web 2.0

Nov 16, 2011

On gender roles

(This post was inspired by a video Jenn recently posted on YouTube. You may want to watch it before reading it.)

There are moments in life when a big change occurs, and it takes time to adjust to it. Imagine getting a promotion, and accepting new responsibilities. It would be quite convenient to be fully efficient from the moment you assume this new position, but we all know it is not so easy to adapt. The same applies to human groups of all sizes, from families adapting to a new child, to societies evolving in response to philosophical or technological advances.

One of the most significant changes of the last couple of centuries is that the need for brute strength has slowly disappeared. Look around you, and try to count how many items required intense physical work in their making.
Manual labour still exists, of course, and often puts a strain on the workers (either physically or in terms of health issues), but rarely requires pure strength.
Few of us are still hunting or growing our food, and those who do can also rely on mechanical assistance.

In that context, our greatest attributes no longer are strength or stamina, but rather problem solving skills, creativity and learning abilities.
These are clearly not attributes specific to a given sex, so there is no reason for gender roles to still play such an important role. (Even though there are differences between males and females, even at the neurological level, these are no justification for gender roles traditionally attached to men and women. It is worth noting that some non-Western societies have more than two genders.)

If anyone had any doubt, women showed during WW2 that they can handle any tasks men were traditionally undertaking, at a time when factory work was still common as well as more physical. How can anyone really think there is any position in today's job market for which a woman would be irreversibly less suited?

It does not make any sense to consider half the human population is genetically meant to stay at home to clean and cook. By the way, if women were meant to be cooks, how would you explain the sex ratio in 3-star chefs in Michelin guides? Anne-Sophie Pic, for instance, is the first female 3-star chef in France since 1951. The other 48 chefs awarded that elusive third star between 1951 and 2010 are all male. It seems men can cook after all.

In some sense, first-world societies are still adjusting to technical changes that should have freed us from gender roles, but they are quite slow in doing so.

Slow progress is not surprising in itself. It is quite understandable that societies would be robust systems that are largely immune to sudden changes. They are meant to be stable. What is more surprising, however, is how everyone seems to be satisfied with the speed of evolution on this particular issue.

Women's suffrage was gradually achieved in most Western countries between 1869 and the 1960s, in line with technological advances allowing evolution away from traditional gender roles, but their representation in governments and elected parliaments is still far from parity. Furthermore, several topics such as birth control (and abortion in particular) remain very controversial in a number of first-world countries.

What is even more striking is the lack of evolution in the way women are perceived and portrayed. It is disappointing to see some people assume that someone could succeed only because she is a woman, that she "had it easy". In many situations, given the way societies still operate and create obstacles, one might say she would have succeeded *despite* being a woman.

I have mixed feelings about affirmative action, as it leads some people to disregard any success only as a direct consequence of this action (and such an attitude is precisely the situation we are trying to move away from). I believe in "bottom-up" approaches and think everybody needs to work on the issue.
It would be foolish to think that one individual can change an entire society, but it would be equally unwise for anyone to expect change and not work towards it.

I suppose the best option is to be supportive of the people around you, male or female, and try to help them accomplish great things. The best way for people to stop considering that others (female or otherwise) are usurping their success, is to help them get over their own frustration.
(One could argue that this is also a result of first-world societies promoting a narrow-minded vision of success, but this will have to wait for another post.)

And if anyone reading this is in any way involved in robotics, please stop making "female" robots that are built solely to move suggestively and do nothing else. This is complete non-sense. It is hard enough dealing with gender prejudices in humans without transferring them onto robots as well!

No comments: