Policy Perspective: Do Gender Differences Exist?
In my last post, I asked the theoretical question, do gender differences exist? I concluded that there are observable trends that group people more-or-less by gender, but that identifying with a particular gender doesn’t mean that one identifies with every trait society assigns to that gender, and that gender categorization can be damaging both to those who do and do not identify as male or female.
Next, I’d like to consider the policy implications of the question.
The challenge here is to question whether gender differences have any utility from a policy perspective, while still respecting the lived experiences and claimed identities of those who identify as male or female. I can say that gender differences are illusory, that the “box” created by a lump of traits is in many ways artificial, and that the weight put on certain traits such as secondary sex characteristics and hormones obscures the actual diversity that exists in our society. But while saying this, I have to recognize that the categories “male” and “female” do mean something for many people, perhaps most, and that these categories can be useful when setting policy, organizing, or doing activist work.
So “male” and “female” can be helpful categories for practical purposes, but I would like to argue that an exclusively gendered perspective is bad policy.
I think that in almost, if not all cases, we can look at a problem or a potential structure as activists, organizers, writers, or policy-makers and use a more nuanced strategy to plan an approach. It’s important to take a challenge on its face and determine what the best way to define a population is for that given challenge, rather than picking gender as a default. Then, if gender is relevant, it’s important to look at other factors, to determine whether the population is broader or narrower than “male” or “female,” and whether other types of groupings within those populations might have different needs.
An exclusively gendered perspective tends to do two things: one, it leaves members of the relevant population out, and two, it erases subgroups within a population.
The first point can be illustrated fairly easily with some examples. The definition of “woman” is constantly coming up whenever a feminist group decides to hold a women-only event, or create a women-only space, or provide a service for women. Often, trans women are excluded in these cases, when trans women are frequently the members of the relevant population most in need of services. If feminist organizers were to use the thing they were planning (say, a safe space for women) as a starting point, they would inevitably see that trans women (and often, trans people generally) have an obvious need for that thing. Using a safe space as an example, the point is to create a space free of harassment, gendered insults, rape, sexism, etc. It’s hard to see how trans people aren’t in need of this kind of space.
Another obvious example is health care. Health care needs are difficult to segregate based on gender, because health care needs depend on a huge number of factors, including one’s physical body, hormones, lifestyle, genetics, etc. When a health care service such as OBGYN care, pregnancy prevention counseling, or abortion is framed as a service “for women,” those who don’t identify as women are excluded from services they need. The doctor’s office is a scary space for many trans, genderqueer, intersex, and otherwise gender-nonconforming people because there is no guarantee that the health care provider will respect an individual’s gender, understand it, or provide appropriate services. If campaigns intended to address health risks and needed services used more gender-neutral language, even directly targeting trans, genderqueer, and intersex folks, they would likely be more successful in reaching the entire intended population.
Health is also a good example of the second problem, that of erasing subgroups within the population in favor of the majority’s (or most visible group’s) needs. Gender and health don’t just come up in the context of reproductive health services. Almost every time I read an article at work about public health, risks of disease, or prevention strategies, it is framed by gender. These articles almost always mention the relative risk for males and females, state that the risk is the same, or point out flaws in studies that don’t include enough men or enough women. Because gender is used as a shorthand, I have no idea whether the reason for a differential risk is hormones, genetics, physical structures, brain chemistry, or something else, and thus I can’t evaluate my own risk because I don’t have a “normal” grouping of all these things to create the “female” shorthand. But this isn’t the only problem with the shorthand.
Medical and public health studies very frequently have a race problem. In all but the largest studies, you’ll see a mention that not enough respondents for at least one racial group were available. There are also invisible minorities that aren’t mentioned–people with disabilities, people with less access to healthcare, non-English speakers, indigenous people, etc. etc. People with common co-morbities are sometimes excluded from clinical trials, as well. A particular subgroup might be mentioned, but in almost every study I read, some important group is left out. When the study population is casually grouped as “women” or “men,” someone may read the study and assume that the results apply–when in fact, for example, a black working class women’s likelihood of contracting an illness might be much closer to a black working class man’s likelihood than to that of a white middle class woman.
While it is obvious that resources are scarce, and no writer or activist or organizer can account for every single possible subgroup, it is important to consider one’s limitations and make a note of them. It’s also smart policy to consider the topic at hand, and then choose an appropriate way to categorize populations. If subgroups might have different needs, it’s easy to at the very least point that out and suggest that others focus on those needs. If a gender group is being used for a particular reason, such as biology, mental health, emotional needs, physical strength, brain chemistry, or anything else, it’s better to point that out directly than to use gender as a shorthand.
Thanks for reading. If anyone has thoughts on these questions or suggestions on how to implement better policies, I’d welcome a discussion in comments or on Twitter. You can find me @queerscholar.