The yoke of gender norms

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - March 2, 2021 - 12:00am

Internationally, Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8. I think that in order to understand why we need to put a spotlight on women and their needs, and why this will not take anything away from men, it is important to talk about gender norms in general and the burden they place on both sexes. Gender norms are a yoke upon our backs, and I use that word deliberately – a yoke is a beam fastened onto a pair of animals, not just one.

Here, then, is the truth: a world free from sexual discrimination is a better world for all. A world where the lives of men and women are not restricted by the inequitable expectations of society is one where men and women can lead freer, more fulfilling lives.

The specific gender norms imposed vary from place to place, but most societies are profoundly gendered and the expectations they impose have significant consequences in almost every aspect of our lives. For women, there is intense pressure to conform to imposed standards of both beauty and modesty – our look, our weight, our clothes, our mannerisms – and for men to have a say in our personal reproductive health. Women are consistently treated as somehow inferior to men, lacking in some essential element to succeed in traditionally male dominated fields. This is why even when the women have equal rights on paper, a significant gender pay gap exists in many nations, including our own (although at a lower scale).

But gendered expectations hold men down too, albeit in a different way. If there is a gender pay gap, there’s a gender health gap as well, with men dying at a younger age than women, and being more prone to illness. A recent study revealed that both boys and girls are negatively impacted by gender norms, with boys more often engaging in physical violence and being victims of physical violence, for instance, as well as being more prone to substance abuse. Many cultures stereotype women as being overly emotional, and yet in many nations more men take their own lives than women, and the linking of displays of emotion to feminine behavior may play a large role in that. Men are told to be strong, so most men don’t ask for help when they need it. Men are told not to cry, so they tend to bottle up and internalize their despair.

Sexism kills, and it kills both men and women in different ways. And this is even more pronounced for those whose sexual orientation or gender expression depart from what society considers the norm.

These gender inequities are not dictated by nature, nor are they inevitable. They are the consequences of learned behavior that are perpetuated by misguided traditions, by stale institutions, by our parents and peers who don’t know any better. What is learned can – with a great deal of effort – be unlearned… but the best way to create a better world is to make it so these harmful and inequitable norms are not learned in the first place.

We must start with our children, how they are taught and the example we set for them. Children are not born with notions of masculine or feminine, and do not associate boys or girls with strength or weakness. Yet almost from birth they are constantly bombarded with messages that create artificial boundaries, between themselves and others, and between themselves and their potential growth. These messages start at home but are reinforced by media, by schools, and – to an extraordinary degree in adolescence – by their peers. And the best way to influence the values of those peers is to prevent gender inequities from taking root, by changing the messages communicated on all other fronts.

In media we should push for more representation of women not only in the fictional characters, but also in the people who create our stories, and at every step of the creative process – not just more women writers but more women publishers, not just more women actors but more women directors. We should view with a critical eye how the sexes and orientations have predominantly been portrayed in our narratives, and encourage a greater diversity of views rather than pander to the usual tropes. Beyond narratives, even the way products are branded constitute influential media, with the segregation of toy stores into Boys and Girls sections serving as one of the first encounters children have with prohibitive gender norms.

In schools we should be rigorous in uprooting sexist archetypes from the material provided to students, even when these are implied rather than explicit: illustrations which only show women in nurturing jobs while men are in positions of leadership, or stories with families where only the mothers cook and only the fathers work. Teachers should also receive opportunities to reassess their own biases, and to train in ways that they can better promote equality. It may also be time to re-evaluate the idea of dress codes which can give school administrators inordinate power over how students express their gender identities.

But the starting point must always lie with the parents, many of whom may have been raised within a worldview which simply accepted gender inequities as a part of life. But if we truly want what is best for our children, if we love them for who they are, we must be ready to move beyond our own biases. We must be ready to stop taking for granted the way we speak and act in front of them, to go beyond what was “good enough for us” and think instead about “what is the best for them.” The world of our children lies in the future, and the only way we can change that future is to walk ahead of them, not behind them.

So let us raise our children to have courage and empathy, play with dolls or cars, let them dream of space or romance, and show them that we do not judge others based on their sex, orientation or appearance. When we empower girls, when we believe women, it is not just women that benefit.

In the task of breaking this yoke and building a better world, as in many other things, we are all in this together.

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