Theoretical Perspective: Do Gender Differences Exist?
These days, it seems like I can’t get away from headlines about men vs. women, discussing everything from biology to health to relationship preferences to shopping habits. It’s easy to feel erased when everything you read groups behavior of men vs. behavior of women, and you don’t fit into either of those categories. But is there a reason to organize the world in this way? Do gender differences exist?
In this post, I’ll address the the theoretical question of whether gender differences exist, and then, in a second post, I’ll ask the policy question of whether there’s any utility to using gender differences on a practical level.
So, are there gender differences? Well, yes, simply put. They aren’t black and white, and of course we can’t say that all men do x and all women do y about anything whatsoever. But there are observable trends, which is unsurprising given our tendency as a society to group absolutely everything by gender.
These trends are both informed by, and perpetuate, our tendency to use gender as the primary category when we organize our world. They erase those of us who are in between male and female, or outside of that system, because there is a tendency to try to push anyone who doesn’t fit into the box with everyone else. There was a recent post on Genderfork by someone who noted that zie is happy not passing, and I can relate to that, because there is so much pressure to “pass” as one gender or another, to climb into either box.
Genderqueer people are still, for the most part, raised as one gender or another. We are also perceived, for the most part, as one gender at a time. Most people are not comfortable seeing someone as not gendered, or bigendered, or as a third gender, and so society encourages us to second-guess our own identity as falling outside of the gender system.
As a genderqueer person raised female, I often have an internal struggle with things I enjoy, do, or wear that are categorized by others as “female.” I sometimes feel guilty when I do something that feels gendered–for example, when I wear a dress–but I have to remind myself that how I organize the world is a choice. I can consciously reject gender, and resist being labeled “female.” What I have to do is reject my brain’s tendency towards confirmation bias–that little societal trigger that sees a female behavior and tries to offer this as evidence that I am really female, that my alternate way of seeing the world is a sham. This built-in mechanism perpetuates gender categories, but categorization is always a choice.
So back to the original question–do gender differences exist? Here’s how I see it.
If most “women” see themselves in most of the traits that we label “female,” then a gender category emerges. The members of the category–women–don’t have to recognize themselves in every trait, or even a vast majority. There might even be some female traits that no women, or very few women, relate to, but as long as there’s a big bunch of traits that many women identify with, the category stays alive. If Woman A identifies with X and Y, and Woman B identifies with Y and Z, and Woman C identifies with X and Z, then we could probably come up with a category “woman” that consists of X, Y, Z, and Q, and Women A, B, and C would likely go with that.
Those minority traits sneak in there because women (or men–the same is true for both gender categories) are encouraged to be silent about the traits that don’t match them. There is pressure to be gendered, and so it’s understood that there are “female” traits that not all women share. Another tendency is for subgroups like “tomboy” to form, so that those who relate to fewer traits still identify as female gendered, and don’t rock the boat too much. Finally, some women may try to conform to traits they don’t share, to feel more comfortable in their gender, with their peers, or for whatever other reason.
Also, all traits are not created equal. Some traits have huge weight, making it hard for someone labeled “female” to consider alternatives. For example, a person who has breasts, hips, and a vulva, who menstruates and produces “female” hormones, is likely to consider these traits of far greater importance in determining gender than personality traits. Hence “women can do anything,” “women can be aggressive,” etc. rather than “women can do everything men can do, but also there are other options outside of male and female.”
Personally, I have quite a vast majority of “female” traits. I have never identified with a transmasculine perspective, which is probably why it took me a while to identify as genderqueer and while I still don’t identify with a genderqueer community. All things equal, I prefer “female” colors, fashions, and hobbies. I’m shy and prefer to be the “passive” one in relationships. I love baking. When I get emotional, I cry and am sad, and I almost never experience anger. Initially, I tried being more masculine to signal or bolster my gender difference, because it is so much easier to signal difference with clear cues. It’s much easier to “look masculine” than to look agendered.
When I read these articles comparing men and women, never mentioning alternatives or alternative ways of grouping human beings, I sometimes question the validity of my identity because I do see myself in a lot of the “female” traits mentioned. Beyond feeling erased because my chosen identity is never mentioned, being genderqueer takes away any authority I have to speak as someone who has the specific traits mentioned. I don’t get to have an opinion because the article is about men and women, and I am neither. Like relationship articles with the “heterosexual only” disclaimer at the beginning, anything that contrasts two genders takes away my authority to speak on the subject, even if I see myself in the article in some other way.
In part two, I’ll ask whether the men vs. women distinction has any utility from a policy perspective. Please stay tuned!