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(en) Ireland, Men are from Earth, and So are Women by Aileen O'Carroll - WSM

Date Tue, 12 Sep 2006 19:22:30 +0300


Gender is not as it appears in the popular media and general conversations
How different are men and women? Very, according to some. John Gray's book
"Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" is based on the idea that there
are fundamental differences between the genders. It may be just another
self-help book on relationships, but it has also sold over 30 million
copies and been translated into 40 languages.
A key starting point for any group, movement or society who want to mobilise
the full potential and creativity of humanity is to challenge the gendered
nature of roles. This begins when we challenge the idea that the differences
between the genders are based on biology, rather than experience.

Women are under-represented in anarchist groups throughout the
world, and this means our movements are considerably weaker as we
are losing the point of view, the experiences, the skills and
understandings of a large portion of humanity.

In a less obvious way, many men in the anarchist movement were and
are, gender blind. That is they do not realise that their own way of
seeing the world is coloured by their own gender and aren’t aware
of or interested in understanding other perspectives. While we all
naturally make sense of the world from the point of view of our own
experiences, we also need to be able to realise that our experiences
aren’t universal. Deborah Tannen’s book “You Just
Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation” was on
the New York Times bestseller list for nearly four years and has been
translated into 24 languages. Pope Benedict, when still a cardinal (and
an obvious expert on gender) in a statement on the role of women
wrote that women’s characteristics were “listening,
welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting” in the first
statement published by the Catholic church on the role of women in a
decade. In January 2005, the president of Harvard argued that women
were underrepresented in science because biologically they
weren’t as capable at scientific thinking as men. During his time
as President the number of tenured jobs offered to women at Harvard
fell from the low 36% to the even lower 13%.

While we may not care very much about the pope or pop-psychology,
their ideas carry weight with large segments of the world’s
population.

The idea that men and women are fundamentally different can also be
found on the left. Some women’s peace groups, such as the
Greenham Common women, base their activity on women’s
supposed opposition to war and violence. Or to take a more recent
example, some of the supporters of the centre-left President of Chile
Michelle Bachelet, argued that as a women she is better able to
multi-task and thus more able for the job; "She is going to take the
reins of this country as if it were a big house. She is going to manage
us well. Look at us men, we do one thing at a time, while the mom is
cooking, talking on the phone, feeding the children and listening to
the radio!"

If you just listened to popular media and general conversations, you
would expect the genders to be worlds apart. Yet a study by Shibley
Hyde found far more similarities than differences. This article looks at
this research, and then asks in the light of it why might the idea of
gender difference be so popular presently.
Mostly the same

Published in the “American Psychologists” in September
2005, the research challenges the idea that men and women are very
different psychologically. Shibley Hyde reviewed the results from 46
surveys and concluded that men and women are similar on most, but
not all, psychological variables.

Arguments about the roles that men and women play in society often
revolve around whether these roles are due to nature (our genetic
make up) or nurture (the type of society we live in). The implication of
this research is to overturn the idea that male and female roles are
connected to particular characteristics of men or women.

In 1974 Maccoby and Jacklin analysed the results from over 2,000
psychological studies on gender difference and in doing so they
overturned many myths; girls aren’t more social than boys,
neither are they more suggestible, girls aren’t any better at
learning off by heart, boys aren’t good at more abstract learning,
girls don’t have lower self esteem and it is not true that girls lack
motivation.

In all they found only four areas where gender differences were
evident; verbal ability, visual-spatial ability, mathematical ability and
aggression. Yet despite the fact that overwhelmingly their story was
one of similarity, almost all reports of their work focused on the
differences.

So why if genders, in the main, behave similarly are they perceived to
be different?
Same behaviour, different perceptions

One explanation for this is that the meaning attached to the behaviour
varies depending on whether you are a man or a woman. So, for
example, if a woman isn’t good at map reading, this is seen to be
proof that women are less spatially aware. If a man isn’t good at
map reading, well it’s just one of those things that he’s not
very good at. I once asked a teenage boy what toys he played with as a
child. Like most boys, he played with action man. He went on to say
that he thought action man was ‘cool’, while Barbie was
stupid. Despite the fact that both toys are essentially the same –a
piece of plastic representing a person – to him the possibilities and
meanings attached to the male toy were far more positive than the
female toy. Mars and Venus are the same place, they are just seen
from different perspectives.
What does it mean to come from Venus?

Society attributes different meanings to similar behaviours. In fact,
even stranger, society is quite happy to talk about very different
behaviours as if they were all similar. So for example, what to people
mean when they say ‘women’s work’?

One certain thing that can be said about gender roles, despite the
Mars/Venus clichés, is that they vary greatly between different
cultures, classes and change over time. Venus seems to be a number
of radically different planets. In Ireland, nursing is a women’s
profession, in southern Italy most nurses are men. This is because in
the south of Italy, labour market shortages were so great, that one of
the few jobs available was nursing, and as traditionally men were seen
as the major bread-owners, these became seen as ‘male’.

The daughter of a manual labourer on a poor Dublin housing estate is
more likely to see her role in terms of motherhood and so will often
start her family early in life. In contrast the daughter of a doctor might
be expected to go to university, and establish a career before she has
children. And on the other end of the scale, the role of Paris Hilton,
the daughter of a multi-millionaire, seems to be to be thin, shop and
act stupid.

Over time, the role women were expected to play within capitalism
has varied. In the early factories they were valued (as were children) as
a cheap form of labour. Then they were moved to the home, where
their role was to provide all the social care and support required to
keep the workforce ticking over.

So for example, in the US during the depression working women were
accused of taking men’s jobs. Although the numbers of women
working outside the home increased gradually from the 1900s, in
general this was acceptable only for single women. In Ireland, it
wasn’t until the early 1970s that married women were allowed to
continue working in the public sector. When women were in paid
employment, it was in those sectors that mirrored their role in the
home such as domestic work, or caring work such as nursing. But the
idea that women’s role was in the home has been overturned at
certain points.

This happened most dramatically during World War Two when
propaganda extolled the virtues of women working – in fact, the
skills they used at home were argued to be the same as the skills
needed in the workplace. Alice Kesser Harris explains, “They
were induced into the labour force with a rhetoric which played on
their housewifely role. For example, they were told that operating a
drill press was just like operating a can opener; that wielding a welding
torch, for example, was just like operating a mix-master might have
been; that a drill press was like an iron.”

After the war, although in the US 75% of women said they would like
to keep their jobs, about 90 % ended up being forced to leave. Once
again women’s place was in the home.

Today women make up a greater part of the labour force than ever
before. In the west, manufacturing has declined, while service
industries and knowledge industries have grown. Throughout the
world women are paid less than men and in order to attract cheaper
female labour, women’s characteristics are once more being
re-defined as useful on the labour market. So for example, women are
argued to be good listeners and empathic, and so make good call
centre employees, or women are good at multitasking and so suited to
IT work; an article on Microsoft’s webpage argues that
“Biology, upbringing make women more flexible” and so they
are better managers.”

In fact there is a certain irony that as the workplace is becoming more
female, the idea that genders are very different seems to be gaining
increasing popularity (or at least, if the sales of John Gray’s books
are anything to go by).

The idea of gender differences can be used to either exclude women
(as in the position of women in Harvard) or to attract more women (as
in the call centre workers). The malleability of the idea of difference,
and the different political uses to which it is put, should make us very
wary of arguments that take difference as their starting point.
Mostly the same, a little different, what next?

So far I’ve been arguing that the similarities are far greater than
the difference, but that doesn’t mean that differences don’t
exist or that they aren’t important. Women and men are treated
differently in society and this different experience affects the roles that
women and men play.

In her study, Shibley Hyde conducted a review of 46 studies, each of
which themselves was a review of other studies. Hundreds of reports
were involved. She grouped her data into six categories and set about
seeing if she could find any evidence of difference. The categories
were: those studies that assessed cogitative variables; that assessed
verbal and non-verbal communication; that assessed social or
personality variables; that assessed measures of psychological
well-being (for example self-esteem); that assessed motor behaviour
(for example, how far can you throw a ball) and finally a category of
miscellaneous reports, such as ‘moral reasoning’.

As with the earlier Maccoby and Jacklin study, she found gender
differences in a few very specific areas. The first area is, not
surprisingly, throwing ability. Men can throw a ball further and faster
than women. The second area was found in some measures of
sexuality – men masturbate more and have different attitudes to
casual sex. The third and final area was in levels of aggression, in
particular in levels of physical aggression.
Differences aren’t stable

They also found that in some areas there are little differences in
childhood, but differences develop in the teenage years. So for
example, in high school, a small difference emerges favouring males
in terms of solving complex problems. This small variation in
differences over time, Shibley Hyde argues, overthrows ‘the
notions that gender differences are large and stable’ (p588), that
men have permanently set up camp on Mars which is a great distance
from Venus.

The study also highlights the importance of context in determining
gender differences.

So for example, averaging out over all the studies, it was found that
men helped more. But if the studies were separated into those where
the helping occurred when onlookers were present, and those where
onlookers were absent, it was found that a large gender difference only
occurred when onlookers were present.

This difference, she argues, can be explained by looking at social roles
– in western society ‘heroism’ is seen as a masculine
attribute, which means that men are more likely to help others when
they are doing it in a public way that might be interpreted as heroic.
The difference in one trait ‘helping others’ can be large,
favouring males, or close to zero, depending on the social context in
which that trait occurs.

Similar differences were found when looking at interruptions to
conversations – very little difference were found in groups of two,
and small differences were found in groups of three and more. Again
the social context affects the behavioural response – and the idea
that there are fixed male and female responses, which we are all
hardwired to perform, is undermined.
Different experiences, different responses

In those areas where men and women behave differently, it is in large
part because they are treated differently growing up. An example of
this different treatment can be found in a study by Myra and David
Sadker in which they looked at the different ways boys and girls were
treated in US high schools. After three years of classroom
observations, they discovered a hidden, unconscious bias that neither
teachers nor students were aware of.

Boys were asked more questions, were praised more, referred to more
in class, girls were less often called on, often ignored, to the extent
that teachers would stand with their back to the girls while talking to
the boys. In addition, in the text books given to the students,
women’s contribution to society was often absent, ignored or
hidden. Finally there was a tolerance of sexual discrimination of girls
by other children or indeed incidences of sexual discrimination by
teachers.

The result of this was that as you look at the progression of girls
throughout the education system they become progressively quieter.
In a typical US college classroom, 45% of the students don’t
participate by asking and answering questions, and the majority of
those are women. In light of this study, the behavioural findings on
conversation interruptions don’t seem to be that surprising.

The Sadker study found that over time, due to their different
experiences growing up, boys and girls acted in different ways within
the classroom. The Hyde study also found some differences in
behaviour but emphasised that these differences are not as great as the
similarities.
Many voices make up the movement

So where does this leave us – knowing that genders are not as
different as often described but also aware that gender (as do other
cultural attributes) can colour the way in which we perceive and act
within the world?

A key starting point for any group, movement or society who want to
mobilise the full potential and creativity of humanity is to challenge
the gendered nature of roles. This begins when we challenge the idea
that the differences between the genders are based on biology, rather
than experience.

However, this doesn’t mean that we are all the same - men,
women, old, young, city dweller, country person, black, white –
rather that our different experiences have created a diversity of
characteristics, attitudes, values and identities. The movements and
the society we are trying to build have to allow a voice to this diversity.

Women are under-represented in anarchist groups throughout the
world, and this means our movements are considerably weaker as we
are losing the point of view, the experiences, the skills and
understandings of a large portion of humanity.

One of the few groups who seriously and successfully faced up to this
problem was the anarchist group Mujeres Libres, who fought during
the Spanish Civil War. They recognised that the problem of
incorporating women into the anarchist movement operated on many
different levels. On one hand there was the obvious sexism of part of
the anarchist movement, which needed to be combated.

In a less obvious way, many men in the anarchist movement were and
are, gender blind. That is they do not realise that their own way of
seeing the world is coloured by their own gender and aren’t aware
of or interested in understanding other perspectives. While we all
naturally make sense of the world from the point of view of our own
experiences, we also need to be able to realise that our experiences
aren’t universal. Where those other voices are in the minority, we
need to actively go out and seek those alternative perspectives.

This is different from saying, as John Gray does, that women and men
are so different they need a self-help book to be able to understand
each other. This doesn’t mean that we believe that men and
women occupy different spheres of life, that some are best suited to
revolutionary organisation, while others are not.

It does mean however that we try as revolutionaries to look beyond our
own world-view (and of course this doesn’t apply just to gender, it
holds true for race, nationality, and all the other aspects of culture). In
the pages of their papers and at their meetings, Mujeres Libres gave
voice to women’s experiences.

Mujeres Libres also worked to challenge restrictive gender roles. It is
generally true that you cannot do what you haven’t dreamt. If a
woman never imagines herself taking part in an anarchist
organisation, if she doesn’t see a role for herself within that
organisation, it is very unlikely that she will ever feel motivated to join
one.

As a women’s only group, Mujeres Libres automatically gave to
women a space where they knew, by virtue of their gender, that they
were welcomed and needed. From that starting point, the women
involved undertook work that was more usually done by men; they
organised meetings, they spoke at meetings, they travelled around the
country.

Mujeres Libres also had the advantage that they were working in
revolutionary times, and so the fight for women’s liberation
became part and parcel of the new society that was being built.
Today’s anarchists operate in less optimistic times and, though for
women things are a lot freer than they were in 1930s Spain, the
problem of how to create revolutionary organisations which reflect the
full diversity of society have yet to be solved.

References:
A woman's place is to wait and listen, says the Vatican
John Hooper and Jo Revill, Sunday August 1, 2004, The Observer
Interview with Alice Kessler Harris:
http://www.pbs.org/fmc/interviews/kesslerharris.htm
Sadker, M and Sadker, D (1994) Failing at Fairness: How
America’s Schools Cheat Girls, Scribner.
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