My position in the university places me more-or-less on the front lines of the predominant cultural, political, and indeed, given that I’m a biologist, scientific issue currently en vogue in the United States: Gender. I’m not sure how to define it more specifically, since it’s not just an issue of so-called transgender rights, but also a sociocultural phenomena wherein the idea of gender is being blurred or entirely eliminated as a concept in our society and culture altogether.
I venture into this specific post knowing full well that claiming gender fluidity, the idea that gender changes over time, isn’t fixed, or is some non-binary culturally induced phenomenon, is incorrect, and that the idea of gender fluidity is in and of itself a socially constructed phenomena, is not likely to be well-received. Going against the predominant culture forces to proclaim something unpopular is not usually well received.
With that said, I’ll succinctly state that gender roles absolutely exist, and it’s the idea of gender fluidity that is socially constructed.
Furthermore, I recognize that despite being a rough paraphrase of several ideas that seemed to be universal among definitions of “gender fluid,” I doubt the definition I’ve provided above will be satisfactory to those closely associated with the movement. That being the case, I think it’s likely to be most productive by focusing on the definition of “gender roles” as I’ll use them in this particular post.
I’ll begin by stating that what is of little consequence to this issue, and what I will not be discussing are items such as: pink for girls vs. blue for boys, which sex wears long hair, or which sex tends to wear high heels. Items such as these, and others detailed in this particular article are simply sociocultural phenomenon, and are subject to both change within a society or cultural, and variation between societies and cultures. These things are meaningless in larger discussion of this issue. To a certain extent, the transgender activists are correct: these are examples of cultural norms that have been passed down and simply accepted over time. Gender roles, as are relevant to this post, can’t even be specifically defined; indeed, variations on what defines so-called masculinity can vary greatly from culture to culture, though certain cultural standards seem to be universal. For example, it’s unlikely that Arnold Schwarzenegger would be considered feminine, and equally unlikely that Justin Bieber would be considered masculine in any culture.
However, none of this means that there are not dramatic differences between men and women that render them well-suited to different tasks. This is what I’m referring to when speaking of gender roles. The specific needs of any given society are likely to be specific to that society, and dependent at the very least on resource availability, culture, and the environmental specifics of where a population is located. As such, specific gender roles can’t be defined or stated explicitly. What can be inferred in a general way, and what’s important is that the division of labor within a society is likely to be driven by biological sex.
To a certain extent, this is a consequence of the physical differences between men and women. On average, men tend to be taller, larger, and have more muscle mass relative to women. Despite having used the specific phrase “on average,” critics of this post will point out that many women are taller than many men, and that many men tend to be very petite. Yes, all of these things are true, but again, on average, my statement stands. For those who remain apoplectic, please consult figure one below. Figure one shows the average heights of men of women, as you can see from the figure, men, on average tend to be about five inches taller than women. Note there is a region of considerable overlap, but it’s completely reasonable, consistent, and factually accurate to state that most men are taller than most women. The same is true of muscle mass and size, in general.
This physical difference has resulted in men and women historically playing different roles in societies, where men tend to engage in tasks requiring more physical strength when compared to the tasks in which women engage. Though the role of men and women in activities such as hunting or agriculture have and do vary from culture to culture, despite the myths of warrior female cultures such as the Amazon or Viking shield maidens, there are no cultures wherein women have performed the majority of the fighting and men undertaken the majority of child rearing. Were gender roles a social construct, surely somewhere, at sometime, some culture would have adopted this particular organization of gender roles.
This has not happened.
On average, men tend to engage in more dangerous, physically demanding, and indeed violent activities when compared to women. This isn’t a social construct, it’s an incontrovertible fact.
Though much of this is likely due to physical differences, there are key personality differences that exist between men and females that similarly render them well-suited to specific or particular tasks. This is evident to just about anyone with children from an early age. Boys, on average, tend to enjoy physical, rough and tumble play, whereas girls on average tend to be more nurturing. Even when provided with so-called gender neutral toys, such as a truck the manner in which boys and girls play with the same trucks is different. Boys tend to smash, crash, and otherwise attempt to wreck the toy, whereas girls will often name the truck and nurture it in some way. These differences in play style are most probably a function of the documented differences that again, on average, exist between male and female brains.
Thus, men and women, are demonstrably different both in terms of their gross physical structure, brain structure, and as a consequence behaviors. These general tendencies have resulted in men and women adopting specific sociocultural roles based on the division of labor, wherein men tend to take on more dangerous, violent, or physically demanding tasks when compared to women in the same culture. Gender roles then, are a very real product of these biological differences that exist between males and females.
In fact, it’s the notion of gender fluidity that is socially constructed. Gender roles in any society are entirely dependent upon the division of labor within that society. Whatever the specific needs of that society might be, men will, on average, assume the most physically demanding and dangerous tasks. Until a societies division of labor becomes more equitable, only then can the division of labor become more equitable. This depends on the society of having reached a sufficient level of industrialization and technological innovation to render the division of labor more equitable. For the most part, in a modern society, men and women can largely fulfill the same occupational roles; driving a bulldozer, working on a factory line, or sitting behind a desk are all tasks that can be performed equally well by men or women. None of these tasks depends on the physical or behavioral differences that exist between men and women.
In other words, only when a society has become sufficiently industrialized can the division of labor become more equitable. As that division of labor within a society becomes more equitable, the necessity of having a specific set of physical features or characteristics becomes less important. Only when this occurs can the notion of the lack of specifically defined gender roles, at least occupationally, be manifest in a society or culture.
Thus, gender fluidity is a social construct, and gender roles result from the specific physical and behavioral differences that exist between males and females.
In violent confrontations with men or in tasks that require great strength, very few women can hope to compete with even the average male.