No, those aren’t for you, let’s look at the boys’ section.
I was browsing toys with my son when those words floated in from the next aisle. I heard a few more instances of No, followed by some pleas to stay. Then I saw them. A woman was dragging a small child into our aisle, where the trucks and other shiny plastic vehicles lived. “This is the right section for boys. You can look here,” she explained. The kid halfheartedly looked at a few things before asking if they could leave. (Try to picture a child asking to leave the toy section, if you can.) And so they went, but they left behind one angry adult: me.
While my son continued to point out different toys to me, I had to restrain myself from shouting after the woman, “Toys have no gender!”
It only took a few moments to calm myself, but the feelings of anger and resentment stuck with me for the rest of the day. Okay, apparently they stuck with me longer than that because here you are reading my thoughts about it. I was angry because it brought up feelings from my own childhood, where I was steered toward objects and interests that were “more suited” to my perceived gender. As a kid, I had enough interests to fill a granite quarry, and initially I had no internal filter for “girl things” and “boy things.” I had to be taught what was appropriate for me, although I never understood the why behind it. I only knew that there were things I wanted to pursue and things I didn’t.
I didn’t want to play baseball, but I did want to play with stuffed animals and make paper crafts. I also loved building forts and climbing trees. I noticed that girls could climb trees and make forts, too. What did that mean? I could play Star Wars on the playground with my friend Susan, but playing dolls together was not an approved activity. Why were some things okay and other things wrong? Was there a secret Activities According to Gender Handbook locked away somewhere?
If you’ve ever heard a parent say, “Take away that doll, I don’t want a sissy for a son,” or “She can’t keep playing in the dirt, it’s not ladylike,” then you’ve seen some of the most obvious gender policing at work. When grownups try to tell children what’s appropriate for them based solely on their perceived gender, they are likely telling them that some of their interests are wrong or shameful. We currently live in a world full of adults who have lived their lives believing that certain aspects of their personalities are, in fact, defective.
As a grownup and a parent, I understand now that my parents, grandparents and teachers were only doing what they thought was best for me—based on their own background, culture and religion. I don’t harbor any blame for anyone. But when I heard that child in the toy aisle being taught what was “appropriate,” I felt the resentment and confusion come back up. I marveled at the fact that, 40-odd years later, the genderism of interests is still happening.
I started to wonder more about how our society teaches us to inhibit our interests solely based on gender.
Why do we assign gender to activities?
Because I like science and not just thinking up stuff on my own all the time, I searched for studies on how and why humans decide which activities are appropriate for their particular gender. The most recent paper I found was prepared by researchers at The University of Iowa and the University of Illinois in 2009. The 27-page report actually turned out to be a composite of previous studies going back to the early 1900s. Many of the studies cited showed that males tend to pursue STEM activities, and women are more attracted to people-centered activities.
Mirroring the idea of binary gender itself, the spectrum of human interests seems to be separated into two categories:
Male: brainy, strong things
Female: cuddly, emotional things
As I pored over all this fancy research, I began to wonder: if the studies were conducted on adults in decades past when, for example, it was strange or even taboo for a woman to pursue any occupation at all, was the research skewed by that fact? Would the average young girl of the 1910s really tend to not pursue engineering simply because of their chromosomes? Would girls of that era even consider that a career in engineering was possible??
In fact, the authors of the paper concluded that:
“Despite the importance of interests in educational–occupational choices and the widespread belief that substantial sex differences exist, there has been no comprehensive review quantifying the magnitude and examining the nature of sex differences in interests.”
With that disappointingly empty-handed conclusion, I decided that I would keep my focus on the experience of gendered pursuits rather than explore the abyssal depths of why. Anyway, I was getting a headache.
The agony of gender segregation
I am a non-binary human, which means that I don’t identify as strictly as male or female. For me, being sorted into assumed groups for activities can be awkward at best and agonizingly painful at worst. I’ve witnessed gender segregation countless times. In my life it has appeared in various scenarios, of which I will share two of my favorites.
At extended family gatherings in the past, I was often sent to hang out in the garage rather than to chat in the kitchen or living room, which I preferred. The reason for this is simple: the cars and tools are in the garage, and that’s where the men are supposed to be. If you’re perceived as male, you therefore belong in the garage. If this happens to you, my advice is to come back with grease or dirt somewhere on your person, or you might be heckled for not giving the activity your full participation.
I worked on a trial team, and we’d converted a hotel ballroom into our workspace. We were connected to a shared server, which frequently went down. The person who set it up and knew how to fix it was a paralegal, who also happened to be a woman. That didn’t stop the lead attorney from consistently approaching my male coworker and asking him to fix the server. Every time this happened, my coworker would tell the attorney, “Carolyn fixes that for us,” and every time we would have to turn to Carolyn and ask her to fix the server—in full view of the attorney! I thought at some point we were going to see him get strangled by a LAN cable.
These are only two examples, and the experience of gendered activities and roles is very individual. Fellow Puttylike writer Malika Ali-Harding related, “I ran into gender issues and expectations on the job during my filmmaking life. People expected me to be maternal on set, in my role as director, which I found absurd. There are probably a whole bunch of ways I could’ve done better work in that role, but the gendered casting frustrated me.”
And what do we do with those who, like me, do not fall into the gender binary? How do we slot them into the proper pursuits and groups if we can’t define their gender as male or female? When you start to consider the existence of non-binary people, the whole concept of gendered interests completely falls apart.
Are we doomed to conventional gender roles?
Although history has shown us that activities often fall into gendered categories, we don’t have to continue the paradigm. Those of us who become interested in new things by the hour or minute shouldn’t limit ourselves to the interests that are mysteriously defined by our chromosomes. The very word multipotentialite expresses the idea that we allow ourselves to pursue many potential interests. We don’t cut ourselves off at a certain number, so why do it by gender?
The best way to change the gendering of pursuits paradigm is to start with ourselves. If you want to fix up classic cars, do it! If you’re suddenly enthralled by the myriad doilies on Pinterest, then dive in. Don’t let others shame you away from following a path that isn’t gender-typical by society’s standards. As multipods, we’re already atypical, so why not celebrate further by expanding our range of interests as far as we can?
By the same token, I believe it’s our job to make sure that we leave space open for others to participate in activities that would otherwise be segregated by gender. We have a huge opportunity to lead by example, and to be expansive and welcoming.
And, if you ever have the chance, try browsing every aisle of the toy section—even if you don’t have kids. Browsing is free. And so is expanding your horizons.
Do you have any hobbies or interests that aren’t traditionally considered appropriate for your perceived gender? Have you ever been told to do (or not do) something because of gendered expectations? Share your story in the comments!