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Overcoming the ripple effect of normative gender stereotypes to attain gender equality

26 August 2020

There persists a misunderstanding between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, which often has a negative impact when shaping and representing gender roles within society. 

The Oxford Dictionary refers to ‘sex’ as the biological characteristics that define a person based on their reproductive functions. It refers to ‘gender’ more fluidly – with broader reference to social and cultural differences. 

When these two terms are misunderstood, it can lead to negative gender stereotyping and cause society to conflate a person’s ability with their sex or gender. 

Kate O’Halloran, a Doctor of Philosophy in Gender Studies, notes that while there are people who don’t conform to gender norms and expectations, we still live in a “heteronormative, patriarchal and conservative world”. 

This is evident in the “real threat or loss” that some privileged groups have felt, due to marginalised groups demanding more equality. 

So, how can we achieve gender equity without allowing it to negatively affect some?

While there isn’t a clear answer to this question, O’Halloran explains that by examining gender, we can determine that “masculine norms haven’t actually benefitted a lot of men”. In fact, we can link mental health problems in men to the impacts of social norms.

O’Halloran notes that realising “how constraining and difficult gender norms are for everybody not just for women” is an imperative aim of feminism. 

One such case can be seen through Michael Ray – a single father who overturned a policy that denied fathers the right to access their daughter’s dressing rooms at Parkwood Dance Academy. 

In 2016, Ray argued that without such a policy, his daughter Charlie would have been the only child backstage without a parent to help calm her nerves before appearing on stage. 

Despite his success in dismantling this preconceived notion of gender norms, Ray admits he still faces barriers today and sometimes feels “paranoid” taking his daughter to public bathrooms.

“We can’t find a change table in the male toilet, but we have syringe disposals. So, the thinking must be that men are more likely to be diabetic or drug users than parents”, Ray told Farrago.

A survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that almost one in five single-parent households are now fathers and one in four stay-at-home parents are now males. 

Despite this growth, O’Halloran says there is a long way to go to attain true gender equality. 

A good first step would be to differentiate between the terms ‘equity’ and ‘equality’.

O’Halloran explains that “equality assumes that we’re starting from the same place; there hasn’t been a history of systemic discrimination and marginalisation”. Whereas, to achieve equity “it’s actually about acknowledging that level of systemic discrimination that historically existed and putting in place furtheror different measures to actually equal that field”.

To put “positive measures” in place, O’Halloran argued that we need people to acknowledge the fact that they are still living in a “deeply patriarchal [and] conservative world”. 

If not, then as a society we can’t overcome stereotypical gender norms, nor attain true gender equality, anytime soon. 


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