thinking in terms of masculine, feminine, racial, etc, we should think in terms of humanity. Like Dr. King said, we should not judge by the color of skin (or the presence of certain chromosomes), but on the content of character. Instead of trying to figure out who's smarter, why don't we judge that, as others, based on the people standing in front of us, rather than pre-conceived notions?

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