Is it this simple..?
The other morning (while on holiday in Ireland), I was listening to the Grery Ryan show on RTE 2fm. One of the phone-in discussions was about the equalities (or lack of) between men and women in the work place.
Now, this is a very controversial issue and I will be handling it with extra-special care. However, in this post I am going to raise and comment on a number of (how should I put it?) ‘possibly sexist sounding ideas’. I make no apology for any of them, after all they are only ideas and we are all entitled to them (right or wrong). I may also not personally agree with these ideas, however I do feel that a balanced debate is required. If you have any comments (or feel the urge to punch me!) please read this post to the end, wait ten minutes then add a comment.
Let me start by saying that there are no absolutes with this topic, only generalities and individual perceptions, we as individuals are… individual.
So, here is probably the most generalising statement there is: “Women are better at multitasking than men!”… Let us dissect this statement and see what is actually being suggested.
First we have to define what “multitasking” means. Multitasking derives from the computer sciences, it is the ability to perform more than one job or task at the same time. From a biological viewpoint, we (men and women) are performing countless tasks at the same time, breathing, balancing, listening, seeing, thinking. You get the idea. So at a basic level we are very much alike.
However I believe that what is actually being suggested here is multitasking at a conscious decision based level. The ability, for example, of listening and taking part in a conversation while at the same time performing some other task(s), such as driving or cooking. It is a commonly held belief that women are better at this than men. However studies in this field (of which there are staggeringly few) suggest men and women are equally capable, see [Gender Differences in Multi-tasking Abilities]. It is the belief bit I am most interested in, and it is an issue I will return to later.
If you analyse the statistics contained in these studies, you will see a small percentage variance, far too minuscule for any noticeable difference.
There are however very obvious differences in our physical make-up, and I don’t think for one minute that any (sensible) person would suggest there wasn’t. Men and women have evolved to perform (at a very basic level) two distinct but mutually inclusive tasks. I’m sure if you conducted a snap poll, there would be a generally held belief supporting the idea that men were physically stronger than women. If you watch the Olympics you can see the difference, men can run faster, jump higher and throw things further. However, these athletes are at the absolute peak of fitness. There are over six billion people alive today, and only a very few fit into this super-human category, the rest of us are all spread out (some more than others) along the fitness scale. It would be impossible to measure, but I am willing to bet that if you could measure the total strength of all men compared to women we would balance out evenly.
What I am trying to suggest is that men and women are more alike than we believe. There’s that word again, belief. Perhaps our differences are not biological or physical at all, perhaps this discrepancy is in differences we believe men and women to have and not the actual differences. Take a moment to read that sentence again (I know I had to!). The only thing different between men and women are the differences we believe there are.
Apart from the very young, seriously disabled and infirm there isn’t a single person who could not change a car tyre. It isn’t a particularly difficult task, it requires common sense, basic motor control and a little strength. So why are many people apparently unable to do it? And (this is a perfect example of what I’m trying to explain) why do I believe that it is women who are less likely to be able to do it and ask for help? Perhaps the reason women request help changing car tyres is because that’s what we believe women do?
Question, why are women better at multitasking? Answer, because we all believe it to be so, and who are we to question this commonly held belief. It is as if everyone is blindly following a gender stereotype, and to go against these stereotypes means you are some kind of oddity or freak.
Onto the original proposition, the differences in the workplace. I work in the software development industry, and there is a massive imbalance between male and female developer numbers. I can’t think of any real reason why women couldn’t do this job, not one. In fact the only reason that does spring to mind is, ‘because it is a commonly held belief that not many women do work in that particular industry’. It is a sort of catch 22 situation, not many women do job ‘x’, therefore we believe (women included) that women are unsuitable, unable (etc.) to do ‘x’, thus women don’t do ‘x’. We hold onto these gender roles like children to safety blankets, and only occasionally do a few true individuals try to break them.
It is my personal belief that men, are, on the whole more creative than women. I am not saying that women are not creative, just that men are more so. I would describe someone as being ‘creative’ when they have, thought of an original idea, drawn, painted or sculpted a work of art, written a literary work, composed a piece of music (etc.). If you go into the British library I believe you will find more books written by men than women, in any art gallery you will see more works of art by men than women, you could do the same for all the arts and sciences.
The truth, is that it is probably quite equally balanced. So why do I hold that particular belief? I’m sure I am not alone, and perhaps that is the problem. It is a self fulfilling prophecy. We have, at a societal level, deeply held beliefs about gender roles and responsibilities, added to that a common human need to ‘fit in’ and ‘not be different’, it is quite understandable why these flaws are allowed to perpetuate, who would volunteer to be the first to be different, who would want to be ostracised. Women are being bombarded daily by millions of magazines, adverts, photographs, hairstyles, what to wear, what not to wear, eat this, don’t eat that! Society is trying to mould women into an idealised perfect version of itself. A friend of mine once told me a joke; “Why do women wear make-up and perfume? – Because they’re ugly and they smell!”. We know this not to be true, but that doesn’t stop society from trying to make us believe it.
We have reached an historical socio-political epoch, where reality is stood toe to toe with our beliefs, only one can win. The difference between men and women, is the belief that there is a difference in the first place.