By Elena Palaiorouta
Photo by Simona Scaduto. Women celebrate International Women’s Day in Palermo, Sicily, 8 March, 2022.
Several centuries ago, it was believed that women were inferior to men (anatomically and mentally) as sciences were stubbornly trying to create more and more examples of women’s inferiority. Although such theories have been debunked for some time now our world still remains highly gendered.
According to the UN, gender bias is the preference towards one gender over one other, and is related to sexism, as it also describes the discrimination against women. These terms cannot be interchanged though due to some differences.
Sexism is commonly defined as the subordination of one sex (usually female) to another due to an ideology that sees one sex inferior to other. On the other hand, gender bias, as the term suggests, focuses on the gender aspect and is more inclusive as it accommodates prejudices as well as discrimination. This bias can be unintentional or implicit as it occurs when someone unconsciously attributes stereotypes to a person or to a group. What is more, in today’s world, gender bias is more often used in regards to the privileged treatment that men receive.
Gender bias has a pervasive influence on almost every aspect of modern life and can commonly be found in the social institutions such as families, education, economy, health, media, sports and the state/government or different workplaces. This bias can be harmful when it restricts women’s or men’s capacity to advance personal abilities, pursue professional careers and make choices about their lives. Gender stereotyping can be prosecuted when it results in a violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Gender differences start from the minute we are in our mother’s belly, as male babies tend to be described as more active and stronger. Then, parents force us to fit into pre-existing categories such as – girls should like dolls or colours like pink – things that boys should categorically dislike. Thus, from an early age we are all forced to belong to certain gendered categories and to carry these labels into the rest of our lives. Furthermore, besides the toys and colours, kids’ behaviour is also being gendered. Boys should be active, rough and adventurous, while girls should be gentle and timid.
A gendered world creates a gendered brain which then leads, for instance, to toxic masculinity, sexism, gender-based violence, physical and emotional health issues and so on. More specifically, the way some masculine traits are emphasised during childhood and then conditioned is linked to male sexual violence against women. Megan Maas of Michigan State University says; “We know for instance that the individuals who perpetrate sexual violence tend to be high in ‘hostile masculinity’”. Hostile masculinity can be decoded as the beliefs that men are naturally violent, need to have sexual fulfilment, and that women are naturally submissive to them.
Additionally, Christia Spears Brow, a US psychologist and author, and colleagues argued in a 2020 paper that sexual assault by men against women is so common precisely because of the values we condition onto children. This socialisation comes from a combination of parents, schools and the media. “Sexual objectification for girls starts really early”, says Brown.
In order for a significant change to occur, people have to not only understand their biases but also to be mindful of their prejudices, especially towards and in front of kids. We can explain that girls can and do play football and that boys can have long hair or may like to play with dolls. As Maas says, we have to provide as many opportunities as possible “for them to have experiences that go against this sort of avalanche of gendered play”.
We are more alike from birth than we are different. The way we treat children should reflect that in order for society to stop being gendered. Undoing these assumptions is not an easy task due to so many parts of society having a stake in this, but on a personal level, we can all think twice before we tell a little boy how brave and strong he is and a little girl how kind or pretty she is.