If Gender is Essential, Why Are We Pushing It?

Image result for pushing genderI have often said that the gender roles described in the Proclamation are unnecessary because either they are descriptive (meaning people naturally behave this way, so who cares) or prescriptive (meaning, people should behave this way, but if it’s not natural to them, they won’t anyway and you can’t make them). This perspective neutralizes the power of gender roles whichever way you look at it. But what if gender roles can’t be neutral? What if telling a group of people that their kind behave a certain way actually changes behavior from its natural course? Is this influence ameliorative or detrimental? As a social experiment, what are its fruits?

As it turns out, the more you remind people of the expectations of society, the more you modify their course in life, and these expectations are so strongly ingrained that they begin before a baby is even born! Sociologist Emily Kane surveyed prospective parents:

[G]irls were wanted because of the emotional connection they would provide. Only a daughter would be inclined to emotional intimacy and the remembering of birthdays, was the unspoken assumption. Not yet conceived, and already the sons were off the hook for remembering to call or send birthday flowers.

When babies were born, parents of boys expressed “pride” whereas parents of girls expressed “joy.” The expectation was already clear that male children would enhance social standing in the world while female children would develop stronger family attachments. Even when parents have attempted to raise their children in a gender-neutral environment, society intrudes. Children are especially vulnerable to the natural sorting into gender that reaches its peak between ages 5 and 7 (after this age, children begin to see that there is more fluidity to gender roles than they had thought).

As parents who made the attempt to raise their children in a completely gender-neutral way discovered, the playground will fill in the social expectations they’ve tried so hard to hide:

[O]ur son Jeremy, then age four, . . . decided to wear barrettes (hair slides) to nursery school. Several times that day, another little boy told Jeremy that he, Jeremy, must be a girl because ‘only girls wear barrettes.’ After trying to explain to this child that ‘wearing barrettes doesn’t matter’ and that ‘being a boy means having a penis and testicles,’ Jeremy finally pulled down his pants as a way of making his point more convincingly. The other child was not impressed. He simply said, ‘Everybody has a penis; only girls wear barrettes.’

Although gender sorting can seem like it’s a way to create a comfortable and equal space for both sexes to flourish, parents and society systematically devalue the feminine by limiting boys’ access to it. It’s not just barrettes. While it’s acceptable and admirable for a girl to be a tomboy, there is no acceptable version for boys. “Sissy” is considered negative. “You hit like a girl” is not a compliment.

One of my team members in Asia was a female Indian executive. We would meet for dinner when I came to Bangalore on business. She explained to me that from a young age she was ambitious and wanted to have a business career, so she deliberately dressed like a boy. She didn’t want to be seen as a “mere girl” who could be easily dismissed and not taken seriously by her family. She only wore pants and avoided wearing too much makeup. She wore shirts that were more masculine button down shirts rather than pretty ones (and she never wore a sari, although many of the women in the office did). She deliberately lowered her voice so that she wouldn’t sound too feminine. Her tactics are a reaction to something called Stereotype Threat. When girls get the clear message that what boys do is more valuable, they may deliberately try to avoid “girly” things so they are not lumped in with the losing team.

According to Wikipedia:

Stereotype threat is a situational predicament in which people are or feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group. Since its introduction into the academic literature, stereotype threat has become one of the most widely studied topics in the field of social psychology. Stereotype threat has been shown to reduce the performance of individuals who belong to negatively stereotyped groups. If negative stereotypes are present regarding a specific group, group members are likely to become anxious about their performance, which may hinder their ability to perform at their maximum level. For example, stereotype threat can lower the intellectual performance of African Americans taking the SAT test used for college entrance in the United States due to the stereotype that African Americans are less intelligent than other groups. Importantly, the individual does not need to subscribe to the stereotype for it to be activated. It is hypothesized that the mechanism through which anxiety (induced by the activation of the stereotype) decreases performance is by depleting working memory (especially the phonological aspects of the working memory system).

The movie Hidden Figures is based on the true story of three mathematically brilliant African American women who overcome severe stereotype threat as well as very real discrimination to do what they saw as their patriotic duty to contribute to the space program. It’s a fascinating portrait. I was personally very interested because my dad worked on the space program. He was one of those white male engineers, doing those difficult manual calculations in the days before computers. [1] These are the stories told by the movie.

The stories that aren’t told, the ones that are implied, are the stories of all the African Americans and women who didn’t go into fields dominated by men, who believed from a young age that “math is hard” or “girls aren’t good at math” or that they shouldn’t or couldn’t out-perform a man if they wanted to get married. In other words, gender roles create stereotype threat, and stereotype threat alters performance.

Image result for delusions of genderIn the book Delusions of Gender, author Cordelia Fine cites many studies that demonstrate the negative effects of stereotype threat. Interestingly, stereotypes are so deeply embedded in our culture that women’s performance was impacted merely by asking them to indicate their sex at the beginning of a math test. Impacts were more significant when participants were told that their sex did worse than the other sex. Studies that avoided negative impacts focused on other qualities of the participants such as beginning with statements that students from their alma mater tended to do well on this test. This type of “priming” was consistently shown to impact results.

When the environment makes gender salient, there is a ripple effect on the mind. We start to think of ourselves in terms of our gender, and stereotypes and social expectations become more prominent in the mind. This can change self-perception, alter interests, debilitate or enhance ability, and trigger unintentional discrimination. In other words, the social context influences who you are, how you think and what you do.

These changes can actually alter our brain development.

The insight that thinking, behaviour, and experiences change the brain, directly, or through changes in genetic activity, seems to strip the word ‘hardwiring’ of much useful meaning. Biology itself is socially influenced and defined; it changes and develops in interaction with and response to our minds and environment, as our behaviors do.

Repeated overt references to men and women being inherently different or suited to different roles is something psychologists call “priming.” It’s bringing those latent attitudes to the surface where they alter behaviors and can even change the course of someone’s life.

“Cultural beliefs about gender act like a weight on the scale that modestly but systematically differentiates the behavior and evaluations of otherwise similar men and women. . . . The small biasing effects accumulate over careers and lifetimes to result in substantially different behavioral paths and social outcomes for men and women who are otherwise similar in social background.” Sociologists Cecilia Ridgeway and Shelley Correll

Which brings us back to the Proclamation. The gender roles in this document are “priming” each gender to believe that their group behaves a certain way. In the case of the Proclamation, it doesn’t say that women aren’t leaders; it only says “men preside” without referencing the leadership skills of women. It doesn’t say “men aren’t nurturing.” It just stakes this out as the purview and responsibility of women. This type of priming can cause some negative traits to emerge.

Among those who feel the gender stereotypes fit them comfortably:

  • Perfectionism
  • Pride
  • Judgmentalism
  • Exaggerated conformity (e.g. primary voice for women or dominating behavior for men)

Among those who feel the stereotypes don’t fit them:

  • Anxiety
  • Exaggerated non-conformity

For those raised in very gender-role focused homes, there is also substantial bias against males who act in “female” ways, being nurturing, exhibiting lower ambition, or helping in domestic tasks. We hear this nervousness when men joke about their ineptitude at domestic tasks or childcare. This joking enables them to distance themselves from the horror of being viewed as female. While there may be bias against women who act in traditional male ways, the bias is generally couched in terms of impacts to men (e.g. taking jobs away from male breadwinners) or a woman’s ability to attract a mate. The male traits (ambition, leadership, decisiveness) are still seen as largely positive. So if a woman acts like a woman, she’s fine. If she acts like a man, she’s trading up. If a man acts like a man, he’s fine. If he acts like a woman, whoa. Women are on the losing team in a sexist world.

Proponents of gender stereotypes usually resort to the argument that biological differences are behind the performance gaps, that gender is essential or eternal. Or to put it another way, women are inherently dumber (less logical or rational), more dependent, and more passive than men, while men are somehow innately unskilled at domesticity and parenting. These gender biases are so strong that even if a person believes in equality, it’s difficult to get around them.

But again, scientific studies show that these characteristics are simply not innate. A few examples:

  • Babies are said to prefer a woman’s face to a man’s because women are inherently more nurturing. But studies show this is a byproduct of the sex of the baby’s primary caregiver. When males are the primary caregivers, the babies’ view naturally gravitates toward men. Even in infancy, socialization drives the behavior. Guess what–babies are also racist, preferring faces with similar race to their primary caregiver. This isn’t evidence of the mysterious female nurturing gene.
  • The ratio of males to females at the high end of performance is something that changes from country to country. If these were innate, based on biological factors, they would not be influenced by social and cultural factors.
  • Brain scans that purport to show brain activity linked with “empathizing” were replicated in brain scans on a dead salmon, showing that the statistical thresholds used in neuroimaging studies are not adequate. [2]
  • Studies that showed sex differences between men and women consistently had much smaller sample sizes and conclusions were often unrelated to the actual materials of the original study upon closer inspection.
  • One study showed that female monkeys chose to play with a frying pan more often than male monkeys did. The study failed to mention that the objects were not presented neutrally to the animals (giving them encouragement to take the preferred object) or the fact that monkeys don’t cook, so a frying pan holds no significance to them. [3]
  • A study that initially showed that women performed better at empathy tasks quickly equalized performance by paying men $2 for every correct answer they got. Looks like men had the natural skill all along, but were content to let others do the empathy work until they got paid for it. [4]

Fine summed it up succinctly when cataloging the gaping holes in the so-called scientific studies cited by gender essentialists:

There is something a little curious . . . . It is a bit like that of the wife who determinedly overlooks the plentiful signs that her husband is shifty, unreliable and worthless, while inflating the significance of occasional dependable behavior.

And the problems with these pseudo-scientific studies is that they are used to limit women’s equal access to power, education, and opportunity:

The findings of Victorian scientists and medical men of the day were ‘a key source of . . . opposition’ to women’s suffrage and equal access to higher education, notes Yale University historian of science Cynthia Russett.

No surprise that the Victorians repressed women, but as it turns out, nothing much has changed.

A recent study by University of Exeter psychologist Thomas Morton and his colleagues asked one group of participants to read the kind of passage that is the bread-and-butter of a certain type of popular gender science book. It presented essentialist theories–that gender difference in thinking and behaviour are biological, stable and immutable–as scientifically established facts. A second group read a similar article, but one in which the claims were presented as being under debate in the scientific community. The ‘fact’ article led people to more strongly endorse biological theories of gender difference, to be more confident that society treat women fairly and to feel less certain that the gender status quo is likely to change.

It also left men rather more cavalier about discriminatory practices: compared with men who read the ‘debate’ article, they agreed more with statements like, ‘If I would work in a company where my manager preferred hiring men to women, I would privately support him,’ and ‘If I were a manager in a company myself, I would believe that more often than not, promoting men is a better investment in the future of the company than promoting women.’ They also felt better about themselves–a small consolation indeed to women.

Think about that the next time you hear someone claiming at church that the sexes are different but equal or asserting that women don’t even want opportunities outside the home. (Or as CES claimed not too long ago, that none of their female seminary teachers wanted to work post maternity).

“When a child clings on to a highly desirable toy and claims that his companion ‘doesn’t want to play with it,’ I have found that it is wise to be suspicious.” Cordelia Fine

A belief that gender is essential is not only contradicted by thoughtful scientific study, but it also confirms the biases that inhibit women from achieving. In the movie Hidden Figures, the 3 women featured are exceptional among either sex in terms of their ability. And yet, in every case, they were the first to be let go. The men may be talented engineers, but they are protected by virtue of their great fortune of being male, not by being the smartest, most creative, or most skilled or ambitious person in the room. And in fact, the security and protection they benefit from actually impedes their drive to increase their skills or be more creative. When we suppress female leadership, we get a lot of crappy male leaders (as well as some good ones), and we lose a lot of great women leaders whose talents aren’t valued.

Image result for cordelia fineGiven the existing social pressure in general and the difficulty of encouraging women to be full participants, rather than reinforcing these limiting stereotypes, we should be focusing on every individual’s potential as a daughter or son of God, a spiritual person, an agent capable of acting in faith.

If gender roles in the Proclamation are descriptive of what exists naturally, then we should encourage both women & men to add to those natural skills by showing them examples that don’t conform to stereotypes. If gender roles in the Proclamation are prescriptive of what should exist, they are unnecessary because they are already pervasive in society. Like Madge says in the Palmolive commercials: “You’re soaking in it.” We don’t need to teach sexism any more than we need to teach materialism.

Instead of teaching gender roles, the studies indicate that we would get better results–among both sexes–by encouraging people to broaden beyond sexist stereotypes. We do this through verbal encouragement as well as example setting. The more we encourage men to be nurturing and women to lead, the more both sexes will be nurturing and both will develop leadership skills; one sex because of society’s encouragement, and the other despite society’s discouragement. We should be in the business of boosting the capabilities of all our people across multi-faceted skills, not restricting them. Eternity is a long time; it’s plenty of time to transcend earthly stereotypes in developing our divine potential. And just think of how exceptional our people will be if we can elevate everyone’s potential and broaden their contributions beyond the limited social borders of gender stereotypes.


[1] In fairness, he did teach me how to manually calculate a square root when I was 12, and he never made me drink out of a separate coffee pot.

[2] Or that dead salmon would be great care-givers.

[3] Although I think they cook in the Charlton Heston Planet of the Apes, so apparently it’s just a matter of time.

[4] Image result for kaboom gif


  1. Raising your children just to be good people is difficult when friends, relatives, and church members like to play up those differences. I struggled as a young boy being teased for not being manly enough. It was not great for my own feelings of self-worth or my relationships with other men.

  2. Catherine S says:

    This is an amazing post. Thank you for these excellent thoughts! I’d love to see more links to some of the information you referenced.

  3. Excellent points Angela. Thank you for emphasizing the harm that men experience when our culture limits their adoption of traditionally female roles. As a father of sons and a leader of young men in the church, I see the effect of that limitation all the time. For instance, the current ‘talking point’ for why women are denied ordination is that men are inherently less spiritual. That’s simply false. But our culture chooses to teach it – and thereby harm our young men – because we do not want to seriously consider ordaining all worthy members.

    The reality is that gender has no saving importance. Salvation comes from obtaining the attributes of Christ; by taking his “image upon us.” Christ’s attributes are set out in the scriptures (e.g., beatitudes, D/C 121), and revealed through the spirit as we seek and repent. These attributes are equally available to all people – men and women. Any attribute of Christ that is not available to all people – skin color, height, blood type, genitalia, gender, etc. – is simply not important to salvation. Those attributes may continue through the eternities, but they have nothing to do with Christ’s “image.”

    For myself, as I have grown in the gospel as a priesthood holder, I have learned to place less emphasis on presiding, protecting, and providing – important things in their own right – and more emphasis on nurturing. I strive to emulate Christ as a ‘mother hen’.

  4. Feminists should condemn Muslims and their acts actual oppression of women if they want to be taken seriously that modern Mormon women are being oppressed by the “patriarchy.”

  5. “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual … eternal identity…” — The Family, A Proclamation to the World

    “Some of the functions in the celestial body will not appear in the terrestrial body, neither in the telestial body, and the power of procreation will be removed. I take it that men and women will, in these kingdoms, be just what the so-called Christian world expects us all to be – neither man nor woman, merely immortal beings having received the resurrection.” — Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol 2.

    I guess JFS hadn’t got the same message as the signers of the Proclamation!

    In his editing of his October 2010 talk, BKP demoted the Proclamation from status as a “revelation”, to ”a guide that members of the Church would do well to read and to follow.” This reminded me of my interview with ETB when I was a very young, frustrated, rule-bound missionary in Europe. I had reported to him a GA telling us in the SLC Mission Home (now there’s a dating concept for you) that mission rules were commandments of God and that we could not have the Spirit with us if we broke any of them. ETB, after he calmed down about that out-of-order GA, told me mission rules were a compilation of good advice from more than a 100 years of missionary efforts and that when they got in the way of teaching the gospel they were to be ignored. Perhaps the gender roles outlined in the Proclamation are similarly good advice for those whose goals (or divine purpose) is limited to getting along without opprobrium in a thoroughly patriarchal social world. I think the approach suggested by Angela’s last two paragraphs would have far greater eternal value for individuals as well as an eternal society.
    (But I’m not going to start wearing barettes. :) )

  6. What if in the eternities there is a more significant difference and we are just limited in this world in our view? Think about how we are limited by the artificial constraint of time now, where in the next world we will not be. A big part of this world is learning how to use our imperfect bodies, in preparation for our glorified bodies. Many people suffer in different ways, from missing limbs to hormonal imbalances to susceptibility to disease and more. We are all very imperfect, but we start with the training wheels before the bullet bike. In the end at some point, we need to learn to love each other and overcome whatever obstacles are placed before us and not blame our lot in life on someone else.

  7. Old Man says:

    Hi Angela,
    A thought-provoking post.

    “… gender roles described in the Proclamation are unnecessary because either they are descriptive (meaning people naturally behave this way, so who cares) or prescriptive (meaning, people should behave this way, but if it’s not natural to them, they won’t anyway and you can’t make them).”

    Isn’t this something of a false premise for Latter-day Saints? I am reading the above as If something is “not natural” for a person, they won’t behave in such a manner. Isn’t Christ-like behavior just a little unnatural? Is not a major teaching of our religion that through faith in Christ we can change the unchangeable? That we are to put off the “natural man?” So I read the Proclamation as somewhat prescriptive but respectfully reject the parenthetical limitation in the above quote.

    One note on “priming,” it is real. But it can have an enormous POSITIVE impact as well. The Proclamation was not written in a vacuum and it cannot be understood in a vacuum. There are a great many statements and teachings about women’s leadership potential, education, service, etc. found within the LDS tradition. A person “primed” with these positive teachings views the Proclamation in a very different light than when it is viewed from a strictly feminist perspective.

    “Divine design” is not something I view as necessarily being immediately self-evident in this life. Let’s face it, “nature” is a work in progress. I view “nurturing” as being an extraordinarily difficult assignment for women. It does not just happen naturally. (Or so says my wife.) As an introvert, I view “presiding” and “protecting” to be very difficult as well. These are callings for parents. And magnifying those callings means coming to an understanding of what those concepts mean and how they apply to you and your family as an eternal institution. I have found that “presiding” means to exercise guidance. It most certainly is not unrighteous dominion. I try to be a gentle nudger. But one does not preside without being present. “Protecting” means so much more than packing heat! It means providing physical, spiritual and emotional protection for children and then teaching them how to implement similar safety protocols in their own lives as they become independent.

  8. reepicheep says:

    Nowhere have you quoted what the proclamation actually says. It’s helpful to consider what you’re arguing against:
    Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.

    With a father and mother in heaven, who sent us to this world to get a body, and gain experience, and become like them in the eternities, I’m not sure how gender could be anything but an essential aspect of our identity?

    If you want to toss all that out the window and claim it’s just window dressing to repent and come follow me (where?), that’s sad; and while it may be Christian, it’s not Mormon.

    Some day, your eyes will be opened and all the experiences as a woman, all the slights, injustices, cruelties, joys, service, love, frustrations, work, trials, and so forth will be seen for what they really are and will sanctify that endowment of power you’ve received so you’ll be able to inherit the everlasting dominions, powers, and principalities promised.

    We do need to have faith that this life, our bodies, and our experiences are for our good. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t correct injustice where we see it, but it should mean that we don’t try to get out ahead of the prophets in proclaiming every mathematical inequality a social injustice. Especially, when we do so at the expense of more important labor. And then further argue about it while proving the parable in D&C 101:43-53.

    Please don’t give me the charade of pretending that we can be progressive social justice warriors and equally committed disciples. The simple fact is we should all know the church is spending more time bickering online and less time in HT, VT, calling magnification, missionary work, temple work, and so on.

    If the majority of what latter-day saints read online was encouragement to magnify our callings and a reminder of why it’s important with a variety of personal experiences and testimonies, etc. we’d be exhorting each other to do good in the pattern the Lord wants us to.

    The fruit of the seeds planted here may very well grow into daughters being treated more like sons, and vice versa, but that’s not going to bring us nearer to God.

  9. Tiberius says:

    I too am uncomfortable with some of the gendered language in the proc (most specifically, the “preside” term). However, it’s a slippery slope from criticizing specifics to gender nihilism, so…

    In terms of gender differences people often force an either/or dichotomy. Either women are biologically programmed to like pink and do everything else that are stereotypically “feminine,” or all differences are socially constructed. When people argue that there are basic behavioral differences they are quickly accused of arguing that *all* women or men are that way when nobody argues that.

    The fact is there are some behavioral and attitudinal sex differences that are for the most part universal (example, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sexual-personalities/201706/would-you-agree-sex-total-stranger), the effect sizes can be quite large, and IMHO the most reasonable explanation is that there’s a strong biological component (heresy alert). Also, for every Sally that loves trucks anecdotes, I raise you the story of David Reimer (Wikipedia him). The biological is clearly involved in at least some sex differences in behaviors, attitudes, etc. That’s not to say that social influence isn’t a factor, but that we shouldn’t descend into it’s-all-social gender nihilism. Frankly, if there aren’t any essential differences between men and women that negates one of the major reasons for struggling for female parity in leadership position, since it isn’t clear that they’d bring anything unique or needed to the table. I for one think our budget priorities would be very different if half of Congress was female.

    As far as gender roles, women still do the lion’s share of the housework, even in politically liberal households. You didn’t throw off your homemaking shackles for the corporate office, now you have the homemaking shackles and the corporate shackles. Women have less leisure time, they are no more happy than they were decades ago, the wage gap has stalled out in the last ten years, and men are becoming much less interested in marriage and providing for a family; although I don’t think we could or should go back, maybe the “patriarchal bargain” had something to it besides unrighteous male domination.

  10. it's a series of tubes says:

    ” A belief that gender is essential is not only contradicted by thoughtful scientific study, but…”

    Why not just come right out and say that you think people who believe the below are thoughtless, unscientific rubes?

    “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

  11. reepicheep, not only is it possible to be “progressive social justice warriors and equally committed disciples”, it is in fact mandatory. Jesus treated women as equals (or at least, as equal to his other followers), he spoke to them, taught them, even changed his mind based on the arguments of a woman (!) He was stunningly progressive, even by today’s standards.

    Mark L., I’m not sure that “we’re not as bad as Muslims” is really as convincing an argument as you think it is. Besides, this is a Mormon blog discussing Mormon life, Muslims aren’t exactly relevant.

  12. Angela C says:

    Tiberius: “if there aren’t any essential differences between men and women that negates one of the major reasons for struggling for female parity in leadership position, since it isn’t clear that they’d bring anything unique or needed to the table. I for one think our budget priorities would be very different if half of Congress was female.” The scientific evidence points to social priming as the cause of most differences between the genders. That doesn’t mean differences don’t exist, just that they are not innate; they don’t occur in a social vacuum. Representation of diverse viewpoints is still essential for policy making as a result. Likewise, we should consider the needs of the poor and not just the wealthy in setting policy, and yet money is a social construct.

    Mark L: I am definitely on record as opposing the reprehensible Obedient Wives Club in Malaysia (when I lived in Singapore, their antics were frequently in the news). But I can also walk and chew gum.

  13. John Mansfield says:

    Since “scientific evidence” and “priming” are being used in the same sentences, it may be worth reminding ourselves about priming’s role at the heart of the replication crisis.

  14. To add, I largely agree with the broader point that we’re not defined by biological or social roles. I think it undeniable that the ways roles have evolved in the home have on balance been extremely good. It’s good that husbands contribute more to cleaning and child care. It’s good that parents tend to decide ideas together rather than have the male as the rule giver such as in the 19th century. It’s good that women have more opportunities for self-expression and contributions. I’d also agree we have a ways to go. I just think the science (as ambiguous as a lot of psychology and sociology is) can’t quite be discounted. But the Fine quote about biological determinism is true as well. We’re not slaves to our biology.

    As others point out though I’m not sure that point really addresses the Proclamation though.

  15. Mary Lythgoe Bradfford says:

    An early photo shows me age 8 and my brother age six–I am holding a doll–he is in a little car.

  16. The story of the little boy on the play ground brings up an interesting point. I’ll begin my illustration by making a few things clear.

    First, I’m an evangelical Christian. I’m a married father of ten, with six sons and four daughters.

    I am the head of my household, whose wife informed him that she was choosing to submit. I had no choice in the matter, she simply said, “I’m going to submit to you, I’m just waiting for you to lead.” Needless to say, that was an interesting day.

    When my wife and I were still dating, she raised an interesting question to me. The question was, “What do you consider to be feminine traits?”

    I began to list off traits like kindness, caring, nurturing, etc. She then pointed out that those were qualities demonstrated by Jesus during His ministry. That gave me pause.

    I finally came to the point where I realized that masculinity and femininity aren’t determined by certain personality traits. In fact, kindness, caring and nurturing are traits that Jesus encourages as much in men as he does in women.

    What then determines gender? According to my wife, it’s primarily centered around reproduction. Femininity is determined largely by the ability to have babies, even if there’s a marked inability through infertility.

    Now, what kind of an impact would such an attitude have on traditional gender roles? I can only speak for my own house.

    I work full time, while my wife stays at home. Between the kids, her grandmother (Alzheimer’s disease), and the cost of child/adult day care, it’s actually of financial benefit for us to have a single income home.

    Once I arrive home, I change clothes and get right to work. I wash the dishes, clean the kitchen, help her cook dinner, tend to our food garden, maintain the yard, help with the kids and help take care of her grandmother. (I have a background in medicine, so I provide a lot of medical support)

    Most days, it isn’t unusual for us to drop into bed somewhere near midnight, and wake up about 6am. We have so much to attend to, and so much to work towards, that our days are long and nights way too short.

    We don’t worry about traditional gender roles. There is no such thing as “men’s work” and “women’s work” in our house, and all of our kids are learning to cook and clean, regardless of whether they’re male or female.

    P.S. I have zero problem with waking up in the middle of the night to change a diaper. 😉

  17. Bro. B. says:

    Thought provoking post, Angela. Social “priming” isn’t just a product of our society, it goes way back, hundreds of thousands if not millions of years ago when sexual reproduction became one of the mechanisms of the evolution of mammals. In most species, males had to be/are aggressive in order to have a chance to reproduce, while females were/are the more sensitive nurturers of their offspring, by virtue of which sex it was that carried the fetus to birth. All of this to ensure the proliferation of the species. So do we blame all our sexually biased behavior on nature? No, in our modern civilization we’re expected to overcome the “natural man.” But these traits which can have negative consequences or extremes are not easily managed–they’re were imprinted into our very DNA long before society reinforced them through priming (see sexual dimorphism, for one).

    You probably weren’t calling for the males here to tout their successes against gender biased behavior, but I’ll add another one any way. I volunteered to our RS President to go onto her list for cooking meals for ward members in need (since my wife works late and so couldn’t sign up). She seemed very happy to add me, if a little surprised. We’ve had some women show up to do things like help tear down and repair neighbors fences in the ward also. Our pioneer ancestors often crossed these traditional gender roles for the good of the family or the group.

  18. Great post, especially the last 2 paragraphs. Like Bro. B I was thinking about gender behavioral differences in animals in natural settings (not monkeys with pans) that are harder to attribute to social priming.
    If a woman is primed (or biologically programmed) to think of herself as a nurturer and buys into that gender role, how will it affect her when she is presented with examples of women with great leadership or math skills? Will she feel pressure or like she is less than she might be? I’m curious whether you know women who feel like they sacrificed careers for their children, and later come to question whether that was necessary, and resent the implication, or cling more tightly to traditional gender roles?

  19. Angela C says:

    Romni: “If a woman is primed (or biologically programmed) to think of herself as a nurturer and buys into that gender role, how will it affect her when she is presented with examples of women with great leadership or math skills?” That depends entirely on the woman.

    “Will she feel pressure or like she is less than she might be?” If she believes she was discouraged from making her own choices that would have been different, she will likely feel resentful.

    “I’m curious whether you know women who feel like they sacrificed careers for their children, and later come to question whether that was necessary, and resent the implication, or cling more tightly to traditional gender roles?” I think both of these outcomes are easily observable. I hear this type of thing all the time in RS. If you are listening to women’s stories, it is easy to find examples of women who sacrificed education or career and later regretted it when their Plan A didn’t work out due to the economy, a husband’s death, divorce, injury, a special needs child, etc., etc. Some of those women cling to the only role they felt they were allowed to choose, that of a mother / wife / financially dependent person. But some feel betrayed about it. It’s one reason we should be concerned that poverty skews female.

  20. Seems to be plenty of cookies to go around tonight. I suppose we couldn’t let the “repent or perish” crowd have all the fun.

    For me, I do believe gender is eternal, but not that gender is always a match spiritually and physically. I’ve no idea what attributes separate the two. I’d love for someone to be able to tell me, but it doesn’t appear to be forthcoming. There is an awful lot that needs to be fixed, at many levels of severity. Working on one does not prohibit working on others.

  21. jstricklan says:

    There are several disingenuous arguments against the OP, and I almost responded to them in turn but I realized that I wasn’t seeing them correctly and decided to make this argument instead.

    One point, that those who oppose the OP’s premise seem to have in common on this thread is a set of arguments essentially asserting, “We will find out in the next world why gender essentialism is important.” Of course, that’s always the case when (1) we can’t understand the status quo, but (2) we want to assert that it should nonetheless stand.[1] I think it represents an important idea: some things should not be questioned at all, because authority is more important (practically speaking) than truth (although the two will always align in a Platonic, all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God).

    For many Mormons, gender is not about gender at all; it’s about authority.

    For many, the argument is about the nature of authority in God’s church, and whether we should discuss things like this at all. Focus your objections on that point and I think the conversation will be more productive.

    A plea for those who wish to appeal to revelatory authority against the OP’s arguments: Do not try to engage on the details of the OP’s argument. Your argument is prior to any of those details (or else the arguments would carry more weight with you).

    [1] For the record, I heartily oppose this kind of thinking on several levels.

  22. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sexual-personalities/201706/would-you-agree-sex-total-stranger
    Woof. Articles like this remind me of why I see so much beauty in permanently segregating the genders (abandoning all the men on earth and taking the women in a cloaked space station consistently getting further away? IDK still working out bugs on that one) and then really leaning into that “creating viable zygotes using genetic material from two eggs” technology.

  23. I would love to see the cites for these studies!

    I used to think that all gender differences were due to social priming, and then I had my daughter — no, wait, stay with me — I have come to the conclusion that there must be some innate biological differences because my daughter is in many ways like a stereotype of a boy. She doesn’t seem to respond to any kind of “girly” things, she isn’t interested in being nurturing or empathic, she likes technical subjects and building toys, she is totally uninterested in dolls or dollhouses, and her imaginative play tends highly towards Minecraft. It’s true that I have raised her in a “feminist” way and didn’t give her many dolls to play with, etc. but she was in daycare with a bunch of other girls, she was totally exposed to all kinds of princessy and Disney and mermaids and what-have-you. And the other daughters I know of feminist parents aren’t like my daughter. So what makes them different from her? There’s something going on there.

    (And yet, I’m teaching her gender roles. If she wants to live in a world with other women, she’ll have to learn how to act empathic and nurturing and code switch when she’s with them. I’ve had to learn that.)

    Then I had my son (who is a toddler now) and with him I can see all the social priming going on rather better, as he’s much less one-sided than my daughter. He loves cars and sweeping the floor; he loves running around and hugging people who are sad, he is very interested in babies and garbage trucks. Guess which of these get remarked on.

  24. I don’t like to talk about gender because I’m not sure what it’s supposed to mean anymore. I might be more accepting of the idea that there should be different roles based on sex, if the roles were equal and non-hierarchical, but that’s not the case. Whether differences between men and women are essentially biological or learned or a combination of both, they do exist; i.e., there are real differences between the lived experience of a man and the lived experience of a woman, so we’re not interchangeable. If we were, as another comment pointed out, there’d be no problem with having all-male leadership. (Aside from an aesthetic one, maybe.)

  25. Angela C says:

    cahn: I recommend you buy the book Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine referenced to in the post. It’s filled with sources.

  26. “there are real differences between the lived experience of a man and the lived experience of a woman”

    There are also real differences in the lived experience in two different men and two different women. It’s where we draw the lines that get us in trouble. We end up declaring someone “not a real” man/woman, casting them away from us as if they weren’t of any worth because they didn’t match your preconceived ideas.

    I’d have a lot less concern of having an all-male leadership if there were more diversity of experience. We’ve seen that having diversity of gender in a group is not necessarily a ticket to diversity of opinions.

  27. Wilhelm says:

    OP: “these pseudo-scientific studies”

    Translation: “science that conflicts with what I learned in my gender studies courses”


  28. it's a series of tubes says:

    Wilhelm, I’m sure that the OP has reasoned, scientific refutations to all 70 articles in the Jan/Feb 2017 Journal of Neuroscience Research. Right, Angela? The PDFs are all available for free, so there is no excuse for not engaging with them.


  29. Tubes, I just find it odd that gender roles, which are completely constructed by human society, keep appearing in places isolated from human society.

    “Predation by female chimpanzees: Toward an understanding of sex differences in meat acquisition in the last common ancestor of Pan and Homo”

    “…Relative to males, females had low hunting rates in all three communities, even where they encountered red colobus monkeys (the primary prey of chimpanzees) as often as males did.”

  30. jstricklan says:

    Biology has something to do with the way societies have structured themselves, but then biology also has something to do with our sinful natures Not every study that says females are more or less apt something matters here, especially when we’re talking about innate eternal aspect of maleness or femaleness. This doesn’t work well where female lions do the hunting and male marsupials carry the young and bonobos of both sexes are really, really promiscuous. For example.

    To be persuasive for me, you’ll need to do more than drop a study about the aggression of chimpanzees — particularly because they, too, have their own societies with varying rules. (See, e.g., bonobos and promiscuity above, other chimpanzee groups where violence is more or less common, etc.) In short, to sway me, you’ll need construct a bigger argument that meets the OP’s contextualization — despite certain arguments to the contrary, “gender roles” are not nearly as predetermined as we tend to think — and specifically speaking, it makes no sense to overemphasize gender roles if they’re “natural” or eternal..Just let them happen if they’re so natural. No need to push them. (Hence the title.)

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