I am not a fan of Robert Heinlein. There are many reasons for this but one of them is about the traits of his novels’ heroes. They are often ‘The self-sufficient man’. The fellows could do everything themselves thus never needing help from others. Mr. Heinlein extols his readers (mostly boys) to be likewise and he castigates thems who do not. […]
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 . 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.
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!
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! 
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.
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?
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!
 e.g. see http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/sex-confessions-women-want-sex-more-than-men_n_3203879
See also Related Links
The Guilty Feminist Podcast: Assumptions https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThjQ-sG3dlE
Why I’m done trying to be ‘man enough’: YouTube TED talk by actor Justin Baldoni