One of my first objectives in teaching a Gender Studies course is to help my students realize that neither gender has all the advantages while the other is completely without perks. While most people have at least a vague awareness that males have it easier in many ways, women and men alike sometimes don’t consider the benefits women enjoy and the hardships that men often endure. I want for the young men, who often mentally “tip toe” in that first day preparing to be scolded for being male, to know that I realize society holds plenty of unreasonable expectations for them. And I want for the young women to realize they aren’t the only ones who pay a price for gender and to appreciate the advantages they hold.
So to start this mental reconstruction, I divide the class into four groups and give each a large sheet of newspaper print with one of the following headings at the top of each:
Advantages of Being Female
Advantages of Being Male
Disadvantages of Being Female
Disadvantages of Being Male
I ask each group to list things that fall into the category designated at the top of their paper. After each group has had a few minutes to create a list, I have groups swap their papers and begin adding to the list another group has started. I continue until each group has had a chance to identify items for each category.
After approximately 10 years of seeing these class lists, I have found that students readily identify some obvious advantages and disadvantages for each gender: that males get paid more and aren’t expected to wear make-up, yet they are expected to pay for dates and are ostracized if they cry; that females have a broader range of clothing options and can often get someone to carry their packages, yet they often hit the “glass ceiling” and wait in longer lines for public restrooms.
Several not so obvious points, however, have surfaced through this activity. For instance, some items listed as advantages also make the list of disadvantages. Yes, women have to have the babies, but women also get to have the babies. Men sometimes get a pass on the less desirable parenting chores (like staying up with a sick child), but then they miss out on some bonding opportunities. Women can cry more freely when upset, but are then deemed too emotional to hold positions of responsibility. Men are not allowed the luxury of deciding whether or not to work outside the home, but are more likely to have a spouse who will carry the burden of household tasks.
Realizing the two-sided nature of privilege and adversity presents another truth: for every benefit we enjoy someone is paying a price. When a husband sits down to watch TV while his wife cooks dinner and cleans up afterwards, she is paying the price for his privilege. When a mother takes on every parenting task in an effort to be “supermom,” the father-child relationship is marginalized, requiring he pay a steep price for her privilege.
Of course, sometimes we pay the price ourselves for our own advantage. This reality surfaces in class when a female student jokes about using tears to get out of a speeding ticket then realizes she has just made it harder to be taken seriously as a mature adult. She’s enjoying a privilege alright, but with a price she hadn’t expected.
My goal is for these students to understand that each gender enjoys benefits and endures hardships. I want them to consider the privileges they enjoy and the price others, and they themselves, pay for those privileges. Ultimately, I hope that as they approach their future careers and future families they will catch themselves before blindly falling into the gender gaffes that have for too long presented unnecessary difficulty for women and men.
What gendered benefits and adversities do you encounter?
What price is being paid for your benefits and who is paying that price? I’d love to hear your thoughts.