How and why do we perceive gender the way we do? Andrea Alonso Ramos explores how deeply these structures are embedded in European society, and what we can do to dismantle stereotypical perceptions of gender.
Some days ago, my brother-in-law asked me to solve the riddle in a video he had just paused before handing me his phone. The video was familiar to me, I had already seen screenshots of it on Facebook and I knew my friends had been talking about it in the group chat. However, I could not really tell what it was about, overwhelming university workload had meant I was out of the internet phenomena. Thus, I took the phone, pressed ‘play’ and started watching. The video basically consisted of a woman setting up a case scenario (i.e. a riddle), which the viewer (i.e. me) was asked to solve. The riddle read as follows:
“A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!” Explain.
To my brother-in-law’s surprise (and later to mine, too), my response was something like “the boy is the son of a gay couple”. I thought my answer was clever and even broke some ‘family stereotypes’. However, although my answer was valid, there was another solution I utterly disregarded: the surgeon is the mother of the boy. I suddenly understood the purpose of the riddle and the meaning behind it. How could I, a proud feminist, not think about it? I was deeply disappointed in myself. Sadly, as the video continued, it showed how all the interviewees also overlooked the fact that the surgeon could be the boy’s mother and even made up all these elaborate explanations; “the ‘father’ that died was a priest”, “the son was adopted”, “the man who died was someone else’s father but not necessarily the father of boy”, etc. Everything seemed plausible except for the fact of the surgeon being a ‘she’.
Society is full of gender biases; this old riddle first used by two professors at Boston university, is just one more reminder of it. ‘Gender schemas’ work both ways. If the riddle had consisted of a mother and her daughter being in a car crash, and the surgeon being a nurse, few people would have guessed the nurse was the girl’s father. These gender associations are rooted in our culture, and we start absorbing them from the moment we are born. Just by taking a trip to the toy store we realise how everything is already established; whereas girls are nurses, teachers or fashion stylists; boys are doctors, firemen or racing drivers. Associating specific professions to a particular gender undermines, already at an early age, children’s capacity to fully develop their abilities. We, overtly and subtly, tell boys and girls what they should become and what is accessible for them to achieve. Consequently, they automatically discard certain professions or hobbies. As the list of available options shortens, disregarded talent and unfulfilled potential become the norm.
We, overtly and subtly, tell boys and girls what they should become and what is accessible for them to achieve
In 1981, psychologist Sandra Bem introduced the Gender Schema Theory which, from a cognitive approach, challenged the actual influence of anatomy in gender development. Instead, Bem suggested that children learn “content-specific information” that help them associate what is thought to be appropriate male and female’s behaviours and traits. From that moment on, children use this “heterogeneous network of sex-related associations”, i.e. ‘gender schemas’, to assimilate and process information as they grow-up. This differentiation between male and female seems to be the most extended and well-established dichotomy in society, in fact, these ‘gender schemas’ resulting from it have helped us organise society since the beginning of time. However, this societal organisation has proven to be overly simplistic and stale.
Fortunately, as any other social construction, ‘gender schemas’ can also be ‘deconstructed’. The first step towards ‘deconstruction’ is, I believe, being aware of the existence of these biases and of their power and importance. This riddle is not intended to uncover who upholds any more or less dearly the desire for gender equality but, rather, it is a useful exercise to show how our brains make implicit associations about gender.
Only on this basis, we can start ‘deconstructing’. If we abandoned this rigid gender dichotomy – pink or blue – and the thought of gender as something more fluid that allows multiple combinations and exchange of attributions – pink and blue, but also green, yellow, orange, etc. – we would grow children into happier and more satisfied adults. Because, let’s admit it, living up to established standards can be incredibly demanding, tiring and frustrating.
If we abandoned this rigid gender dichotomy – pink or blue – and the thought of gender as something more fluid that allows multiple combinations and exchange of attributions – pink and blue, but also green, yellow, orange, etc. – we would grow children into happier and more satisfied adults
I, whose “optimism wears heavy boots and is loud”, firmly believe that ‘gender schemas’ are already transforming into something more neutral and ‘fitting’ for everybody. However, this is a process that, apart from taking time, will require of continuous self-vigilance. The danger of these associations is that our brains make them so naturally that we might need to stop and reflect for a minute before being able to identify them.
Hopefully, as these ‘gender schemas’ dilute, people will become aware that almost everything surrounding us is neither unquestionable, nor absolute; but, and simply, social constructions that, whereas sometimes necessary, other limit us. In fact, still today, daring to have a look beyond society’s do-not-cross lines remains frightening and, even in some occasions, the consequences are fatal. Therefore, once in a while, as a source of encouragement and motivation, it seems important to remember that “everybody [can be] a genius, but if you judge a fish for its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that is stupid”.
Cover Photo Credit: Raw Pixel