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The mirage of gender

Even small children can spot whether someone is a ‘man’ or a ‘woman.’  Even when there is an attempt to deliberately disguise your gender, it is tough to pretend. There are visible, physical clues that we understand. The width of the neck, the pitch of the voice and curves in the right places, to name but a few.  Gender is definitely a thing, right?

Even small children can spot whether someone is a ‘man’ or a ‘woman.’  Even when there is an attempt to deliberately disguise your gender, it is tough to pretend. There are visible, physical clues that we understand. The width of the neck, the pitch of the voice and curves in the right places, to name but a few.  Gender is definitely a thing, right?

There are indeed a bunch of physical and biological characteristics that go with gender so of course it does exist. But gender, as a distinction that goes way beyond these physical differences, seems to mean significantly more to us than can be explained by biology alone. The perceived value, roles and strengths of each gender that impact real life things – such as having the top jobs, getting paid, being heard, being respected as a leader and being in charge etc – take us down a path of understanding ‘gender’ as a much broader concept than these physical, biological and hormonal differences.

There have been years of fierce debate amongst social scientists and neuroscientists about what the real gender differences are and their causes.  The nature/nurture debate is still ongoing with the only key conclusion emerging that it is extremely difficult to detach the body from society. Even the brain itself is now known to be highly elastic and not as set and defined by your genes as we previously thought. Instead, the body and the world are biologically embedded to constitute a mind.

Your body necessarily and irrevocably shapes your brain’s structure and function and vice versa. The elasticity of our brains enables us to adopt new ideas and ways of doing things. The flexibility of our behaviours enables us to culturally meld with our surroundings. All this means that we are wired to re-invent ourselves and we are also wired to adapt (often invisibly) to the environment and culture we find ourselves within and the gender with which we identify.

The ability to work effectively

There are many significant clues that guide our differentiation between the genders but how much these characteristics impact the ability to work effectively is debatable. The following are a few key areas of difference that could impact work however, along with suggestions as to how to deal with the issue:

  1. Upper body strength. There is a bell curve distribution of upper body strength with an overlap between the genders showing that men do tend to be stronger than women. Women show up as having only 50–60% of men’s upper body strength on average. Despite that, anyone can look to increase their strength significantly with the right exercise and nutrition.
  2. Spatial skills. Again, a bell curve distribution with men outperforming women on spatial tasks, including mental rotation i.e., the ability to identify how a 3D object would appear if rotated in space. Men are therefore better at finding compass orientations and rely on mental images of three-dimensional spaces to find their way. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to notice landmarks. Both skills can be improved with practice.
  3. Men are more likely to suffer fatal illnesses whereas women live longer but experience more chronic illness – a trend that aligns with the research showing women having more stamina and greater muscle endurance.
  4. Brain differences. Despite years of research trying to find gender differences in brains, there is very little to show for it. It seems though that all the sex hormones affect the brain in a variety of different ways at different stages in both genders. The result is complex and inconsistent.
  5. The range of ‘intelligence’ is larger for male than for female although most of this is at the lower end of developmental disorders. There is some (heavily debated) evidence that there is a small but significant difference at the top end too. However, this top gap is not enough to account for the gaps between men and women taking up maths and science or the paucity of female science professors.

These characteristics do vary with gender but there are few jobs these days where such factors appear in the job description. There are some other common characteristics or differences that are more obviously socially constructed:

  1. Self-confidence. There is a confidence gap with adolescent girls tending to have lower self-esteem and more negative assessments of their physical characteristics and intellectual abilities than boys have. There are a number of cultural forces potentially at play – the desirability of feminine modesty coupled with the reality of living with disempowering norms.
  2. Leadership style. Both genders can be highly effective leaders in a business environment but men have shown up as more driven, strategic and commercial while women have done better at collaboration, communication and management. This is also entwined with the cultural norms so is difficult to really detach.
  3. Role in child-bearing and family life. Women do more work for the family and the home than men as well as having the obvious significant pregnancy and breast-feeding issues plus the consequential maternity leave. The Covid pandemic has demonstrated this trend with the pressures of pandemic home-schooling etc hitting women hardest.

On first inspection you might consider all these differences as firmly rooted in biology but each one of these areas can still be influenced by the social and cultural environment. This is where identity and expectation start to intertwine with biology to generate what we perceive as a solid reality. Rather surprisingly, therefore, this complex and intertwined interplay between the environment and genetics means that the body is, in part, a socially formed entity. It appears therefore that the gender differences are being exaggerated and reinforced greatly by our cultural norms. There is evidence of ancient societies where the genders have worked very differently which backs up this theory. This means that the way our genders relate to each other does not have to be the way it has been. It could be quite different.

More similarities than differences

To conclude, therefore, there are indeed gender differences but there are many much more similarities than differences and the differences as they relate to current-day work can be, to a large extent, overcome. From an individual perspective, there is nothing which should constrain or limit what is possible at work. We can all, in effect, be feminine and we can all be masculine.

Diversity works. The participation of women at work can be seen as vital to the sustainability of humanity and women can contribute more than they do at many levels. So, we need to look at how to encourage women further and how to call out the cultural limitations that come with ‘gender’ these days. This isn’t just a question of needing to do the ‘right’ thing morally. Diversity itself is healthy.  The more women are represented the more democratic the society is which then leads to an improvement in the quality of decision-making. The more women in senior roles in corporations the better the business performance. The more inclusive a culture the more engagement. Let’s all open the cages a little and look to transcend gender by accepting it as an outdated and illusory distinction.

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