Campus | March 21, 2015 at 11:25 am

If We Want Equality, Then We Must Stop Perpetuating Gender Roles


15203451642_835b20a357_zWomen and men are not equal. The clearest indication of this is the gender wage gap, which has barely budged in a decade. Women are paid, on average, about 78 percent of what men are paid.

But often, gender inequality is less overt than that. Sexism and objectification of the female body is rampant in popular songs and advertisements. Little girls are usually given dolls or stuffed animals, while little boys are usually given Legos or video games. In science class, we learn about the contributions of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, but we rarely learn about the impact of female scientists such as Hypatia or Rosalind Franklin. From an early age, girls learn that they are not expected by society to become scientists, engineers, innovators, or leaders. As a result, women are drastically underrepresented in leadership positions as well as the STEM fields.

Women’s organizations on college campuses seek to rectify this gender imbalance. Harvard’s own campus boasts a wide range of women’s organizations, including Women in Business, Women in Science, Women’s Initiative in Leadership, and Women in Computer Science. These are just a handful of the women’s organizations on Harvard’s campus. But among the long list of “Women in __” organizations, there are a few that are missing: Women in Nursing, Women in Caretaking, Women in Secretarial Duties, and Women in Teaching.

The names of the existing women’s organizations on campus make it seem as though the two are mutually exclusive: women and science, for example, or women in leadership. It suggests that women do not belong in these groups intrinsically, and need a specific support system to guide them to success in a field in which men are more inherently suited. On the one hand, this is understandable. Science, business, computer science—these are all fields from which women have traditionally been excluded. Only recently have women begun to enter these industries, and even now, women are still drastically underrepresented. Furthermore, there are many barriers and stigmas preventing women from pursuing traditionally male-dominated industries: not only unspoken rules, such as which toys are suitable for each gender, but also blatant discrimination in the education system and in the professional world that often discourages females from even trying to pursue a career in business, science, technology, engineering, math, or any leadership position.

But if we want to change this, then we have to stop perpetuating the myth of gender roles entirely. And that means helping men and women overcome the stifling confines of societal dictations of what to do and what not to do. Women’s groups on campus only enhance a gender-based segregation that they are fighting to overcome. There will never be a Women in Nursing club simply because nursing and caretaking is a traditionally female endeavor. However, these separations actually make gender-based differences ever more salient, thereby worsening the problem rather than alleviating it. Though the intentions of these clubs may be positive—helping women break into industries that are traditionally male-dominated—people come to interpret them in a much different light.

The existence of women’s groups such as Women in Science and Women in Business seems to imply that women are better at caretaking and supportive roles, and that men are better at less “emotional” tasks such as working in a lab or running a business. This only feeds into preexisting gender roles—gender roles that are contributing to the oppression of women that these groups are seeking to undermine. Furthermore, these gender roles are pigeonholing both men and women into career paths and even personality traits that are overly deterministic and simplistic. It is too simple to say that men are better at math and science, and that women are better at nursing and teaching.

These stereotypes hurt women by preventing them from pursuing careers in STEM, but they also hurt men. They hurt men by making society frown upon men who choose more “feminine” roles such as caretaking, nursing, or teaching. They hurt men by making society see men who are more caring or emotional as “pussies.” They hurt men by forcing them to fit into the predetermined idea of what a man “should” be—authoritative, forceful, unemotional, and stoic—at the same time that it hurts women by forcing them to fit into a predetermined idea of what a woman “should” be: housemaker, caretaker, supportive, and gentle. It is important to realize that women’s groups, despite their positive intentions, are only further perpetrating a system of gender roles that hurt both men and women.

So how should we proceed? The primary argument in support of women’s groups is a perfectly valid one: aspiring young female leaders, or businesswomen, or engineers would benefit from seeing strong successful female role models. But why should men also not benefit from hearing successful women leaders or businesswomen or scientists speak? Why should men only have male role models, while females only have female role models? The premise that women’s groups are built upon is flawed. Women’s groups on campus focus on helping female students overcome limitations that they traditionally face in professional settings such as public speaking, making presentations, portraying yourself as “confident,” and the like. But these support systems should not be gender-specific.

Women’s groups on campus currently hold discussions and events that are open to all genders, but the vast majority of those who attend their events are people who identify as female. Why? Presumably because those who identify as male have joined groups that are labeled “Aspiring Future Scientists” rather than “Women in Science.” Why are there two different clubs for aspiring scientists, anyway? It seems to imply that women need extra “help,” since they are not intrinsically suited to become a scientist the same way a man is. I think we can all agree that that is not true. A woman is just as fit as a man, given similar educational and pre-professional opportunities and equal treatment by society, to become a scientist, engineer, or mathematician. So then why are there two separate groups, if they are aiming for the same thing? The segregation of “women’s groups” and “everyone-else groups” seems to suggest a difference in treatment—perhaps that they are preparing their members for different roles within those industries.

I hope not. I hope that women are being prepared for the same roles as men in any industry, be it science and engineering, or nursing and teaching. And I hope that men are being prepared for the same roles as women. I hope that anyone of either sex would be able to aspire to the same goal, to the same role models. As a result, I think pre-professional groups on campus should not be gender-specific at all. I believe male students would also benefit from seeing female role models. If anything, I think they would benefit even more. By seeing strong female leaders and engineers and scientists, aspiring young men will be more inclined to respect their female peers and learn to see them as their colleagues and leaders. Therefore, we should integrate the pre-professional groups on campus and bring both sexes together so aspiring female and male students alike can benefit from seeing strong and successful female and male leaders, engineers, scientists, nurses, teachers, etc. And in the end, isn’t that what feminism is all about?

 Image credit: Flickr

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