A Shit's Creek of the Gender Kind

Sam Smith, one of my favorite singers!

This is the first academic term during which I’ve taught Human Sexuality—or, more accurately, the Psychology of Human Sexuality. A good portion of the course is devoted to gender, gender roles, and gender identity. For those of us who grew up during a time when the gender binary of male and female prevailed, wading into the morass of identities that we find can seem fraught with peril—especially in a classroom setting. I teach many millennials and centennials (Generation Z) who have most fully embraced an array of gender identities. I think they are somewhat amused when I stumble through the vagaries of this complex subject.

I have a perspective that is alien to most of my students. I challenge them on the first day of class with an exercise that I worry might be insulting. Usually, though, they just nod and take my scenario in stride.

“If you decide to step into my time machine,” our inaugural discussion begins, “and press a button to go back to the 1950s, you would feel very out-of-place indeed. If you identify as a man, you will not be masculine enough to function very comfortably or competently there. Those who identify as women are in no better shape. You will not be properly feminine enough to be accepted. And forget any real job opportunities. For those of you who do not embrace either of those binary labels, well, you may find yourselves up shit’s creek without a paddle.”

And our series of discussions begins.

In each class, including Human Sexuality and General Psychology, I frequently teach students who, sooner or later, tell me of their own gender fluidity. The majority of my colleagues, representing a wide range of experience and age, are generally very receptive to diversity in gender identity and sexual orientation. Perhaps it’s because of the institution’s policy of inclusion, but my intuition tells me it goes beyond institutional policies and core values. For most professors and staff, the feelings and attitudes are genuine.

Which heightens my surprise when I found an article that, just last year, appeared in American Psychologist.1 The article examined gender stereotypes in the United States from 1946 to 2018. Most of the authors’ analysis focused on the workplace and examined three variables commonly attributed to males and/or females: communion, agency, and competence. Adjectives associated with communion include compassionate, warm, and expressive. In my classes, I collapse those descriptors to one word—nurturing. Agency’s adjectives are ambitious, assertive, and competitive, a reference to mastery and goal orientation. Competence is easy; it can be construed as capability, talent, and skill.

What did the authors find?

That, when it comes down to attitudes about sex and gender, not a shitload has changed. Women were—and are—considered more nurturing by both males and females. Men were—and are—considered more agentic by both males and females. Competence is where the difference occurs. The regard for women’s competence has increased among both men and women over the years. In fact, in some cases, men consider women, generally, to be more competent than their male colleagues.

How does this play out? Well, women, while considered competent, are also considered predominately nurturing. They land positions where nurturing qualities serve them well. So what? Those jobs usually hold few opportunities for advancement. Men, on the other hand, perceived as being more agentic, attain a greater number of leadership roles, which generally allow for advancement opportunities.

So, I wonder: If these stubborn assumptions continue, how will my gender fluid and genderqueer students fare once they enter the workforce? Will they feel a strong sense of marginalization, like all of us would if we traveled backward, temporally, even less than a century?

I do worry about them. I know that, even among their peers, they experience anxiety about their gender identities. I can see it when, after I express my unconditional acceptance and growing understanding of their gender identities, their shoulders relax, and their apprehension dissolves. Will they experience acceptance and understanding once they enter the professions about which they are so excited?

I am only cautiously optimistic. We can’t ignore the powerful forces in our society who emphatically say, “No. They won’t.” And the less dogmatic among us can’t seem to convince them otherwise.

1Eagly, A.H., Miller, D. I., Nater, C., Kaufmann, M., & Sczesny, S. (2019). Gender stereotypes have changed: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of U.S. public opinion polls from 1946 to 2018. American Psychologist, 75(3), 301-315.

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