FLEXIBLE GENDER ROLES FOSTER GOOD COPING

There’s a lot of talk these days about how men and women should relate to each other. The “Me-Too” movement, although focused primarily on empowering women who are disabused by powerful men, also has a strong message for men and their self-esteem. It’s a simple message: Men should not define themselves as competitors with women who need to demonstrate their superiority by being pigs.

This is hardly a new message. In 1974, psychologist Sandra Bem published the Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI). The test measured where one’s sex-role trait falls on a scale ranging from “Traditional Male” to “Traditional Female,” with “Psychological Androgyny” falling in the middle of the scale.

Traditional Male sex-roles are characteristics like competitiveness, aggressiveness, assertiveness, and domineering. Traditional Female sex-roles include traits like sensitivity, emotional, caring, and passive. The post-WWII childrearing culture of the US identified good parenting as teaching boys traditional male sex-roles (“You need to be tough, kid! Don’t be afraid of competition and taking on those who stand in your way.”), and teaching girls traditional female sex-roles (“Remember, honey, you must always nurture your children and support your husband, and make sure your household is well-run.”)

Bem’s message was that forcing children into rigid sex-roles limited their ability to cope well with everyday life. For instance, what if a situation requires caring, sympathy, and displays of emotion? Well, the traditional male is lost; he doesn’t know how to behave without sacrificing his masculinity-dependent self-esteem. Similarly, what if a situation requires assertiveness and an aggressively competitive spirit? In this case, the traditional female is lost because to act in those ways would be a threat to her femininity.

What a shame! Rearing children to display traditional sex-roles severely limits their ability to adapt and cope with a variety of situations. The traditional male learns he cannot display female traits because to do so would show him to be a sissy or wimp; the traditional female learns she cannot show male traits because to do so would have others judge her to be a penis-envying b…ch, or some similar pejorative.

This dilemma is where psychological androgyny comes in. The androgynous woman is caring and sensitive, but if the situation demands it, she can also be aggressive and competitive. By the same token, the androgynous man is dominant, powerful, and tough, but if the situation demands it, he can also be emotional, sympathetic, and soft. And here is the key: Both the androgynous woman and man can show this flexibility without compromising their respective identities and self-esteem as being feminine or masculine.

Bem’s work was really a logical extension of a book published a decade earlier (1963) by Betty Friedan. The Feminine Mystique argued against the prevailing view of women best fulfilling themselves by being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. The cultural norm said the psychologically healthy woman will display traditional female sex-roles.  Her appropriate careers were nurse or elementary/ school teacher, although wife and mother were always the best “career” options.

As Friedan saw it, the problem for women was simple. Faced with this rigidity of options available to them, women were submerging their identities in a male-dominated world. Women were being told that their only road to fulfillment was as housewife and mother. In Bem’s context, being an androgynous woman was inappropriate.

I find it remarkable that 55 years after Friedan’s book, and 44 years after Bem’s work, American society is still subjugating women. We’re still, seemingly in vain, fighting the realities of unequal pay for equal positions, and still allowing misogynistic men to mistreat women with impunity. In the 1970s I heard the Oprahs of that day, joined by many emotionally-secure men, raise their voices against the injustice of it all. And yet, here we are, decades later, still listening to those voices.

The problem remains the same: The voices of reason and fairness are fighting an insidious foe, an unconscious bias that, to one degree or another, is instilled in all of us through our childhood and into adulthood. I’ll illustrate the bias by describing a psychology study done in the 1970s.

Young mothers served as the participants. They were chosen because they described themselves as “liberated” women when it came to childrearing. That meant they intended to raise their children to be comfortable with non-traditional sex roles regardless of their gender. Thus, they were raising their boys to be competitive and assertive, but also sensitive and caring if the situation required it. Similarly, they were raising their girls to be nurturing, supportive, and domestic, but also assertive, demanding, and achievement oriented if necessary.

In the experiment itself, each mother was taken into a room and an infant sat on the floor with a caretaker, playing pat-a-cake. In one condition the infant was introduced as “Sarah,” and the mother was encouraged to join in the play using a toy from a nearby box.

In a second condition, everything was the same except the mother was introduced to “Adam.” The same infant was used in both conditions.

The toy box had three items in it: Doll, plastic fish, and a truck. The results showed that most of the mothers pulled out the doll for Sarah, and the truck for Adam. Automatically, without any conscious deliberation, the mothers made what psychologists call an implicit association, pairing a traditional female toy (doll) with Sarah and a traditional male toy (truck) with Adam. (The plastic fish was included as a neutral control toy.)

Do you get it? We can give lip-service to our belief in equality and fair treatment of people irrespective of their gender, but the implicit associations in our minds have trouble overcoming the subtle societal messages preaching inequality that we are all saturated with as we mature. So don’t get all confident a new day is here. It isn’t.

Sure, we have moved beyond that time when the fear of women in medical school was not of failure but of too much success, lest they be judged as less than feminine. We have moved beyond the time when women go to college to find a husband. But the presence of all those pathetic and pitiful men (adolescents, really) who prey on women to subjugate them are alive and well.

Is there a coping lesson in all this? Of course there is, and probably more than one. A major lesson, however, would certainly be that if we are to cope effectively and interact successfully with others, we need to dig deep into our hidden implicit association, our unconscious prejudices, and examine those biases that compromise our ability to relate honestly and genuinely with each other.

 

 

 

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