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Breaking Down Fe/Male Stereotypes

BY ELISABETH SEAMAN

Co-Author of "Conflict - The Unexpected Gift"

In "Why ‘Lean In’? It’s Time for Men to ‘Lean Out’," (print edition, October 13, 2019 New York Times, Sunday Review) Ruth Whippman rejects the time-honored argument that for women to succeed in the workplace and in life in general, they must become more like men, that is, more assertive.

“Women: Improve yourselves!” has always been a key instruction of both the world at large and the self-help movement. Take the “Women Who…” sub-genre of books, whose titles end with a character flaw that blames us for our own failure to be happy or successful. “Women Who Love Too Much,” “Women Who Think Too Much,” “Women Who Worry Too Much,” “Women Who Do Too Much.”

Rarely do we stop to consider that many of life’s problems might be better explained by the alternative titles “Men Who Love Too Little,” “…Think Too Little,” “…Worry Too Little,” or “…Do Too Little.” Now the assertiveness movement is taking this same depressingly stacked ranking system and selling it back to us as feminism. We, in turn, barely question whether the male standard really is the more socially desirable or morally sound set of behaviors, or consider whether women might actually have had it right all along.

Further along in her editorial, Whippman puts the capstone on her argument.

So perhaps instead of nagging women to scramble to meet the male standard, we should instead be training men and boys to aspire to women’s cultural norms: To be more deferential. To reflect, to listen and to apologize where an apology is due.

To aim for modesty and humility and cooperation rather than blowhard arrogance.

It would be a challenge, for sure. As long as the threat of emasculation is a baseline terror for men, encouraging them to act more like women still feels instinctively like a form of humiliation.

Which is exactly why we need to try, because until female norms and standards are seen as every bit as valuable and aspirational as those of men, we will never achieve equality. Promoting qualities such as deference, humility, cooperation and listening skills will benefit not only women but also businesses, politics and even men themselves, freeing them from the constant and exhausting expectation to perform a grandstanding masculinity, even when they feel insecure or unsure.

Whippman challenges us to take on the elephant in the room:

Why can’t we cast aside traditional gender stereotypes that inhibit women as well as men from fulfilling their full potential?

When we think about people to whom we are close or know quite well, we find that many of the women display some of the same qualities that have principally been attributed to men. By the same token, many of the men exhibit some of the same abilities that have typically been attributed to women. When the women’s movement got off the ground, women increasingly took on traditionally male jobs, ranging all the way from construction workers and truck drivers to astronauts. Men, too, became liberated from their stereotypical roles. They felt free to show their love for their families by assuming traditionally feminine roles, such as providing childcare, doing housework and organizing family activities.

In sum, we all need to and can express all the qualities, abilities and cultural norms needed for a well-rounded life and cohesive communities. Let’s not limit anyone by keeping them stuck in outmoded stereotypes. Our book, Conflict – The Unexpected Gift, gives readers tools for becoming more aware of the stifling ways they judge themselves and others, as well as how to overcome obsolete labels. Learning how to listen to each other for deep understanding will help break down the mental barriers and limitations we may have set up about others. Let’s reach out to each other in fresh, creative ways to experience richer, fuller lives!

What do you think? We'd love to hear from you!

The Essential Communication Handbook by Jack Hamilton and Elisabeth Seaman
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