A question of identity

When my girls were really little, the youngest, JB, had a bit of a problem. She quite liked pretty dresses and flowers, but she was also dead keen on things she thought of as “boy stuff”.  She felt as though she had to choose a side. She was quite relieved when we talked it through and worked out that she didn’t have to be either a girly girl or a tomboy. She could just be herself. Now that she’s 8, she has clearly picked a side, and it’s her own.

She has very short hair, and today is wearing a grey and black striped hoodie, old blue trackies with a pink stripe (and paint splotches from when we helped some friends paint their new house), and black sneakers. Tomorrow she could just as easily be wearing a frilly dress. We’re both at home with a virus, and when we went to a new GP to get a medical certificate for me, the GP asked who this “handsome young man” was by my side.  JB was unfazed, but the doctor was hugely embarrassed when I introduced them. She felt terrible that she had made the wrong assumption about JB’s gender, but it happens all the time, and JB isn’t bothered by it at all.

What does bother her, though, is when she corrects kids her own age and they refuse to accept it. One boy came up to me on Sunday and said “Your son keeps saying he’s a girl.” It bothered him hugely (and it probably didn’t help when I laughed and said “My son is a girl!”), and he and a couple of other kids pushed the issue to the point where JB became quite upset. They kept insisting that she had to be a boy, largely because she has very short hair. She was wearing a red t-shirt with cherries, and trousers with pink on them, so I assume it was just the hair. Kids like to put people in categories. It’s a normal, human way of processing the world. It’s a learning experience for them when someone doesn’t quite fit in the usual box. Adults, though, should know better.

I’ve known people with acute gender dysphoria who have eventually transitioned, and with people who don’t readily identify with a single gender. I’ve known people who are homosexual, or kinky, or polyamorous. I’ve even known a few people who society considers normal (although they are rarer than you might think). The one thing that becomes clearer to me with every new experience is that we, as a society, urgently need to learn to accept people for who they are on the inside.

There is nothing more comforting, enabling, and joyful than being accepted for who you are. And there are few things more destructive and corrosive than being told that who you are is somehow wrong.

That’s why it’s not “political correctness gone mad” to want to stop labeling toys as just for boys, or just for girls. Because in doing that we are telling girls who like “boys’ toys” that who they are is not normal, and not ok. And we are telling boys who like “girls’ toys” that who they are is not normal and not ok. And we are pushing the boys into nice, safe, boy occupations like building and engineering, and we are pushing the girls into nice, safe, girl occupations like teaching and nursing. Whether they belong there or not.

We reinforce these rigid gender boxes in so many unthinking ways. Schools have boys’ uniforms and girls’ uniforms. Why can’t they just have uniforms, and let people choose the bits that suit them? There are high schools around here where girls can wear shorts (although it’s not well advertised) but the girls’ shorts are dark blue, while the boys’ are grey. What is the point of that? Why do we feel this intense need to draw this deep dark line under gender, and underscore it so hard we cut through the paper?

Being very tall, I used to worry that someone would “catch” me buying men’s jeans, or that I would inadvertently buy something off the wrong rack, and find out later that I was accidentally wearing men’s clothes. It took me a surprisingly long time to decide that there was no inherent shame, or indeed gender, in clothing. Clothes, for the most part, don’t actually have genitalia.

Here we are in 2015, and we still have poker nights for the men and tupperware parties for the girls, but I take some heart from the fact that my younger friends don’t seem to acknowledge the divide the way my contemporaries do. When I hang out with younger crowds there’s no clear gender split, yet when I hang out with my uni friends my cherished status as “one of the boys” has been revoked. Among people my age it remains strange to try to breach that divide, and once I had kids I was put firmly back into my gender role, whether I liked it or not. (I did not!)

I hope we don’t wind up imposing our rigid and, let’s face it, very broken ideas about gender on the next generation. I hope that those kids who continue to tease JB for being a girl but looking like a boy might stop and reflect on why it bothers them so much. Above all I hope that we are capable, sooner rather than later, of ditching the boxes and accepting people for who they are.

Simmer until reduced

Imagine a Facebook “guess my gender” quiz.

Do you prefer:

  • pink
  • blue

When you pack do you:

  • Carefully fold things and pack them in a specific order
  • Stuff the minimum of things in any old how

A pile of dirty dishes:

  • makes you twitch until you can roll up your sleeves and wash them
  • what dirty dishes?

If this were to be accurately scored my result would have to come out not so much male or female as somewhere around “It’s complicated.” And I recognise that I am not normal. As a wearer of persistently odd socks, and the kind of person who winds up in the wrong room when a party splits into the girl room and the boy room, I am probably not a good person to ask what is “boy stuff” and what is “girl stuff”. But I’m quite sure I’m not the only person who feels this way.

Today I saw a meme on facebook that said “Men: if you ever wanna know what a woman’s mind feels like, imagine a browser with 2857 tabs open. All. The. Time.” and my first reaction was to laugh, because that’s totally me. But my second reaction was annoyance, because I know a lot of men who are exactly like that. It’s not a gender thing. It’s a personality thing.

We are extraordinarily good at categorization. It’s an essential survival skill. We box things fast so that we know how to react to them. This helps us stay alive when the box is labelled “man-eating-tiger-RUN”. But there’s not a lot of room for nuance and error detection in this super fast boxing. All too often it leads us to the wrong conclusion. It leaves us in a place where men are not allowed to be nurturing and women can’t be assertive. Where women can’t be strong and men can’t cry.

We’re starting to make progress with toys and demand that manufacturers ditch the “boys play with cars and girls play with dolls” marketing that is so corrosive. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re getting there. But we seem to be much slower about tackling the adult versions of the same thing. The jokes. The funny memes.  The assumptions about the way men and women will and should behave.

People I respect, writers with a lot of intelligence and credibility, still make comments about how bad men are at cooking, and how there are things only a woman would understand. And it drives me CRAZY. (But that’s ok, because women are good at crazy.) They write articles about imposter syndrome as an exclusively female problem – and it’s not. I know men who feel this way too – but how much worse to feel this way and believe that you shouldn’t, because you’re not the right gender?

The internet is full of articles with headlines like “5 things every woman should know.” “10 things only a man would do.” I just Googled “10 things every man should” and it defaulted to “10 things every man should own.” It won’t surprise you to learn that I found lists of axes and work gloves. The first full page of results for things every woman should own was all clothes, except for one about things women should have in their purses, which began with hand sanitizer and a sewing kit. Oh, and something called “oil absorbing sheets”, because apparently there’s nothing worse than finding you have oily skin right before a meeting (words fail me). When I found a list for men’s pockets it included USB drives, multi-tools, and a hip flask. I’ll take the pockets, thanks!

Sure, taking the top few Google searches is the low hanging fruit of the internet. But it is also a key indicator of the shape of our world. Men still aren’t supposed to carry bags, and women’s clothing doesn’t have pockets. Women shave their legs and their armpits, men don’t. Women can’t be seen in public without makeup. Men barbecue, women cook in the kitchen. We may think we are equal and so much better at gender politics than we used to be, but while we are still defining ourselves and our behaviour by our reproductive organs, we are still horribly lost. Worse, we are still constraining ourselves by our gender. And it’s time we set ourselves free.

I can’t put it better than my friend Jarred did today: “It’s about time we moved on from 90s-style jokes about how men and women are sooooo different and it’s impossible to understand each other. It’s 2015, people!”

* UPDATE: A week after I wrote this I discovered there is a Facebook gender quiz, and I scored 85% male 15% female. I think it was inaccurate though. I should have scored 70% male, 10% female, and 20% None-of-these-answers-are-right-also-please-correct-the-grammar.

Oddly touching

I recently had the privilege of traveling with two students from my school. We went to Salt Lake City for a Supercomputing conference. It was a fabulous experience. Because one of the students was a girl, it had to be a female teacher who went with them. I shouldn’t complain about this – it meant that I scored an intensely stimulating and rewarding trip in the company of two fantastic students.

And yet… The implicit assumption in that rule really bothers me. Male teachers can’t travel with female students – who knows what might happen? But female teachers can travel with male students.  No problem there.

Every man is a potential sexual predator. Every woman is a potential victim.

There’s something wrong with this picture.

We don’t trust anymore. I know that bad stuff happens. There are stories of abuse everywhere. But our perception of risk has become horribly skewed. Horrifying stories sell newspapers, so the newspapers are full of trauma every day. They repeat the trauma ad nauseam – one dreadful story will appear several times a day for weeks on end, to make sure it is burned into our brains. BAD STUFF IS HAPPENING. MORE BAD STUFF IS HAPPENING. BE AFRAID. THE WORLD IS A SCARY PLACE WHERE PEOPLE WANT TO HURT YOU.

Many of the stories screaming out in headlines in our newspapers happened overseas. And the ones that do happen here are so rare that we have to hear the details of them over and over again, just to ramp up the fear and paranoia.

You know what? The majority of people don’t want to hurt you. They’re just getting on with their lives. I’m all for sensible precautions, but when we start treating every man as a predator, I think we are harming the very young people we are trying to protect. We are teaching them not to trust people, especially men. We are depriving them of touch – because goodness knows if I touch one of my students something catastrophic is bound to happen.

I have only been teaching in a high school for two years, but already I have experienced many encounters with distressed students. Many times I have comforted them with touch – anything from a hand on the shoulder to my hand covering theirs. Touch releases oxytocin, which is calming and promotes trust. It is the simplest and most effective way of dealing with distress. It also strengthens the relationship between teacher and student.

Yet if I were a man, I would hesitate to touch a student – in distress or otherwise – given the climate of fear and mistrust we have created around both men and touch. Anything more than a hearty slap on the back would be taking a risk – with my career, my reputation, and my future.

I work with some of the finest men I have ever known. They are wonderful, caring, dedicated people. I would trust them with my life. Yet the system is telling me I can’t trust them with my children.

Imagine you were 15 and in distress. Wouldn’t you want someone to hold your hand and talk you through it? Shouldn’t we be teaching our young people healthy ways of interacting with both teachers and peers? Of course some forms of touch are not ok, but it seems as though we have swung much too far the other way and rejected touch altogether.

That feels like a big mistake.

What shall we do, boys and girls?

Last week a request came around my workplace for people to help moving tables and chairs. The request included the line “preferably at least 2 boys”.  There are around 45 staff, and the gender balance may not be even, but it must be pretty close. The thing that really struck me is this: I know of several people who could not be involved in moving furniture, due to injury or illness, but none whose gender would be the deciding factor. Indeed, there are girls on staff who could probably easily win an arm wrestle with just about any other member of staff.

We like to think of ourselves as enlightened and inclusive. We don’t like to think that we still reek of prejudice. Yet statements like the one above show up our assumptions and prejudices, warts and all. Girls aren’t good at moving furniture. We’re probably not good at maths & science, either. We’re certainly not good with computers. There are probably few people, aside from Andrew Bolt, who would be willing to stand up in public and say we belong bare foot and pregnant in the kitchen, but I do wonder how far we have actually come, in the privacy of our own minds.

If I showed you a picture of a man, and one of a woman, and asked you to choose someone to help you with your furniture moving, which would you choose?

What if I showed you the same pictures and asked you to pick which one was the nurse, and which the engineer?

Primary school teacher?


Stay at home parent?

Psychologist? Psychiatrist?

When I tell you I’ve just been to the doctor, will you ask what he said?

A friend of mine once told me that girls could cook, but they were not competent chefs. The friend was highly educated, extremely intelligent, and perfectly serious. Our cooking skills were fine, but for serious, gourmet food creation you needed a boy. Apparently the high culinary arts are located on the Y chromosome. Years later he offered to marry me for my pavlova, but it was too little, too late.

If my young daughters were to draw pictures of the above professions, I’d like to think there would be no signs of gender bias, but I’m sure there would be. On the bright side, I don’t think they consider themselves barred from any profession by reason of gender – but they do seem to be drawn more towards traditionally female roles, and repelled by traditional male ones. My 4 year old refused to wear her blue slippers yesterday, because “they make me feel boyish”.

Put a 4 year old girl next to a 4 year old boy and you will probably correctly pick the one who is into fairies and the one who is obsessed with trucks. 4 year olds pick up very accurately on our expectations. But the one who is into fairies might be playing with a bulldozer while wearing her fair wings, and the one who loves trucks might also be keen on drawing and flowers.

Kids learn most from what we do, not from what we say. This year there are 7 girls out of 26 kids in my year 11 information technology class. Last year there were 2. I can’t be sure, but I suspect that having a female IT teacher may have triggered a few attitude changes in the students. When we get to a 50-50 ratio I can retire. When we make assumptions based on gender, we are unwittingly educating our kids. What do you teach the young people around you?

I would be the last to argue that there are no differences between the genders. Certainly there are statistical differences overall – on average men find it easier to build muscle than women. But we tend to forget that statistics are useless in the specific case. Put me next to a man and statistics won’t tell you which of us is physically stronger. Despite our assumptions, there are very few jobs that a woman can do and a man can’t. And there are very few jobs that a man can do and a woman can’t.  Shifting furniture may be impossible if you have an injured back, or a broken arm. But it’s no problem if you have a vagina.

Challenge your assumptions!

Balancing act

I recently found myself vigorously asserting that it’s crucial to have both male and female friends – and by having friends, I don’t mean friending people on facebook, but actually spending meaningful time interacting with them. It doesn’t necessarily have to be one-on-one, although I tend to believe it’s easier to be emotionally real and connected in that situation, but I firmly believe that it’s important to spend quality time with friends of both genders.

Unfortunately, the friend I was talking to is not one to let a bold assertion passed unchallenged, and when he called me on it I struggled to articulate good reasons for my claim. It has left me profoundly contemplative.

As I have ranted in the past, our society still clings to the remains of an intense gender divide that probably solidified (if not petrified) in the 1950s. Men in one room, women in the other. Some stuff is men’s work, and some is women’s work, and anyone who dares to do the wrong work will be mocked by their chauvinist (if not fossilized) neighbours. You know who you are.

It is true that men and women are physiologically and biochemically different, and that their average skills are not the same. But this, of course, does not say anything at all about the skills of any specific person, and it would be a ludicrous mistake to suggest for example, that because women on average talk more, any particular male/female pair will work that way. Certainly I am the motormouth in my own marriage, but I recently met a delightful couple with the pairing utterly reversed, and I know of many others. Generalizations and stereotypes can be very useful, as long as you don’t try to apply them in individual cases.

So how does this relate to my problem with men only socialising with men, and women only socialising with women? On a society-wide scale, this strict gender divide has a number of unfortunate consequences. It makes life incredibly difficult for those of us who happen to fall on the wrong side of the lines. For the men who are fabulously nurturing childcare workers, or the women who are skilled and talented engineers. It forces those of us who don’t fit the mold into an outsider status that need not apply.

On a personal level, though, I believe it’s even more corrosive to shut the other gender out of your life. You lose access to a whole different perspective and approach to life. Men and women do tend to interact differently, whether through biology or cultural conditioning, and cross-gender friendships are different again. It is often possible to gain far more insight into a relationship problem, for example, by bouncing it off a friend who is similar to your partner, than a friend who has more in common with you.

I may get more support from another woman, but I frequently also find my prejudices and inconsistencies reinforced rather than challenged (because she often shares them, and sees things from my side). If I want my back patted and my point of view ratified, I turn to another woman. But when I want to actually understand what a man is thinking, and I can’t sort it out with him directly (always my preferred approach), or I need a little perspective, then who better than another man, who might actually have felt the same way, or said the same things at some point?

Above all, shutting out the other gender creates an unbalanced, unnatural microcosm of the world. You may feel safer, and less challenged in there, but you won’t be whole. Don’t tell me men and women can’t be friends. If we can’t be friends, how can we ever be real partners? Men and women must be friends. How else can we ever understand each other?


I have been hesitant to call myself a feminist, because I don’t fight for women’s rights – I fight for everyone’s rights. I want equality. Most of all, what I want is to end segregation. To consider people for who they are, not what gender, race, or class they happen to be.

In a startling display of equality, the Federal government recently announced a paid parental leave scheme. NOT a maternity leave scheme. Either parent can take the leave, or they can share it between them. Well hallelujah! Official recognition of mothers and fathers as equal parents. Now we just have to hope that society catches up sometime in the next century or so.
This is just one battle in the war against gender myths. There are so many of them, like the myth that there are “male jobs” and “female jobs”. My eldest daughter goes to a primary school without a single male teacher. But it’s ok – the contractors who come in to teach sport are guys. My youngest daughter goes to a child care centre with no male carers. But it’s ok, the contractor who comes in to run the sports program is a guy. Apparently men are allowed to interact with little kids when sport is involved.

Engineers are men. Computer scientists are men. Teachers are women. So who teaches engineering and computer science? Ooh, don’t go there. Next question please!
I have a PhD in computer science, and the men in my department always asked me why we didn’t have more female students. I didn’t know, because whatever it was that was keeping the girls away clearly hadn’t worked on me. But I think I’ve worked it out now. It’s our gender myths that are constraining us, tying us down, and robbing us all (not just the girls) of choices. And the biggest myth of all is the worst: Men and women can’t be friends.
This has always struck me as bizarre, but I put it down to my own weirdness. After all, at those parties with the girls in one room and the guys in the other, I was always in the wrong room. But now I think it is worse than that. It’s not just a problem for those of us in the wrong room. It’s a problem for our whole society. How can we understand the opposite sex if we never communicate with them outside the high stakes of sexual relationships?

Why would you close yourself off to the perspective and potential of half the human race? If we are fundamentally different then we complement each other, fill in the gaps and provide a different set of skills, thoughts and feelings. If we are fundamentally the same then there is nothing to keep us apart! Either way, we can all benefit from getting the communication going. The myth that we are separate species, that we are so different we need separate activities, separate parties, separate sports, is absolutely corrosive. If men and women can’t be friends, can’t be equals who respect each other and interact in every facet of our lives, then we can never progress beyond the sort of behaviour shown by Matthew Johns, that is apparently standard among rugby league players. We will never achieve true equality in the workplace, where men can work with small children without arousing suspicion. Where a woman can be CEO of a big company without causing comment. Where a woman can front the nightly news on a commercial television channel (hah! as if!).

If you buy into the dominant myth, heterosexual couples can wind up barely seeing their partners socially. Those rare parties to which you are both invited will have separate rooms for men and women. Too often, the simpler route of poker nights for men, tupperware parties for women is the road most taken. Yet we have the most to offer each other when we consider our similarities. When we participate in a world where we both belong, where we can freely follow our talents and preferences, regardless of whether they are typically male or typically female.

A friend of mine never used to play with dolls, until other little girls came over. Then she would show interest in the dolls as a way to fit in. As soon as the girls left, she would be out the door and climbing the nearest tree, leaving the dolls far behind. In a way, we’re all trapped trying to play with dolls to belong. The guys who are good with little kids, the girls who are good with machines. The guys who wear pink, the girls who never wear makeup or high heels. The mums who go back to work full time. The dads who stay home to look after the kids. We all feel like misfits.
We have a photo of our daughter, when she was 3, wearing a fairy dress and playing with a bulldozer. I think that sums it up perfectly. Wear the fairy dress. Play with the bulldozer. If you don’t like dolls, don’t play with them! Smash the gender myths!

Giving women a voice

There was an excellent article in The Age recently by Olympic Rower Kimberley Crow, about women in sport, and societal attitudes towards women in general. It suggests that society needs to give women a voice, and listen to what they have to say. Which is clearly true – everyone should have a voice, and sufficient respect to have their voices heard (with the obvious exception of John Wincing Howard – if we never hear from him again, it would be much too soon). But it begs the question – how is that going to happen?

I contend that the media does not present female sports stars with the same enthusiasm or frequency as male sports stars because women’s sport does not sell papers, or advertising time. With, as Crow notes, the exception of pretty tennis stars in very short skirts. The deeper question, then, is why doesn’t it sell papers, and how can we change that?

At the risk of leaping to delusions, I suspect that the problem lies deep within segregation. Men on one sporting field, women on another. Where women play a “man’s sport”, they play it separately. What reason is there for separating, for example, women from men in cricket? Where strength is less of an issue than style and skill? Ok, the average woman may not be able to bowl a ball with the same strength or speed as the average man, and elite female athletes, performing at the limit of their endurance, may hit some limits sooner than elite males. But in games of skill and style, where strength is not the determining factor, why not mix the teams?

And even if the elite teams wind up de facto segregated, where strength truly is a factor, there is still no reason why suburban teams must be segregated. Oooh, but women might get hurt! Do women break more easily than men? Not as far as I know. And sport is not usually about deliberately injuring people. (Notwithstanding the old canard “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Then it’s a sport.”)

Sure, people get hurt in the rough and tumble, the hurley burley of a fast paced and physical game. But do we not owe it to our male athletes to protect them from injury where possible? If women choose to play a very physical game, knowing the risks, why say no?

I am not a fragile flower needing protection. And any women who sets out to play rugby is unlikely to do so in a short skirt and high heels. Let’s desegregate. Get men and women interacting as contemporaries, equals, and partners. It is the very culture of segregation that leads to incidents such as the one that recently got Matthew Johns in such hot water. You can’t think “but what if this was a friend of mine?” when you are not used to thinking of women as friends. We are not two distinct species. There are few, if any, attributes other than bodily organs which are exclusive to one gender or the other.

Mix it up! No more segregation. It’s time for society to grow up.