Tuesday, January 29, 2008

96% Chimp! How different can the sexes of humans really be?

It might seem a bit irrational that reports such as this should get on my nerves so much, considering how, on the surface, they appear to support gender equality (from the angle of equality through acknowledged 'differences' between the sexes) by espousing the worth of 'women's skills' and 'special talents' and their value in all aspects of society.

There seems to be a lot of this kind of so-called research and surveys about at the moment - ranging from retrograde and damaging to more encouraging and at least well-meaning. This one published yesterday does, admittedly, fall into the latter category. But I have problems with this kind of approach to gender 'difference'. First of all, the sheer amount of current material on this particular angle - especially found, it would seem, in analysis of gender in a business or corporate context - that seems to be doing the rounds of all levels of press at the moment makes me instantly suspicious! What is the agenda? Because when one angle is promoted and presented with such zeal, and to the exclusion of other arguments, there is always an agenda!

It could be that, in fact, gender equality is the agenda, but if it is, I think it's frequently misdirected, misinformed, seriously over-generalising the genders and, at times, potentially reactionary and damaging. All of these reports which divide human skills and attributes into male and female categories perpetuate the confines of these categories, refuse mobilisation between them, and continue the value systems that favour the supposedly special skills of men over the supposedly special skills of women, however well intentioned these reports and surveys are at attempting to balance those values:- intending to convince society of the equal value these attributes and skills hold in it - and how vital they all are to it.

I appreciate the intention because socialisation has meant that sensitivity/long-term planning/multi-tasking etc. have been the apparently specific skills of women, while focus/short-term goal achieving/aggression have been the specific skills of men. So, in so much as society is currently divided in this way, there is definitely a place for the raised profile and praise of 'feminine' skills. However, I absolutely do not support or feel gratitude towards 'research' and reports that bang on about how these attributes and skills are biologically pre-determined from conception.

Women and feminists have long tried to promote the value of 'feminine' traits and any progress in this direction has been painfully slow throughout history. There is nothing 'new' about trying to promote the supposedly special skills of women. Jane Austen had a go, Virginia Woolf had a go, among many many others. While we insist upon separating out human attributes between men and women, in a society where dominance (whoever embodies it) is always eventually bowed to and adhered to, the so-called traits of men will be valued over the so-called traits of women. And so both sexes will aspire to one, suppress the other, and men who show sensitivity and vulnerability will be considered weak and women who show aggression and self-confidence will be considered suspicious and 'unwomanly' (see article on Hillary Clinton 2 posts down...). This is not remotely helpful for gender equality.

When you consider that we're only 4% away from being chimpanzees you can start to understand just how grossly exaggerated studies of human biological differences really are. Humans, genetically, are 99.9% the same! So why on earth are we so obsessed with that 0.1% difference? Whatever differences there are biologically between the sexes they only become markedly different through the process of socialisation from infancy to adulthood that takes that 0.1% and inflates it beyond all reason. It is the world we live in - not the hormones we receive in the womb - that determine what characteristics, skills and traits we will display in human society. It is challenging society's understanding of what it is to be a gendered human, and not perpetuating constructed and socially manufactured models for each sex, that can bring about real gender equality.

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