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Unbinding Gender Roles and Closing the Gender Gap

Ann Lemieux's picture

     Throughout this semester, as we’ve discussed several feminist issues and viewpoints, our class has been unable to define simply what feminism is. However, we’ve been able to agree several times on what feminism is not: feminism is not gender stereotypes and norms, it is not the pressure that women (and men) feel to have a certain body type and look a certain way, and it is certainly not, as we’ve discussed amongst ourselves and with Heidi Hartmann, the wage gap between men and women. Whatever feminism is, it definitely aims to abolish the above issues, but it hasn’t yet been able to do so. The gender wage gap is still very real in today’s society, even among men and women in the same profession, and even though more women than men are earning bachelor’s degrees. So what’s binding feminism? In other words, what’s preventing feminism from achieving its goals, limiting feminism, and restraining it?

    The gender wage gap has been attributed to many things. Some try to blame it on women’s career choices, hours spent working, and salary negotiation, yet there is still a significant unexplained pay difference when those factors are taking into account. The difference in salary starts right out of college, as Heidi Hartmann explains in a USA Today article from last October; a man and woman working for the same company with the same degree often get paid unequal amounts. This difference in wages only grows as women progress in their careers and age. One possible factor, as discussed on an NPR story from this summer, is that employers of women (especially women in their 30s) expect that their female employees will have children and take significant time off of work, and are therefore hesitant to pay them as much as men. This gender norm affects all women who are applying to jobs, and becomes gender discrimination. Another thing that could be affecting the wage gap, which is also mentioned in the USA Today article, is that when women do try to negotiate higher pay, they are perceived differently than men and are less likely to be granted a raise. This is also due to gender norms; because a man asking for a raise is seen as being assertive and confident in his ability, he’s more like to be granted a pay raise than a woman, who is seen as stepping out of place (or, as with the theme of this paper, out of bounds). Finally, while it may be true that women are less likely to go into high paying careers, such as those in the STEM fields, a reason behind this is stereotype threat. Psychological studies have shown that when a woman is exposed to negative stereotypes about women’s skills in math and science, she is more likely to perform poorly on tasks that test math and science skills, since those are typically seen as subjects that men are better at. Stereotype threat can intimidate a woman from going into the STEM fields and/or succeeding in them, and cause a type of negative self-fulfilling prophecy. All of the examples above suggest that gender norms limit women’s wages, and bind feminism as a whole.

     I had previously thought of gender norms as an issue that affects those who feel pressured to adhere to them, but didn’t feel comfortable putting themselves into one, pre-defined gender “box”; however, I realize now that gender norms affect everyone: those who adhere to them without issue, those who struggle with them daily, and those who don’t care about them and never tried to follow them. Since they are binding feminism, they have to be abolished (or completely ignored by employers and employees alike) in order for feminism to progress and reach bigger goals such as closing the wage gap. Otherwise, individuals who try to rebel against these norms (female students in STEM fields, women who ask for higher pay, employers who don’t assume women will go on maternity leave) will be held back by the rest of society (employers who don’t believe that women can perform as well in the STEM fields, women who are afraid to ever ask for raises), and gender norms will be kept alive.

     How can this cycle be broken? Where is the best place to start destroying these norms, their relevance, and their effect. I think that education is an effective and (relatively) easy place to start. If teachers present class material without gender bias to their students (effectively “queering” the classroom, as we’ve discussed before), then students will learn in an environment free of stereotype threat, and girls won’t feel intimidated going into STEM fields and asking for higher wage after they graduate college and are employed. Many of these students who were taught without gender bias will end up becoming entrepreneurs (this is becoming more and more common with millennials), and won’t discriminate based on gender when hiring for their companies. They won’t react any differently when a man asks for a raise than when a woman asks for a raise, and won’t assume that any female employee in her thirties will end up having children and leaving work. Changes in social norms can take generations to take effect, but beginning with the newest generation, and with current students, is the only way to make these changes.

Sources cited:

USA Today article:

NPR story:

Stereotype threat study:


Anne Dalke's picture

Schooling Gender

Ann Lemieux--
I am very much drawn to the notion of education as the way to fix all ills (I have, after all, devoted my life to educating, and think of it as my primary form of activism), and yet I find myself questioning your claim that education is "the only way to make these changes," "an effective and (relatively) easy place to start" breaking our attachment to gender norms.

Schools are of course a central place where normative behavior (of all sorts) is taught. A few years ago, I co-taught an ESem, In Class/OutClassed: On the Uses of a Liberal Education, which was organized around two competing claims: that U.S. schools  “level the playing field,” giving all children an equal chance to succeed, and that—like our homes, neighborhoods, and employment—they remain deeply segregated by social class, characterized by “savage inequalities.” We examined the complex relationship between social class, being “in class,” and being “outclassed":  How does class shape educational opportunities and outcomes? What kinds of changes does each of us expect education to bring about in our own social position?

I hear that course echoing as I read your paper, thinking that you could transpose my questions from "class" to "gender"--might U.S. schools, as you claim, teach children not to be biased? Or do they (inevitably?) reflect the gender biases of our homes and neighborhoods? How to intervene in that dynamic? What might the play be between what teachers are teaching in the classroom, and what students are learning on the playground? How to intervene in that dynamic?

If you'd like to go on with these questions in your final project, a key text for youmight be Barrie Thorne's Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1994)--and perhaps also (more locally, and echoing Thorne) Alice Lesnick's "On the Job: Performing Gender and Inequality at Work, Home, and School" Journal of Education and Work 18, 2 (June 2005): 187-200. They discuss "natural" female roles and the issue of satisfaction/oppression, query any simple mapping of home/work onto female/male roles (by discussing ""emotional labor"), and also look @ the intersection of gender roles with class ones (Alice reviews 2 studies of working- and middle-class mothers ­ for their divergent interpretations of "raw data" from complex, multilayered situations).