Gender, Power, and Struggle: Part I

This blog considers the construction of gender roles and the consequences this has upon our society, including the existence of rape culture. Theories that suggest “essential differences” will be questioned, and in doing so the potential for change will also be raised. This is part one of a two part post.

Gender Inequality and Gender Differences

The supposed ‘fundamental’ differences between sexes have historically been used as an argument against equal rights, notably in the opposition to women’s suffrage. In the early 20th century this opposition was supported by the science of phrenology, later discredited and its conclusions found to be spurious and based upon prejudice. More recently Neuro-scientific researchers have claimed that essential differences between the male and female brain have been uncovered, ‘evidenced’ by neuro-imaging that suggests differing brain structures. However this research is not as clear cut as it may first appear; no participant of a study can be isolated from the affects of socialisation, and as such each supposed ‘essential’ difference may in fact be a result of socialisation (Fine 3-26). There has also been no conclusive evidence found; the methodology is often flawed, the samples small, and the imaging yet to be properly understood. The widely held belief that male and female brains function in different ways is based upon the conclusions of a small minority of studies, conclusions that are damningly dismissed by meta-analyses. The neuro-imaging “evidence” of differently gendered brains may then, in the future, be shown to be similarly laden with prejudice, skewed by societal expectations, as was the case with phrenology. (Fine 131-154)

Where socio-biologists have relied upon the notion of a universal, innate, human nature, a nature that includes gender divisions, they have faced criticism for the inability for this “universal” to be universally applied; for example, while all human societies include a division of labour by sex, these divisions are varied, the social structures changing the form, rigidity and cultural meaning of such divisions (Fausto-Sterling 198-99). This section will consider how gender is socially constructed, and what effect this has upon how the experiences of men and women.

Our society is patriarchal. Our institutions, our traditions, our everyday lives, are filled with examples of men in positions of authority over women. You are born and take your father’s surname. You marry, and tradition holds that a father gives away his daughter to become the wife of a man whose name she shall adopt. Until very recently (and as is often still the case) it is the man in a relationship who holds financial control, and the woman who takes the (unpaid) responsibility for the home and the children. When a woman goes out to work she earns, on average, substantially less than her equivalent male colleagues (despite legislation banning this), is less likely to receive a promotion, and is likely to receive a smaller pension. If a woman is a wife and/or mother, she will also, on average, continue to take responsibility for the home and the family in addition to her paid employment (the infamous ‘second shift’). The decisions made on our behalf by representatives in unions, councils, and governments are made predominantly by men. Despite the now higher proportion of female law graduates to their male counterparts, our legal system remains dominated by men. Equality legislation has not resulted in equality. Why should this be the case?

Cordelia Fine, in her book Delusions of Gender, argues that associational learning is key to our socialisation, a process that includes the internalisation of gender roles and can account for the apparent differences between men and women. Beginning at infancy, our young malleable brains are subjected to pressures to conform to gender norms deemed appropriate for our sex. Thus, to take the obvious examples, girls are surrounded by pink and boys with blue; girls are given toys that will allow them to imitate the life of a traditional wife and mother (e.g. dolls and play-kitchens), and boys that of a traditional working man (tools, building blocks, etc). While in recent years many parents will attempt to reject these for more “gender-neutral” parenting, society as a whole will ensure that a child will soon become aware of what is “normal” for a girl and how that differs from what is “normal” for a boy. Violation of these norms has violent consequences in bullying, harassment, depression and suicide, as demonstrated by this speech given by Texan politician, Joel Burns:

Our associations also affect how we interact with children of different genders, and thus how they are socialised into conforming to gender roles. Crucially, this process is ‘pre-cognitive’, i.e. independent of our opinions or rational judgement. Male babies are talked to, held, and comforted less than female babies. An adult who believes a child to be a boy will judge it to more independent and active than if the adult believes the same child to be a girl. This raises the issue of gender binaries. If I were to describe two people, one as “ambitious, sporting, and competitive” and another as “empathetic, communicative and caring” it is obvious which gender you would automatically assign to each description. And yet we are all aware that people are far more complicated and contradictory than such binaries would allow. These implicit associations of behaviours and personality traits, divided along gendered lines, give us an underlying social reason for our unequal society, as will now be explored. However as will also be seen, change is not as simple as rejecting these associations.

Research has shown that without the awareness, intention or control of an individual, the perception of a connection between subjects and behaviours are reinforced by their repetition. This is not simply a matter of affecting opinion but of having a real effect upon behaviours and ability. For example, research has shown that when gender is made salient, people perform according to the stereotypical ability of their gender (e.g. women less capable at maths, men less capable at empathy) – however when gender is not mentioned there is no such correlation in performance. The subconscious nature of this compliance to a norm demonstrates that while individuals may consciously reject gender roles, their subconscious continues to unknowingly make gendered associations and behave in gender ‘appropriate’ ways. (Fine 3-26)

These associations, implicit in our society, have deep implications when it comes to gender equality. Though discrimination according to gender is not permitted legally, in reality it is much harder to avoid. Research has demonstrated that when equally qualified men and women apply for identical jobs, the gender associations of the vacancy is a key factor in determining who will be successful: women therefore are at a disadvantage in many areas of employment from the outset, as the attributes of a successful worker are typically seen as masculine (ambitious, competitive, independent, dominant etc) – while a woman may be perfectly suited to the role in question, her talents are far less likely to be recognised than they would be in a man. (Fine 27-66) Such discrimination does not seem to affect men when the situation is reversed; men who work in traditionally female jobs (nursing, teaching etc) are more likely to be favoured for promotion, the societal association of men in positions of authority clearing the path for them to progress in their field. The pervasive nature of these associations is apparent from a young age:

‘Where eleven- to twelve-year-old children are shown pictures of men and women performing unfamiliar jobs, they rate as more difficult, better paid and more important those occupations that happen to be performed by men.’ (Fine 66)

Therefore the expectation implicit in liberal feminist theory – that equal access to education and employment based upon merit will lead to gender equality – is inherently flawed, as it does not account for the failure of legislation that has, in theory, permitted women to achieve the same status as men. Socialisation trumps legislation. (Sometimes the facade of equality falls away even in this, as David Cameron’s suggestion that there should be more women on boards of directors because they ‘cost less’ serves to demonstrate).

It is important to recognise that the affects of a patriarchal society are not limited to women, but to people as a whole, distorting the complex and malleable nature of individuals and presenting them as binary and definitive. While it may be difficult for a woman to gain acceptance in a high-status professional role it is equally true that a man who wishes to look after his children full time may meet equivalent challenges.

The reliance upon theories of ‘essential differences’, and thus the failure to accept the social construction of gender, also has consequences in failing to address the endemic phenomenon of rape. It is to this issue that we now turn our attention.

Rape Culture

Rape culture is more than a society in which the physical act of rape is evident. Rape culture is a culture in which it is a societal norm for women to be objectified, for the fear of rape to be ever present, and where it is accepted that it is not possible to conceive of a society in which rape does not exist. For a more thorough descriptive list of what a rape culture entails, this blog serves as a good guide.

The expectation and acceptance of objectification, harassment, and thus also the potential for rape, is highlighted by a study in which a high percentage of women, working in male-dominated professions, reported experiencing sexual harassment. However, rather than blame the perpetrators, the victims questioned their own sensitivity, and attributed the behaviour to just ‘men being men’ (Fine 73-75). Binary expectations of gender thus contribute to a culture of victim blaming, where it is not the responsibility of men to behave with respect but of women to overcome a perceived weakness in how they respond. For women working in a male dominated workplace failure to accept such a culture could mean losing their own position, thus the choice is either to be a perpetually harassed victim, or an unemployed victim.

The everyday acceptance of such a culture would suggest that ‘the rapist’ is not an exotic and unusual individual, but someone whose behaviour mirrors the expectation of male domination within society. Indeed empirical research has failed to find the “typical” rapist, instead evidence suggests that an environment in which men are expected to prove their manliness, that is to prove their dominance over women, results in a society in which rape is more prevalent.

‘In our society, men demonstrate their competence as people by being “masculine”.’ (Herman p.49)

The social requirement for males to perform masculine qualities is thus indicative of a socially constructed gender binary. Where human attributes are divided in two, where men suppress the “feminine” and women suppress the “masculine”, rape becomes “the logical outcome” (Herman 52). Therefore in order for rape culture to be overcome, it is necessary for our society to be transformed into one where both sexes are equally able to access the multifaceted and contradictory human qualities that have thus far been halved.

Much socio-biological research into rape has however concluded that rape is a biological rather than social behaviour. Yet this research has been criticised for basing its conclusions upon extrapolations made from studies upon animals. A study carried out by Thornhill et al concluded that rape had an evolutionary function, serving as a way in which men could reproduce should attempts of “co-operative bonding” or “manipulative courtship” fail. While the study recognised that there are more proximate causes of rape, e.g. the desire to dominate etc, the evolutionary instinct for reproduction is claimed to be the ultimate cause. As a consequence, the conclusion, such as it is, is shown to be utterly facile when met with any degree of contrary evidence, stubbornly repeating “evolution did it”, as examples of other causes, unrelated to reproduction, continue to present themselves (Fausto-Sterling 193).

By accepting a biological cause of rape these studies accept rape as an unchangeable part of our society, and has potentially dangerous consequences when considering how rape should be dealt with, both in terms of the potential punishment of the rapist and in regard to rape-prevention – the onus is upon potential victims to avoid rape, rather than upon the perpetrators to not commit it. The responsibility thus falls upon the victim, and examples of this will not be unfamiliar. Women are told how to avoid rape by changing their own behaviour, whether that means not going out alone or not drinking as much; they are told to avoid strangers, and to avoid strange places; they are told to leave extra lights on when home alone, to drive with the doors and windows locked. To avoid being raped a woman must live as if every man she meets is a potential rapist. The message is such that the behaviour of the rapist is effectively ignored. This culture of victim blaming is evident in the 2008-9 anti-rape campaign by South Wales Police, a campaign which included a poster aimed at women that stated “Don’t be a Victim”.

Not only does this poster, and indeed all of the advice described, place responsibility of rape onto the victim, it also ignores the crucial statistics that show clearly that the vast majority of rape is perpetrated by men known to the victim (often partners or husbands) and thus the “advice” is both irrelevant and in fact actively harmful, as it creates belief that rape could be avoided if only women were more careful.

The theory of a biological cause of rape is a convenient conclusion for those who do not wish to see social change. It is a theory that allows men to continue their domination over women and for patriarchal norms to remain unchallenged, as rape is considered an innate evolutionary behaviour. The evidence however is weak, and the counter-argument, that the socialisation of gender roles create norms of masculine dominance that are learned, is far more convincing. Thus rape culture can be challenged, but it must be done on the systemic level; if we truly want to see the end of rape patriarchy cannot be allowed to survive. Rape culture thrives in our society because of the entrenchment of binary gender roles. And it creates a paradoxical situation where men who are kind, considerate, and loving can state with the best of intentions that men should protect the women in their lives, an intention derived from the gender norms that allow men to be a threat. In the words of Mary Edwards Walker:

‘You are not our protectors… If you were who would there be to protect us from?”

In Part Two…

The second part of the blog will consider the role of the state in the construction of gender roles. It will further question the potential for equality legislation and, in doing so consider the extent to which a state system requires the existence of patriarchy. The complexities in challenging patriarchy through advocating social change will also be discussed, considering how people socialised into gender roles can attempt to reject them as part of a wider political struggle, and what this means for women engaged in social change.


Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender

Anne Fausto-Sterling, Myths of Gender

S. Rose, R.C. Lewontin & L.J. Kamin, Not in our Genes

Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race & Class

Diane Herman, The Rape Culture



Filed under Long reads

8 responses to “Gender, Power, and Struggle: Part I

  1. Pingback: Gender, Power, and Struggle: Part II | Polite Ire

  2. Drew

    Is it okay if I turn the section on rape culture into a pamphlet and re-title it “what is rape culture?” or something like that? I will make sure the pamphlet directs the reader to your site here. 🙂

      • Drew

        Hey, I ended up adapting your whole Gender, Power, and Struggle series into a pamphlet and wanted to send it to you in pdf to get your thoughts and approval. If I email to this address will you be able to get it?

  3. Wow that’s great. I don’t know how email works via wordpress, but give it a go and I’ll let you know if I receive it!

  4. So I’m writing a book on gender and feminism and I’d love to cite this and part 2! Have they been combined in one pdf? And would it be okay for me to cite this?

  5. Pingback: Vonnegut, Piercy, and Resistance | Polite Ire

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