Sunday, June 5, 2011

Elizabeth Debold - What Do We Mean by “Masculine” and “Feminine,” Anyway?

This is an old post from EnlightenNext, but Elizabeth Debold investigation of "What Do We Mean by 'Masculine' and 'Feminine,' Anyway?" is still an interesting and useful perspective.

At the end of the article, she asks that we try not using the terms masculine and feminine in business or personal growth contexts for the next year, which would have been 2010. This seems like a great idea - I'm not what value those terms have in realms outside of gender studies and psychology.

The problem is that people tend to think in terms of stereotypes (masculine = assertive, agentic, rational; feminine = collaborative, communal, feeling) - connecting these traits to a gender binary creates a lot of problems when we are working with individuals.

For example, as a male, I am more collaborative (f) than assertive (m), more agentic (m) than communal (f), and more rational (m) than feeling (f), but I am also intuitive (feminine) and empathetic (feminine).

I suspect most people, male or female, or a mix of these traits, not two-dimensional caricatures.

What Do We Mean by “Masculine” and “Feminine,” Anyway?


Quick: “masculine”–take ten seconds and say the words that come to mind that describe masculine. Next, do the same with “feminine.” That was the first exercise that my friend and colleague Cindy Wigglesworth and I asked participants to do in the breakout session that we led at the Integral Leadership in Action conference (October 15-18). What did the participants say? Innie and outie (hence the photo that I put at the top of the blog). Yin and yang. Active and passive. Driving and yielding. Assertive and receptive. Thinking and feeling. Eros and Agape. Rational and emotional. Hard and soft. Pointed and embracing. Strong and… You know, the ususal opposites or polarities that are often associated with men and women. While some describe (or infer) the different bodies that we inhabit, others reflect the different roles and opportunities that women and men have had in culture. “Masculine” and “feminine” don’t each describe one thing–they are a kind of grab bag of stereotypical gender qualities. Cindy and I wanted to encourage these representatives of the integral movement to put a temporary halt to their use of these terms and instead speak much more specifically and precisely about what one really is referring to.

The ILiA group is pretty much focused on business and organizational applications of integral theory (usually, Ken Wilber’s integral theory), and these organizational change agents often work to transform businesses and business leaders from being overly “masculine” to embracing more of the “feminine.” In our postmodern times, the “feminine” has become a buzzword for the kinder and gentler qualities that we want to see valued more in culture. Fine. But labeling those qualities “feminine,” which means “related to females,” seems problematic to me. Masculine and feminine are such value loaded terms–asking a man to be more feminine, or telling a strong woman that she should express more of her feminine side is often confusing, suggesting that somehow either the individual should be more of the other gender or is doing gender, which is one of the deepest aspects of our identity, wrong. If you want someone to change, being more precise about the change you’re looking for is much more helpful to him/her. Speaking about being attentive and listening more is a much clearer direction than asking an individual to be more feminine. Moreover, isn’t it more likely that our culture is more likely to change by adopting values that refer to general human qualities or competencies (listening, assertiveness, compassion, rationality) rather than to whatever the feminine means as a whole?

Cindy and I spoke about how our ideas of gender have changed as human consciousness and culture have developed. There really wasn’t a sense of masculine and feminine as we think about it now until the late medieval period–those words weren’t even in the English language until the fourteenth century. They really are concepts that emerge with modernity, when the entire social world in the West was divided by gender into the male public sphere and the female domestic sphere.

Cindy likes to think about the polarities that we associate with masculine and feminine (like agentic and receptive) as comprising a system in which both qualities are needed. She was drawing on Barry Johnson’s important work on polarities and how to work with them. She also suggested that we might think about when gender/sex matters and when it doesn’t. Certainly, gender/sex matters when you want to make babies! But in many, if not most, spheres of life, gender or one’s sex shouldn’t matter. Maybe one needs to develop certain competencies–such as in being more connected in relationship or more willing to take risks–but these are not really about gender, even if, at this point in human cultural development, men may often have more experience and comfort with risk and women with a certain connection in relationship.

One of the points that I hope that I made well was that using the term “feminine” to refer to the change we want to see in others or in organizations (and society) ends up hurting women. Believe it or not. It suggests that we women have no developing to do. And, given the crises we are facing, we ALL need to be doing all we can to develop and to consciously evolve. We women don’t have a lot of experience or mettle with standing up and staying together under pressure. Men, actually, are often better at that and we can learn a lot there. Moreover, pushing men to be more “feminine” (rather than coaching them to develop certain skills that are important to us all), too often creates distrust and a deep sense of separation, rather than the unity that we so badly need. Your average sensitive guy might not say anything–he knows better–but, given a chance to talk about it, that sentiment is right on the surface.

Our solution, for the time being, is to ask all integralists to put the words “masculine” and “feminine” on furlough for a year. Let’s see what happens when we stop using those words in business or in relation to personal growth or change. My hunch is that we’ll all be more effective at bringing about the changes that we want to see. Can we all give it a try and then compare notes next year at the ILiA conference?

No comments: