Breaking Down the Binary


The approach to measuring female success consists far too often of looking at the percentage of women in fields historically restricted to male participation. It is undoubtedly problematic that females are represented unequally in many fields, but solving this is much more complicated than increasing the number of female CEOs. The issue stems from the false dichotomy drawn between female and male characteristics, between “feminine” and “masculine” qualities. This binary has disproportionately negative effects on women, and addressing it is therefore central to addressing gender equality. Instead of focusing on teaching women how to better exhibit qualities historically considered “masculine,” the focus should be broadened to encouraging people of all gender identities to embrace their positive qualities, whether or not those qualities are traditionally considered “masculine” or “feminine.”

At the close of World War II, the return of male soldiers to the United States saw the introduction of the debate about gender roles in society, as women who had filled positions previously only held by males were reluctant to return to their earlier roles as strictly homemakers. HAL contributor Vanessa Martins Lamb explores the duality of the 1950s woman. Though media from the 1950s often portrays the era as epitomizing gender inequality, Lamb shows that much of this media was not exemplary of the actual attitudes of the time so much as it was created in order to bring women back to the home in the post-war era. As men returned from the war, an effort emerged to push women back into their previously held social position as homemakers. This debate preceded the 1960s-1970s era in which feminism began to focus largely on making space for women in previously male-dominated fields.

This is where the issue begins to get complicated. Since the 1950s, there has been indisputable progress for women in the United States. Yes, it is important that women have the same opportunities as men. It is unfair that women are raised with different expectations and different social conditioning than their brothers, male peers, and colleagues. Women should be free to rise to the same positions as men, to be treated well, and to be respected just as much as men are. Bearing these things in mind, the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s has been extremely valuable, both for women of the 1960s and women since then.

However, we no longer live in the 1960s. We have the opportunity to not only preserve the progress women of that era made, but to build on it as well. I propose a challenge to the underlying assumption of second-wave feminism: the idea that female empowerment is demonstrated through a woman doing a “man’s job;” that for a woman to demonstrate her utility to society, she must engender traits stereotypically ascribed to males. Female success is measured through the number of women in STEM fields, CEO positions and political offices. Accepting this as a demonstration of female power supports a notion that traits deemed “masculine” are more valuable than those deemed “feminine,” and it places the burden on women to demonstrate their “masculine” capabilities while requiring no such reciprocal demonstration from men. Traits stereotypically ascribed to men become overvalued while those traditionally ascribed to women become undervalued.

Success in traditionally male-dominated fields has a tendency to require a heightened sense of competition or aggression, boundless determination, level-headedness or a lack of sensitivity or emotionality (think of the qualities that would be ascribed to someone in the position of CEO, doctor or politician). Success in traditionally female-dominated fields, on the other hand, has a tendency to require traits such as empathy, sensitivity, and people skills (think of the qualities that would be ascribed to a nurse, homemaker or teacher). By financially incentivizing the types of fields that require these “masculine” personality traits—what is a successful CEO’s salary compared to that of a successful school teacher?—a culture of hypermasculinity is created, encouraging a stronger sense of division between masculinity and femininity.

A sense of competition and aggression should by no means be valued more highly than empathy, a sense of caring, and an ease of connection with other people, yet the structure of our society invariably endorses a higher value for these “masculine” qualities. This is exhibited on anonymous social networking sites such as Reddit, where a self-identification of “logical” is a necessary precursor to being taken seriously and where many users pride themselves on their “rational” nature at the expense of sensitivity. Rationality and a level head are not inherently negative qualities, but should they necessarily be valued more highly than sensitivity or attention to others? Furthermore, why must these traits be characterized as mutually exclusive?

No characteristic should be ascribed either to men or to women—people are who they are. Through societal conditioning, however, women continue to be encouraged from a young age to cultivate those skills and characteristics necessary to “softer” fields such as the humanities, whereas men are encouraged to cultivate the qualities necessary to STEM fields, business, and the political sphere. This is problematic because everyone should be entitled to personal expression and the opportunity to gain financial success. Everyone should be free to express whatever qualities are inherent to their personalities without being limited to either “male qualities” or “female qualities.” As our 1960s feminist foremothers brought to our attention, confinement to lower-paying fields and positions limits women’s independence.

The next step toward gender equality is not teaching women to engender more masculine traits and join men in high-paying positions. Instead, it is a breakdown of the false dichotomy between concepts of “masculinity” and “femininity.” In the 1960s, women needed to prove that they were capable of skills that ensured their place in the workforce in order to gain credibility in a male-dominated society.

Today, we can progress a step further. Instead of teaching more women to behave “like men,” we can destroy the notions of woman- and manhood altogether, leading to a more open and free society. I propose that we reward traits that are actually positive, not traits that are viewed as “masculine.” The sensitive schoolteacher, man or woman or genderqueer, is every bit as valuable as the aggressive CEO (if not more so). A politician is not weaker for expressing emotion, and expressing emotion does not have to be something only women do (shout out to Jon Stewart for brilliantly satirizing this issue). Breaking down limiting constructs of gender can level the playing field for everyone, wherever they may fall on the gender spectrum. As a society, we should reward traits that are positive, be they sensitivity, determination, level-headedness, kindness, and so on, without regard to the gender of the person expressing them.

In the end, there is a good chance that this approach would lead to a higher percentage of female representation in the business world, STEM fields, and positions of authority, merely by virtue of a more open society. It could also lead to increased male representation in the realms of the home, social work, or the soft sciences.

More importantly, however, it could lead to a society that engenders less hypermasculinity and more freedom of expression—allowing for the financial and personal freedom of women alongside men and the genderqueer alongside the heteronormative.

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