Wednesday, November 7

Gender mind bender

In my teaching gig, I get to talk about all of the taboo topics: sex, drugs, racism, religion, politics, gender issues... You name it. If it's not an acceptable topic of conversation in polite company, it probably comes up in my class. As you can imagine, controversy is inevitable...

This week is gender week.

We talk about media portrayal of gender roles.

We talk about the fact that women weren't allowed to run the Olympic marathon until 1984 (nineteen eighty effing four!) for fear that they'd destroy their uteri or die on the course.

We talk about the fact that gender stereotypes are bad for men, too. (Full disclosure: I'm human-ist, not femin-ist. The ridiculous modern belief that boys can't sit still in class and aren't good at communication is every bit as harmful a stereotype as "girls are bad at math." If you think I'm making this up, see research by Steele and Ambady, among others...)

We talk about the gender wage gap (which is far more complicated than just "discrimination"). And this reminds me that in the past year, while discussing the variety of possible causes for the gender wage gap, one of my students said:
"Isn't the gap just a reflection of men's and women's differences? Women just can't do what men do. They get tired easier. They just don't have the endurance."
A shocked and angry little part of me wanted to shout back: "Oh yeah? Grab your running shoes. Let's take this outside and see who has more endurance." (There may have been some cussing in my inner monologue as well, but you get the idea...)

I also wanted to argue that women regularly survive 20+ hours of labor. If that's not endurance, I don't know what is.

But being offended just plays into the "women are emotional and irrational" stereotype.

Instead I took a deep breath and lectured on the very real evidence that women are, in fact, excellent endurance athletes. I pointed to the shrinking gap in male and female marathon world record times, and the fact that women often win ultra-distance races.

I reminded the class that, most importantly, we shouldn't assume "average" means "all."

Women, on average, have lower muscle mass and higher body fat percentage than men. As a result, we've segregated our athletic endeavors and awards systems. We tend to think of women as gymnasts and men as weigh lifters.

But sometimes people buck the trend in spectacular fashion. Consider Billie Jean KingAnn Trason, and now world-class weight lifter Sarah Robles. Robles outranks any American weightlifter (man or woman).

Saying women just "can't" be good athletes demeans very real athletic skill and ability, just as saying men "can't" collaborate and communicate demeans very real interpersonal skill and ability.

Whenever this challenge comes up, as it invariably does from at least a handful of students, it leaves me wondering:
When will we, as a culture, start accepting personal talent on a personal level, and stop leveling stereotype accusations at one another?
Maybe someday...

Until then, I'm going to keep running even though, apparently, I'm not supposed to have the endurance to run those long distances. Because, you know, I'm a girl.

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