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Feminism: Sex & gender discussions

Devaluing female/feminine behaviours

37 replies

BelleCurve · 07/03/2012 20:31

I've been thinking about how easy it is to devalue typical feminine behaviours (sparked by the raising a boy thread), unconsciously avoid dressing boys in pink etc.

This carries over to the workplace - I work in a very male dominated environment and remember even from school that to "get ahead" you had to act like one of the boys.

Before my post-natal feminist re-awakening, it seemed for a long time to me that women just had to try harder to be more like men, and those who didn't were letting the side down.

Obviously, the attitudes are very deeply ingrained but if I have to sit through one more "women, you should be more assertive to get promoted" presentation I will scream!

I've seen some blog posts about this issue on here a while ago - any Mners with better memories?

OP posts:
HandDivedScallopsrgreat · 07/03/2012 21:05

I think it is all about male being the default and what we should all aspire to. The whole world is run for the benefit of men, especially the working world, so yes behaving and thinking like a man is going to make life easier and get you further.

I think that is also why many women find feminism after having children, because suddenly your "femaleness" is there for everyone to see and immediately you are as subject to discrimination as the rest of the female population.

Takver · 07/03/2012 21:19

I absolutely agree this is a really important issue and one that needs to be talked about more.

Will be back and post more, need to think about this one, looking forward to reading what everyone has to say.

SuchProspects · 08/03/2012 07:09

I agree there is a major issue about all things "male" being the default and things "female" being considered lesser. But I think we need to be careful not to embrace everything "typically female" as good simply because women do them. Some behaviours ("male" or "female") aren't necessarily great and many have been forced on us by a patriarchal system.

solidgoldbrass · 08/03/2012 09:57

Yup, it's one of those things you see very early on in childhood - girls emulating boys is seen as 'cute', boys emulating girls is seen as worrying. Think of the respective connotations of 'cissy' and 'tomboy'. It's all about heirarchy, with maleness seen as superior to femaleness, so that it's fine for the inferior to imitate the superior, inappropriate for the reverse to happen.

AlanMoore · 08/03/2012 10:16

My DP works in a public sector organsation where the upper echelons are very slightly female dominated (I think it's about 52/48). He is sort of the top of the junior grades and currently his line manager is male but their ultimate boss is a woman. I think it has definitely shaped his expectations of the workplace.

Things like illness or crying at work are not seen as signs of weakness - he line managed someone a couple of years ago who was having a tough time with his mental health and I was impressed by how much understanding and patience everyone seemed to show this guy. If he was having a bad day he could just get on with quiet tasks that weren't too overwhelming, whereas here you would be told to shape up or ship out if you were a bit teary. The man is much better now and back working full time, but if he worked in my organisation I think he would have been "managed out" as there's no way they would have been so accomodating, he'd have been expected to function at full throttle or be signed off sick with no middle ground.

Presenteeism is not encouraged, flexible working is the norm. They have senior managers who work part time. They seem pretty productive and happy compared with the staff in the public sector organisation I work for...

I think it shows that when there are enough women in senior positions to allow a balance the culture of an organisation can alter to allow more traditionally feminine traits to be valued.

AlanMoore · 08/03/2012 10:18

I should also have said my DP is not especially in touch with his feminine side as it were, although he is a very hands-on parent and shares the "wifework" equally with me, which I think might be partly to do with him looking up to women at work so not feeling that what women do is beneath him iyswim!

Dworkin · 08/03/2012 10:25

Simone de Beauvoir wrote:

"Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female - whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male."

Males cannot possibly take anything female on board as to do so would decrease their humanity.

I like you post AlanMoore and I hope it becomes the rule rather than the exception.

sunshineandbooks · 08/03/2012 10:38

Good thread. I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that feminine behaviours have been devalued, with the ultimate example of that being motherhood of course. I think HandDived makes a good point about that and why it is after having children that many women rediscover feminism. That was certainly my experience. I'd never really experienced any direct sexism in my life up until I had children and I was totally unprepared for it and quite shocked that I could still suffer such consequences in the year 2007 simply because I'd done something as natural and common as having children.

I think Such makes a good point that some female behaviours aren't natural at all but have been forced on us through millennia of social conditioning (e.g. being less confrontational and more willing to compromise). But that's where it gets complicated isn't it. How many traits are feminine and masculine. Are any due to sex or is it all due to conditioning? If we lived in a world where gender was irrelevant, would we suddenly find pretty much all activities about 50/50 by gender? Is it the case that the patriarchy has deliberately pushed all the things it doesn't want men to do onto women and then devalued them to keep women in their place? In which case, is the answer to raise the status of tasks women do or to remove gender stereotyping? Or both? Can we change certain tasks? I still believe that women will always shoulder more of the childcare simply because they are the ones that gestate, labour and breastfeed and part of me feels concern that women should sacrifice this to be more like men when I feel there is a strong biological pull there for many women to be the primary carer. Wouldn't it be better to recognise the value of it, rather than to make it more equally split by gender? After all, as long as we live in a capitalist society where two part-time jobs will never pay as much as one full-time one, 50/50 parenting isn't a realistic option for many couples no matter how much they'd like it to be.

Sorry, musing now.

Takver · 08/03/2012 10:43

I also like your post a lot, AlanMoore.

I also agree with you, SuchProspects, there's a fine line to tease out those 'feminine' behaviours that are a product of the patriarchal system from those which are positive and should be celebrated and encouraged, woman or man (or indeed neutral and harmless).

So I guess a crude example for me would be dress. Wearing super-high heels wouldn't be a great idea IMO even if men and women both did it equally. But, say, empathy and being a good listener is a characteristic that we should encourage in all of our children.

Takver · 08/03/2012 10:46

sunshineandbooks, I do agree that recognising the value of primary caregiving is very important, but I'm not sure I believe that in a truly non-patriarchal society women would necessarily be the dominant caregivers beyond the very early weeks.

Of course in our industrial capitalist society where work is extremely separate from homelife there's a push to having one dominant caregiver, but my suspicion is that many parents would be happier with a mix of care-giving and productive work - no reason a b/fing mother can't feed & spend time with a baby, and then father (uncle, big brother, big sister) spend time with baby while she is involved in other activities.

SmellsLikeTeenStrop · 08/03/2012 10:49

I think there is a strong element of women being assigned all the attributes that men don't want.

Our heritage is Christian and the creation myth is the ultimate in making women the 'other'. Eve was created to be Adam's 'helpmeet', she wasn't created as an individual to rule the garden of Eden alongside her spouse, she was created because Adam could not find a suitable helper amongst all the other animals, so God put him to sleep, removed a rib and made him a suitable helper. Woman was made for man. Man was the first, the original, the perfect creation, woman was made to help him. I think that provided the opportunity for men to say ''well we are like this, strong, confident, leaders, assertive, logical, therefore women are gentle, submissive, followers, emotional''.

InmaculadaConcepcion · 08/03/2012 15:14

Interesting thread.

Takver empathy and being a good listener are interesting attributes to characterise as more "feminine".

Various studies have show that there is actually no significant difference between women and men when it comes to the ability to empathise with another person. I guess the reason why empathy is seen as a "soft, feminine" characteristic is because it is the flip side of being aggressive, and aggression is generally glorified in our society (and therefore seen as a masculine trait).

I suspect putting empathy on a pedestal as a positive female trait is a bit of a placatory sop to women (not meaning you here, Takver! Just musing about it) - it's a way of saying, "Ah, but don't worry ladies, you're much better at empathising with people than men are..."

Greythorne · 08/03/2012 16:34

This is one reason I don't really like the 'Pink Stinks' campaign, although I get what they are intending to do. But why should we devalue the pink stuff and expect girls to emulate the boys? I don't see a boys' campaign called 'Trains and pick up are crap'. It's the same principle which means that when clothing becomes 'unisex', the reality is that women adapt male clothing but men do not start wearing dresses and skirts.

It's always the women / girls being asked to change.

Greythorne · 08/03/2012 16:36

Likewise, in the job Market, women have embraced going out to work but it has taken a lot longer for men to embrace housework and childcare.

BelleCurve · 08/03/2012 20:09

I think also some of the supposedly feminine traits are great for channelling women into more shitwork - empathising and communication - great for caring, poorly paid roles. Spatial awareness, better for engineering etc so obviously you can't be as good in these higher paid, higher status roles.

Its a bit chicken and egg. There is a great bit in Cordelia Fine's book about the pressure of stereotyping in exam performance - i.e. you know girls are not supposed to be good at maths (because its not considered feminine), therefore you underperform.

Woman at work who are respected in the macho environment i.e. senior roles often dress in a fairly masculine style and are treated as "quasi" men, never asked to perform admin tasks etc. Others who conform to stereotypical feminine dress and behaviour codes are looked down upon.

BTW what is all that about with the male boss/female PA that still goes on??

OP posts:
InmaculadaConcepcion · 08/03/2012 20:38

Yes Belle, I think you've got something there.

Lise Eliot is good on spatial awareness in Pink Brain, Blue Brain (and the stereotype threat/stereotype lift effects you mention). She says that the most recent studies on infants suggest males have slightly better spatial awareness than females and older males are demonstrably better than females in tests of spatial awareness BUT (and she makes it very clear it is a very big but) the main reason for superiority in spatial awareness skills is practice.

The kind of stereotypically male pursuits encouraged in young boys are often related to the development of spatial skills (including shoot 'em up video games, for example) and that is why they become generally more adept in that area than females. There are other studies which show as soon as females have some practice at using their spatial awareness, the gender gap disappears.

The other thing that occurs to me is that empathy and many other supposedly feminine traits are relatively passive compared with the supposedly male traits which tend to be much more about action. It is helpful in a power contest for one side to be fed the stereotype that they are essentially passive so the other side can retain the upper hand, no?

sunshineandbooks · 08/03/2012 21:13

There are some really good posts on here. Smile

I still find it a major headache though.

Women are socially conditioned to be passive and empathetic because it allows men to be dominant and selfish because that is a good result for men. The argument makes sense, but is it really a good result? If we consider society as a whole - made up of women, children and the elderly in addition to men in their prime, then you can put a completely different slant on it.

Social co-operation and altruistic behaviour have many positive social benefits and to some extent, you could argue that all the major leaps in humankind's history are a result of those.

Why are passivity and empathy considered the lesser traits that hold women back? Why shouldn't we consider them positive, desirable traits and criticise dominant behaviour instead?

Why shouldn't men be more like women instead of women more like men?

InmaculadaConcepcion · 08/03/2012 22:04

I couldn't agree more sunshine.

I think the characteristics you mention are desirable and positive and you're absolutely right that co-operation ultimately achieves the greater good for our species when compared with domination.

So I guess the question we should seek to answer is why, in a supposedly modern, civilised society, so many humans still regard power over others/the environment etc. as being necessary.

Competition is everywhere - and everyone has the potential to be a dirty fighter if they feel they need to. Just think of the way people shore up their own lifestyle/survival choices by denigrating those choices made by others - we see it on MN all the time! And this is arguably one of the lesser forms of one up-personship, yet many of us still feel impelled to jostle for position.

Is it a human instinct we all have - competing for what we perceive as resources and the best way to prolong our life-cycles/propagate our genes etc. etc.?? Or is that evo-bullshit? So why do we do it? And why is so much repression seemingly based on this sort of thing? Or maybe it isn't...?

As you can see, I don't have the answers, but it does make you wonder....

kerala · 09/03/2012 18:09

When working in a male dominated investment bank I was told at an appraisal that my voice was holding me back. It was too soft, needed to be deeper and louder apparently i.e. like a mans I suppose. Honestly wtaf.

maybenow · 09/03/2012 18:17

I'd agree that it's very easy to "devalue typical feminine behaviours" - particularly i think for women like me who grew up in the 70s with very gender-neutral upbringing and lean towards more masculine hobbies and interests.

I worry a LOT about having a very 'girlie' girl (not got any girls yet) because i honestly have NO IDEA how to both support her own choices (if she likes pink, why should she not have pink dammit) while at the same time know where to draw the line (what if she decides she wants to be a glamour model??)

GothAnneGeddes · 11/03/2012 00:43

Ooh good thread!

It's certainly something I'm conscious of with my daughter, as while I don't want her going down the Disney Princess culture cul de sac, I don't want her thinking that frilly dresses (to give an example) and dressing up in a girly way is bad.

BertieBotts · 11/03/2012 01:18

Quickly, because it's late, but have you read The Politics of Breastfeeding? There is a whole section in there about how "work" as something separate from "home" has evolved to be very friendly to men and hostile to women who are bound to their children by childbirth and breastfeeding, especially before the invention of adequate alternatives, and so from a parenting point of view women really have to act as men have traditionally acted in a post-industrial society, ie, handing over care of their child(ren) to somebody else, not feeding them themselves, etc. Whereas actually it would be perfectly possible to bring a small exclusively breastfed baby to many workplaces and/or have small creches within workplaces or work from home more so that these roles could be mixed. Of course, men could participate in childcare more this way too.

There's a whole argument about whether or not this would be a good idea or not but I think that the idea that it's problematic in the first place is an interesting one.


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CogitoErgoSometimes · 11/03/2012 15:50

"women, you should be more assertive to get promoted"

Assertion is a female behaviour. Hmm I know many women that are naturally assertive in everyday life... not because they want to get promotion. If you're saying that being assertive is invalid and the only valid female behaviour is submission, I'd be horrified

InmaculadaConcepcion · 11/03/2012 16:14

Being assertive is very valid - the trouble is how assertive females within the workplace are often regarded.

Assertiveness in men tends to be lauded, whereas in women they get labelled "ball-breakers" "harridans" etc. etc.

I used to work in an office that had a pair of female job-share bosses. They were both forces to be reckoned with and I for one had a lot of admiration for them and respect for the way they operated (I was the union rep, so dealt with them from the other side of the table, as it were). But you should have heard how they were referred to by some of my male colleagues. Very few of them came out with it directly, but there was loads of whining and whingeing about them that certainly didn't happen with subsequent male bosses (who were no better as operators, just different and male) - the passive aggressive approach was favoured by some of the men. They called those female bosses "The Girlies" which used to infuriate me no end.

messyisthenewtidy · 11/03/2012 17:18

Kerala, I sympathize. I went for a job interview recently and I was told "you're so softly spoken, your voice carries no authority" Grrrr.... The problem isn't "femininity" per se but in other people's reactions to it.

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