As an issue close to my heart, Gender Essentialism is something I’ve had plenty of time to think about, and it’s one of the most notable areas in which women’s rights and men’s rights converge.
Gender Essentialism is that assumption that being male or female necessarily implies certain qualities- the most common example is that being male gives you an affinity for the colour blue, and female an affinity for the colour pink.1 Now, while that sounds relatively unobnoxious when you think of factoids such as innate hormone differences and differences in brain and body shape between the sexes, gender essentialism doesn’t necessitate a “different but equal” arrangement in any way, which can lead to some irritating assumptions.
The worst of these consequences come about from the fact that assumptions of gender essentialism creep. While it strikes me as true that women and men generally have some slightly different inclinations before socialisation is taken into account, it’s hard to acknowledge that fact in casual conversation without it being conflated with the idea that men and women are different to the point of practically being two species and that all our socialised ideas about men and women are legitimate, and all women should be mothers that stay at home caring for babies and that feminist careerism is destroying the fabric of our society. Or something.
But to make clear the real failing of gender essentialism, we should look at the physical differences between the sexes that informs the opinion of essentialists. One fact is that, on average, women are shorter than men, given similar contributing factors like quality and type of diet. For example, in 1993, the average height of women in New Zealand was estimated at 165cm, while the average height of men was estimated at 177cm. This gives us an average deviation in height between the sexes of about 12cm, which would seem relatively significant.
However, we haven’t yet put that in perspective. Let’s take a group- say, 19-yearolds, who are likely to have a distribution of height relatively close to the normal amount for adults. Now let’s compare some of the outliers of that group- say, the 15th and 85th percentiles. Relatively tall and short people, but not extremely so. Among US men aged 19, there was a 15.6cm difference in height2. Among women, there was a 15.1cm difference in height3. Notice that even when we’re not taking the real extremes into account, the between a tall person and a short person is much more significant than the difference between a man and a woman.
What consequences should this then have for the argument that social behaviour is influenced by the physical difference between the sexes? Simply this: Even if we accept the conclusion that women might on average have, say, hormones balances that make them less prone to aggression4– it’s still very likely that a very badly annoyed woman is going to be much more pissed off than a man who’s made a very sexist comment. 😉
1 The Hand Mirror had either an article or a link to an article a while ago (That I’m not going to dig to find.) that commented that this trend actually underwent a reversal relatively recently, and that historically pink was regarded as a more virile, masculine colour, while blue was considered passive and feminine. Strange how fashions changed.
2 168.4cm vs 184cm.
3 155.4cm vs 170.5cm.
4 This is a very tame example as far as gender essentialism goes. Far more often it’s used to argue for traditional gender roles of passive supportive woman and active breadwinner man.