Tuesday, 23 March 2010

On gender

This is the first time that I have posted about gender. I have mentioned the fact that I am a woman working in a man's world and the fact that that is often commented on but that is about my sex, not my gender.

For those of you who aren't social scientists, let me explain the difference between sex and gender: sex is biological. On a basic level, your sex is determined by what bits you have. On the whole we are divided into male and female although there are people who have bits of both naturally (intersex) and those who have chosen to alter what they were given at birth (transgender/transexual).

Gender is social. It is about identity, it is about how you feel and how you express yourself. A man can be feminine, a woman can be masculine, and either can display a mixture of both characteristics. It is about performance and narration. It is about what you do and how you tell the story of what you do, to yourself and to others. It is about other people's perceptions of you. Gender is an aspect of personal identity that comes about through interaction with other people and their beliefs and expectations. It is socially constructed.

I'll start with masculinity and men. I will give you two examples:
One of my driving colleagues displays a lot of traits typically thought of as feminine - he is very clean and tidy, he gets upset by dirt and smells, especially those created by other people. He is caring and makes a point of trying to be helpful. On the other hand, he also displays some extremely masculine behaviour - shouting and swearing a lot, spitting on the ground, although this never strikes me as particularly convincing, especially as he doesn't swear at all if you talk to him on his own. While we were all waiting to clock out one day, a conversation took place about ballet during which someone said to him that they could just see him in a tutu and others agreed. I might have expected him to start arguing with the bloke who said it, but he didn't seem that bothered by the comment but did instantly start scuffing round the shed kicking stuff and spitting on the ground. He is clearly aware that by nature he is not the most masculine of blokes but in such a masculine environment he feels the need to conform to a standard image of what blokes ought to be. This isn't about being scared people will think that he is gay because he quite obviously isn't. I actually think it is just that he is young and hasn't quite worked out how to be gentle and caring and still be a bloke so he goes too far the other way with the spitting.

There is a divide in a builder's merchant between the inside people - admin, management, shop staff - and the outside people - yard staff and drivers. The outside is obviously more masculine than the inside because it is dirty, it involves heavy lifting, it involves vehicles and it is frequently cold and wet. The inside people don't need to wear gloves or steel toe caps and often only wear uniform t-shirts but not hard wearing trousers.

The second example of performances of masculinity happened when I had to go inside to collect a roll of damp proof membrane (DPM) from the shop. DPM is heavy - once it is on my shoulder I can carry it ok but getting it onto my shoulder or lifting it from the ground is sometimes tricky. One of the shop staff collected the roll for me and then struggled to know what to do with it. As a member of shop staff giving the roll to a member of outside staff he would automatically expect me to pick it up and take it out to my truck myself. As a man giving a heavy item to a woman he would take the roll out to the vehicle himself. In a work environment I would never expect someone to lift something for me, I have chosen to do this job so I will do it the same as the men. Occasionally I ask someone to take the other end of something with me if I really can't manage it. In the end he gave me the DPM to lift and one of his colleagues made fun of him for not being a gentleman. The question here was the perception in his mind of who was more masculine - me or him. I shall list the pertinent traits:
Him - male (m), inside (f), hair do (f), smart shoes (f)
Me - female (f), outside (m), had made no effort with appearance (m), tall and strong (m).
Obviously it is not as simple as him thinking 'I have a hairdo therefore I will not lift the DPM' but all these factors unconsciously made up his perception of our relative masculinity. If I had been wearing a skirt and make up, he would almost certainly have made a different decision. I could have made the decision for him by either picking it up straight away or asking him to take it out for me but I have to admit I was finding it entertaining to watch him squirm!

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