I have often said that the gender roles described in the Proclamation are unnecessary because either they are descriptive (meaning people naturally behave this way, so who cares) or prescriptive (meaning, people should behave this way, but if it’s not natural to them, they won’t anyway and you can’t make them). This perspective neutralizes the power of gender roles whichever way you look at it. But what if gender roles can’t be neutral? What if telling a group of people that their kind behave a certain way actually changes behavior from its natural course? Is this influence ameliorative or detrimental? As a social experiment, what are its fruits?
As it turns out, the more you remind people of the expectations of society, the more you modify their course in life, and these expectations are so strongly ingrained that they begin before a baby is even born! Sociologist Emily Kane surveyed prospective parents:
[G]irls were wanted because of the emotional connection they would provide. Only a daughter would be inclined to emotional intimacy and the remembering of birthdays, was the unspoken assumption. Not yet conceived, and already the sons were off the hook for remembering to call or send birthday flowers.
When babies were born, parents of boys expressed “pride” whereas parents of girls expressed “joy.” The expectation was already clear that male children would enhance social standing in the world while female children would develop stronger family attachments. Even when parents have attempted to raise their children in a gender-neutral environment, society intrudes. Children are especially vulnerable to the natural sorting into gender that reaches its peak between ages 5 and 7 (after this age, children begin to see that there is more fluidity to gender roles than they had thought).
As parents who made the attempt to raise their children in a completely gender-neutral way discovered, the playground will fill in the social expectations they’ve tried so hard to hide:
[O]ur son Jeremy, then age four, . . . decided to wear barrettes (hair slides) to nursery school. Several times that day, another little boy told Jeremy that he, Jeremy, must be a girl because ‘only girls wear barrettes.’ After trying to explain to this child that ‘wearing barrettes doesn’t matter’ and that ‘being a boy means having a penis and testicles,’ Jeremy finally pulled down his pants as a way of making his point more convincingly. The other child was not impressed. He simply said, ‘Everybody has a penis; only girls wear barrettes.’
Although gender sorting can seem like it’s a way to create a comfortable and equal space for both sexes to flourish, parents and society systematically devalue the feminine by limiting boys’ access to it. It’s not just barrettes. While it’s acceptable and admirable for a girl to be a tomboy, there is no acceptable version for boys. “Sissy” is considered negative. “You hit like a girl” is not a compliment.
One of my team members in Asia was a female Indian executive. We would meet for dinner when I came to Bangalore on business. She explained to me that from a young age she was ambitious and wanted to have a business career, so she deliberately dressed like a boy. She didn’t want to be seen as a “mere girl” who could be easily dismissed and not taken seriously by her family. She only wore pants and avoided wearing too much makeup. She wore shirts that were more masculine button down shirts rather than pretty ones. She deliberately lowered her voice so that she wouldn’t sound too feminine. Her tactics are a reaction to something called Stereotype Threat. When girls get the clear message that what boys do is more valuable, they may deliberately try to avoid “girly” things so they are not lumped in with the losing team.
According to Wikipedia:
Stereotype threat is a situational predicament in which people are or feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group. Since its introduction into the academic literature, stereotype threat has become one of the most widely studied topics in the field of social psychology. Stereotype threat has been shown to reduce the performance of individuals who belong to negatively stereotyped groups. If negative stereotypes are present regarding a specific group, group members are likely to become anxious about their performance, which may hinder their ability to perform at their maximum level. For example, stereotype threat can lower the intellectual performance of African Americans taking the SAT test used for college entrance in the United States due to the stereotype that African Americans are less intelligent than other groups.  Importantly, the individual does not need to subscribe to the stereotype for it to be activated. It is hypothesized that the mechanism through which anxiety (induced by the activation of the stereotype) decreases performance is by depleting working memory (especially the phonological aspects of the working memory system).
The movie Hidden Figures is based on the true story of three mathematically brilliant African American women who overcome severe stereotype threat as well as very real discrimination to do what they saw as their patriotic duty to contribute to the space program. It’s a fascinating portrait. I was personally very interested because my dad worked on the space program. He was one of those white male engineers, doing those difficult manual calculations in the days before computers.  These are the stories told by the movie.
The stories that aren’t told, the ones that are implied, are the stories of all the African Americans and women who didn’t go into fields dominated by men, who believed from a young age that “math is hard” or “girls aren’t good at math” or that they shouldn’t or couldn’t out-perform a man if they wanted to get married. In other words, gender roles create stereotype threat, and stereotype threat alters performance.
In the book Delusions of Gender, author Cordelia Fine cites many studies that demonstrate the negative effects of stereotype threat. Interestingly, stereotypes are so deeply embedded in our culture that women’s performance was impacted merely by asking them to indicate their sex at the beginning of a math test. Impacts were more significant when participants were told that their sex did worse than the other sex. Studies that avoided negative impacts focused on other qualities of the participants such as beginning with statements that students from their alma mater tended to do well on this test. This type of “priming” was consistently shown to impact results.
When the environment makes gender salient, there is a ripple effect on the mind. We start to think of ourselves in terms of our gender, and stereotypes and social expectations become more prominent in the mind. This can change self-perception, alter interests, debilitate or enhance ability, and trigger unintentional discrimination. In other words, the social context influences who you are, how you think and what you do.
These changes can actually alter our brain development.
The insight that thinking, behaviour, and experiences change the brain, directly, or through changes in genetic activity, seems to strip the word ‘hardwiring’ of much useful meaning. Biology itself is socially influenced and defined; it changes and develops in interaction with and response to our minds and environment, as our behaviors do.
Repeated overt references to men and women being inherently different or suited to different roles is something psychologists call “priming.” It’s bringing those latent attitudes to the surface where they alter behaviors and can even change the course of someone’s life.
“Cultural beliefs about gender act like a weight on the scale that modestly but systematically differentiates the behavior and evaluations of otherwise similar men and women. . . . The small biasing effects accumulate over careers and lifetimes to result in substantially different behavioral paths and social outcomes for men and women who are otherwise similar in social background.” Sociologists Cecilia Ridgeway and Shelley Correll
Which brings us back to the Proclamation. The gender roles in this document are “priming” each gender to believe that their group behaves a certain way. In the case of the Proclamation, it doesn’t say that women aren’t leaders; it only says “men preside” without referencing the leadership skills of women. It doesn’t say “men aren’t nurturing.” It just stakes this out as the purview and responsibility of women. This type of priming can cause several negative traits to emerge.
Among those who feel the gender stereotypes fit them comfortably:
- Exaggerated conformity (e.g. primary voice for women or dominating behavior for men)
Among those who feel the stereotypes don’t fit them:
- Exaggerated non-conformity
For those raised in very gender-role focused homes, there is also substantial bias against males who act in “female” ways, being nurturing, exhibiting lower ambition, or helping in domestic tasks. We hear this nervousness when men joke about their ineptitude at domestic tasks or childcare. This joking enables them to distance themselves from the horror of being viewed as female. While there may be bias against women who act in traditional male ways, the bias is generally couched in terms of impacts to men or a woman’s ability to attract a mate. The male traits (ambition, leadership, decisiveness) are still seen as largely positive. So if a woman acts like a woman, she’s fine. If she acts like a man, she’s trading up. If a man acts like a man, he’s fine. If he acts like a woman, whoa. Women are on the losing team in a sexist world.
Proponents of gender stereotypes usually resort to the argument that biological differences are behind the performance gaps, that gender is essential or eternal. Or to put it another way, women are inherently dumber (less logical or rational) and weaker and more passive than men, and men are just somehow innately unskilled at domesticity and parenting. These gender biases are so strong that even if a person believes in equality, it’s difficult to get around them.
But again, scientific studies show that these characteristics are simply not innate. A few examples:
- Babies are said to prefer a woman’s face to a man’s because women are inherently more nurturing. But studies show this is a byproduct of the sex of the baby’s primary caregiver. When males are the primary caregivers, the babies’ view naturally gravitates toward men. Even in infancy, socialization drives the behavior. Guess what–babies are also racist, preferring faces with similar race to their primary caregiver. This isn’t evidence of the mysterious female nurturing gene.
- The ratio of males to females at the high end of performance is something that changes from country to country. If these were innate, based on biological factors, they would not be influenced by social and cultural factors.
- Brain scans that purport to show brain activity linked with “empathizing” were replicated in brain scans on a dead salmon, showing that the statistical thresholds used in neuroimaging studies are not adequate.
- Studies that showed sex differences between men and women consistently had much smaller sample sizes and conclusions were often unrelated to the actual materials of the original study upon closer inspection.
- One study showed that female monkeys chose to play with a frying pan more often than male monkeys did. The study failed to mention that the objects were not presented neutrally to the animals (giving them encouragement to take the preferred object) or the fact that monkeys don’t cook, so a frying pan holds no significance to them.
- A study that initially showed that women performed better at empathy tasks quickly equalized performance by paying men $2 for every correct answer they got. Looks like men had the natural skill all along, but were content to let others do the empathy work until they got something for it.
Fine summed it up succinctly when cataloging the gaping holes in the so-called scientific studies cited by gender essentialists:
There is something a little curious . . . . It is a bit like that of the wife who determinedly overlooks the plentiful signs that her husband is shifty, unreliable and worthless, while inflating the significance of occasional dependable behavior.
And the problems with these pseudo-scientific studies is that they are used to limit women’s equal access to power, education, and opportunity:
The findings of Victorian scientists and medical men of the day were ‘a key source of . . . opposition’ to women’s suffrage and equal access to higher education, notes Yale University historian of science Cynthia Russett.
No surprise that the Victorians repressed women, but as it turns out, nothing much has changed.
A recent study by University of Exeter psychologist Thomas Morton and his colleagues asked one group of participants to read the kind of passage that is the bread-and-butter of a certain type of popular gender science book. It presented essentialist theories–that gender difference in thinking and behaviour are biological, stable and immutable–as scientifically established facts. A second group read a similar article, but one in which the claims were presented as being under debate in the scientific community. The ‘fact’ article led people to more strongly endorse biological theories of gender difference, to be more confident that society treat women fairly and to feel less certain that the gender status quo is likely to change. It also left men rather more cavalier about discriminatory practices: compared with men who read the ‘debate’ article, they agreed more with statements like, ‘If I would work in a company where my manager preferred hiring men to women, I would privately support him,’ and ‘If I were a manager in a company myself, I would believe that more often than not, promoting men is a better investment in the future of the company than promoting women.’ They also felt better about themselves–a small consolation indeed to women.
Think about that the next time you hear someone claiming at church that the sexes are different but equal or asserting that women don’t even want opportunities outside the home. (Or as CES claimed not too long ago, that none of their female seminary teachers wanted to work post maternity).
“When a child clings on to a highly desirable toy and claims that his companion ‘doesn’t want to play with it,’ I have found that it is wise to be suspicious.” Cordelia Fine
A belief that gender is essential is not only contradicted by thoughtful scientific study, but it also confirms the biases that inhibit women from achieving. In the movie Hidden Figures, the 3 women featured are exceptional among either sex in terms of their ability. And yet, in every case, they were the first to be let go. The men may be talented engineers, but they are protected by virtue of their great fortune of being male, not by being the smartest, most creative, or most skilled or ambitious person in the room. And in fact, the security and protection they benefit from actually impedes their drive to increase their skills or be more creative. When we suppress female leadership, we get a lot of crappy male leaders (as well as good ones), and we lose a lot of great women leaders whose talents aren’t valued.
Given the existing social pressure in general and the difficulty of encouraging women to be full participants, rather than reinforcing these limiting stereotypes, we should be focusing on every individual’s potential as a daughter or son of God, a spiritual person, an agent capable of acting in faith.
If gender roles in the Proclamation are descriptive of what exists naturally, then we should encourage both women & men to add to those natural skills by showing them examples that don’t conform to stereotypes.
If gender roles in the Proclamation are prescriptive of what should exist, they are unnecessary because they are already pervasive in society. Like Madge says in the Palmolive commercials: “You’re soaking in it.” We don’t need to teach sexism any more than we need to teach materialism.
Instead of teaching gender roles, the studies indicate that we would get better results–among both sexes–by encouraging them to broaden beyond sexist stereotypes. We do this through verbal encouragement as well as example setting. The more we encourage men to be nurturing and women to lead, the more both sexes will be nurturing and both will develop leadership skills; one sex because of society’s encouragement, and the other despite society’s discouragement. We should be in the business of boosting the capabilities of all our people across multi-faceted skills, not restricting them. Eternity is a long time; it’s plenty of time to transcend earthly stereotypes in developing our divine potential. And just think of how exceptional our people will be if we can elevate everyone’s potential and broaden their contributions beyond the limited social borders of gender stereotypes.
 Clearly, they’ve never met Andrew S, probably one of the top 3 smartest people I know.
 In fairness, he did teach me how to manually calculate a square root when I was 12, and he never made me drink out of a separate coffee pot.