His & Hers: Culture vs Genetics

I had begun to brainstorm and collect ideas for an essay on the International Women’s Day theme for this year, Each For Equal. Shout out to all my Instagram friends who answered my survey and shared their thoughts and interpretations of the theme. I planned to have a piece out on the Saturday before Women’s Day, but a personal (and self-inflicted) disaster threw my weekend off track, and now the words that I had planned to put down have escaped me. So, I decided to jot down some thoughts on another subject, still relevant for Women’s Day, but not necessarily on the theme (or maybe it is, you decide).

I’ve been listening to an audiobook called “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong” by Angela Saini. It discusses a topic which I bring up frequently in debates on feminism and gender roles: the idea that certain attributes are inherently female and others male. We’ve all heard and repeated them: women are naturally nurturing; men are natural leaders; women are naturally more emotional; men are naturally promiscuous…and the list goes on and on. What I’ve questioned for some time, and what the book discusses, is how much of what we consider “natural” gender attributes are actually genetic versus socially conditioned behaviors and characteristics?

In my opinion we don’t question enough the source of the differences in male and female behavior and we too easily accept that certain things are just the way they are. This kind of blind acceptance of assumed natural gender differences has proven to be detrimental to women for the most part, but also to men, ironically. Are men really less emotional than women or are boys taught from a young age that crying and other displays of emotion (other than anger) are signs of weakness? Are women naturally better at organization and domestic duties or is it just drummed into our heads from youth that these are things we’re supposed to do well (and enjoy!) to be a “good woman”? The accepted differences between men and women, from ideas like women are less logical or less intelligent, have had obvious detrimental effects to our progress over the centuries, keeping women from positions of leadership in the workplace and political arenas, and of course deferring to men at home. While there have been great strides over the last several decades, many nations today still have never had a female president (looking at you, U.S. of A). The majority of Fortune 500 companies, including my employer, have never had a female CEO.

In Angela Saini’s book she notes that many of the “facts” we’ve come to accept as clear genetic behavioral differences between men and women, are based on incomplete, biased or misinterpreted scientific observations and studies. For example, people who make the argument that men are naturally promiscuous, often point to examples in other animal species. While this is true in many animals, what this argument misses is the fact in many of the same species the females are also not monogamous. It’s a convenient argument to make in favor of male promiscuity, but aren’t we cherry picking when we compare humans to other animal species? There are many human behaviors which are dissimilar and off the charts when compared to other animals. She adds that where genetic differences have been shown to exist between men and women, the natural variation is not as exaggerated as we have to come to believe, and there is in fact plenty of overlap. Among humans, comparisons of different societies including relatively remote tribes in South America, Africa and Oceania reveal that culture heavily determines gender “roles” and what is considered acceptable behavior in men and women.

I don’t know any feminists who claim that there are no differences between men and women — there are differences, clearly, but as Saini notes, the issue is that we severely downplay the role that culture and societal conditioning have in molding our behavior and expectations of ourselves and others, based on gender. Societal and cultural influence begins from infancy. The types of toys we give to babies, how we speak to children and the things we encourage and discourage them to do, are all influenced by our own social conditioning and biases, and in turn influence their behavior. It would be impossible to free ourselves from this binary way of thinking, as even scientists who are supposed to be the epitome of objectivity, haven’t always been able to do. However it’s fair to say that a good start would be to become more aware of this and notice how it colors our opinions and interactions with others and ourselves. The great thing about culture: we make it, and we can change it.

Other than the obvious larger impact of imbalances in power, financial success and other forms of social inequity, the idea that certain attributes are naturally male or female, implies to women who don’t fit into these prescribed buckets, that they are somehow lacking. It forces women to perform womanhood in a sense, or at least what womanhood is perceived to be. Of course, this varies between cultures but most of the world today still hangs on to set ideas of how women and men should be. These stereotypical expectations negatively affect men too, despite them being the beneficiaries of patriarchy. Men actively avoid displaying certain behaviors or actions for fear of being called feminine or gay. I saw a man lamenting on twitter that women can compliment their friends freely without it being perceived as sexual, while men can’t freely express such admiration for their friends without mockery or being labeled gay. Homophobia is a whole other subject I won’t get into here. It’s accepted as fact that men aren’t “emotional”, which basically means they are not capable of expressing or managing emotions, the consequences of which can be violent, and deadly for themselves but most of all, for women. Towards the end of Angela Saini’s book she quotes (male) anthropologist Ashely Montagu: “When men understand that the best way to solve their own problem is to help women solve those that men have created for women, they will have taken one of the first significant steps towards its solution”.

It’s an uphill battle against what many of us have believed for most of our lives but I hope we’ll give ourselves and others room to live outside of the boxes that society has built. For women most of all, I think we’ve lived in those boxes far too long.




Cameroon born & raised, U.S. based. I write on topics I enjoy and am passionate about - travel, race & gender, my home Cameroon, and more. @nangees

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B.E. Lyonga

B.E. Lyonga

Cameroon born & raised, U.S. based. I write on topics I enjoy and am passionate about - travel, race & gender, my home Cameroon, and more. @nangees

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