Men and women have innate differences.
I have always found it amusing that this is a mildly controversial statement in the Western World. As a woman who grew up in India, the differences between men and women were always a given. In fact, in my country, these differences were used to raise thousands of people out of poverty.
Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank and the microfinance model, realised this when he noted that aid money that went to poor families through women helped families much more than the same amount of money going to men. Unlike men, women had a longer vision to escape poverty and were more disciplined in carrying out their plans.
“Men were looser with money. They wanted to enjoy it right away, not wait for tomorrow. Women were always building up things for the future, for themselves, their children, their families. We saw a number of such differences between men and women,” Yunus explained.
In poor countries, women are clearly given an enormous amount of responsibility because of their “better natures.” Many poor women in Africa and Asia work multiple jobs, do all of the housework, take care of huge families, suffer from domestic violence and, to top it all, manage the family finances. It seems obvious that the drive to escape poverty and to keep their families afloat is very strong in women.
However, there seems to be a slightly circuitous element to this argument. Perhaps the drive to escape poverty might just be stronger in women mainly because they suffer from the effects of poverty more? While “feminization of poverty” is a controversial term, perhaps it strikes a blow to the idea of an inherent “seriousness” in women.
This supposed “seriousness” that women possess was used by many scholars in the West to explain other scientifically weak arguments. In his 2007 article for Vanity Fair, “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” Christopher Hitchens posits that women aren’t funny because they are called to a “higher power” (read reproduction), and the seriousness and solemnity imbued in women by their biological power makes them the deadlier of the species (furthermore, he argues that this turns women away from “filth and embarrassment” and from producing the same amount of obscene mirth that men are capable of creating).
Instead of joining the hundreds of people who read and criticized his rather obnoxious article, I find myself eager to learn more about this feminine characteristic. Looking back at my own childhood, I am constantly faced by paradoxes about the true nature of femininity. I grew up in the most egalitarian state in India, Kerala, the only state with a 100% literacy rate and developed cities and towns. Kerala was also a matriarchal society, in which the descent of the family bloodline and inheritance was through females.
Clearly, there was a lot of power given to women in my society. On the other hand, there was also a lot of societal pressure to marry young and within your caste, choose highly lucrative gendered occupations and to keep quiet about sexual and domestic violence. Society was highly conflicted about how much responsibility and independence women could handle, yet my state continued to grow successfully and became a model for sustainable development in the developing world.
Many researchers in the Western world fail to understand the precarious state of poor women in developing countries like India, and that often results in providing a wrong picture of gender relations. In developed countries, the different vocational choices made by men and women become obvious. In fact, with improved national wealth and equality of sexes, differences between personality traits become conspicuously larger, instead of diminishing.
Whereas in developing countries, gender gap metrics provide a different picture. A 2015 World Economic Forum ranked Rwanda as the sixth most progressive country in the world in terms of gender by measuring its similar workforce participation rates between men and women, while countries like Canada and the United States got much lower rankings. However, Rwandan women were not participating in the workforce and doing the same jobs as men because they were following their passions. They were fighting for survival in a country where nearly 50% of the population lives in abject poverty.
It’s high time that we put the “gender sameness” theory to rest. Instead of treating gaps between sexes as indicators of systemic sexism or discrimination, we can use its implications to craft better public policy and to help further a good, tolerant society. I believe that understanding our differences doesn’t give governments and societies license to infringe upon our individual liberties, but instead could provide a basis to help millions of people in the developing world pull themselves out of extreme poverty. As Alice S. Rossi said, “As far as male and female are concerned, difference is a biological fact, whereas equality is a political, ethical and social concept. No rule of nature or of social organisation says that the sexes have to be the same or do the same things in order to be social, political and economic equals.”
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Nidhi J. Nair is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.