Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A question about gender

Those of us who are 50-ish will probably remember the record, released in 1972, called Free to Be... You and Me.  In this well-meant effort to combat gender stereotypes, a star-studded cast (including Marlo Thomas, Rosey Grier, Cicely Tyson, Michael Jackson, Kris Kristoffersen, and Billy de Wolfe) did skits and performed music with the message that boys and girls were basically the same, except for the obvious anatomical differences.  Anyone can be anything, anyone can do anything, because other than the slightly different equipment (a point which was downplayed), we're all the same, really.  Little boys can play with dolls, girls can be athletes and never marry, and so on.

Now, let me say at the outset that I think it's dreadful that societally-prescribed gender roles have held people back from doing what their hearts desired.  I always make certain to tell my biology classes about the tragedy of Rosalind Franklin, the woman who discovered the double-helical structure of DNA, and who was treated as a cut-rate lab assistant by James Watson and Francis Crick.  The two men (along with Maurice Wilkins) went on to win a Nobel Prize, while Franklin got bubkis, and in fact no one even knew about her role in the research until her notebooks were discovered in the 1980s, long after her death.  Clearly her gender was the impetus for her being ignored.  Watson said about her, in his autobiography, entitled (with amazing chutzpah) The Double Helix,
Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place.  The former was obviously preferable because, given her belligerent moods, it would be very difficult for Maurice [Wilkins] to maintain a dominant position that would allow him to think unhindered about DNA.
So, there's no doubt that gender roles have done tremendous damage, and that efforts like Free to Be... You and Me were perhaps necessary to counteract that damage.  However, is the central premise -- that boys and girls are identical except for the anatomy -- correct?

I ask the question because of an experiment in education going on currently in Sweden, which takes the Free to Be... You and Me concept and pushes it a step further.  In the preschool called Egalia, boys and girls not only aren't exposed to gender stereotypes, they're not exposed to gender references at all.  The gender-based pronouns in Swedish han (him) and hon (her) are replaced with an invented pronoun, the gender-neutral hen.  None of the books represent boys and girls (or men and women) in gender-traditional roles; all are in reversed roles, or in non-traditional roles (there are lots of books about homosexual couples, for example). 

Once again, while the intent is a good one, one has to wonder if the approach is denying something that is a simple fact.  Boys and girls are different, and this goes beyond the obvious.  A 2001 study at Harvard University found that women have substantially larger prefrontal cortices (the part of the brain responsible for decision-making) and limbic systems (which regulates emotions); men have larger parietal cortices (involved in spatial perception) and amygdalas (involved in "primitive" emotions such as anger).  Men have 6.5 times the amount of gray matter (the actual neurons of the brain); women have ten times the amount of white matter (the connections between the neurons).  Clearly these differences are reflected in behavior.

I helped raise two boys, and although a sample size of two is admittedly small, I can say from my own experience that their boy-brains were evident from the start.  Their mom, who had been raised on Free to Be... You and Me, was bound and determined to bring them up without any gender stereotypes, so toy guns and the like were not welcome in the house.  Toy stoves, cooking utensils, dolls, and so on, were encouraged.  What did my kids do?  Turn the cooking utensils into weapons.  (I will say, however, that both of my kids have turned into kind, caring young men who are confident enough that they don't care if a pastime they're interested in is "traditionally male" or "traditionally female" -- and both are outstanding cooks.)

While there is a need to break down gender stereotypes where they commit the unpardonable sin of denying a person's deepest desires, wasting his/her talent, or locking him/her into a role never chosen, it remains to be seen if the way to do that is by denying that gender differences exist.  The bottom line, to me, is freedom; freedom to choose, without being told by society that your choice is wrong simply on the basis of your gender.  If efforts like Free to Be... You and Me and Egalia achieve that end, great.  If, as I fear, it makes children hesitant to choose traditional roles because they've learned that "traditional roles = bad," then all we've done is what the traditional roles themselves did -- limit children's choices because of an artificial social construct.

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