Those who know me well – or rather, those who have heard me speak, ever – know that few things aggravate me more than gender-based truisms. ‘Girls are just more sensitive’, ‘boys just naturally love guns’, ‘women are just more talkative’. All of these are nonsense.
These statements, which I find so annoying, can either reflect what is considered to be a behavioral or physical truth: how people act, and how their bodies manifest. There are three problems with this kind of thinking. The first is the assumption that observed differences are genetic – due to biological sex (biological determinism), the second, that something generally true to the population on average universally applies to individuals (stereotype), and the third, that if one difference is scientifically verifiable then difference in all associated abilities or tendencies must also be true (halo effect/reverse halo effect).
In the first instance, many people assume anecdotal experience provides sufficient information for them to make assumptions about the general population. Being the parents/aunt/uncle/cousin/babysittter of a boy child and a girl child does not make you a geneticist, nor give you a representative sample. The appeal of biological determinism is that it makes things (like institutional sexism) simple. Girls just *want* to be nurses/mommies. Boys are just *made* for the cut-throat world of high-finance/hockey.
If things like difference in income or representation in government can be assumed to be a direct result of innate differences in talent and character, then there isn’t anything to be fixed. It’s just natural that women make less money and do more housework and stay at home to make babies and pies. It has nothing to do with the fact that there are social patterns that reinforce certain behaviours and punish others, nothing to do with pre-existing power structures where sexist people are in positions of power where they have the ability and inclination to empower other people who think and act like them. This holds true for racism, by the way. How many people just ‘believed’ that people of colour were ‘made’ for physical labour? How many people still do?
For things that appear to be simple physical distinctions it’s harder to notice how sexist thoughts and beliefs can be reinforced, as they masquerade as scientific truth. XX and XY chromosomes do impart physical differences, including hormonal ones. However, what often happens is that a simple physical reality, e.g. ‘adult women’s hormones fluctuate on a roughly 28 day cycle’ can be used to justify sexist beliefs which are unrelated to the physical truth through anything other than common association and connotation, e.g. ‘for 3-7 days out of the month, women are irrational/angry/hungry for chocolate’. Science is misused to reinforce a pre-existing idea about supposed behavioural distinctions between men and women.
One of the most commonly accepted facts of sex-based physical difference is that men are stronger than women. And it is true in that, on average, the distribution of muscle and fat on men makes them more powerful, pound for pound, than women. This does not mean, however, that all men are stronger than all women, or that strength goes beyond ability to lift heavy things. Recently an acquaintance made reference to the fact that men were stronger than women, and concluded that therefore he could easily knock me unconscious. Note that he immediately made the leap from physical strength to a physical contest.
I think people of any gender will agree that few things are more of an invitation to brawl than an accusation of physical weakness.
I did not, on this occasion, punch my collocutor in the face.
I did stress that in general, it was pretty difficult to knock someone out, and that, if he would but take a look around the room, he would see at least 10-15 men that I could in all likelihood easily defeat in combat by virtue of being about 20lbs heavier than they (any sex-based advantage of theirs being outweighed by the difference in size and the fact that I exercise and eat regular meals).
It is also worth pointing out that knowing how to fight confers a significant advantage above and beyond physical strength; while a 220lb male beefcake could probably bench more weight, a 150lb female with a 4th degree black belt could still, most probably, kick beefcake’s ass. Being stronger is not the same as being better in a fight; however, because there is a strong connotation between physical strength and prowess, the scientific ‘truth’ of average advantage in one is conferred to the other.
Most people don’t think they are sexist (or racist, or other kinds of bigot), but many don’t notice the ways in which their assumptions about difference justify inequality, writ large or in their smaller, everyday interactions. Any generalizations you subscribe to affect how you interact with the subjects of these assumptions as individuals.
If you think of women as physically weaker, this affects how you treat all women, in the same way that subscribing to the belief that women get irrationally angry on a regular basis means that when you encounter an angry woman, part of your thought process in response may include wondering ‘should the source of this woman’s anger be dismissed out of hand because this woman is over-reacting due to her uterus’.
Just like knowing someone’s race doesn’t give you a short cut to knowing what they like or what their strengths and weaknesses are, knowing someone’s sex is equally useless in allowing you to come to any conclusions about them. These generalizations are unhelpful stereotypes, and perpetuate social inequality by declaring it genetically inevitable.