(From The Slits song Typical Girl)
I think it is probably because I have always been quite tomboyish that I have always been suspicious of the idea that gender might be hardwired in some way. I’ve always been more into the idea of gender as something that you do, something that you acquire or learn, rather than something that you have or are born with. As Judith Butler suggests ‘Gender is a kind of persistent imitation that passes as the real.’ It’s a role we all play. And, of course, it always seems that this hardwiring just happens to support traditional gender roles. How very handy.
As part of my research for Choose Your Future I have been looking into this idea. Are men really incapable of reading emotions or do we just not encourage them to learn? Are women really no good at reading maps or does the social belief that they are stop them from even thinking that they are. After all, if you are that person who doesn’t fit the stereotype, do you admit it or do you downplay your own ability in order to fit in.
It is surely far too difficult to separate nature and nurture. One of the first things that children pick up is what is expected from their gender. Parents are also so very concerned with their child fitting in. Even now, my mother expresses dismay at my fashion choices and tries to encourage me into things that she thinks are more feminine. As well as pointing out babies to me in the hope that I’ll find them so cute I won’t be able to resist my urge to get pregnant.
At the minute, I’m reading Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. It could not be a more apt title. The relationship between the social and biological is extremely complicated and who can say which came first. Does our brain effect how we behave socially or does society effect the way our brain functions? What does the fact that some male brains process emotions in a different place to some female brains really mean? Can we really make judgements about behaviour from looking at which parts of the brain light up? It is not as obvious as you might think.
It certainly does seem true that social factors can effect our perceptions of our own and others’ genders. For example, women given a talk about women who achieve well in maths and science did better on the maths test that followed than women told the opposite. (It goes without saying that the ability of all women was, in actual fact, about the same.) Similarly, women tend to rate their ability at socially unacceptable traits such as being good at maths as being worse than it actually is.
What I think when I hear about research that suggests gender differences are hardwired is what’s in it for them. Why would it be good if these differences were hardwired. And of course, the answer to that is in the title of the blog. Typical girls don’t rebel; they are polite, demure, do the housework, stay in their place. And typical boys keep all the power for themselves.