Gender: M / F / ? (part 2)
April 13, 2008

Continuing from Thursday's discussion about the differences between biological sex and cultural gender-roles:
So it does seem that throughout our human history, there have been quite a fair number of individuals who did not fit into the cultural gender role specified by their biological sex. I am not discussing sexual orientation, which to me, is a separate (although related) issue.

What strikes me about all of this is an issue which has always irritated me and is demonstrated most aptly by a modern example: the About Me box prevalent on every website with any real level of personalization. You can see the problem if you surf through Blogger blogs, MySpace, Friendster or the like. Some people have short, pithy About Me boxes - either their world is easily classified and categorized, or they've given up in frustration. Other people have About Me boxes which trail from the top of the page, down below the fold and then some, a long, skinny tail attempting to balance everything that person is.

The reality of humanity is that we are rarely easily categorized. People are so very much more than their religion, their race, their nationality, their ethnicity, their profession, their marital status ... and more than their sex or their gender.

So, what is it to be male or female in terms of expected gender roles? Well, obviously this changes from culture to culture.

My first-year college students, some 5-8 years ago, had to read a seminal article discussing how gender expectations led to male and female students learning and behaving differently in the classroom. When it came time to discuss the essay in class, the students immediately let me know exactly what they thought about the article: it was hopelessly out of date.

It was one of those moments in teaching that you can't plan, but when they happen, you wish you'd had a video camera to record the whole thing.

The students began by all agreeing that such preferential treatment of boys over girls simply didn't happen any more. It very quickly morphed into "boys and girls are better in different areas because boys and girls are interested in different things."

Girls don't like math.
Boys don't like reading.

As the students made these generalizations, I could see some of them starting to squirm in their seats. However, as first-year students, not all of them were willing to "take on" the entire class and it seemed like everyone else was agreeing.

And then one of the male students said, "Well, you can tell boys and girls are different just by what they play with when they're little. I mean, girls don't like to play with cars or get dirty or climb trees."

Before he could go on, there were a couple of mini-explosions across the room.

We spent the rest of the class having a great discussion on gender-roles and how those often differ from the reality of individual personalities. With a class that included several female engineering students, several international students and a couple of males in "non-traditional" fields, there was a lot of sharing of stories. My students left the class that day, still discussing the issues - a happy and semi-rare day for a required first-year course.

I think many people in the western world have come to the conclusion that it is not necessarily a trait of males to want to have a career. It's not necessarily a trait of women to want to stay home with the kids.

So, while some traits might be more prevalent in men or in women, they all seem to have not just exceptions (which implies they are not common) but that these traits might be tendencies, whether hard-wired or learned.

So what does hard-wire the male and female brain to be different?

Some research indicates that men use more grey matter, leading to a tendency toward more information processing; women tend to use more white matter, leading to more connections between various processing centers.

So, those people who say men and women think differently are right - in general. The problem is that there are always biological exceptions which muddy the waters.

For myself, I cringe when any survey asks me: M or F. I am not that easily categorized. They are not usually asking for my biological sex as that rarely matters in a survey. They are often asking for gender and I don't think that the majority of people in the western world truly fit into the expected gender norms. I know too many men who are "too sensitive" and too many women who enjoy the outdoors "too much." And if a researcher is simply quantifying us by M & F we're going to get pink Hello Kitty compound bows sized for a woman - which might make some of my friends happy (you know who you are!!), but which would just piss me off to no end.

Ultimately, what makes us what we think of as male or female is more complicated than our biological bits and there's a lot more overlap in both directions than M or F would indicate on a survey. As a species, we are programmed to look for patterns and to put everything into hierarchies. The problem is, most of our methods of classification are too simplistic to truly encapsulize who we are. There is no better example of this phenomenon than Thomas Beatie - someone born female, but felt like a man. So, he had his breasts removed, began the testosterone therapy ... but stopped short of a "full" sex change, citing that one day he might want to bear a child.

Is Thomas a man or a woman? Biologically, the answer is fairly simple as we sex people by their genitalia. However, if we were able to look at all of Thomas's systems, would we find all the hallmarks of female, or would we find female knees and reproductive organs, but a male brain?

Is the woman who is outside more than inside, who hunts deer and delights in dune buggies more male or more female?

And ultimately, does it really even matter? Aren't we simply ourselves?

Why should the exterior trappings of male and female dress or appearance matter to anyone short of potential mates? Why do we care?

In online communities, I try to not say if I'm male or female because I feel the question is far more complicated than the simple biological answer. I catch flak for it and I don't particularly care. If there's a shoutbox or live chat feature to the community, I generally find myself the center of a controversy - is "ender" male or female. People get angry when I won't answer the question. Eventually, I pose one question to them: "If I'm not looking to date you, why do you care? I am still the same person I was before the debate started here. Why does it really matter?"

So far, no one has been able to answer that question ... and they have all (so far) decided that it doesn't matter after all. They're still curious, of course, but we are an intensely curious species - and that's a good thing.

[Some further reading:
from the BBC

Posted by Red Monkey at April 13, 2008 12:10 PM | Blog | Struggles | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


marloff said:

I stumbled upon the conversation about Thomas Beatie on blogcatalog and based on your comments over there you struck me as someone thoughtful and level-headed. It's always a pleasure to run into people who are willing to think a little deeper, so tip of me hat to you.

It amazes me how people get so riled up the Thomas Beatie thing. How can the difference between sex and gender be so unclear? What amazes me even more is how deeply rooted the classic gender roles are. Sometimes I just don't get the world :)

April 19, 2008 5:22 PM
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