4.3 Reflecting on gender and identity
First, look back at what you wrote (if anything) under ‘gender’ in your response to Activity 3.
How did you define your gender? What kinds of words did you use?
When you think about your gender identity, what sort of things come to mind, for example in terms of qualities and attributes, skills and abilities, interests and activities?
Does your list include anything that refers to the ways in which you communicate with or relate to other people – and, if so, what?
When we asked members of the course team to describe their gender for Activity 3, most used one-word answers such as ‘woman or ‘male’, although for some the intersection of gender with other factors was important, as in descriptions such as ‘an African–Caribbean woman born in the UK’. Others were unhappy with some aspects of gender identity that were imposed. One person described himself as ‘a man, but a pro-feminist one’, while another wrote:
Although I am married I would never refer to myself as a wife and resist this as part of my identity. Likewise, I have not changed my name to that of my current husband. Can rejection of aspects of identity be part of our identity?
However, another person clearly saw her gender identity as a cause for affirmation and celebration:
Gender female and ‘I enjoy being a girl!’ It's still the first thing anyone notes after ‘white’ and is what begins to define difference in my identity… with all that goes with it.
Perhaps, like some course team members, you found defining your gender identity fairly straightforward – it was a ‘given’ – or perhaps, like others, you were uncomfortable with some of the associations attached to being a man or a woman.
How easy was it to describe the associations your gender identity has for you? You may have found it difficult to escape from conventional descriptions of male and female attributes – such as the notion that women are more sensitive, or that men are more action-oriented. Your list may have included attributes or skills that were specifically relevant to communication, such as the capacity to listen or to analyse situations. These notions of gendered difference are examined in Section 3.3.
As with ethnicity, identifying ourselves in gender terms is a dynamic and negotiated process, in which we actively associate ourselves with a particular category but within a context of definitions provided by the wider society. But where does gender come from? Is it innate and unchanging, or is it influenced to some extent by social and cultural contexts?
The debate about the roots of gender ‘differences’ mirrors those concerning ethnicity. As with ethnicity, views that could be characterised as ‘essentialist’ propose that gender is something we are born with and is ‘hard-wired’ into our genes. According to this view, each one of us is born with a fixed and distinctive male or female identity, and this shapes our behaviour in direct and significant ways throughout our lives. Some versions of this argument rely less on genetic conditioning and more on the influence of psychological conditioning early in life. However, there tends to be an assumption that this process of socialising boys and girls is universal and inescapable.
By contrast, a social constructionist perspective maintains that gender is not so much something we ‘are’ as something we ‘do’ and ‘become’. Although accepting that there are some basic differences between male and female human beings, this approach argues that they have very little influence on the ways people behave. Instead, social constructionists argue that gender differences emerge in the context of social interactions, and in specific social, cultural and historical contexts. People ‘do’ or ‘perform’ gender in different ways, depending on the social context. Moreover, people live out their gendered identities in different ways according to the society, culture and historical period in which they are living. The attributes, skills and activities that are associated with being a man or a woman depend largely on the ways in which gender is constructed within a particular society.
For example, one of the most persistent and powerful ideas about gender difference in western societies, until very recently, was that caring is a woman's ‘natural’ role, that men are less capable in this area and, indeed, that caring (especially for young children) is somehow ‘unmanly’. However, evidence from other societies and historical periods suggests this need not be the case. For example, in traditional Himalayan societies such as that in Ladakh, both boys and girls are brought up to have a role in the care of young children. According to writer Helena Norberg-Hodge:
Taking responsibility for other children as you yourself grow up must have a profound effect on your development. For boys in particular, it is important since it brings out their ability for caring and nurturing. In traditional Ladakh, masculine identity is not threatened by such qualities; on the contrary, it actually embraces them.
Norberg-Hodge, 2000, p. 66
Because of this cultural variation in ideas of gender, it is common for social constructionist accounts to refer to ‘masculinities’, for example, to emphasise the idea that gender identities are plural and constructed in social contexts, rather than being a singular, fixed essence (‘masculinity’) residing within the individual (see Connell, 1995). However, social constructionists, drawing on the work of Foucault, would go further than this and argue that our habit of categorising the world in a ‘gendered’ way is itself a social construction. Once again, the argument runs, you tend to find what you are looking for. If you see the world through the lens of gender differences, such differences will tend to be ‘found’ (McNay, 1992).
As with ethnicity, social constructionist arguments have been used, in this instance by feminists, to challenge inequality. According to many feminist writers, ideas about essential differences between men and women have been used to legitimate inequalities based on gender. In the same way that the development of racism as an ideology had an intimate link with the rise of the slave trade and the expansion of empire (Fryer, 1984), so it can be argued that an ideology of fixed gender differences serves to reproduce gendered inequality and oppression (Abbott, 2000).
How relevant are competing ideas about gender and identity to your experience? The next activity is a chance to reflect on your own sense of the roots of your gender identity.