I like to create awareness of our conditioning and how it can lead us to pursue versions of success that are in line with others’ expectations but not necessarily what we want. That’s why I started writing on Forbes.com and here on gutsy.world. The first step in living your own life is to understand your conditioning so that you can decide which parts are okay for you and which parts you want to let go of, so that you can define and live your own version of success.
But because I am a lady woman in the US at this moment in time, I find that most people want me to talk about my experiences as a woman and my thoughts on gender more broadly. Quite frankly, this is not my main area of interest.
But What About Gender?
When the conversation turns to gender, I am clear to acknowledge that gender roles are definitely a part of our conditioning. We are taught about gender roles from our parents, school experiences, Disney movies, television, social media, literature, and other sources of influence. And there have been a lot of great conversations and research about them. Some of my favorites highlight how both men and women reinforce gender roles and expectations about who does what and who doesn’t do what. Take a look at these:
- Jackson Katz: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zZpasZhSihE
- Miss Representation: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miss_Representation
- Geena Davis’s institute: www.seejane.org
- Liberal, feminist, millennial dad realizing his conditioning and struggling with it after he and his wife had a child
- They ways men and women perpetuate gender roles at home, especially with chores and tasks and emotional labor
- Men and women judge women more harshly if the house isn’t clean
- The Gendered Brain by Gina Rippon
Conditioning Is Bigger Than Gender
But conditioning isn’t just about gender roles (although that’s sometimes the easiest thing to focus on). It’s much, much bigger than that. Our conditioning also includes things like whether we are driven by competition or cooperation. It includes our definitions of success and whether we are driven to pursue external indicators—like money and power—or internal indicators—like relationship fulfillment and well-being. It includes our attitudes towards treatment of others and if those with more power or status or money get treated preferentially and if we accept structural and systemic inequalities without trying to change them.
Basically, my view is that culture sits on top of gender, and gender roles are defined in ways that reinforce and perpetuate the broader cultural norms. That is why I prefer to get above conversations about gender and talk about the broader culture, and the rules of that culture, in which gender roles are living. Trying to change gender roles without addressing those broader cultural assumptions and norms is always going to be unsatisfying and incomplete. This is why I am trying to promote more conversations about those broader cultural norms instead of focusing just on gender.
Broader Cultural Norms
To give a concrete example, in class one day, a student argued that women were better at taking care of children than men. I wanted to challenge this assumption (as did a stay-at-home dad in the class). I said, “Why are women better?” And the student replied, “Well biologically, women are more equipped to take care of children.” And I said, “What biologically makes a woman more equipped to drive a 4th grader to a dentist appointment at two o-clock in the afternoon?” And he looked at me like I had three heads.
Yes. Biologically, women give birth. But men and women can give bottles and change diapers and wake up at 3am. Men and women can drive kids to school and take them to appointments. Men and women can cook meals for kids and do shopping. Those things are not biological.
But the overarching culture that prizes competition and aggression, that steers men into higher-paying professions (think STEM and biases about whether or not women are good at math), that pays women less even when they are in those roles (think gender pay gap), and that still hasn’t provided affordable childcare options for most working families (especially compared to the rest of the world), leads to economic situations where someone has to work less or stay home to take care of the kids. It’s usually the person who makes less money. And that’s where gender roles emerge from the broader cultural norms and expectations.
Until we address those broader norms and expectations, gender issues will persist. So instead of ranting about gender, I’d prefer conversations about adjusting the cultural frameworks that lead to the structures that end up drive gender roles. Let’s get above gender to talk about the broader culture.