Featured on Sunday’s front page of the New York Times is an article describing the gender neutral policies being followed by pre-schools in Sweden. Even though we don’t live in Sweden the extreme practices mandated reflect the growing ideology that equates gender equality with gender neutrality. The logic seems to be that the only way to make sure women are not discriminated against and subject to domination by the so called patriarchy is to eliminate gender identity. The schools have eliminated gender personal pronouns, frown on their perception of gender specific clothing and try to teach girls to scream and boys to be more gentle. They proudly call their agenda social engineering designed to forge a gender neutral world.
Two crucial elements are missing from this approach.. First, let’s be clear. As succinctly articulated by Dr. David Reich, professor of genetics at Harvard University, “Most everyone accepts that the biological differences between males and females are profound. In addition to anatomical differences men and women exhibit average differences in size and physical strength.” He also notes that there are average differences in temperament and behavior between the genders but the degree it impacts behavior is still subject to some debate despite the fiact that most adults report that men and women on average do differ in various aspects of communication and behavior.
My other concern is that the youngsters who are programmed not to recognize gender differences are part of a culture, even in Sweden, with many markers of gender differences. How are they going to develop a sense of self that it is in sharp contrast to the existing cultural norms about gender. Both in the media and in everyday life men still dress and behave as men and women dress and behave as women. Why is it so difficult to imagine a world where women have equal opportunity in their careers, equal pay for equal work and are free from sexual harassment and still feel comfortable wearing makeup, dressing up when they see fit and being respected for their gender specific energy that they bring to society. Conversely, men can feel comfortable in their masculinity and the gender specific energy that that brings to society while respecting women and making sure they are afforded equal rights. Again I wait for an answer to my fundamental question: Why must we equate gender equality with gender neutrality?
No reasonalble individual could argue against the goals of the “Time Is Up” and “Me-To” movements or the overall on-going feminist campaign for gender equality. However, a certain amount of caution is needed to temper some of the more strident voices championing women’s rights. For example, a recent critique of the Oscars stated that just six women won awards this year compared with 33 men – the lowest number of female winners since 2012. The implication of this report coupled with the rhetoric of some of the Oscar winners and presenters is that women are not getting an equal opportunity to excel in the movie industry. I am not in a position to comment on the validity of that conclusion but what I do fear is a knee jerk remedy that measures equal opportunity by simply looking at percentages. In other words a quota system. Since only 18 percent of this year’s Oscar winners were female and females make up about 50 percent of the population should the movie industry be judged on its mission of equal opportunity next year on how close they come to 16.5 female winners? The problem, as it is with the worst aspects of affirmative action, is that less qualified individuals will be chosen in order to reach the 50 percent quota. Will a highly talented male director be left out of the winner’s circle because the academy voters feel obligated to find a female director with less chops so that the image of equal opportunity will be reinforced?
My concern about quotas was further reinforced by stories in the media offering statistics about women not occupying the top positions of power in politics and corporate America despite exceeding male enrollments in undergraduate and graduate university programs. Again, without looking at this data in an informed matter the numbers alone might lead to erroneous conclusions. If I remember correctly last November a women ran for president and actually won the popular vote. Over 30 years ago Geraldine Ferraro – a former congresswomen and UN ambassador – was on the Democratic ticket for vice-president. A women is minority speaker in the House of Representatives and a women was just nominated to head the CIA. Are there reasons other than gender bias that have kept more women from top management positions in Fortune 500 companies? Is it possible that many smart and capable women have chosen to lead a more balanced life than is required to climb the corporate ladder all the way to the top? Do women dominate teaching and social work positions solely because they can’t work anywhere else or is this a conscious choice that is more aligned with their personal journeys? Another example of changing gender occupational preferences can be found in the mental health field. In 1970, women made up just over 20 percent of PhD recipients in psychology, according to the National Research Council. In 2005 nearly 72 percent of new PhD and PsyDs entering psychology were women, according to APA’s Center for Psychology Workforce Analysis and Research. As of 2013 the percentage of female active psychologists in the workforce increased to 68.3 percent).
My take away is that numbers alone do not tell the whole story. Gender equality is not the same as gender neutrality. The advocates of gender neutrality would have you believe that the fact that women do not make up 50% of all occupations is due to patriarchy and gender discrimination. This opens the door for a benchmark of gender equality based solely on percentages. The issue is far more complex and if we are ready to hold a conversation about discrimination and equality that is not based on the evils of masculine dominance we need to tone down the rhetoric and look at gender issues in a rational and nuanced fashion .