When our son was a toddler, he had Chris, a Cabbage Patch doll, which managed to survive three decades of moving with the military. The doll has an androgynous physique and a gender-neutral name. Our granddaughters insist that Chris is a girl, so rather than his original coveralls, Chris now has a flower in her hair and a skirt. While gender isn’t really that simple, it is curious to think about how much of a role appearance, clothing and culture play in identity and opportunities.
International Women’s Day fell on Tuesday this week, as it has on March 8th for the last 103 years. “Fell” is perhaps an appropriate verb given the subdued US celebrations during women’s history month. Since 1975, the United Nations (UN) has endorsed this day to mark women’s social, economic, cultural, and political achievements; reflect on gender equality progress; and as a call to action for change. The theme for 2016 is “Planet 50-50 by 2030” – aiming to achieve global equality in areas such as education.
The world population gender ratio is already roughly 50/50; males to females. According to World Bank data, that ratio holds except in some Middle Eastern countries (at 26.3% women, UAE is at the bottom according to 2014 figures). But opportunities for women and girls are not equally distributed; and those of the XX persuasion are also more vulnerable to violence. How much is nature and how much are differences caused by upbringing and policies?
The fluidity of Chris’ gender reassignment seems apt for making the case that gender is just one quality we happen to obtain in the pre-birth genetic lottery; and probably not even the most significant biologically. Generally, scientific research finds men and women are more physically similar than different. As anyone around infants is aware, you have to change a diaper to know if a baby is a boy or girl, unless outfitted in color-coded clothing. Maturity brings physiological distinctions in adults which are primarily geared for reproduction. Human brains are physically similar, although researchers discovered that male brains have more connections within hemispheres to optimize motor skills, whereas female brains are more connected between hemispheres for analytical and intuitive thinking. But, as with anything, people–male and female–fall all across the spectrum.
If you pay attention to world news, you know that some countries and institutions perceive women and girls as having less value than men; usually due to ingrained attitudes from religious teachings. At a Society of American Military Engineers (SAME) panel honoring accomplished women and their supporters, there are clearly bright spots for women including West Point’s Commandant of Cadets; the Coast Guard Academy’s former Superintendent (college president); the admiral who led the engineering division for the US Navy; the President of SAME and business owners in architecture and construction. But these women are notable partly because gender is still an issue.
Gender bias in the United States is mostly covert, as stories and statistics testify to this hidden discrimination:
- On the 2015 Forbes list of 40 entrepreneurs under 40, there is only one woman—Elizabeth Holmes for a blood testing protocol
- In the IT community, women are judged as better coders, as long as gender isn’t known
- To get more women musicians, many orchestras use blind auditions where the performer is screened so gender doesn’t influence evaluations
- Since the Medal of Honor was established in 1861, Dr Mary E. Walker is the sole woman awardee, out of over 3500 heroes. And the government tried to rescind hers after a rules change, but Dr. Walker refused to relinquish her medal. Go Mary!
With the 50/50 ratio, why are women not equally represented in C-suites, government, and churches? Why is there a need for commemorating women with special days, months and forums? And how can we ensure things improve for my granddaughters and other girls? My co-blogger, Jane, and I reflected on the formative value of our secondary school. As students at an all girls’ high school, (which we didn’t fully appreciate at the time), the Academy of the Holy Angels was a leadership incubator. Of course, girls excelled in math and science, presented their opinions in discussions and were team captains and club presidents. Despite its Roman Catholic roots, where ordained male clergy perch at the top of the hierarchy, our experiences normalized the potential of women and girls.
Perhaps Chris gets partial credit for parenting preparation. As our son once was, his girls are drawn to Chris, the boy / girl doll, as they learn to show and share affection. As many have written and sung (though maybe fewer have lived), all you need is love. My son’s children will have opportunities to choose paths based on talents, skills and preferences. I want my grandchildren to realize their potential, irrespective of gender; a discriminator that limits and constrains and something that seems less fixed now than ever before. What will it take? As individuals, we cannot solve the problem. Change happens through collective action, which means gender equality cannot happen without men. So at the next women’s event, hopefully there will be a 50/50 ratio of men and women in the audience supporting opportunities for all.
© Joan S Grey, 11 Mar 2016
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