Now could be the time to let go of gender assumptions

When was the last time you said “well, that’s men for you!” or “oh, you know, women!!!”? Or something like “well, it’s a girl/guy thing…” I’m guessing probably not that long ago. Me too! It’s actually really difficult to avoid, even if you want to. Why? Well, it’s great for bonding with fellow men or women. It’s also an easy way to explain a difference between you and your partner without getting personal (“oh, you know, it’s a guy thing I think.”). It’s also habit, and often used humorously (“honestly, men and their toys!” etc.).  Common gender assumptions include: men are stronger than women; women are more empathetic than men; men are better at maths and women are more interested in relationships than casual sex. Now, I’m not saying that none of these hold some truth, even a great deal of truth in the first case. But what I’ve been wondering more and more in recent years is:

Are gender assumptions serving us well?

I think my trigger for considering this was a guy I dated who constantly challenged any gender assumptions I made: both literally in conversation and simply by being who he was. Gradually, I began to realise how unhelpful some of my gender assumptions had been. The main negatives are:

Harm to the men and women who don’t fit the assumption

This is a major one I think. It’s hard to find a gender assumption that will be true in 100% of cases (I challenge you! Comment below if you think you have one!). And for those who don’t fit the assumption, it can be tough: for the women who are great at IT but have to battle to be taken seriously, for the men with lower sex drives than their wives, for the women with no urge to have kids and for the men who love knitting. Being seen as the odd-one-out can be crushing, leaving people feeling ashamed of who they are and unable to talk freely with others about how they truly feel for fear of seeming abnormal. This has been discussed in a sexual context in the guest post on libido, where the common (but wrong) assumption remains that men are all highly sexualised and certainly more so than their girlfriends or wives [1]. A similarly crushing (and very common) assumption is that women all get broody and men generally don’t.

And, as the current climate also demonstrates, life is particularly tough for women trying to prove themselves in male-dominated fields such as science, the film industry, politics and business leadership. At every step they come up against assumptions that they are less worthy than men to be there and thus have to fight twice as hard. And yet there is no evidence that these particular women are not every bit as good as the men they are competing with (and trying to be paid as much as) – indeed, they may even be better.

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It can be tough for women in male-dominated fields (such as engineering) when they constantly feel they have to prove themselves, due to the assumption that men are better at it.

Even if you believe that more men than women are better at maths, for example, that doesn’t mean that the female accountant doing your tax return is any less skilled than her male colleagues. And even if you believe that more women than men are interested in having children, that doesn’t mean that the woman you’re dating is necessarily going to be keen on the idea (nearly all of my boyfriends have assumed this and not thought to ask!). So, just how are those assumptions serving us when we can never know which men and women will actually fit with the assumption?

I guess at times gender assumptions can be helpful though. They might help English teachers pick a range of books that are likely to interest pupils of both genders more equally than if they’d given the matter no thought, for example. But for most of us, in everyday life, I don’t see that they’re very useful. 

Disagree? Comment below!

Perpetuating trends

Every time we make a comment in the form of a gender assumption, we contribute to its continuation. If you’re a man and you hear all the time that men enjoy porn, you’re likely to watch it and think you should enjoy it. If you’re a woman and you hear all the time that women are bad at parking, you may put down your errors to your gender instead of the potentially real cause of inexperience, lack of confidence or a stressful day. You may just let your husband park for you, whereas were the situation reversed, you can bet your bottom dollar your husband would be practising parking until he had it mastered! (Note to self: practice parallel parking!).

Self-confidence plays a large part in mastering most skills, and studies show that girls who were given (false) information about girls being less good at maths than boys actually performed less well in a maths test than the girls who hadn’t been shown that information! [2]

Pressure to conform stifles individuality and limits options

What most people want in life is to be accepted for who they truly are. What if we welcomed into our world, without even raising our eyebrows, the deeply empathetic men, the highly ambitious women, the men who love to sew, the women who love to code, the broody men, the sex-mad women, the boys who dress as princesses, the girls who love to play-fight, the men who aren’t strong, the women who are, the female welders, the male secretaries, the women with an interest in war memorabilia and the men who love romcoms… Just imagine how liberating life would be for all these people (and I guarantee they are out there!) if they didn’t have to worry about being judged or laughed at but instead if people just saw them and thought “well, everyone is different”. Because that, after all, is one undeniable fact.

girl in skate park
Imagine if we could all do and be what we wanted without gender assumptions getting in the way!

 

Without these assumptions, none of us would risk feeling like a cliché or a failed “gender rebel” either. It would be fine, as a woman, indeed a liberated, 21st-century woman, to be a stay-at-home mum, spending your free time making scented candles and having nights in with friends watching Dirty Dancing and drinking Prosecco, if you so wished.

Lately I’ve been trying to say what I like and don’t like, what I’m good at and not good at and what I want and don’t want from life, and not throw myself in with the vast group that is “women”. I’ve seen this trend growing in some of the podcasts I listen to as well, such as the Guilty Feminist podcast. To be honest, it feels much more truthful. Time and experience have revealed to me that women don’t all like the same books, films, clothes, partners and sexual practices. They aren’t all good at reading people or subtlety or being caring. They don’t all want children or rich husbands or non-stressful jobs. And men are equally diverse, even if they don’t necessarily reveal it to their male acquaintances. They don’t all like porn, action movies, fancy cars, no-fuss clothing and technology. They aren’t all good at parking, fixing things or being direct. And they don’t all want big houses, beautiful wives, lots of sex and a fridge full of beer (really!).

And if you go through life basing your decisions on these assumptions, you may well end up with pretty unhappy partners/children/employees/friends. Maybe now is the time to let go of our assumptions and just let people be who they are!

And you know what, we could all have more fun too. I’d like to know more about cars and football. Maybe if I did, I’d have new passions! Men also often tend to rule out a whole range of books and films that they might actually love. You could be missing out on discovering your ideal job because it’s not one you would feel respected, as a man/woman, doing. Why are we limiting ourselves in these ways?

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Not ALL men want big houses, beautiful wives, lots of sex and a fridge full of beer! 

I’m really happy that I grew up in a household where it was ok to like toy cars as well as dolls, to play at being a firefighter as well as a mum and to choose to study whatever I wanted. I’ve felt gloriously free to bend gender norms by playing rugby and darts, wearing men’s clothes and aftershave (occasionally) and owning a toolbox, which I use from time to time (thanks mum!). I want everyone to feel this liberated!

I still don’t quite feel free of gender expectations when it comes to sex and relationships, and talking about them with other people, but I’m getting there. And I’m still catching myself bolstering gender assumptions I don’t even believe in for the sake of group bonding, not disagreeing with someone or making things seem less personal but my challenge for 2018 is to do this much less. Anyone care to join me?

Share your thoughts below!

References

[1] e.g. see http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/sex-confessions-women-want-sex-more-than-men_n_3203879

and

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/women-want-sex-more-than-men-partners_n_3179516

[2] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-maths-girls/girls-do-badly-at-math-when-told-boys-better-study-idUSN2242207920070524

See also Related Links

Related Links

https://jezebel.com/5785910/the-damaging-expectation-of-higher-male-desire

The Guilty Feminist Podcast: Assumptions https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThjQ-sG3dlE

 

Friendship is undervalued

We are obsessed with romantic relationships

As a society, we seem to be obsessed with romance. The majority of songs seem to be about romantic relationships or sex. A whole genre of books, Chick Lit, is devoted to romance, and romance often features as a life-enhancing situation in many other novels. And then there’s the Romcoms. Dating sites abound. And if all that weren’t enough, there’s that much-dreaded day for many singletons: Valentine’s day. No friends’ day, at least not here in the UK.

Where’s the celebration of friendship?

Where are all the homages to friendship? There’s a saying that lovers come and go, while friends remain, but there’s really little celebration of friendship in popular media. Everyone knows that friends are the ones you go when you have a broken heart; no matter how sure you are that your relationship will last forever, 42% of marriages end in divorce [1]. Who will be there for you then? Unless you’ve made the effort to nourish friendships even while juggling work and family responsibilities, the answer could be that no-one will. Even for those fortunate couples whose relationship remains strong, one day one of them will die and the other will be in certain need of supportive friends. I remember being very struck by that common regret of the dying (observed by a palliative nurse): I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends [2].

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There is a great deal of celebration of romantic love, but when do we celebrate friendship? I’d love to see more books, songs and films about friendship. Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash.

 

The best friendships are not based on selfishness

And I don’t think we should just stay in touch with our friends for selfish reasons alone. Friendship should be about a mutual bond and the willingness to go out of our way to support the other person when they need it. I worry that we are coming to view friendship in quite a selfish light; many popular internet memes encourage us to ditch our ‘negative friends’. And yet, approximately one in four of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in our lives [3]. Are we expected to be constantly positive, encouraging and in agreement with our friends? Surely the occasional argument, or grumpy mood, or patch of depression is natural and part of being a good friend is to be able to resolve conflicts, not over-react to less-than-perfect behaviour and to support our friend through a difficult time. (That said, it’s another matter if your friend is routinely putting you down or acting aggressively etc. I would not suggest anyone risk their own mental or physical health for the sake of a friendship.)

Loneliness is rife

I often come across people online who have no friends, and indeed felt like I had none at various points in my life. Some might say that these are difficult or selfish people, but I think that’s unlikely. Many are people who come across great online. Many attribute the ‘disappearance’ of their friends to a decline in health, which they assume made their friends feel uncomfortable or view them as too inconvenient. Others have moved away from their university friends and are finding it impossible to make friends in their new town, and yet others attribute their lack of friends to a disability or depression. The emergence of friend-making sites such as Girlfriend Social and Together Friends is a response to the large numbers of people struggling to make new friends.

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Photo by Nick Abrams on Unsplash.

Perhaps we should not be so quick to write off old friends

I admit I now regret writing off a couple of former friendships. I’m quite slow to do… I generally cherish every friendship and don’t turn anyone away. But after two of my best friends said hurtful things, I considered our friendships over, and wonder now if I was a little hasty to do so. I’m sure I’ve also been a bit neglectful of some friendships during very busy patches of my life. I’ve also been on the receiving end of friendship neglect, and I find it very sad that people I’d gone out of my way to support in difficult times don’t value our friendship enough to maintain contact.

Friendship is a great gift, and need not be a burden

I have always thought that the gift of friendship is an easy one to bestow. A kind word and a bit of genuine listening costs nothing and need to take up much time. Grabbing lunch with someone, or dropping someone a text or email is not a momentous task, but can do a great deal to relieve someone of loneliness, provide sympathy or advice, and make them feel cared for. I think often it’s a matter of finding what works for both people, be it periodic phone calls, Whatsapp messages, Facebook etc. Even parents busy with young children can find a way to check in with old friends from time to time. When you look out for people in this way, not only do you store up people who will support you when you need it, you also help reduce mental health problems and even suicide.

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Supportive friendships are a precious thing. Photo by Kevin Gent on Unsplash.

I think parents should also not assume that friends will want to see them without their kids or partners. Often friends will accept that it’s not easy for them to continue as they did before marriage and parenthood, and will be ready to accept – or even appreciate – different types of get-togethers.

And how about some more books, music and films celebrating great friendships? Heroic, impressive, beautiful friendships. I don’t know about you, but I’m quite bored of it all being about romance.

What do you think? Is friendship undervalued? What have your experiences of friendship been? How do you stay in touch with friends? Comment below!

References

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/12011714/Divorce-rate-at-lowest-level-in-40-years-after-cohabitation-revolution.html

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/feb/01/top-five-regrets-of-the-dying

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-35322354

Related links:

https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/16/when-friends-disappear-during-a-health-crisis/comment-page-2/?_r=0

http://princessinthetower.org/how-chronic-pain-affects-your-friendships-and-what-to-do-about-it/

http://www.tesh.com/articles/why-is-friendship-so-undervalued/

http://www.therisingblog.com/blog/2016/6/10/why-dont-i-have-friends-anymore

https://lifeinprogress290296.wordpress.com/2017/02/07/loneliness-knows-me-by-name