For December I’ve decided to continue my rant about gender. I was a little bit shocked to read Annabel Crab’s Sunday Age column a few weeks ago in which she reminded us that it was only 50 ago that married were granted permission to work in the public service. But I’d don’t want to turn this piece into a focus on female issues – as tempting as that is. Where gender is concerned, there are so many layers that flood into my mind. So I’m going to start with looking at a common issue brought into therapy – the interplay of power between genders and the cultural underpinnings.
Both men and women are equally capable of misusing power. It does seem to be a rather unattractive human quality that we all can engage in at various times. It’s when the impact on another is significant that we all have cause for concern. How men and women gain and use power is the direct result of our cultural beliefs about what it means to be a male or female. The victims of the misuse of power, are the people who commonly come in for help.
Clients who have suffered misuse of power by men, usually their fathers, mostly describe physical, sexual or economic violations, and grow up dominated by fear and guilt. This demonstration of power is embedded in how we raise our boys. We praise physical strength, encourage sexual prowess and give them more than their fair share of the economic pie.
Clients who have suffered misuse of power by women, usually their mothers, tend to bare no bruises or physical evidence, but grow up, muddled, emotionally confused and in the extreme with distorted realities. Embedded in this demonstration of power is our cultural need to have women who are nice, nurturing and who do not overtly display anger.
Both presentations are damaging and when thinking about gender it’s interesting to hold in mind how we all make a contribution to these stereotypes.
I am aware I’m using a lot of generalisation and that there are many exceptions to the points I’m making. It’s these exceptions that have led me to believe that culture is a significant contributing factor influencing how we do gender.
As a culture we encourage our men to be strong and to some degree emotionally disconnected, and our women to be nice and emotionally connected. Take for example a little boy who falls over and is hurt and crying, the cultural embedded voice tend to make us soothe him quickly, brush him down, and then send him on his way. (And then complain about adult males being disconnected from their emotions) I’ve observed this many times and have caught myself doing it. Yet a little girl who is similarly injured there is more cultural permission to cuddle her until she is ready to go on her way. Even though I’m tuned into this, it’s often only in retrospect that I’ve noticed that I’ve done it. Now I know this is very subjective, but over time there have been many studies that have observed the same phenomenon.
We have this embedded fear of making our boys too soft, (mummy’s boy) so want to toughen them up and our girls too tough (ball breaker) and so want to soften them up.
Bizarrely, this seems to be a gender trick. Again subjectively, it seems to me women are much more resilient, more ably coping with the hurly burly of life. Whilst many men seem to flounder, and hide behind the protection of man the provider, even though their female partner might also be working.
It strikes me that men as strong and women are weak, is becoming seriously redundant. Yes men are usually physically stronger than women but emotionally…? Men re-partner much quicker than women post divorce and they also die more readily. Just looking at the Australian statistics for drowning in 2015 only 11% were females. Men without wives die earlier than the married male, and women without husbands live longer than their married counterparts.
There are so many contradictions where gender is concerned, our lived experience of gender doesn’t seem to have changed our cultural gender beliefs. It’s a weird confusion that we are all struggling with, and is definitely a variable in the heterosexual relationship conflicts that I listen to everyday, and the often insidious misuse of power that is gender determined.
I haven’t really got any answers but it is important to remember that there have been many gains: men generally are much more involved in everyday family life than their fathers, and women more independently economically secure than their mothers.
And yet I feel disappointed that choice and fairness is still restricted by gender and we all contribute in small ways to maintaining this. But I also feel hopeful that we all also contribute to the small changes and opportunities for flexibility and choice regardless of gender. It’s definitely still a work in progress.