Gender Paradox

SPEAKING OF SEX

By Deborah Rhode


“Is it a boy or a girl?” This is usually the first question we ask at the birth of a child. And the answer remains of crucial importance throughout the child’s life. In every known society, gender differences structure human identity and social relationships. Yet biology by no means dictates the form that those differences assume. The roles and characteristics that we associate with males and females vary considerably across time and culture. Still, one similarity remains striking. As anthropologist Margaret Mead once noted, there are cultures in which men weave and women fish, and ones in which women weave and men fish. But in either case, the work that women perform is valued less.

What accounts for both the variations and the universalities in sex-linked differences? This is one of the central paradoxes of gender. If biology does not explain the inequalities in men’s and women’s social positions, why are those inequalities so pervasive and persistent? Alternatively, if biology is the central force in determining male and female identity, why do societies differ so widely in the tasks and traits that are associated with each sex?

Over the past several decades, both the similarities and variations in gender roles have become increasingly apparent. In the West, women’s opportunities and employment patterns have changed considerably, but traditional gender stereotypes remain much the same. Despite some variation across class, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation, the characteristics that American and European societies associate with men and women have changed little from the ones Aristotle described more than two thousand years ago. Masculine traits still include strength, courage, independence, competitiveness, ambition and aggression. Feminine qualities still include emotional sensitivity, patience, caution, nurturance, passivity and dependence. Men are taught to place higher value on power, and women to place higher value on interpersonal relationships.

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