When people talk about gender, we often forget that ‘gender’ is not a substitute for the word ‘women’. Gender equality often focuses on women’s rights and violence against women, but gender is something bigger than just women, gender means men too and it’s important that we get it right.
To start with, let’s be clear that sex and gender are two different categories.
Sex is used to describe biological differences between people, most commonly defined by the presence of male or female reproductive organs.
Gender however, is more of an idea. Gender is a way of identifying based on society’s definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman, or maybe neither one. It can include all sorts of behavioural traits like our personality, the clothes we wear, the jobs we work in, and what other people expect of us. Most importantly, gender is about the relationship between identities. Not just what it means to be a man or a woman in society, but what it means to be a man in relation to woman and vice versa. Gender is relational, because it’s about the impact that the roles of man and woman have on each other.
When gender is at its best it examines the relationships that we all experience, and not only relationships between men and women. Gender is a helpful way to look at our actions, expectations and behaviours, shaped by our relationship with family, friends and other members of society. Gender exists between men and women, but also between same sex partners, parents and children, brothers and sisters, community members, workplace institutions, everywhere we go.
This helps explain why men’s violence against women is a gendered issue. Gender based violence start with unequal power relations between male and female, masculine and feminine, powerful and weak. The media reinforces ideas of what an ideal man and woman looks like. We are sent many messages in many different ways, but some of the main ones suggest that women are naturally more sensitive, more gentle, more caring and weaker than men. Men on the other hand are expected to be more outgoing, natural leaders, rough and tough and less inclined to cook, clean or be at home to care for others.
Popular culture exploits gender stereotypes to sell (media, music, games, fashion etc.) and in turn reinforces what we see, accept and are expected to be….
When we look at these messages together the problem becomes clearer. By supporting these ideas we are setting unrealistic and harmful expectations of how both men and women should behave. However, gender is not about women as victims and men as bullies. Gender allows us to look at the way we interact with each other and challenge the current stereotypes that restrict all of us.
Have you thought about how you might be restricted by gender stereotypes?