That gender equality is low in South Sudan, will be no surprise. But how about Europe? Six weeks in a language school in France didn’t convince me that it is very different here. The course materials contain all kinds of gender stereotypes. Men like cars, football and new gadgets. They work a lot, are competitive and ambitious. Women do the housekeeping, take care of the children or chat with their friends. They’re mainly interested in new clothes, make-up or jewelry. If they have a paid job at all, they’re the receptionist, secretary or the assistent of the male director. Boys are sturdy and like to romp, girls play with dolls and have to be cute. The sportive female skier who has fallen down, takes a lascivious pose before the male nurse. He’s more interested in her breasts than in her broken leg.
The term “gender” refers to socially-constructed differences between women and men, as distinct from “sex”, which refers to their biological differences. These differences can and do have consequences. The amount of gender equality in society differs with time and setting. Gender differences and their consequences in this age are different from those a hundred years ago. They differ between cities and rural areas, they are different in Europe, in Asia and in Africa. Besides, the perception of gender varies with age, social standing or sex. These perceptions define the expectations people have about what men and women, boys and girls do or don’t do. It’s the expectations that influence the behaviour of adults and children and make certain actions and activities possible or impossible for certain groups.
At first sight it seems women are restricted most by the expectations about their behaviour. But the same process works for men and boys. It’s still perceived to be strange if boys play with dolls or men take care of the house and the children. So it happens rarely and men who do take that role will often have to defend themselves. The same happens to working mothers, who get asked regularly how they manage to combine work and children, while we don’t ask that same question to working fathers. So women feel responsible to take care of their children and get overloaded.
Gender is socially constructed and acquired knowledge. Examples from parents or other role-models, the influence from the media and education all play a role in constructing the way people look at women and men. We’ve known that for a long time. So an advertising brochure from a toyshop for Christmas in which girls are sweet caretakers and boys are sturdy pirates or smart scientists, is not just an advert for toys. It’s also an advert for a restrictive and role-reinforcing look at the world. The stereo-typical images from the French language-course seem to be innocent or even funny at first sight, but they’re not. They reinforce gender inequality and they subconciously restrict women and men in their opportunities. It’s often said that men and women choose to behave in conformaty with the expectations. Of course that’s true, but it’s not as simple as that. Expectations from society can put a lot of pressure on people to meet them. We’re social beings and we don’t want to be excluded from the group we belong to. So gender influences us all.