Saturday, May 18, 2013

Week the Nineteenth: Gender Roles and Biases

At last! It's Saturday again and this time I'm actually writing on a current topic for the Introvert Social Hour! This week's thoughts are about gender roles and biases, and it raised some pretty strong feelings in the group. It's a powerful topic, to be sure, and I hope I can do it justice.
I have reason to worry about doing it justice, I think. I have to be honest, even though it's probably not going to be the most popular thing I ever say. I've never had much of an issue with gender bias. There are a few different reasons for that, beginning with the fact that I tend to be kind of "teflonesque" toward all sorts of potential offenses.

I was an extremely (possibly even pathologically) shy child, undersized at first and then overweight later, sick almost all the time, ridiculously bookish and nerdy, seemingly the perfect target for verbal abuse from my peers, but I experienced very, very little of that in my life. Occasionally someone would try briefly to be mean to me, but my response was always the same: I completely ignored it. No words, no tears, no anger, no emotional rise whatsoever, rarely even eye contact. I might glance up to see who was talking to me, but then I went right back to my book and promptly forgot about it. It wasn't that I was refusing to give them the satisfaction; it was that I truly wasn't upset by it. I honestly didn't care what people said because I was content with myself and figured they were just stupid if they thought there was something wrong with me. But the unintentional result was that they quickly got bored with me and went away. (Just for the record, this story actually gets even weirder and better, but that's another post.)

That same attitude has followed me throughout my life. It's pretty easy to hurt my feelings in some ways, but it's nearly impossible to insult me. If you say something that I feel to be true, I'll happily agree with you even if it's negative. If you say something that I disagree with, I'll assume you're simply uninformed and wouldn't say such silly things if you knew what you were talking about. So it's possible, I suppose, that people have said and done negative things to me due to my gender, but if they have I didn't notice. I just do my thing and let others do theirs. No one's ever tried to stop me, as far as I can tell.

Another reason that I've never had an issue with gender bias (and this is by far the most controversial thing I'm going to say, so brace yourself) is that I don't have a particular problem with some things being thought of as primarily masculine and other things being thought of as primarily feminine. Obviously everyone is different and lots of men and boys like things that are often associated with girls and women, and vice versa, and that's totally cool. More power to them, seriously! No one should be limited by the labels that society puts on things.

But I also don't think that means it's bad to recognize, say, romantic comedies and scrapbooks and shoe shopping as generally female pursuits while things like action movies and mud races and bow hunting are generally male pastimes. Yes, everyone should be able to do whatever they want to do, but it seems to me that some things tend to appeal to one side of the coin more than the other. I'm pretty sure the numbers will bear me out on that if anyone cares to do the research, and I don't think there's anything wrong with acknowledging it.

There is one area where I suppose I do see some gender bias, and it's a little frustrating, but it's basically the exact opposite of what you might expect. First of all, I should say that I have always worked in fields where a lot of people are concerned about gender bias: science and education. But I have never once had anyone try to hold me back in any way and, on the contrary, I've had far more support than I ever dreamed I would have. I even went to medical school and never heard so much as a peep of protest or disapproval from a single person. People frequently complain that women have a hard time breaking into the world of science and they have a hard time advancing once they're in it, but I've never seen that. I've worked with far more women than men, both in academia and in labs, and I've had far more female bosses in those fields than male. I've taught high school science for 18 years and girls are almost invariably my strongest and most motivated students. In my experience, girls are far more likely to take elective sciences, they're more successful (on average) in both required and elective classes, and they engage in science-related degree plans and jobs more often than boys do. Honestly? I worry a lot more about getting boys interested in science than about doing the same for girls. 
And yet I continue to hear concerns about the low rate of achievement by girls and women in science. That's the bias in my mind. Not that girls aren't doing science, but that people assume that women and girls aren't doing science. Because not only are girls doing science, but they're doing it great! Maybe it's different in other places, or maybe I'm just missing it or maybe maybe maybe. I don't know what the reasons are; I can only report what I've seen. And what I see is lots and lots of girls and women studying and working in scientific fields.

I want to be very clear in saying that I know gender bias does occur in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of situations, and I don't want to marginalize that in any way. It's crazy and stupid and ridiculous and should end, no doubt about it. I'm only saying here that I personally haven't witnessed or experienced it, and I know very well how fortunate I and my female students are to live in a world where we have the opportunities that we do without being pulled down at every turn.

So yeah. Short and sweet, that's my take on gender bias. Remember, if you have questions or comments please feel free to leave them below. I'd love to hear from you! And if you're interested in such things you can also find me on Twitter.

Thanks again for reading! If you've somehow landed here from some other source and haven't seen the videos that go along with this post, they are: 

Jill, Kristina & Amy

And that's it from me on this Saturday. Best wishes! <3

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