Sunday, 29 March 2015

Bending Gender, Ramblings Inspired by Audrey Watters

         Last class I entered our EDCI 569 online session a little late, having just returned home from our 3 day surf trip to Ucluelet & Tofino. We had the privilege of a session with guest speaker, Audrey Watters, who spoke to gender inequality in the world of tech. As I was late, it was hard to bring myself up to speed in the moment, to be able to really catch the scope of what was being discussed. What I did hear got me thinking, though, and while in many ways we have “come a long way, baby”, it still can seem very much “a man’s world”.
         It was interesting to listen to the discussion, as it evolved, particularly as it moved into the idea of gender identity, briefly touching on nature vs nurture. Living with 5 men, it may surprise people to learn that I rarely feel outnumbered.  While I can claim to know boys and know them well, I would also say that 75% of the male energy in my household is surprisingly soft and sensitive--not so stereotypically boy. Our boys have been (& continue to be) raised similarly and while our home has been filled with numerous trucks and diggers and many things-blue (literally) over the years, we have very much embraced each child as an individual, celebrating whatever interests and talents emerged. 
         As a stay at home mom, my boys identified with me. They helped me bake, they wore aprons, played house, tried to make their hair go into “ponies” and pushed their bangs back with “clips”. My two eldest went through a stage where they regularly put on my maternity tops and wore them as dresses, adorning themselves with many pieces of old costume jewelry supplied by Grandma. We never discouraged any of this; in fact, both my husband and I thought it was pretty adorable.  Unfortunately, I learned that not everyone felt as we did. At a family dinner, one of my boys’ uncles made loud exclamations aimed at our eldest, about 4 at the time, who arrived sporting one of my hairbands in his hair. When I think back on this it still perplexes me--it was hard for me to see a family member poke fun at my son and ask him if he wanted to be a girl. Unfortunately, this was not the last time we were on the receiving end of such gender-biased statements. 
         Our boys went on to try their hands at many different activities, ranging from the boy-acceptable soccer and lacrosse to the less acceptable activities of Irish dance for one and 8 years of ballet and modern dance for another. Along the way, we were met with many raised eyebrows and comments cloaked in sardonic humour. However, for every comment that held muddy, negative undertones, there were many more that landed in the sunny fields of positivity. These boys are now young men, ranging in age from 15-21 and they are very confident in who they are and truly accepting and supportive of all aspects of individual identity and self-expression in others. As a family, we not only survived hurtful words and scowls of judgement, we flourished in hope, tolerance and understanding.  In my opinion, issues centered on gender biases, in North America at least, are as much about values, as it is about individual interests, skills, abilities, strengths, and wiring.
         Boys and girls, men and women, males and females, and everything in between: we are mostly different, as well as very much the same.  Gender, we are learning, is not, never has been, and never will be, a simple thing. As far as we have come in the way of equal opportunities and blurring the lines of sexual stereotypes, we continue to live with an imbalance of power between the sexes.  That imbalance of power continues to shift and change, just as our world, in so many respects, also continues to evolve, and manifest or resurface in new, and sometimes surprising, ways. I regularly find myself continuing to believe we have come so far, only to be disappointed by various news events that pop up in my Twitter feed.  Just this week I stumbled upon a link to a Global news video where meteorologist, Kristi Gordon, personally shared messages she had received (both electronically and through the mail) criticizing her appearance and her choice in clothing. If that's not bad enough, the "hate mail" somehow takes hurtful to a whole new level in that the writers are attacking a woman who is visibly pregnant. We don't know the gender of the "haters", and I don't think it is fair to assume them to be one sex or the other, and perhaps this point adds another layer to the complexity of gender issues; while there may be a highly visible imbalance of power that still exists between men and women today, the passing of judgement, the inequitable opportunities and voicing of sexually biased criticism is certainly not limited to one sex over the other. Further, actions rooted in gender inequity are no longer limited to a simple division between men and women. We have learned that gender is not strictly blue or pink, but in fact reaches across many hues, none of which comes with a set standard of behaviours or interests. 
         Social media, with its capability for immediacy and anonymity, allows those people who are inclined to cowardly throw their darts of criticism and judgement. On the flip side, however, it also provides a platform for empowering the victims/targets of such unfounded criticism, such as Kristi Gordon, and their many supporters, to speak out against the ignorance and narrow mindedness that keep resurfacing through our many decades of progress.
         I would love to believe that we are close to resolving issues in gender bias and imbalances in power, but I don't know if that moment will ever fully arrive. Continuing to strive towards the ideal of recognizing each individual as unique with his/her own set of skills and strengths, and practicing tolerance and acceptance as a society certainly helps us move in the right direction. Navigating gender, however, is not always a route that is easily mapped out, and as our world maintains its speedy rate of change, we never know what challenges we may be facing around the corner. Advances in technology have connected us on a global level and we now have greater insight into the sexual discrepancies that exist both locally and in the various nooks and crannies around the world. It’s crucial that we continue to scrutinize and speak out against such imbalances in power, whether founded in a web-based and anonymous context or a real-world, real-time face to face one. 
         We have come a long way, indeed; I'm not sure if it's entirely a man's world, but it's certainly a muddy one with a lot of room for improvement. Thanks Audrey Watters for inspiring some heavy thinking and reflecting in my old brain.

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