Sunday 5 December 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Last week, I invited fellow bloggers and readers of this blog to take part in a discussion about the gender divide and whether our views, ideas and opinions about it are rooted in our biological make-up or our social interaction. I was very pleased with the feedback, both in the post's comments section and the written correspondence I received from readers. Three bloggers from different walks of life and nationalities (American, Canadian and British) accepted my invitation and today they will be sharing their opinions about this controversial issue. So, without any further ado, let the discussion commence!

Elizabeth Aquino (EA, left) blogs at 'A Moon, Worn As If It Had Been a Shell'. She is a writer living in Los Angeles, California raising a child with severe disabilities as well as two other "typical" children. She works in the health field as a parent support professional and currently have a fellowship at The University of Southern California's University for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. Elizabeth also guest-writes at the blog 'Mama Manifesto'.

Deborah Sudul (DB, right) writes the blog 'The Temptation of Words'. She is a post-feminist mother of two sons and a daughter, which gives her a first-hand view of the differences between sexes and a highly-unscientific opinion about whether those differences are due to genes or upbringing. As the younger, taller sister of two brothers, she was raised by a sensitive father and a strong mother – an experience that taught her that the barriers women – and men – face because of their gender are meant to be ignored.

Rachel Cotterill (RC, left) writes the blog 'The Thoughts and Travels of Rachel Cotterill'. She is a writer who's studying for a PhD in computational linguistics. She lives with her husband in an idyllic cottage in the Cotswolds, but still takes every opportunity to meander through different parts of the globe.

- In your opinion, how much of a role does biological determinism play in defining men and women's place in society?

EA: In my humble opinion I imagine biological determinism plays a big role in defining men and women's place in society but is easily maneuvered over with consciousness, if that makes sense. I always tell the story of my first son, aged two, who I brought to a toy store so that he could pick out a baby doll and prepare to be a big brother (I was pregnant and expecting another boy). My son picked out one of the babies and a pink stroller to put him in. When we got home, he took the stroller out of the car, placed the baby doll carefully inside and buckled the little seat belt over the doll. He then proceeded to shove the stroller as hard as he could down the driveway and watched it as it rolled and tumbled, clapping and yelling, gleeful. I remember wondering where that aggression had come from, wondering that since it hadn't been modeled by anyone in his too short life (at least I thought not), it must have been inherent. I didn't judge it as "bad" or "good" but rather thought it was interesting. And as I've continued to raise two boys and watched my friends raise their boys and girls, I feel like there IS some biological determinism but that biology doesn't actually trump consciousness -- meaning that yes, perhaps we're wired in a primitive fashion as males and females but that evolution, consciousness, etc. can alter that biology and sometimes even trump it.

DB: It’s undeniable, I think, that biology is a huge factor in determining what people are interested in doing, and that translates quite naturally into broad societal assumptions about where men and women ‘belong’. Anyone who has had children of both sexes has a story to tell about hard-wired feminine or masculine interests, however what has changed in the last few decades is the willingness of Western society to acknowledge that there is far more cross-over in gender roles than was previously thought. I’ll go out on a limb and say that while engineering schools might now admit an equal number of females as males, overall fewer women than men are interested, for instance, in things mechanical. So it’s not surprising that men and women are still funnelled, even if voluntarily, into what are seen as gender-appropriate professions. And that, unfortunately, has a huge ripple effect. Even though women have breached male-only professions with considerable success, and even though men had found gratification in traditionally female roles, a significant percentage of men and women still find themselves in gender-specific work and personal situations.

Place is still determined by worth, and worth is still determined, for the most part, by how visibly successful one is. And success is still measured in man-terms. If a woman is successful in theoretical physics, for instance, she is admired as much for the fact that she is not typical of her sex as for her intellectual prowess. A man who is successful as a nurse does not usually enjoy the same status, nor benefit from the same positivism.

RC: This is a really huge question, and I think it can be profitably divided into two levels. So at the level of the individual: very little. I don't feel that being a woman has had much impact on the path I've taken through education and life, I've usually been in somewhat male-dominated areas (e.g. the sciences), and I've never felt that I'm less skilled than my male colleagues. But at a societal level, it's very hard to disown the biological imperative, because women by definition are the child-bearers. Given the length of human gestation and nursing, that's a huge chunk out of the life of any woman who wants to raise kids, and I think a huge amount of what we'd now consider sexist behaviour can be traced back to those very early roots. That's the fundamental reason that "equal" or "fair" treatment is never going to be the same as just treating everyone identically.

- In the same way that the woman, to whom I referred in my article, was said to be 'hardwired' to learn foreign languages easily, men and women are said to be 'hardwired' to behave in certain ways. Do you agree with that idea or not?

DB: When my first child – a boy – was born, I was determined to raise him in as non-sexist a way as possible. I wanted to prove that boys could be just as interested in so-called feminine activities and objects as girls were, so I filled his toy box with dolls and a whole lot of what I thought were gender-neutral play things – the stackable rings, the puzzles, the books and plastic animals. I vowed never to give him anything to play with that resembled a weapon and really thought I would end up with a sensitive boy in tune with his softer side, able to recognize the futility of violence and inclined to helpfulness and caring.

He wasn’t interested in the dolls. At all. I tried various kinds, shapes, colours, sizes, but none of them attracted his attention.

Anything that involved physical dexterity and construction was appealing, and as I whizzed down the aisles of the local hypermarket, he grabbed desperately at displays of toy cars. I began to realize that no matter what I might want my son to be interested in, he was having none of the ‘girly’ stuff. Toy guns were still out of the question, and I could console myself with the knowledge that, even if he was on a man-track, I would keep violence out of his world. Until the day, at about eighteen months of age, when he bit the corner off a rectangular cookie, held it by the whole end and pointed it at my forehead. Bang-bang!! The gig was up. I had a boy who was only interested in ‘typically male’ pursuits and nothing I did was going to make a blind bit of difference. Twenty-seven years later, that’s still true.

So to your question of hardwiring, I would say that it’s definitely the basis for most interests and abilities, although there is lots of room to introduce other options. I am most probably hard-wired to do my own plumbing, basic car repairs and simple building projects not only because I had the example of a very capable mother who wielded an effective hammer, but because I was just born with an inclination to do those kinds of things. Although, having two older brothers may have conditioned me to believe that I had to compete on their terms in order to be taken seriously!

RC: I've got a linguistic background and I'd say that almost everyone is hardwired to pick up languages (the exceptions being where there is brain damage or some other definite problem). People who think they're bad at languages have usually been taught badly, and almost certainly haven't had the chance to learn in an immersive setting. I'm not sure if it's safe to draw a direct parallel to the gender question, because there *is* a biological difference between men and women; we're just debating what the effect is. I only have experience of being a woman, so it's very hard to know in what ways I'd be different if I had a different set of chromosomes, but I can say with certainty that my personality changes - in a small but measurable way - over the course of each month, in a way that I assume is down to hormones. So I find it hard to believe that having a completely different set of hormones wouldn't make any difference. That's not really about skills and abilities, more about personality shifts: for example, there are a couple of days of each cycle in which I'm incredibly impatient. It's also important to keep in mind, when considering any question like this, that we're dealing with two massively overlapping sets: any inherent gender difference will express itself only as the difference in the distribution of characteristics across the whole of these two sets. The individual variation for any given characteristic seems, in my experience, to be sufficiently large as to overwhelm the group characteristics. Let's think about sport for a moment: the average differences between men and women in strength and speed are significant enough that most sports are separated by gender, but a female Olympic runner could easily outrun the average man. I think you're more interested in the mental angle in this debate, but the statistics work the same way. Unfortunately, statistics tends not to sell as well as big headline statements of the "Men Are From Mars" style.

EA: I do agree with it. I'm not a scientist but I'm fascinated by the idea that biology -- chemicals in the brain, its metabolism and structure -- can determine personality, predilections, etc. Why not sex as well?

- What is your experience of biological determinism and social conditioning? Do you think that the former has a bigger say in how we interact socially than the latter?

RC: On a personal level, I don't think I've been affected much by biological determinism - to date, I've even avoided the sense of a "ticking biological clock". Regarding social conditioning, however, I've had several strong rebellions as I really don't like to feel I'm being pidgeon-holed on any basis. I used to think I hated the colour pink, because of the assumption it was a "girly" colour (if you look at my blog, you'll see I've got over that!). It's almost too easy to say that social conditioning has more of an effect on social interactions, but I think that risks overlooking the fact that a lot of the social conditioning has roots in biology - again, we come back to the fact that women have to give birth to children, have to feed them, and therefore traditionally end up looking after them. The implications of this hit me really hard when, working on my first (fantasy) novel, I devised a society where women and men really were treated equally by the system. I had to redraft the whole thing when I realised I'd been so busy making sure that education and work were egalitarian, that I'd left no space for women to give birth!

EA: I'm not convinced that biological determinism has a bigger say in how we interact socially. However, I confess to being as guilty as the next in my sexist comments about the inscrutability of men because that's been my experience with them. The sort of social interaction I have with my women friends is vastly different from that with men -- is that because of biology and hormones or social conditioning? I don't know. Again, I imagine biological determinism can be manipulated by social conditioning but it's probably always present. I just finished a fascinating novel called "Room" -- I believe the author is British -- a story of a young boy who is raised for the first five years of his life in a small room with his mother, who is being held as a sort of sex slave/hostage. I know the premise is utterly creepy, but the book gives a fascinating glimpse of what it might be like to only be exposed to one room and objects within that room, to have one's paradigm of existence NOT be shaped by multiple influences and social conditioning. As this author wrote it, objects are only as significant as the names we attach to them -- and are they really the objects that are named or only the names? In the same way, I suppose we could argue about male and female as signifiers, but if we were to peel back their skin and probe into their brains would we find very different things -- male and female -- or is the brain shaped, neurons firing, pathways created by experience and conditioning?

Overall, in my experience I find the "male" and "female" mind distinctly different, so different that I fall on the biological determinism model, perhaps, out of frustration. It's a far easier answer.

DB: This is a tricky question – and a good one, Cuban. I’d like to think that I’m an example of biological determinism, as many of my interests tend to fall on the side of what is considered to be male territory. Anything to do with cars, how things work, physical problem-solving (dishwasher repair) and computers are a few of the things I can do and talk about with some degree of assurance and enthusiasm. I find that these conversations tend to be held with men, because few women are knowledgeable or interested in such subjects.

Socially, I often gravitate towards men not because I like to flirt, but because I feel I have more in common with them. What cultural conditioning I have has made me conscious of my femininity, and quite comfortable with it, but I consider it to be a far less important factor of who I am and what I bring to my social interaction. I have, unfortunately, a negative reaction to women who behave in ways that I consider to be typically feminine. Social conditioning has taught (many) women to consider their appearance and sexual appeal as having more initial worth than their intellectual, practical and philosophical abilities. There was once hope, I thought, for the daughters of the feminist movement, but if anything their perception of themselves as helpless ultra-females is more pronounced than for women of the pre-feminist movement.

I think that the cultural influences on gender roles of the last forty years or so have left their mark principally on men. In mixed gatherings, I hear men having conversations that their fathers wouldn’t have had, while the women’s talk revolves around much the same things that their mothers’ probably did. I do think we are far more influenced by our cultural conditioning than our biological imperatives when we men and women relate to each other, at least in the superficial phase of our interaction.

© 2010

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 12th December at 10am (GMT)


  1. Gracias, Maria, por tu opinion. Estoy de acuerdo contigo en que la educacion es fundamental. Y no, el tema no es facil. :-)

    Thanks to Elizabeth, Deborah and Rachel for taking part in the debate. I was pleased to see the mix of professions, countries and backgrounds in the contributors' list. In an ideal world I would have loved to have a man as one of the respondents, but maybe next time? :-)

    I hope you enjoy the music, too. Isn't it great how two singers from totally different musical backgrounds come together to perform a song (Susheela's, by the way) and the melody sounds as if it had been written for those two voices to begin with?

    Have a fab Sunday and week.

    Greetings from London.

  2. Thanks for organising this, and inviting me to take part - very interesting to hear the other perspectives, and I can think of so many things I didn't say! I hope you'll also share your own thoughts soon?

  3. And will we get to enjoy the perspective of some of your male readers on the gender divide? I enjoyed this post and being a woman agree with almost all of the reflections of your panel. Always enjoy hearing the male perspective, however. I may take your questions and ask them of my son this afternoon!

  4. DB

    Like you, my wife Maria has always been more comfortable socially with men than with women. I think she told me that the second time we met to lay down the rules.:) I believe that the inclination to be drawn to one gender socially over another transcends culture or occupational affiliation. Maria is from Puerto Rico and trained as a nurse. I think probably a greater determining factor might be how one is nurtured. In my wife's case, she is number 14 of 17 brothers and sisters. How she interacted to get what she needed at an early age might have determined which gender she would be inclined to be drawn to.

  5. 5 stars for both the music and the discussion.

  6. Thank you for including me, Cuban, in this impressive line-up!

  7. Excellent discussion. My parents had a distinct set of roles in our family--as a former airplane mechanic in the second world war, Dad tinkered with the furnace, the car, the vegetable garden, and the lawn mower. He also enjoyed cooking. My mom grew the flowers, cooked and cleaned and washed our clothes (her favorite chore).

    I grew up a tomboy, to the chagrin of my parents. Then I became a single parent, and had to learn how to fix and take care of everything myself. My parents were proud, of course, but always prayed I remarry, in order to have help with the large number of things I had to manage (rather than the types of things I had to handle on my own).

  8. LLLLLLLLLLLovvvvvvvvvvvvvvvve the music; enjoyed the discussions.

  9. Fascinating discussion.

    I do think that many people are born knowing what they want to do with their lives and having very particular personality traits that guide them to do it.

    At the same time, upbringing or culture are powerful motivators in either downplaying those traits or manifesting them.

    It's hard to come up with a precise level of how much I think either influence affects a person's behaviour. But I will say that I think someone's nature and how they WANT to behave is stronger than the influence of the place they're born in. If this were not true then we wouldn't have prodigies throughout history that broke barriers and made people think of different possibilities.

    Another point is that someone's nature and how they WANT to behave are not necessarily the same thing.

    My thoughts in this seem to me to be incoherent ramblings so I crave your indulgence. Carry on...


  10. Fantastic, Cuban. I wish I'd seen this sooner. I'd have put my two bob's worth in from Australia, but life can be frantic at times and I don' always manage to visit as many of my favourite blogs as I'd like. Yours is among them.

    Biological determinism to me is bunkum, any determinism is. Though of course biology has its place. We are such constructions we human beings, even gender, which plays its part can be muddled and confused and distorted.

    That said, I notice distinct differences in my now three year old grandson and the way my own daughters were years ago when they were three. And if you were to speak to my husband about life in as family of five females - me and our four daughters, my husband the only male, you'd find that gender has a huge impact.

    Thanks, Cuban.

  11. It would have been good to know your views on what they said too. A longer post than I would read normally (I have such a short attention span :)), but well worth it.

  12. Well-chosen questions, and very well-thought out answers - a fascinating discussion, in fact. Interesting to have the all-female viewpoint, and interesting how much personal experience was chosen to illustrate argument. I wonder if that would be the same with 3 male interviewees?

    Thanks, really enjoyed this, and thank you to Elizabeth, Deborah and Rachel.

  13. Fascinating questions and responses!

    EA’s pink stroller story is a classic. Better to get the aggression out on the doll than the real thing. My son was somewhat aggressive to his sister in the first months but then became a loving older brother. He gave up his pink lunchbox when he went to kindergarten, aware of expectations, although we never said anything.

    In our household, my husband is the main wage earner, and he does the groceries and the cooking. I manage the household, including fixing things, and do the bulk of the childcare. I have a graduate degree from MIT, one of few women in my program. My husband speaks 3 languages and I only speak 2 and not fluently. I exercise more than he does. I dislike pink and girly things. He cries at movies more than I do. Socially I often find it easier to converse with men at parties, but my closest friends are female. My husband is my best friend.

    We are both very involved parents. Our children don’t conform to all gender typing either, but gender neutrality has been harder to hold onto as they age, especially around other teenagers. I’ve witnessed greater gender differences online. My son and his male friends interact via X-box, and my daughter and her friends use social networking, Facebook and gmail chatting. Peers and hormones really flush the differences for teens.

  14. Cuban, thanks so much for including me in this forum. I was most interested to read the other contributors remarks, and intriqued to see how different our respective takes were on these questions. I would have liked to hear a male POV as well - you're going to have to round up some guys next time! Trouble is, you attract a majority of women to your blog, I would guess and even though we hear what your views are on a lot of issues, in the case of male-female relations you are not typical of your sex! Would be good to stir up the pot a bit with another male contributor.

  15. PS I really like the same but different look of your blog...very clean.

  16. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  17. Excellent post and such an interesting panel of ladies. Kudos to all. Maria also raises an interesting point about media and the environment that surround our kids. You cannot supervise your children 24/7 unless you homeschool.

    By the way your blog looks lovely and that quote by my beloved Oscar, perfect.

  18. Very intrguing debate, I just had a similar discussion in my class about gender idenity and socialization. I showed a National Geographic video about the Fafaine third ses group in Samoa. Boys are raised as girls in households where more girls are needed and they are socialized and accepted as girls even though they are biologically male. I think socialization and nurture pay a huge part in gender idenity and expectations.

  19. Hola Cuban.

    Male and female are built differently, of course we speak differently. This is also, so that we can get to know each other.

    Language is the expression of the tongue, mind and body. When you change the movement of the tongue, mind and body will follow suit and you'll transform into a different person.

    And that is why I think a multi-lingual person will resort to the person he or she wants to be at the point of discussion.

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