The Dangers of a Gendered Mentality

While I thoroughly enjoyed the debate sparked by my post on the Oxford Dictionary’s adoption of “Girl power” and “Riot Girl” and what this event says about our culture I can’t help but feel as if that conversation didn’t accomplish much. We were arguing in abstracts about the issues surrounding something as seemingly trivial as vocabulary- what purpose does that serve? I’ve written this post to try and be a bit more purposeful extension of the conversation we started!

The most important point that I would like to make is how a new understanding of power and potential can be harnessed to benefit women, men, and the whole of our society. Through this series I aim to prove that it is important for society as a whole to believe  that there are varying levels of power and potential inherent within select individuals, regardless of gender.

So, we start today with the harm that comes from believing that gender is an indicator of one’s power and potential within certain fields.

Basically what were looking at is the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy: a statement (or belief)  that alters actions and therefore comes true. In other words, if you tell women that femininity requires them to be talented in certain areas and deficient in other areas, then most of them will present themselves in ways that fall in line with the stereotype. The same thing remains true for men and masculinity.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is a dangerous trap to fall into, since the effect this phenomena has on the people it involves  can make the prophecy appear to be true in the first place. The only way to test the veracity of the prophecy itself is to remove it from social consciousness and see if it holds true – something that is much easier said than done.

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For instance, lets look at the age-old idea that women are “naturally” less talented in the academic areas of math and science. Modern psychology has proven that idea to be completely untrue, in fact:

“Women’s math and spatial reasoning performance significantly improves when they are not worried about confirming negative gender stereotypes. By contrast, men’s math and spatial reasoning performance improves when they are reminded of the positive stereotypes associated with their gender. The research [was] conducted by professors at the University of Texas at Austin and New York University.”

What happens when those stereotypes are not in place from the beginning?

“In general, countries where girls matched or outperformed boys were also countries with high gender equality — like Denmark, Iceland, in the UK. All of these are in the top twelve — the US is 31, right before Kazakhstan. This suggests that culture, not biology, is holding girls back in countries where boys still outperform them.”

What this research says is that the supposed biological predisposition that men have towards math and sciences is non-existent. While it is true that men often outperform women in math this happens because of a self fulfilling prophecy: we are told that women most likely will not do as well so young women don’t try as hard in math/science in school, teachers don’t push their female students as hard as their male students in these subjects, and so on… everyone acts as if the prophecy is true, so it becomes true.

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Self-fulfilling prophecies show how gender norms can be harmful – by telling people they are biologically/socially/etc. expected to act, think, and feel a certain way based on their gender we often cause people to deny their true selves in order to fit the mold that they are expected to fall into.

There are some cases where this may not be directly harmful, but even so, one cannot ignore that the expectation to conform can lead to depression, lost potential, and many less noticable, but still harmful, side-effects both for individuals and society as a whole.

I think what strikes me most about the example above is that fact that, as a culture, we have only just now, as the stereotype and prophecy itself has begin to unravel, begun to realize the effects of the self-fulfilling prophecy can have on a student’s math/science abilities . Without the push from activists and mentors to encourage girls to break the stereotype we wouldn’t have the data that shows this stereotype actually is a self-fulfilling prophecy, rather than a biological given.

In other words, without people fighting to change this former “biological status quo” we’d likely still be believing that women were inherently, biologically, worse at mathematics and science – a belief that could discorage many potentially great female scientists/mathematicians from ever achieving all that they are capable of.

So why not take this concept further? If we could somehow undo the cultural idea that females are lacking in certain areas (like business sense, math ability, science, athletic prowess, etc.) and that men are deficient in certain areas (empathy, emotion, conversation, nurturing, etc.) then we could create a society where people are encouraged by the system as individuals to nurture their interests and abilities – who knows where it could lead!

ETA: Here’s an interesting article I just found via feministe’s Shameless Self-Promotion Sunday – its a personal account of the social climate for women/men involved with math and science. (This piece from the same website on the effect having a female mentor has on the gender gap is also really interesting!)

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