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genegeek CAN

Hi. I'm genegeek (aka Catherine Anderson). Thanks for stopping by. I realized during my PostDoc that I preferred learning and explaining new results to doing science so I started a non-traditional career of teaching and outreach. I'll be using this space to explore public perception of genetics and other cool molecular biology stuff.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Recently, Lab Spaces has had some interesting posts about gender roles in science: Lab Mom has some interesting thoughts about her young daughter's experience at science camp and Disgruntled Julie has asked why we push women into the (physical) sciences if they aren't interested? As someone who does a lot of science outreach for teens, I spend some time thinking about these issues. But this post is not really about that (sorry).

How much does society shape genders?
Warning - this is anecdote-based, not a scientific review...

First, the difference between sex and gender. Sex is biology and gender is the attitudes, beliefs, and identity of masculine or feminine. Most of the time these things agree and we often use the words as synonyms. I'm not going to discuss these words anymore but I thought I should add in something 'educational'. If you want more information on sex/gender, check out Separating Gender from Sex.

I know you are wanting the story...but a little more background first. I always considered myself an equal opportunity kind of person and thought I treated young-uns the same irrespective of sex/gender. My family joked that I coined the term 'gender-neutral' (but of course, I didn't). I applaud parents who let their children follow their interests even when they don't follow the gender rules.

I used to work with families as a counsellor and met many wonderful parents. A few years into my graduate program, I met one of the parents - her kids were doing well and it was great to catch up. She then confided in me about her youngest child. (Note: I have changed information and also asked her permission to share this so I don't think I'm breaking any rules.)

Her youngest child was inter-sex. The advice from the medical experts was to stay gender-neutral and let the child decide. They chose a gender-neutral name (I'll use Pat) and when the child was 4.5 years old, she decided to be a girl. The interesting thing about this woman's story is that she didn't know how to treat her child. This was a woman who had pushed gender boundaries with her previous children but had lots of examples where she had gone with established roles. She ended up keeping a checklist for decisions = if the last decision followed girl rules, the next was boy. Some of the small questions that quickly became big:

Should Pat run in the house or sit quietly?
Should Pat do things or use her words more? She realized that she had pushed her daughter to be more verbally expressive (ask) but wanted her son to do instead of explain.
What type of bathing suit? (searched for girl suit in blue or green)
What type of haircut? This seems trivial but she said they agonized over it (went for longer but no pigtails)

The list goes on but you can see why this would be tough. And they did it for over 4 years!

This post is just to share a story that helped me realize how much my small actions and expectations with pre-established gender roles impact our future leaders. It isn't a call to action but just something to hopefully get you thinking.

Related to the above story:
Because of my background in medical genetics, I have met several families with intersex children and I no longer ask new parents, "What did you have?" because that can be a difficult question at times. I now ask, "Is everyone healthy?".

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This is a great post, I don't know how I missed it! Just found it by reading Dr Becca's roundup. Anyway, I think it's great you brought this up, and it definitely is important to think about. Everything we do, say, how we approach a person is gender biased, and we really don't realize that most of the time. Behavior that is acceptable if done by a boy will be punishable if done by a girl, and vice versa. Of course expectations are different, what you teach each one.. helping out in the kitchen, or taking out the trash? Sit quietly and look pretty, or have a voice and opinion. All very important issues.

And I agree, asking if 'everyone is healthy' is certainly a better way to go.

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Fantastic! I don't know how many times I have tried to explain to people that boys act differently than girls (most likely in large part) because of how they are socialized. Everyone is always convinced that they would treat their child exactly the same, even if they were of the opposite sex. But that is crap, IMHO. I think it is good to realize that there are differences, even for people that aren't "pushing" the normative gender roles.

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Thanks for the nice words. I've tried to convince these parents to write down some of their challenges - but they are too busy keeping up with the kids. So this is one way to give them a push...

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Having 2 daughters myself, i realize how hard is to combat socialization completely. The "princess" selling business is very prevalent in our society, so I have learned to tolerate it. With experience my focus has changed somewhat more towards promoting equality. The other day was one my proudest "dad" days when my eldest daughters actually said to my wife "I CAN do that, because girls can do whatever boys can do" (and it was not trying to justify some misbehaviour!). Obviously after that she went running with her princess branded shoes, her pink dress to play with her pink soccer ball!
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