Facilitating discussion on gender issues
Before examining gender and socialisation, it is important to bear in mind some considerations about approaching gender and gender issues in a local context, including how this relates to working with young people.
Gender is a sensitive issue
Understandings and feelings about gender and gender issues can often be deeply personal, and approaching these issues can trigger memories and feelings about past or current experiences. When we deal with issues concerning identity, it is not always possible to know ‘who is in the room’. Before engaging in discussions such as these with your youth group, you need to think carefully about how to conduct them with sensitivity and responsibility.
Gender is a political issue
Discussions around gender often become heated and are likely to raise political issues where there are strong disagreements, often based on different ideological, religious or other firmly held beliefs. Facilitating such discussions is challenging, and involves being acutely aware of our own attitudes and beliefs and understanding how to support others to discuss these issues in a meaningful way.
Key terms are generally not well understood
Despite the definitions and differentiations offered above, you will hear the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ used interchangeably in society. For example, some questionnaires or forms may ask for your ‘gender’ and simply provide the categories ‘male’ and ‘female’ for you to choose from, neglecting other options.
Gender is everyone’s concern
Awareness of gender issues has primarily been brought about as a result of the work of the women’s movement and of feminist politics, which includes work on gender equality, challenging the status and roles of women and men in society, and addressing the creation of gendered stereotypes. For this reason, there is a tendency to associate gender with women and women’s issues alone. However, it is important to note that everyone has a gender identity, and discussing gender is not only about discussing women’s issues.
Gender relations are relations of power
A proper gender analysis cannot examine the construction of male and female identities in relation to each other without considering how these relations are a function of power, and how they serve to reproduce differences in access to power and resources – and other inequalities. In general, these relationships tend to privilege men and subordinate women. It is also important to recognise that “…current norms of gender marginalise many men and that cultural constructions of gender exclude and alienate those who do not fit neatly into the categories of male or female”.22
Humans learn the norms of society through the experience of living within it and interacting socially. However, we are not necessarily always aware of how or what we are experiencing and learning. In other words, people may be highly attuned to signs of gender in the environment, while not necessarily being able to reflect on how these signs have become gendered.
Our everyday knowledge includes a sense of values, norms, roles and ways of evaluating behaviour, and this kind of knowledge is constantly expanding and constantly being fine-tuned: 'although deeply immersed in our daily routines, informed by practical knowledge oriented to the social settings in which we interact, we often do not pause to think about the meaning of what we have gone through; even less frequently do we pause to compare our private experiences with the fate of others…'.23 Reflecting on how we learn about gender involves a challenge: it invites us to take a critical distance from ourselves and our daily modes of seeing and interacting, and to pause and think about the meaning of gender, and of how we have been able to acquire such a vast and seemingly ‘natural’ knowledge of gender roles, values and identities.
We have all been born into socio-cultural arrangements and meanings that predate us. ‘Socialisation’ is the term that is often given to how we learn, from early childhood, to fit into and negotiate the normative expectations which allow us to be able to behave and fit into society. This applies, among other things, to the sets of masculine and feminine codes, roles and behaviours. Being born as a ‘he’ or ‘she’ does not merely mean acquiring a biological sex category, but marks the ‘him’ or ‘her’ out as the inheritors of characteristics that women and men ought to have, together with preconceptions about how they should behave, play, be played with, dress, react and express emotions.
As Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan explain:
The concept of socialisation features in explanations of gender difference, where emphasis is given to the process of how individuals learn to become masculine or feminine in their identities, appearance, values and behaviour. The primary stage of socialisation occurs during infancy and childhood, via interaction between adults (especially parents) and children. Socialisation is, though, a life-long process. As individuals grow up and older, they continually encounter new situations and experiences and so learn new aspects of femininity and masculinity throughout their lives.24
However, knowing that something called ‘socialisation’ takes place is different from analysing how it takes place, and this can be a challenging topic for discussion, particularly given the many different contexts in which a resource such as this manual may be read. A key concern for anthropologists who study gender is that the ways in which women and men relate to each other and interact, and the social senses in which the sexes themselves are conceptualised vary enormously from place to place.
With this in mind, we can talk about socialisation in two ways.
It is :
- a general concept relating to processes that shape and orient us over time through our interaction with others, resulting in the acquisition of a gendered identity, and
- a concept that has a more specific history in sociology.
Generally, theories of socialisation suggest that we learn about prevalent gender roles, differences and values through interaction with important agents. Such agents include the family, teachers, peer groups, and mediated images and information. However, this general idea becomes more complicated when we look at the divergence of views concerning the processes by which socialization takes place.
Key questions include:
- How much importance should different agents of socialisation be given in our considerations?
- To what extent, and in which ways, are people able actively to negotiate these influences and fashion their own concepts of gender identity?
Theories of role-learning, which were most influential in the 1970s and which have become widely accepted, argue that children learn and internalise correct gender roles and behaviours through interaction with adults, especially their parents. In everyday situations, it is argued, parents often sanction and set boundaries of appropriate gendered behaviour for children, such as which games and toys to play with. They also implicitly offer themselves as gendered role models through their own behaviour. Children learn to travel as girls or boys by using maps that reflect the important directions, laid down by key adult influencers. Thus, across theories of socialisation that emphasise role-acquisition, recurring ideas include the ways in which boundaries for behaviour – the rigidity of which depend on the context – are reinforced by logics of positive and negative reaction, resulting in the internalisation of norms for feminine and masculine roles and behaviours.
Although we are unable to do full justice to role-learning theories here, it is useful to note some of the limits to this kind of approach. Role-learning theories may be useful for suggesting how ‘dominant’ or ‘hegemonic’ gender roles are formed, but they do not give a satisfactory account of how some men and women come to oppose sexism and heterosexism (sexism directed at people on the basis of sexual orientation). Neither do such theories explain how, in many ways, gender roles have become more complex and confused. Why, for example, do some people seem to accept and live within certain roles, and others reject or subvert them?
For example, a stereotypical gender role constructs a man as a father working outside the home, and associates the male historically with the role of soldier. However, in some European countries it is becoming increasingly common to see fathers who have both been in the army for national service and taken parental leave to be the primary carer of a child. Similarly, while schools have been identified as associated with stereotyped femininities and masculinities, in many contexts this identification does not stand up to analysis, given the changes in the ways in which educational materials and curricula now reflect an increased sensitivity to gender. However, a lot of work still needs to be done in this area.
Perhaps most importantly, over-emphasising socialisation as a force that guarantees conformity is as limiting as denying the influence of society on the individual. After all, the educational logic of resources such as this one is based on a belief that our understandings of gender can change, and that people can and do adapt gender norms in their own lives. For that reason, many contemporary theories of gender emphasise the power that people have to reflect on, shape and construct their own gender identities. Young people in particular, in their use of style, popular culture and networking have, in many contexts, increased their autonomy with respect to how they represent themselves and live in their bodies. Such considerations have led to a tendency to opt for a balance between accounts of socialisation and the autonomy of the individual.