Dualistic Delusions of Gender

As I discussed in Gender and Information Technology: Moving beyond Access to Co-Create Global Partnership (2009), our dualistic obsession with gender— the characteristics of behavior associated with female and male—deludes us into attempting to categorize human identities, unique experiences, and complex ideas into simplistic either/ors. Table 5.1 lists a few typical gender- assigned characteristics that tend to be true across cultures.

We learn to stay within and assert the boundaries of these “gender boxes” from all our social institutions, such as family, education, media, government, and religion. You can easily identify the boundaries of the boxes in your culture by noticing when women or men are chastised for their “inappropriate” behavior (Kirk, 2009).

Many have debated whether women and men differ due to nature (biology, sex, genes) or nurture (environmental influences). Women’s increasing entry into educational and professional fields previously dominated by men has not ended this debate. When even our best scientific knowledge recognizes dynamic and varied influences on nature and human development, why do we still debate nature/nurture? For example, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg founded quantum mechanics on the principle that observing an object can influence its behavior. Developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner recognized that human development involved dynamic relationships between individuals and their environments, saying that “individuals influence the people and institutions of their ecology as much as they are influenced by them” (Lerner, 2005, p. ix). More recently, physicist and feminist science studies scholar Evelyn Fox Keller (2010) described what the new science of genetics has taught us: “What we have learned has not so much answered earlier questions as it has transformed them. We have learned, for instance that the causal interactions between DNA, proteins, and trait development are so entangled, so dynamic, and so dependent on context that the very question of what genes do no longer makes much sense. Indeed, biologists are no longer confident that it is possible to provide an unambiguous answer to the question of what a gene is” (p. 50).

Table 5.1 The Gender Boxes

Male

Female

Science

Nature

Hard

Soft

Strong

Weak

Rational

Emotional

Active

Passive

Assertive

Submissive

Competitive

Cooperative

When even science recognizes the dynamic influences between nature and nurture, why are we still asking the question? In The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture, Keller (2010) explored how the notion that nature and nurture are separable came to be taken for granted, how muddled our language around these questions has been, and where today’s genetic discoveries have led. Keller credits Francis Galton (Charles Darwin’s cousin) with the “first explicit use of the terms nature and nurture as an unambiguous disjunction” (p. 20). Interestingly, Galton’s ideas on “hereditary improvement” ultimately led him to coin the term “eugenics” for a strategy of race improvement (p. 27)—a clear example of the ways in which science has been, and can continue to be, influenced by the culture from which it arises.

I recommend a cautious stance toward research that focuses on difference due to (1) the ways in which it has been used to discriminate against people by broad categories of identity; (2) the ways in which it seeks to separate and divide rather than unite us; and (3) the poor quality of some of this research. For an example of my first and second points, I point to the so-called science of eugenics. My third point continues to be well addressed by feminist scholars who have been doggedly challenging the poor science in some of this “difference” research for more than twenty years, beginning with Ruth Bleier’s (1991) analysis of inaccurate and misleading sex differences research to Cordelia Fine’s (2010) more recent analysis of questionable interpretations of brain scans conducted by neuroscientists.

The nature/nurture question is predicated on the false assumption that nature and nurture are separable. Current scientific knowledge belies this premise. Keller (2010) proposed a new question: “Let us ask not how much of any given difference between groups is due to genetics and how much to environment, but rather how malleable individual human development is, and at what developmental age . . . there is no reason to privilege birth as a cutoff point—development is lifelong, and so it its plasticity” (p. 84). Keller’s new question comes closer to acknowledging the reality that gender identity is not static but constantly evolves in response to the environment.

 
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