Ok so that is the US stat – in the UK it is more like four times. Still, why is that?
One of the projects I’ve enjoyed most in recent years has been delivering school workshops on the pressures of gender – the sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit force to conform to femininity or masculinity. And when I pose this question to the younger groups (13/14 year olds) the answers are often a joy.
‘Is it because men are taller?’ That’s the most common one. Recently I struggled not to laugh at ‘It must be because men have more iron in their blood’. It’s obvious that these answers (always from boys so far) show the pupils enthusiasm to apply recently-gained scientific knowledge. Perhaps it also reveals our tendency to explain such pattern-based male/female differences in sex characteristics, rather than considering gender. If you’re unfamiliar with that distinction don’t worry – society routinely confuses the two. Forms asking your ‘gender’ are usually interested in your sex, but we’ve long stopped asking ‘sex?’ to avoid the always-hilarious answer ‘yes please’.
The way I’m using the terms is this:
‘Sex’ describes the biological, anatomical differences between men and women.
‘Gender’ is the learned set of expectations, roles and norms that a culture associates with each sex.
The reason I’m bald is a sex characteristic, the reason my partner grows her hair long is a feature of gender.
Sex = male and female (and intersex). Gender = masculine and feminine (and a world of complexity beyond!)
The sex characteristics are the same all over the world, whereas gender is cultural and varies wildly across time and place. For example all over the world the avg man is taller than the avg woman. All over the world only those born female give birth. In contrast, gender is extraordinarily varied. Think kilts – the height of masculinity in Scotland, but seen as essentially a skirt, and therefore feminine, in other cultures.
So back to lightning… for me it is likely to be two elements of gender that explain it:
1. Men are more likely to have jobs or hobbies that take them outside.
2. Men are also more likely take risks – so when the thunderstorm starts they may think ‘I can handle a bit of lightning’ and carry on what their doing. Now is that an example of bravery or stupidity?!
In the workshops we talk about a whole range of ways that gender affects us: from the colours we wear; to what tasks we are expected to be good at; to pressures to change our bodies and appearances. The final element that we discuss is what I describe in the workshops as ‘sexist behaviour’ but with older participants I would probably describe as violence against women. I pose this scenario to the pupils:
Imagine that Sarah is walking down the corridor and passes a group of boys. One of the boys, David, turns to her and says ‘Her Sarah, show us your …’.
In place of the ellipses I just say the word ‘bleep’ and suggest to the pupils that we all know what he is likely to have said. During one session a lad asked if was asking to see her homework – but I’m pretty sure even he knew what we were really discussing!
I then ask the pupils, in mixed-sex groups, to discuss: how this might make Sarah feel; how she might respond; and why David is doing it. It feels so crucial to mix up the boys and girls at this point. With most groups there is a natural gender segregation as they choose their seats. For this discussion though, I really want boys and girls to be able to hear from each other. For the vast majority of us, we will only ever experience the world as a female or as a male. Inevitably, our awareness of the experiences of the other sex is limited. A key difference that many men and boys are unaware of, is the impact of this kind of experience on women and girls’ feelings of safety. The man who tries to chat up a woman at a bus stop is often just thinking of his own hope of getting a phone number, he is blind to the sense of threat that his behaviour (and its context) creates in many women.
I also hope the discussion raises all of the pupils’ awareness of a key element of masculinity – the pressure for status in the eyes of other males. No doubt there are similar patterns among women and girls, but my sense is that there is something specific to masculinity that can create an endless competition and rivalry among many males. And the scenario portrays one element of this. Not to excuse the behaviour of course, but my feeling is that often the boys who do this kind of thing are quite desparately seeking the approval of the boys around them. They are striving to appear confident and dominant and in-control. Sadly they are using Sarah as their means to an end. Most of the boys in the sessions seem quick to accept that David does not really expect Sarah to do as he asks.
I end the discussion with an appeal, mostly to the boys in the room, to take an active part in flipping this pattern. My strong belief is that they each have much more influence over their peer group than they probably think. They are the key audience in the scenario after all – David is doing it to impress them. So if we could create an environment in which boys like David would know that they would lose status, lose respect for behaving in this way, then that could begin a sea-change in our culture – one that could move us towards a safer and more respectful world for everyone.
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