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This may well be too broad (spreading over into psychology too), I'll try to narrow it down as I outline my thinking but any advice is welcome.

I began by thinking about how its unfair if you identify as one gender and are treated as another. So then what would be the solution? Treat everyone exactly the same. Why do we need to start children off wearing pink or playing with dolls?

So we get a generation growing up without being pigeon holed into a gender and they can choose.

But what is a gender then?

If, as a culture, we stop saying "men do this" and "women do this" how would I define myself as a woman? Obviously biological sex is there but the prevailing argument is that biological sex doesn't dictate your gender.

But does it matter?

If you didn't have a gender would it matter? Would things not sink back into determining sterotypes by biological sex (which is, I suppose, gender again...)

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    See Sex and Gender: we cannot avoid "social constructions" and education and culture. Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 14:24
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    It's more of a comment than an answer, but nature determined that, for some jobs, it is highly beneficial to have gotten to specialize roles as early as possible. In the case of nature, that involved physically moving organs around, but culture has piggybacked on those physical specializations for the jobs it feels are worth specializing early in that way. I think, to that degree, you would have to say that gender roles do matter, in the sense that they are important. Whether any given part of that specialization is worth the cost is a very different question entirely.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 20:53
  • ... and the answers to that different question I think are a lot less cut and dry than this one. I think its easy to prove that they "matter."
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 20:54
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    I believe that there is a flawed mentality in "...its unfair if you identify as one gender and are treated as another." Genders are simply amorphous collections of norms and commonalities in a defined society, often tied closely to biological sex. Thus, saying that someone can define their own gender and that the world must comply to the individual's definition or it is somehow harming said person is paramount to me telling everyone I'm a wizard and trying throwing a fit whenever someone tells me i'm not. Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 19:59

3 Answers 3

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Gender roles have a deep, long history that are in fact strongly tied into biology. In a nutshell, in primitive societies men were hunters, and women stayed home, talking with other women, and caring for children. Multiply this social reality over many hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years, and you'll see fundamental biological differences between men and women, averaged out.

For most of history these gender roles have played a significant role in our species survival. Women are great at keeping children alive, men are great at keeping everyone fed.

All of that said, how we define what a successful gender is, is a moving target. What it meant to be a woman in the 13th century is not the same as what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. So what we'll see happen as time progresses are new traits becoming selective for each gender.

For instance, if suddenly it matters that women are capable of holding down a good job, then women who aren't financially successful start getting weaned out of the gene pool, and what it means to be a 'fecund' woman changes.

So to get back to your question, gender roles do matter in the sense that if you're good at filling the typical role you're more likely to pass on your genes. But the caveat is that gender roles, and eventually biology (over hundreds of thousands of years) aren't static. So society will, in time, be more open to a wider ranging definition of various genders, or at least a changing range.

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  • Moving out of the realm of bare survival makes a lot of things possible.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 2:36
  • True, but only those who have kids pass on their genes, so most of us are always going to trend around being good parents, and what that entails at any given time
    – Cdn_Dev
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 12:42
  • A rising standard of living lifts all parents, and means that non-parents (like me) are less seen as freeloaders and immature. More babies survive, so people have fewer of them and pour forth more effort. For some, the increased effort and expectations are too much. I didn't want to have children because I grew up with the Cold War, oil shortages, waste and pollution crises and I saw Mad Max when it came out. I figured we would all be long dead by now. But we just have even bigger problems. Few people agree with my reasons though.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 22, 2022 at 10:37
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Two broad reasons come to my mind.

A) Reality isn't just social construction. It has to be rooted in certain facts about individual biology and environmental demands. If biology was so insignificant that we could simply brush away existing bodily differences and they'd stop mattering, couldn't we then also simply convince people that they are of a certain sex or gender (for instance the one that popular belief assigns to them)? If one's perception of sexuality and identity were free floating entities "chosen" out of will and wish, then we could just coerce likewise people into believing they were of a certain gender (or by extension, persuade them that they aren't hungry and they'd just forgo starvation ).

That's the first reason. Environmental demands that the sexes were differently exposed to from an evolutionary perspective would have lead to systematic sex differences. How "relevant" they are is no doubt a matter of malleability (or plasticity) of nature, degree of systematicity in the different environments and other such complicated factors. (Not to mention that they'd be exceptions to this trend)

B) Secondly you need to understand thay social conventions are created to maximise happiness. Stereotypes, howevermuch of a bad word it may be today, are rom a completely neutral perspective only statistical predicitons or trends drawn from probabilistic data about social behaviour. And for all their fallouts, they do at the end of the day help increase efficiency and happiness.

Think of any group, say vegetarians. Now it might be good to offer them salad and government policies might be formulated to subsidize salads for them but it is also true that they'd be many exceptions who just despise all kind of salads. Is it unethical to stereotype them and aren't the policies unfair to those who are at odds with the majority group?

And that's it: a balance has to be maintained while targeting services or behaviour or products to groups based on the increase in happiness from this targeted/focused approach and the extent to which the members of that group actually share those characterisation (i.e. the reliability of that stereotype).

Now, giving scholarships to students' with high SAT scores seems justified (because the statistical trend of high scoring sat takers having proficient academic careers plays out in real life and the benefits of this "discrimination" outweigh any negative externalities).

But, disadvantaging people of a certain sex or race (women and blacks for example) depending on the differences in the average intelligence level might not seem such a good idea.

I'm not giving any conclusive comments on the justifiablity of these policies but the point I'm making is about the trade offs involved and how these are continuously contested themes.

So to summarize: gender matters, it cannot be changed completely out of willingness or political correctness, and it in many ways is a beneficial and productive social practice.

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  • Most people have no problem identifying with the predictable stereotype for their body. We can't really make life worse for them to try to make it better for a few people. Some kind of good accommodation has to be found.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 2:34
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It might be helpful to refer here to The Genderbread Person, a popular model for thinking about sex, gender and related concepts. (I've linked to the original, simple version but you can find several more complex iterations on the same website if you want.)

  1. Gender identity: (what a person feels they are)
  2. Gender expression (how a person is perceived)
  3. Biological sex (morphology, genetics, hormone levels, etc.)
  4. Sexual orientation (attraction, desire, etc.)

In every existing society that we know of, there are variations between individuals in relation to these four elements. On the one hand, this means sex and gender are fundamental elements of human experience. Outside a very strong tabula rasa interpretation of human nature, gender identity and gender expression are inevitable consequences of biological sex.

On the other hand, there are very wide variations in the specific content of peoples' gender identities and expressions according to historical and sociological contexts. Many societies recognize the existence of genders outside the male/female binary. While European cultures have tended to have a more rigid approach to gender roles and sexual identities, there have been strong trends towards flexibility and individual choice in recent decades. There is no reason to think such trends cannot continue.

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  • I think that in terms of your #2, there are lots of cases of just accidental choices or tendencies of individuals that throw off the perceptions by others, but they were not intended as genderal expressions or in any way related to how they feel about their own gender. But people categorize or judge based on these unintended characteristics. This is a problem that should cause people to "mind their own business".
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 2:41
  • @ScottRowe I would say that gender expression is unfortunately constrained by what Durkheim calls "social facts". If a person of a certain body type cuts their hair a certain way and dresses a certain way, they are likely to be mis-gendered by other people. An individual can choose their haircut and the way the dress, but they can't (individually) change the predictable patterns in how people in a given social context will react to those choices. For gender non-conforming people, these social facts beyond their control can matter immensely.
    – Brian Z
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 12:25
  • When I was high school age (lo, these many years ago) there was an explosion of stylistic choices expressing all kinds of things. I thought that we would leave all the John Wayne rigidity behind, but alas no. It springs right back, and even young people today who have been sensitized to the issues are just as System 1 in their instant reactions. We have to work a lot harder at System 2! Social problems exist because they are inherent and will never be 'solved'. So much fun. What makes gender and choices so damn important in the first place? Who really cares?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 22, 2022 at 10:27

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