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Why Gender Matters

Research explains why gender is so much more complicated than just identity.

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This is adapted from my keynote essay for the CCF Gender Matters Online Symposium.

How and Why Gender Matters in Even More Ways Than You Knew

You cannot pick up a newspaper today without seeing an article about who can use which bathrooms and the choice of “category X” for Driver’s licenses. Why are young people today so dissatisfied with their gender categories? Are they rejecting the label of male or female? Are they rejecting the stereotypes that demand boys to be tough and never cry, and girls wear sparkles as they take care of everyone’s feelings? Or are they rejecting the wage gap and sexual harassment?

To understand what’s happening, we need to talk about what we mean by the word “gender.” You may think you know, but I am betting you do not know the half of it.

In my new book, Where the Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles With the Gender Structure, I explore the meaning of gender to young people today. In interviews with 116 mostly Chicagoland Millennials, I identify some trends among the generation soon to age into leadership in American society.

First, women are never going back to the home. While women’s workplace participation is as high as it has ever been, at the moment, the trend is stalled. But mothers are still far more likely to work for pay then in the past. There is not now, nor has there ever been, an opt-out revolution, although sometimes women are pushed out of the labor force by inflexible workplace demands and culture. Almost no one I interviewed, however — not even the most religious “true believers" — think that mothers belong at home with their children.

Second, feminism is no longer just a women’s movement. Among young men, there is a great deal of support for gender equality. In my interviews, there were men who sounded every bit as feminist as any woman, and far more than many women even in this sample of young adults. Both female and male feminist “innovators” expect to change the world by how they live their lives rejecting gender expectations and stereotypes.

I also interviewed some Millennials who rejected not only sexism and gendered expectations but the gender binary itself. Perhaps there is something new under the sun! These genderqueer respondents do not want to switch their sex category—instead, they reject the belief that they must be gendered at all, even in how they adorn and inhabit their body. Some genderqueer Millennials are quite content to identify as a sex category (e.g. as female) but reject the gender category "woman." Others don’t use a sex category either.

With this new kind of gender fluidity afloat, it makes sense that there are others in this generation who are simply confused. So much has changed and yet so much has stayed the same. As I have written about elsewhere, what has changed, and remarkably quickly, is the legal status for those who reject categories, with state after state, and now country after country, allow a neither (or X box) for those whose identity is neither male nor female.

Still, there are some patterns among the chaos of a diverse generation. Nearly all young adults today are libertarian about gender, or at least they claim to be. They refuse to judge people who are different from themselves in terms of gender identity or expectations.

Indeed, my colleagues and I have presented survey research that shows most of today’s young adults believe women and men should be equal both inside the home and outside of it. My interviews suggest that while beliefs have changed, there is still much confusion about gender when it comes to living our lives, and what to expect from others. There are shades of grey, beyond 50, when women and men are confused by a changing gender structure.

In today’s world, everything is in flux. Research on Millennials has been contradictory, with some finding that high school seniors today are more conservative about mothers remaining in the workplace while other research — like mine — suggests a generation that takes for granted gender equality as a goal.

Will these new trends among Millennials turn the tide and bring us closer to the shore of equality? Is there really change afoot? Or is it the case that the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same? As any social scientist, my answer is, let’s do more research to make gender more visible and find out.

What we know for sure is that our gender structure is changing, unevenly, and without any clear guidelines. We also know that while most Americans think gender is an identity, something deeply felt internally, gender is far more than that. Gender doesn’t begin nor end with individual feelings of authenticity. In our new Handbook of the Sociology of Gender, my co-editors Carissa Froyum and William Scarborough, and the authors of individual chapters, show just how much gender matters for every aspect of our social lives.

Gender matters to individuals, of course. But gender is very much alive in the expectations we have for one another, what it means to be a good mother versus a good father, a girlfriend versus a boyfriend. Gender matters because of all those stereotypes, conscious and not, we all hold. But gender matters beyond even beyond those stereotypes because we have quite literally built those stereotypes into our schools, workplaces, and the economy. And to justify all the inequities involved, we have developed beliefs that explain, and justify sexist institutions. Gender matters not just as identity, or stereotypes, but is also at the core of how our social world is organized. Just like every society has an economic and political structure, so too, every society has a gender structure.

First, for those of you far past college age, let me share some language now widely used on campus. Sex is the (presumably) biological category you were labeled at birth, male or female. The biological categories are not always clear-cut, as some children are born intersex, with internal female organs, but an extended clitoris that appears to be a micro-phallus. Even intersex people (who actually have both male and female body parts) are usually, if mistakenly, labeled male or female at birth. This is a good example of how even our definition of biological facts are shaped by an ideological assumption that there are two and only two possible sex categories.

Gender as a social structure includes one’s individual sex category but is far more than simply that. Gender is also a social construct that is used to display and claim one’s sex category. Few of us actually can judge someone’s sex by inspecting naked bodies, but all of us assess each other’s gender identity during an interaction.

At the same time, we are all evaluated by how well we "do gender." Some of us may be in social contexts where we are evaluated more positively if we reject doing gender traditionally, but the expectations remain in both conservative or progressive settings. Whatever our ideologies, we must all adapt to organizations and institutions that are based on the presumption that “ideal” workers should be entirely and uniquely committed to the business at hand, policies that reward the typically male life course, and historically masculine privilege of having a domestic wife.

In the next few weeks, I will be writing about concrete examples from everyday life with the authors from the Handbook. Stay tuned.

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