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“Women are just better at some things”????

Posted on: 17/05/2022

How a re-think of our assumptions can help challenge sexism and create a more inclusive workplace.

It’s still a man’s world! Unfortunately, in spite of making huge strides in women’s rights over the past century, this holds true in many ways. Some of the discrimination is less overt but the underlying systems remain biased in favour of men. Could it be that your own assumptions about gender are part of the problem?

There are two basic views of gender – the Essentialist View and the Existentialist View. The Essentialist View is the traditional view that men ‘naturally’ suited to some roles and women to others. The argument goes that because women are biologically able to bear children they are naturally more suited to caring professions and roles which require emotional sensitivity. By contrast men are said to be more  ‘naturally’ suited to more competitive workplaces and roles which require rational, critical thinking. These stereotypes persist overwhelmingly. And are evidenced by the huge disproportion of men and women in, say, early years child care and nursing as compared to science and engineering.

The Existentialist View is that these differences between males and females are the product of nurture not nature; that from the moment we are born we are ‘socialised’ to play with certain toys, to like certain things, to behave in certain ways. The resultant stereotypes are therefore manufactured not inherent, generated by culture and context rather than biology. For example – a study by the BBC showed that adults are more likely to introduce toys which develop spatial awareness and motor skills to baby boys than to girls. Scientists tell us that when children play spatial awareness games regularly their brains change physically in just three months![i]

In other words, we are all to a huge extent, products of the stereotypes and biases of society and as a result we, often unconsciously though sometimes deliberately, perpetuate those same biases.

In my view we need to stop with our fixation with dividing people by either biological sex or gender identity. These categories may have some use for a small number of contexts (for example it makes sense in medicine to take account of the biological differences between males and females). However, for the vast majority of contexts it is a fairly useless way to divide people. It is ludicrous to split 7.7 billion people into just two categories and say – ‘you are all like this’ and ‘you are all like that’! The same goes for the other blunt tools we use to categorise: ethnicity, religion, age, disability etc.

I’m arguing that to truly challenge the sexism and all kinds of discrimination in society we need to recognise and affirm the beautiful diversity and uniqueness of every single person. To build schools, businesses and organisations that are people centred and which value difference. The best tool I have discovered to assist with this is The GC Index[ii]. This assessment tool helps to affirm the differences between individuals and enable leaders to identify and develop the unique energy and potential that each person brings to the table. Whilst you could say, ‘Aren’t we just replacing one set of categories with another?’ with 100,000 different possible variations, it’s not perfect but it’s a vast improvement on two!

That’s why I think the move in recent years to acknowledge the complexity of gender is a hugely positive thing. Biology is one thing, identity is another. But… until we start discussing and understanding the impact of socialisation and the difference between biological sex and gender identity we won’t see real change. And, unfortunately, the nature of the debate on this issue in the media has made many feel afraid to even talk about it for fear of being labelled either ‘woke’ on the one hand or transphobic / misogynistic on the other.

Becoming comfortable with difference necessarily means being willing to hear different viewpoints, even the ones which make you feel uncomfortable. So how about starting with the debate above… essentialist vs existentialist: are men better at some things and women better at others? Be open to hearing different views, but prepared to give a reasoned defence of your own. Difference is good. Bring it on!

Peter Radford is a Motivational Speaker and Trainer working with businesses and schools to change culture and outcomes. www.peterradfordspeaker.com . Get in touch to support Peter’s national conference for schools: Free & Equal? www.beyondthis.co.uk/standup2

[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWu44AqF0iI

[ii] For more info on the GC Index go to https://www.peterradfordspeaker.com/the-gc-index

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