Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Gender Generalizations: Asking for Trouble?

Just now I had someone make a gender-based generalization on my blog. It was pretty inoffensive, and I even related to it--but even so it stirred the pot a little bit. I had planned to reply in the comments, but every time I did my comment turned out about as long as a regular blog post. I thought this topic was too interesting not to devote an entire post to.

I relate to some gender-based generalizations--for instance, I'm not as strong as most guys I know. I'm aware of it. I come with all the necessary equipment to give birth, and I'm aware that guys don't. However, I do think that if you make general gender statements in public--even about something as obvious as physical difference--you're asking for trouble. Here's why I think it's a bad idea to make gender-generalization comments on your business blog.

Because nothing applies to everybody. Okay, some gender generalizations seem really obvious. But even some of the really obvious ones may not apply to the particular people who are hearing you. And I know that whenever I hear a generalization about women that I don't feel applies to me, I always feel a little twinge of annoyance. I start thinking something like "this person doesn't know what he's talking about. I'm not like that." I get a little defensive. Often I look at the situation rationally a little later and realize that the person means well--but my first reaction is always negative.

When you make generalizations about gender, you run the risk of giving a definition of manhood or womanhood that doesn't include the listener. And chances are that even if the person you're talking to doesn't get all offended, he or she probably had an internal moment of annoyance.

Because you'd be surprised at what's offensive to some. You know the one that sometimes bothers me? That old stereotype that women are more nurturing than men. You'd think that statement wouldn't be offensive; after all, being nurturing is a positive thing and if anything, women should like that such a positive quality is associated with them.

But I don't see it that way. I guess because to me, it sounds like saying women aren't as "tough" as men; or because women are so nurturing they're biologically better suited to staying home and having babies than going out in the world and being successful. To me--and to some other women I know--that phrase "women are more nurturing" has a lot of negative connotations. Someone who doesn't understand those associations might make a perfectly innocent comment about the nurturing nature of women--and cause offense where it wasn't meant. That's the thing about gender generalizations--you think what you're saying is perfectly innocent or even positive, but you might not know what you're wading into.

Even "physical" generalizations might cause offense. There's a lot of science out there that says women and men problem-solve, listen, and see the world differently. But not even scientific studies are always the last word--this article in the Boston Globe makes a lot of sense to me. It discusses how the studies that back up gender-based stereotypes are not always as conclusive as they look.

How good is the science behind brain difference studies? I'm not sure. But whether they're right or wrong isn't the point, in my opinion. If somebody tells me women or men are a certain way because their brains or hormones or something else in their bodies are just different, it doesn't close the conversation for me. And it might not be closed for whoever you're talking to. I'll still get a little bothered when someone tells me women are worse drivers than men, for example, even though there's a study out there that backs it.

Because even if you don't mean to be sexist, you can come off looking that way. Some people might not be offended at all by gender stereotyping--they may even agree with some stereotypes. But unless you know how everyone you're talking to will respond, gender generalizations are definitely risky. Even if you don't mean to sound sexist, starting a conversation with "Women are all...." or "Men always..." might get people to see you as the type of person who makes assumptions based on gender--especially if they don't know you well.

Some people get annoyed at the fact that they have to watch what they say to avoid offending people. I know a lot of people who might say something like "well, if it's so easy to offend people, maybe they're the problem. Maybe they need to lighten up." I'm not really interested in judging whether it's wrong or right that people can get prickly over gender generalizations--but I think the reality is that they do. In a world where some social pitfalls are hard to spot, gender generalizations are obvious and easy to avoid--so why wouldn't you?


french panic said...

Another point about science – just because someone has done a study, and put it forth in the name of science, does not make it a fact. For example, for many years, it was a scientific “fact” that the brains of black people were smaller than the brains of white people, therefore black people were inferior, as clearly they were not as smart as white people. The "scientific studies" that "proved" this "fact" were completely biased to begin with, and completely unscientific.

Women are not worse drivers than men; there are way too many outside factors to ever prove that women or men are better drivers. Just like you have pointed out with the nurturing comment – being physically capable of giving birth does NOT mean that you automatically become a nurturer. Actually, one can nurture without ever being a parent!

Whenever someone points to a study and says “See? Someone has done a study! It’s true! It’s been proven!”, my hackles go up. Who has funded the study? What sort of outcome was predicted? Have all of the variables been controlled adequately? Has the study been published in a reputable journal and has it since been discounted?

Generalizing anything – gender, race, religion, wealth, etc. – is an extremely dangerous thing to do. Perpetuating negative stereotypes, for both genders, is perhaps one of those reasons why there continues to be so many men vs. women issues (democrat nominees, anyone?).

Unknown said...

It does seem as though the bar is raised higher and higher regarding this topic. I made a comment once that my husband said was gender offensive. I had no idea because I didn't see it in that way, but he was right.

I don't think the obvious differences should offend anyone. Read "You Just Don't Understand" by Deborah Tannen for a clear picture of how our gender defines our communication styles. Your poster wasn't off base by alluding to the difference. Not in my opinion. I do think he wasn't right simply because I was taught by a female career counselor to stand while speaking as it makes you feel more in charge.

I took no offense, nor did I think he meant any.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@French: I think one has to be careful here, because while science is supposed to be objective, not every study is created equally--and even if there really is an excellent study done on why men and women do a certain thing differently, pointing it out might raise some hackles in certain company. If you want to avoid a possibly controversial reaction, I think it's better to just stay away.

@Lori--I definitely agree that what was said wasn't offensive at all--but it did get me thinking about how even innocuous gender-generalization comments can sometimes raise passionate responses, and why that might be. I sometimes get a little defensive over things that really shouldn't bug me--like the "nurturing" stereotype--and only after thinking it through does it occur to me that it has some negative connotations in my head that I'm not even aware of most of the time, but that do affect my response.

Anonymous said...

So the half-speak and the subtle hints point at me as being the offender, and thank you, Lori, for confirming it.

First up, if someone doesn't agree with what I say, say so. Debate is good and healthy and disagreement is fine. I'm not going to get all twisted up over it. It would've been better to call me out than for me to discover this counter-post by accident.

I try to avoid sweeping statements and generalizations at all times. I believe I phrased my comment using the words "most men" and "many people". I would be foolish to say "all men" and "all women". We're all unique and different and while some people fit classic profiles, some don't.

My comment wasn't intended to be offensive and I think it was completely taken to the extreme by being pointed out as something that causes harm. We read content in a very personal way – how many times have we read something and said, "Damn! That sounds like me!"

Well, it's often not about you. It was written by someone who has no clue of you. This is why books and movies have character disclaimers. I'm certainly not about to start putting disclaimers on my comments for advice on how to relax while talking on the phone. Sheesh.

Another issue that I think was blown out of proportion was that "I think there is a psychological theory" became "James quoted a study." I didn't. A theory does not a study make. I studied critical thinking and psychology in University and I know full well that for every study, there are ten more that refute the conclusions. I also know that if you're going to quote a study, you'd better provide the name and date of it, too.

I do know that most studies about the differences between men and women have quite a bit of basis and value. It's good to think critically. It's not good to refute all studies and say that all studies are garbage until they are unanimous across the board.

I think that people are extremely oversensitive when it gets to a point that I can't say that men prefer to pace and women to sit – and do so in a relaxed, casual manner without pulling out the Wikipedia. I would sit in my own home and have casual conversation in this manner. Does that make me a gender-jerk? I hope not, really, because if so, then the world needs to relax.

I'll prove you right on your last paragraph: I fully believe that if a person reacts negatively to something someone else said or wrote, it may be a good idea to look at the reasons why rather than point the finger at the other person. I get upset when people say many foolish things – but it's my responsibility to figure out why this upsets me and resolve it within myself, especially when it's a mild remark about sitting and standing.

Granted, this is not the case when it comes to many issues such as blatant disrespect, discrimination, racism, and all that pleasant stuff.

@ Jen – if I offended you because I said women tend to prefer to sit while speaking on the phone, my sincere apologies. That was not my intention and I wouldn't want bad blood.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@James--nope, it wasn't offensive at all. It was precisely because your comment was so inoffensive (or at least I thought so), and it still caused a more passionate reaction than usual, that I decided to write about it.

Basically, you made me think. The comment made me interested in why gender-based comments--even some that are really innocuous and shouldn't bother anyone--tend to rile people up, and whether or not it's a good idea to bring them out anyway.

I'm not saying that people should or shouldn't react so strongly--personally I agree that sometimes people are too sensitive. Heck, sometimes I'm too sensitive. But I think the reality remains that the subject can be touchy, and it's something to keep in mind.

Anonymous said...

Oh. Well in that case... Um... Okay :)

I'm glad you're not upset!