Gender reinforcement and maintenance of gender power and dominance.
It is difficult to discuss gender
reinforcement without considering gender construction; one cannot
reinforce what is not in existence. Gender, the physical and genetic attributes
typically associated with being male or female, is not only distinct from
biological sex; it is a complex and multifaceted concept encompassing a range
of roles, identities, expressions, and societal expectations. It is, therefore,
correct to say that gender is a social and cultural construct shaped by
society, culture, and individual experiences.
Because these roles and expectations are rooted in societal and cultural norms, the culture ascribes certain social behaviours to individuals, putting enormous pressure on them to conform to those expectations. Generally, individuals achieve gender conformity through gender reinforcement.
"Gender reinforcement" refers to the social and cultural processes through which societal norms, expectations, and behaviours perpetuate and reinforce traditional gender roles and stereotypes. These roles often assign specific characteristics, behaviours, and responsibilities to individuals based on their perceived gender identity, typically masculine or feminine. Societies perpetuate gender reinforcement through what French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser called ideological state apparatuses. They include family, law, media, education, and societal institutions.
The kind of education we give our children will manifest in them; it is therefore not a surprise that educational institutions play a crucial role in reinforcing gender roles and creating gender psychology in us. The reinforcement can be through curricula, teaching methods, and expectations. Go back to our children's kindergarten books. Many acclaimed research works on children's educational books have shown that certain subjects or activities are often represented by one gender more than the other, which may latently make one associate such subjects or activities with a specific gender. The research on children's educational books shows that the male character is often used for many active-related actions like climbing, boxing, running, and fighting.
In contrast, the female character often performs passive activities like cooking, sewing, washing, and cleaning. The two genders internalise their gender roles and behave accordingly. The representation creates gender consciousness, reinforces sex roles, and assigns more power to the male gender.
Since society models males as active and females as inactive, it encourages boys to be strong and assertive and girls to be passive and submissive through socialisation. Having imbibed their gender expectations and equipped with the psychology of gender, children reinforce their sex roles through social interaction and socialisation with other children, parents, caregivers, peers and the environment. In most cases, societies encourage children to conform to social expectations by encouraging them to fulfil their gender roles and behaviours. Social conformity is one of the necessary perquisites for social acceptance within a coherent society. Expectedly, since the gender roles favour the male and give him more power over the female, the same power construction is reproduced and reinforced through socialisation.
We create societal norms and expectations which explain what is "appropriate" and "acceptable" for a given society to function well. These societal norms and expectations include behavioural expectations for each gender, tailored towards gender conformity to the social norms through coercion.
We live in a society where often children look up to their parents for guidance. Many cultures are historically patriarchal, where power in the family and decision-making authority favour men, so many children see the social hierarchy as a norm. Since patriarchal systems can be deeply entrenched and deep-rooted in social, political, and economic structures, by adopting the patriarchal social order, society reinforces gender apartheid and unfavourable power distribution.
Media and Entertainment:
From reading newspapers, watching TV, movies, and adverts, media powerfully reinforce gender identity through representations and reinforcement of gender stereotypes and expectations. Take an advert for a washing machine, which shows a female at home (potential mother) happily washing the family members' clothes; make a reverse and see an advertisement of a washing machine powder used for the same washing machine. Instead of using a female character for such an advert, advertisers often replace the female character with a male, who usually wears a white professional gown, which does not only portray the male character as a professional but also an expert in the field. This gender representation influences how people perceive and internalise their social roles and how men relate to women in everyday social interactions. It is little wonder why social power still favours men more than women.
A closer look at our workplace reveals gender reinforcement. While males occupy most managerial positions, salary pay equally favours males even when both genders perform the same task. Specific jobs or career opportunities in a workplace may be seen as more suitable for one gender. This gender-based opportunity creates gender consciousness and encourages gender power assertion of males over females.
Gender misrepresentation and reinforcement are not only limited to the workplace; various political leadership structure favours one gender over another. In many countries, women are victims of underrepresentation in political leadership roles. Logically, when certain groups occupy leadership positions, they will likely make policies and legislation favouring them. Since men are in many political leadership roles, they tend to inadequately address gender equality issues, which puts women at a disadvantage and reinforces gender power and dominance of men over women.
Once we have ascribed specific behavioural attributes and expectations to the other genders, we try enforcing those expectations. The enforcement may lead to discriminatory practices and bias within institutions, affecting recruitment, promotion and dismissal processes. Men's access to power perpetuates male dominance and control over women and minimises women's access to leadership positions.
Economic and mental emancipation are essential for empowerment. Gender pay gaps and occupational segregation may give rise to economic disparities between males and females. When men have better access to high-paying jobs and financial resources, it reinforces their dominance.
Language and Communication:
Language is a powerful tool for reinforcing and maintaining gender power and dominance. We use language to define identity, ascribe positions, and maintain social expectations and order. Stereotypical representation is an essential tool in the maintenance of power dynamics. Phrases like "sit like a woman," "stop crying like a woman," or "act like a man" all reinforce social gender expectations and propel one to accept a specific social order. How about words? For example, "humanity" seems to be a derivation from the male gender and gives dominance and power to males, while words could have different connotations when used for different genders. For example, "witch", associated with females, is defined as "a person thought to have magic powers, especially evil ones, popularly depicted as a woman wearing a black cloak and pointed hat and flying on a broomstick." However, "wizard", the opposite of "witch", is ascribed with positiveness and defined as "a person who is skilled in magic or who has magical powers: a sorcerer or magician. 2. : a person who is very good at something." The gender reinforcement continues.
Violence and Coercion:
Gender-imbibement could lead to gender-based violence, which we experience daily. Domestic violence, sexual harassment, cyberbullying, and street violence are not only manifestations of gender imbalance relationships; they are tools for the maintenance of power and dominance over a specific gender.
Interestingly, gender power dynamics are not uniform; other aspects of identity, such as race, class, sexuality, and disability, significantly define marginalised groups' power levels. Therefore, intersectionality can lead to fragmentation and compound inequalities for marginalised groups.
Gender is a social and cultural construct shaped by society, culture, and individual experiences. Therefore, if gender identities are a cultural construct, they can be modified or changed logically. We can dismantle gender power, dominance and gender reinforcement by focusing on the historical, cultural, social, and economic factors that (re)produce gender ideology. Achieving this involves promoting gender equality, education, policy changes, cultural shifts, implementing inclusive policies, supporting women's leadership, and challenging traditional stereotypes and expectations. However, addressing these issues is complex and may require sustained efforts across multiple levels of society. After all, ideology is a long-held belief which takes time to change; so is gender ideology. Despite the challenges, every effort towards achieving a gender-free society is worth it as it goes a long way towards creating an amicable gender relationship and a peaceful, fair and egalitarian society.