I distinctly remember the day when, while taking a university class on the history of psychology, a brief portion of the three hour lecture touched upon the BSRI test developed by Sandra Bem in 1974. The test was described as a measure of a person’s androgyny; the message was that androgyny, a parallel prominence of masculine and feminine traits in an individual, is a positive characteristic, and indicates a healthy and well-rounded personality. Of course, as someone who can’t resist a good personality quiz, I found a web version of the test online immediately after class. There are several versions of the BSRI; my results, for every single one, showed me as a predominantly masculine character – more masculine than feminine, and more masculine than androgynous. What really stayed with me from that experience was my completely involuntary disappointment and a sort of a soft panic. I knew at that point that gender was a construct; that the test was developed forty years ago and followed questionable, socially created expectations of what men and women should be like; and I knew that I was by no means an unfeminine character. However, my rationality aside, on an emotional level I read my results as a failure to live up to my ability to be a woman.
This theme came up again and again in years following. I am analytical, competitive, and independent (among many other things), and I was told many times that I am “not like other girls.” (As an aside, it takes a long time to realize that the comparison to “other girls” is truly a comparison to our culture’s ideal of a Woman, not to any specific group of real people.) Perhaps it is fortunate that I am also stubborn (masculine trait? feminine? who knows) and I refused to take the assessment of my supposed masculinity as a call to arms to wage war on my incorrect personality. Alarmingly, all men and women receive this call to arms on a daily basis in subtle ways. This observably creates an effect of self-fulfilling prophecy. As the recent Verizon commercial aptly pointed out, 66% of girls in 4th grade like science and math, but only 18% of college engineering majors are female. Engineering is logical and analytical, and this does not fit in with the traditional view of femaleness. From a young age, we are encouraged to stick to our gender’s supposed predetermined strengths, and we develop them instead of becoming strong in what we love most and what comes to us most naturally.
How do we adjust this pattern? It’s integrated into our very core as a culture and has been for a long time. To truly create a platform for bringing out the strengths of people, regardless of gender, we can start with a few changes:
1. Watching our language. To describe something as “male” or “female” in character is entirely unnecessary in most cases. Let’s hope that we are smart enough to use more descriptive language. For instance: if a friend were to make me a care package while I had a bad flu, I could say that my friend was warm, considerate, creative, and had compassion for the awful state I was in. I don’t need to sarcastically say “thanks, Mom,” even if that’s done in good will and friendly jest.
2. Allow ourselves a greater range of feelings. This point especially applies to the way we treat men. As they are “traditionally” expected to be stoic and analytical, emotion is not well tolerated and, frankly, seen as embarrassing. However, every person can benefit from allowing their emotional impulse interact with their rational thought, and neither gender should exclusively monopolize one side of this balance.
3. Treat children differently. When gender roles are as tightly woven into the fabric of society as they are, our only hope of truly changing them lies with our ability to raise children in a different way. Gender should come about organically to a child rather than be forced onto them with princess-themed first birthday parties or tougher discipline for little boys to “toughen” them up. Otherwise – how do we know what gender really means, when it is assigned rather than exhibited? As someone who has not raised children, I can appreciate the fact that counteracting the effects of media and the gender expectations of our greater community is an incredibly challenging task. But I know that when I do have kids of my own, I will do my very best to raise them in a well balanced way and reinforce the fact that their feelings and thoughts are acceptable: because they are common to us as people, not only as men or women.
At the end of the day, each of us carries personality traits that have been unfortunately categorized as masculine and feminine. However, it is reassuring to remember that our character should not rest on the simplified and exaggerated duality of maleness and femaleness. We have a long way to go, but it is possible to treat personality as a vast, intricate concept that does not use gender as an easy crutch to explain away differences between humans.