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Gender roles are a kludge

A while ago I talked about gendered spaces, and how they’re something of a kludge, a shortcut. Gender roles are also a kludge, but one that’s even less justified than gendered spaces, given what we can do with modern prosperity and technology. They persist out of some combination of tradition, politics, personal preference and convenience.

Stewardess: Is your...
Photographer unknown.
The primary sex difference is of course the ability to bear children, so a thousand years ago if a man wanted to raise healthy children, the way to get them was by marrying a healthy, young, maternal woman. Of course, not all women can bear children, as numerous frustrated European kings have shown us, but looking for a man was definitely an unproductive strategy.

Nowadays it’s possible for gay couples or even single men to adopt children, so women are no longer necessary, but marrying a woman is still the most convenient way to get children, and it’s acquired the weight of tradition and politics. For men who are sexually attracted to women, marrying a woman tends to be the preferred way of getting a child, because it pretty much ensures that the man will have sex with a woman.

Other gender roles are based on secondary sex characteristics: men tend to be larger and stronger, so they’re preferred for fighting, smashing and lifting. Women tend to be able to lactate, which made them the obvious choice for caring for infants before formula was perfected.

Once these roles are established, they make it easier to segregate other roles. If women are taking care of infants, it’s easy for them to keep caring for older children, and eventually for the elderly and sick. If childcare happens mostly in the home, it makes sense for women to take care of other household needs.

If men are fighting, it makes sense for them to be policing internal order, and then it’s easy for them to be the ones who set the internal order. If they’re smashing and lifting, it makes sense for them to build houses and fortifications, and then it’s easy for them to be the ones who make machines.

Women and men also tend to form communities of practice based on these activities. Any father who’s spent time with a “mom’s group” knows what I mean, as does any woman who’s attended an engineering conference.

All these tendencies make sense. What doesn’t make sense is to be so rigid about them. Natural variation means that these sex characteristics aren’t a given. Some people are naturally infertile. Some women are big and strong, and some men are small and weak.

Technological and social changes have made a lot of these biological generalizations irrelevant. If we do most lifting and killing today by pushing buttons, how strong does a soldier or construction worker have to be? If we can feed infants with formula, we don’t need nursery school teachers to have functioning breasts.

Some roles have undergone gender flip-flops, or simply diversified over the years. In the nineteenth century, the position of secretary was considered too cerebral to be entrusted to women (with all the misogyny that implies), then in the late twentieth century it was treated as exclusively female; in Binghamton in 1992 a retired temporary placement agent told me that they would never send a man on a secretarial assignment. “Stewardesses” were once all female and doctors male, but last month I flew on a plane where most of the flight attendants were male, and my last dermatology appointment was at a practice that was mostly women. The best nurse in my son’s neonatal ICU, who taught me to change a diaper, was a guy named Scott.

There have long been exceptions to these roles. The US Army’s recent official inclusion of women in combat is notable, but women have been fighting throughout human history. There have been women leaders and male nurturers.

There will probably always be roles in every society that are more strongly associated with one gender or the other. There will also be people who will, for one reason or another, be drawn to the other roles. We need to be flexible and ask if there’s really any good reason why a role should be rigidly reserved for one gender. If there isn’t, we should accommodate everybody.

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