- March 25, 2021
If you woke up tomorrow as a member of the opposite sex, how would your life be different? What new pressures would you have to face? What opportunities would be available to you? Would your world view, opinions and choices change? Would it matter that you were no longer male or female?
I was raised to go for it. And so I went for it; oblivious of the fact that society had other plans for me. The messaging I would get was that “going for it” was not ladylike.
Still, I went for it because I got the green light from my parents and my intuition told me that I was on the right track. Today, I write this, confident in the knowledge that I did the right thing.
My knowing came after I learned the clear definitions of two words: gender and sex.
Historically, socially and in everyday language, the words gender and sex have been used interchangeably, which is perhaps where the problem begins.
Gender and sex are not synonyms
No sir. Though in some languages, the same word is used for sex and gender, in others, such as the one I am using here, the two words denote different concepts:
Sex refers to the biological differences between males and females. It is generally assigned at birth.
Gender refers to the social and cultural differences a society assigns to people based on their sex. The World Health Organisation defines it as:
The characteristics of women, men, girls and boys, that are socially constructed. This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, and our relationships with each other. As a social construct, gender varies from society to society and can change over time.
To reiterate, sex is biological, given in nature; gender is socially constructed, not given in nature.
Gender creates, recreates and justifies inequality
Once a child is born, they are assigned a gender. And then things pretty much go downhill from there.
Let’s say this child is born male. He will be expected and encouraged to engage in the corresponding masculine behaviours; men are tough, strong, handy, stoic, logical, sexually aggressive, competitive, action-oriented, outgoing, brave, adventurous, risk-takers…
If the child is born female, she will be expected and encouraged to engage in corresponding feminine behaviours; women are empathetic, domestic, nurturing, chaste, submissive, agreeable, modest, supportive, warm, passive, devoted, sexually passive, irrational…
We are assigned roles and their corresponding lanes from the onset; we are highly encouraged to stick to them.
If it’s not parents or immediate caregivers that are reinforcing these notions, it will be the newsrooms, the music lyrics, the movies, the neighbours, the third cousins twice removed, the random “well-wishers”, the future partners in life, the institutions…quite frankly, it’s an impossible trap to escape from.
If you were born female and, as an adult, wanted to run for political office (a man’s lane), you will be expected to project masculine strength, but not too much of it because that will make you a bitch. You will also be expected to project feminine gentleness though not too much this either, because that makes you weak. It becomes an impossible double bind. So you may decide (understandably so) that it is easier to just “stick to your lane”.
The same principle applies if you are a man who, for instance, displays emotion. In this case, there are no contradictions. Displaying emotion is unmanly. A clear show of weakness. The preserve of women.
Gender stereotypes are very real. And very harmful. They make it exceedingly difficult for us to be who we are, feel what we feel and do what we wish without fear of rejection.
Are men and women hardwired differently?
We know that male and female bodies differ, but what about our brains? For decades, science has backed up the notion that the world is divided by two different kinds of brains- male and female.
Women’s brains are said to be wired for empathy and intuition, whereas male brains are supposed to be optimized for reason and action. This assertion has been used to control a narrative that is powerful and devastating in equal measure: girls do not have science brains and boys cannot be nurturers.
Science doesn’t lie.
Except, in the recent past, several neuroscientists, most notably Gina Rippon and Daphna Joel, have conducted new research that dispels a “truth” that has done an excellent job of justifying attitudes that hold back the advancement of women and keep men in “power”.
Drawing on cutting edge research in neuroscience and psychology, Rippon presents the latest evidence in her book, The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain, where she argues that brains are like mosaics comprised of both male and female components and that they remain plastic, adapting throughout the course of a person’s life. Discernable gender identities, Rippon asserts, are shaped by a society where scientific misconceptions continue to be wielded and perpetuated to the detriment of our children, our own lives, and our culture.
Professor of psychology and neuroscience Daphna Joel concurs. In her own research and subsequent book, Gender Mosaic: Beyond the Myth of the Male and Female Brain (2019), Joel draws on large-scale studies of brains and of human psychology to show that while brains of women and men, on average, are different in several ways, there is no “average” male or female brain; at the individual level, most people are a mosaic of gendered features.
Further, in the field of archaeology, numerous discoveries have been made that disprove the notion that men and women in ancient societies had strictly defined roles where a man was “the hunter” and woman “the gatherer”. Empirical evidence now points to the fact that in several societies, women were, in fact, successful big-game hunters.
The problem with gender stereotyping
The problem with stereotyping is it limits us. It limits us from freely experiencing and releasing our unbounded human potential. It dehumanizes us. This is to say; it makes us all a little less human than we are capable of being.
The belief that men must be physically strong, emotionally unavailable providers who should steer clear of all that is feminine does not allow men to honour the full width and depth of the feminine characteristics within themselves.
Similarly, the belief that women must be docile, nurturers who submit to men’s needs, does not allow women to honour the full width and depth of the masculine qualities within themselves.
These unreasonable convictions have real-life consequences:
On the one hand, societal ills such as sexual harassment and the subordination of and violence against girls and women tend to affect women more than men because women are supposed to be compliant, docile, receptive beings.
On the other hand, boys and men constantly get messages that encourage them to objectify women, resolve conflicts through violence, disconnect from their emotions, and devalue authentic connections- so many men never express their innermost feelings for fear of appearing weak before others. These rigid notions of masculinity have grave implications for men’s mental health and wellbeing, and in many cases, dire consequences on women.
And the real stinger in all this?
Traits assigned to women are largely held in contempt, while those assigned to men are largely celebrated and rewarded.
We have been teaching and reinforcing to boys and girls the notion that it is better to be a man than a woman.
The evidence is all around us.
Think about the derisive terms on women who are, for instance, sexually assertive (a man’s lane). The language used to describe these women is derisive- to women.
Now, think about the terms used on men who cry in public (a woman’s lane). The language used here is also derisive- to women.
This open research article on Frontiers that compares prescriptive and descriptive gender stereotypes in our current cultures reads in part:
“Men are viewed more negatively than women for violating gender norms because men loose status (while women gain status) with similar violations.
There are homegrown examples that support this:
Dubbed “The Iron Lady” in Kenyan media for the robust defence of her views, a powerful Kenyan female politician, Martha Karua, was once referred to by one prominent columnist as “the only man in Kibaki’s government”. This moniker stuck. Even though many of her actions were violating gender norms, she gained status for embodying masculine traits.
Conversely, when another powerful Kenyan politician, Moses Wetangula, male, reported to the police that his wife had assaulted him, the case took a humiliating turn for him. For violating gender norms, Wetangula lost status.
If you look at the prevailing business culture, the tone has largely been hyper-masculine. Feminized occupations and industries tend to pay less than masculinized occupations and industries that men dominate.
And since material progress has always been more visible and therefore more revered than any other, feminine have been shunned and oppressed in favour of masculine traits. Women don’t stand a chance- unless they abide by the rules of the game- a game that was never designed for them in the first place.
This makes me wonder, have I deliberately nurtured certain character traits because deep down, I believed that it is better to be more like a man than a woman? Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is that I have often found myself avoiding expressing my emotions and vulnerability for fear of being perceived as weak. Many women have.
Ideally, we shouldn’t be forced to choose
We should be allowed to nurture and celebrate the full spectrum of our human being-ness. I should honour and elevate my ability to reason and take action without diminishing and undervaluing my emotional and nurturing abilities. The same goes for my male counterparts.
The idea that we all have masculine and feminine energies within ourselves, no matter our physical gender, is not new.
In archetypal psychology, the classic male principle uses rationality, logic, strength and exudes leadership skills. It is about DOING. The classic feminine principle leans more towards intuition, creativity and allowing. It is about BEING.
Both principles and energies exist in every individual.
But we have made the common error that attributes masculine energy (also referred to as the Divine Masculine or Masculine Principle), to men only and feminine energy (also referred to as the Divine Feminine or Feminine Principle), to women only. And so men spend their time and energies suppressing their inner feminine while women spend their time and energy suppressing their inner masculine.
The goal should be finding a healthy balance that manifests in healthy ways.
Healthy feminine energy
Healthy feminine capacities include adaptability, intuition, creativity, flow, sensuality, nurturing, affection, sharing, gentleness, patience, vulnerability, empathy, inclusion, openness, trust, and harmony. But when these traits are not balanced with corresponding masculine qualities, they can manifest in unhealthy ways that include smothering, neediness, dependency, exploitation, lack of focus, irrationality, and manipulation.
Examples of contemporary female figures in the public eye who display a healthy balance of both their feminine and masculine energy include the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize, the late Wangari Mathai; New Zealand’s sitting Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern; former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; Business Executive Indra Nooyi; former Pakistani Prime Minister, the late Benazir Bhutto; Entertainer Madonna; sitting US Vice President, Kamala Harris and sitting German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Healthy masculine energy
Healthy masculine capacities include direction, logic, reason, focus, structure, stability, independence, discipline, confidence, discernment, clarity, assertiveness and order. But when they are not balanced with corresponding feminine capacities, they can manifest in unhealthy ways that include aggression, cruelty, arrogance, insensitivity, violence, hunger for power, and spiritual emptiness.
Some contemporary males in the public eye who display a healthy balance of both their masculine and feminine energy include former US President Barrack Obama; Businessman Richard Branson; former Secretary-General of the UN, the late Kofi Anan; former Chief Justice of Kenya, Dr Willy Mutunga; sitting Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau; Entertainer, Will Smith; Spiritual Leader of Tibet, The Dalai Lama and Spiritual Teacher and Author, Eckhart Tolle. Indeed, on the spiritual teachers’ spectrum, Jesus, Budha, and Mohammed were by no means, classic patriarchs. Through their message that preached kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, they were the embodiment of healthy feminine energy.
The future is female
You’ve probably come across this phrase or its hashtag variation somewhere. The first time I read it, I cringed. After all, the idea is not to advocate for reverse oppression but rather equality in a world that has largely been skewed in favour of the masculine. For that matter, a phrase that points to the notion that females are now set to take over the world didn’t sit right with me. So I redefined it for myself. This is what I came up with:
The future belongs to those who are willing to celebrate their feminine capacities; capacities that have been denied, undervalued, undermined and held in contempt for far too long.
Indeed, today’s business world has fully embraced the feminine-style of leadership, which is associated with leadership that focuses on compassion and cooperation. This style has, time and again, proved advantageous over masculine style leadership, which is associated with competitive aggression that emphasizes getting ahead by any means necessary.
Emotionally intelligent leaders, be they male or female, have become a highly sought after commodity in the workplace.
We are beginning to place a premium value on traditionally feminine qualities- within our boardrooms, within our relationships, and in our interactions with our planet. This is not to say that the masculine has been or should be forgotten. The overemphasis of one over the can only create a system in which so many people feel oppressed, neglected, unseen and unheard. We’ve all seen and/ or experienced the destructive effects of this. It would be foolhardy to repeat this mistake.
This time around, we are seeking balance. Balance that celebrates both our diversity and inseparability as women and men. If we can master this, our perception of our humanity will come from a more unified viewpoint where we relate to each other, not as male or female, but as human beings. And once we collectively realize that there is no war of the sexes, and indeed there never was, the world will become a safer and kinder place for all of us. Or in the words of Professor Daphna Joel:
A gender-free world is one in which the form of one’s genitals – male, female or intersex – carries no social meaning. A world in which if something is appropriate for humans, it is appropriate for you.
As we come to the end of #Women’sHistoryMonth, these are powerful words to mull over.
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