Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Gender identity and growing beyond limitations!

Recently we celebrated international women's day, although like many others, I too believe that it is not supposed to be a one day affair. However, I also appreciate that such rituals might have their usefulness, because they force our joint attention towards issues of collective importance.
Being a psychologist, my perspective is also more psychological on this matter, since change in women's status is not only socio-economic, but also associated with a change in the consciousness, not only of women but also of men.

Let me start with a small story, since stories have a way to engage us so. One day Lord Krishna was talking to his beloved Radha, when she said that you can't understand my pain, my experiences. To understand her, Krshna became Radha for some time and this event has been celebrated in Indian art, such as poetry and especially in Indian paintings. To think of it, this was a classic case of empathy, where one is able to understand other's perspectives, their feelings, their experiences. This is the state of consciousness, we need to understand the gender issue. Not where there is resistance and hostility for different ideas, as I sometimes see when discussing gender issues.

As we all know, presently there is a gap in the collective status of women, although it is debatable how much of a gap and reasons behind it (some defending it and some opposing it in the larger society). It is also debatable how much our society has changed over last few decades and given freedom to women. Women in general feel that there has not been sufficient change and men often point to the fact that more openness has come and we can see more and more women in education and jobs. Since human brains are risk-averse, during times of change in status quo, those who lose status, power, resources, often feel the impact stronger than those who gain it. So this difference in perception is explainable. But if we look at the statistics most of us will agree we still need to cover a long distance.

One of the main arguments justifying the gap between different roles and status assigned to men and women are that, they are in essence different not only at body level, but also at the levels of mind and more. These differences justify their unequal status, because one is better or more valuable than the other. The questionable assumptions here are first the differences, and second the values assigned to these differences.

Physically, an alien coming to earth would consider all of us as part of the same species. However, I will focus more at the mind level. After decades of research on the brain-based differences between men and women, a recent meta analysis reached the conclusion that this difference is pretty low. Although women have slightly better verbal abilities and, men have slightly better spatial abilities, still one third of women have better spatial abilities and one third of men have better verbal abilities. Such results are also at the level of statistical averages, and the next woman you meet may turn out to be better at knowing directions and parking her car, and the next man might charm you by weaving a web of beautiful words. These little differences which are present, have been explained by different socialization processes. We bring up our little girls and boys differently, and therefore sex is biological, gender is a social concept.

Further, the traditional research in psychology about traits of masculinity and femininity has gradually given way to research on agentic and communal traits, since the traits associated with masculinity and femininity are not gender specific, every human being has them in different proportions. Agentic and communal traits focuses on different ways of being and connecting. Being agentic is being independent, competent & assertive-aggressive, while communal traits are that of being friendly, unselfish, & expressive. Men are encouraged and expected to show agentic traits and women that of communal ones. But fact is that any woman may be more or less agentic, depending upon her personality, upbringing, unique life experiences etc. and same is applicable to men. Research shows Asian countries have traditionally encouraged communal traits though with increasing westernization entire world is also becoming more agentic.

So, the term 'empowerment' itself is in a way 'agentic', because the idea is of being able to select one's goals, knowing how to reach them, having self-worth and confidence to reach them, gathering both material and informational resources for it and acting upon it.

Now coming to the question of what do we value more as a society - answer stares in our face - men over women, masculinity over femininity and we have valued independence, competence & assertiveness, at the cost of friendliness, unselfishness, & expressiveness. But, when societies doesn't value friendliness, unsefishness, harmony, they end up becoming a violent and selfish societies. Such misplaced values lead to corporate greed, environmental destruction, and massive wars. Agentic self is a disconnected self, from others and from nature, and focus is on the control of others and of nature.

At an individual level, when 'boys dont cry', when men are too numb to feel and express their emotions, they are also cheated of the joys of living. As much as women are robbed of the space to discover themselves and bring out their gifts for the world. So, we miss out on kind, compassionate men, and wise, confident women who can give direction to our future. Everyone suffers, limited by society's expectations.

The solution is that we all find our personal balance of independence and connection, instead of it being forced upon us. Because we cannot put together a specific gender and a specific way of mental framework in a rigid way. For example, we want loving mothers, but we also yearn for loving dads, as we want strong, protective fathers but also strong, protective mothers. Each one of us is a unique being with our special abilities and potentials. Let us recategorise the main struggle, the main issue, which is not only for women but also for men to be able to find themselves and bring it forth. We all have to find our power as well as realize our inherent connectedness. Infact psychological androgyny (a balanced mix of masculinity and femininity, or agency & communion) is a healthy state and often found in most creative, mature, fully-functioning individuals.

I wish to end with the another ancient myth, that each soul was divided at the beginning and since then we have been feeling half, feeling incomplete, and are going around looking for our soulmates, another person, who will make us feel whole. But then this is a Greek interpretation. The Indian idea is that we discover both male and female aspects within us, and become whole, become divine. This is what 'ardhanarishwar' symbolizes at an intra-personal level. And at an interpersonal level it symbolizes the state where men & women, although different but come together as an equal partners.

Once that is realized, then there won't be any need for a separate women's day!