Understanding Gender Discrimination
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Understanding Gender Discrimination

Why are men and women different; is it nature, or is it nurture?



What does it mean to experience discrimination on the basis of one’s gender? First, it is important to think about what we know about gender and sex, and to consider the many factors that affect the ways we view ourselves as well as others. We then need to consider why a person’s sex or gender would render them lesser than in the eyes of others. And subject them to discrimination defined as differential treatment on the basis of one’s identity.

The first and perhaps most notable divide in theories of gender is the nature versus nurture debates. Why are men and women different? Is it nature, our biology or is it nurture, how we are raised and socialized? Why are some of us feminine and some of us masculine? Why do some of us present aspects of both masculine and feminine qualities? And why do some seem to prefer neither? It’s fairly common for people to think that gender exists in its current forms because it is natural. By this frame, gender merely reflects our bodily differences. This view, or this theory of gender, is an essentialist theory of gender.

Essentialist theories, commonly referred to as essentialism or biological essentialism, rely on pretty simple data; your body determines your gender. Essentialists believe that nature is the greatest predictor of gender.

This is easily the most common understanding of gender worldwide. And yet as my questions here indicate, biology is not destiny. People with similar bodies have radically different gender expressions. This is true across cultures and across time. Our ideas about men as an example are really different city by city and culture by culture. Social constructionists or theorists that believe that nurture or socialization plays the largest role in gender identity take a very different approach. They argue that bodies are in fact different, but we ascribe meaning to these differences. And one way we do this is through our deeply socialized ideas about gender. Consider how quickly children are socialized into one gender category or another. In most parts of the world, boys and girls are treated as radically different kinds of people.

The genders we occupy certainly come with different norms, rules and expectations for behaviour and appearance but they are all shaped by the norms that dominate society. In the case of Western societies, ideas about appropriate behaviour, appearance and ways of being in the world for men and women are quite limited.

In men’s work, sociologist Paul Carvel named the ways that men are expected to conform to a rigid set of behavioural expectations which he calls the Man Box. Let’s take a look at Carvel’s Man Box. The box has four walls, inside the walls are the requirements for manhood. Being tough, strong, non-emotional, decisive, physically imposing, verbally forceful, and handling others who are weaker or lesser. Outside the box are traits like sensitivity, kindness, vulnerability, openness, warmth, gentleness, fear, sadness, being physically small or weak and being quiet. Men are expected to stay in the box at all times. Straying outside the box calls men’s manhood into question. The Man Box includes many requirements. But principal among them is to be physically strong, competent, in charge and to avoid shelling emotion.

Boys and men are raised to conform to the structures in this box. And when they do not live up to these expectations, the punishment for not doing so can be quite intense. Boys and men who do not conform may find themselves being judged by peers especially other boys and men, and may not be given access to certain kinds of power and privilege accorded to men in society.

This is especially true for men who identify as gay because “real men are supposed to be heterosexual”. This is perceived to be the ultimate rejection of male power and competence and is often reacted to aggressively, even violently.

Women face similar kinds of pressures to be appropriately feminine according to society’s rules. This is often referred to in Western society as acting like a lady. The box for ladies is equally limiting as the Man Box. Ladies are expected to be quiet, submissive, deferential to men, helpful and nice. We are expected to focus on being attractive, slim, friendly, deferential to others, not too loud or asking to forcefully for things, smiling a lot and being kind and warm.

These qualities are especially associated with being an appropriate white lady, but are often then transposed onto women of other races. Because racism dictates what the ultimate form of being an appropriate lady or woman is associated with being white. Outside the Lady Box are qualities such as being assertive, dominant, voicing opinions, and being physically strong and imposing as well as being large or overweight.

Just as with the man box, the lady box is especially difficult for women to conform to if they are not heterosexual, since ladies are supposed to be, according to US society rules. And if they are assigned a female identity at birth, but transgress gender boundaries and identify as men or do not exhibit feminine characteristics.

One of the ways that society confines people to the Man Box and the Lady Box is by mapping certain kinds of normative behaviours on to being a man or a woman. Rewarding those who conform and then punishing those who do not conform to them. One form of punishment we might experience as a result of not conforming to the Man or Lady Box is gender and sex discrimination.

Discrimination is defined as the mistreatment leveraged as a result of other’s negative judgments about our social identities. Discrimination related to gender can take many forms including the following.

When a person attempts to obtain a position such as on a sports team, in a social setting or in a workplace that does not map onto norms for their gender identity, they may be subtly or overly discriminated against. When a person exhibits personality traits such as passivity for a man and assertiveness for a woman that do not map onto norms for their gender identity, they may be subtly or overly discriminated against. When a person identifies as a sex or gender, other than what they were assigned at birth, for example, being trans, transgender, or transsexual, and thus have an appearance, name, or use pronouns that are different than those normative to their assigned gender or sex, they may be subtly or overtly discriminated against. Subtle forms of discrimination include being socially excluded. The team or group of co-workers goes out for beers after practice, but does not include the member who’s sex or gender is different from theirs. They may have jokes or use language that subtly excludes the person who is different.
They may discuss the person who is different disparagingly when they are not in the room or ignore them altogether.

Overt forms of discrimination might include being denied participation such as playing time or involvement in the work project, denying the person at promotion, or fair compensation. Preventing a person from being able to excel or achieve on the team or at work. And even harassing the person directly, making fun of their appearance, name or gender pronouns. Sometimes discrimination also includes unwanted touch, sexual suggestions or advances or forced touching. Gender discrimination takes a significant toll on the recipient, causing the person to experience stress, anxiety, feelings of inferiority and sometimes even depression.
They can lose the benefits of participation, including visibility, advancement and lose wages or other compensation. They could be prevented from being able to move up or be promoted. They may experience both material and non-material but equally impactful effects. As a result, many people choose without their consent to conform to the Man Box and the Lady Box at work and in social settings alike. The costs of not conforming to these expectations are intense and can prevent full engagement with life and with meaningful activities.

As children, we watch adults to see what they do and we often observe that the costs of not conforming to the Man and Lady Boxes are just too high. As adults, we may decide to courageously depart from the Man or Lady Box if it does not feel right to us. We may also fight on the part of others who are being mistreated for not conforming.

When asked, most adults agree that gender norms and the boxes that go with them are confining and that most of us never feel we fit well in these boxes. So we adapt, but often unwillingly, to these expectations. As leaders in our communities and work places, we can begin to ask ourselves what are the ways in which we have been forced into a man or lady box and what have been the costs for us in our lives?

Shabir Ahmad is a UPSC aspirant from Raiyar Doodhpathri.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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