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Defining the Undefinable: Gender in Developed Nations

Third Prize, High School Category, Essay Contest 2015

February 23, 2016

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Se Bin Ahn, age 18, is a student at Korean Minjok Leadership Academy in South Korea. She's a quirky nerd, an outspoken feminist, and an unapologetic social justice warrior. Her favorite hobbies include watching cooking channels on Youtube, reading while swimming (yes, it is possible), and debating.

ESSAY TOPIC: Sustainable Development Goal #5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. propose specific measures for your country (or region or city) to reach the goal’s objectives in the next 15 years.


The greatest concern of feminism in any advanced liberal democracy isn't suffrage or other legal concerns at the governmental level. The most pressing issue that threatens women's rights in developed countries like South Korea, my home country, is the rapidly declining sense of relevancy—to many people, gender equality is a bygone matter found in history textbooks. However, as sexism finds ever craftier, underground methods to infiltrate our minds and lives, science has become its main henchman to lower our mental guards. Gender stereotypes have not disappeared: the old myths, dressed up in high-tech finery, are simply perpetuating sexism in subtler manners.

The seductive allure of science, especially neuroscience, is that it comforts our inability to create a truly non-sexist society. According to some researchers, women's brains are biologically designed to be multi-tasking and empathetic—alluding to housework and childrearing. Men's brains, on the other hand, are more focused—implying that their aggressive, competitive nature makes them natural leaders. Popular authors then point to these research results and validate persistent inequalities in the status quo. After all, men and women are just hardwired to be different. Now we can all relax now and take a break from feminism, right?

The appeal of the "biology as fallback" view is frightening. Researchers too can be blinded by already existing gender paradigms, swaying the way they design their experiments. This results in methodological weaknesses and unjustified assumptions. By reinforcing general prejudice about sex, such science researches have become shrewdly "neurosexist." Numerous researches over the past years have tried to show that men and women are different. Frankly, this doesn't prove much, because the difference itself has no meaning unless direct consequences can be revealed. For instance, the smaller size of women's brains was often warped as "evidence" of their lacking intelligence, and kept women out of universities for centuries. The mystery of the brain lies not in illuminating its structure, but its relationship between structure and function. Making observations about the brain is fine. The problem arises when we take these observations and draw links to stereotypes. That isn't interpretation; it's speculation.

However, even today, many of the experiments cited as "proof" of fixed gender traits contain this logical weakness. For example, one of the most frequently referenced neuroscience experiments about gender, published by the esteemed PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), investigated brain connectivity. According to the paper, men had higher connectivity within the brain hemispheres, while women's brains were better connected between the hemispheres. So far, so good. But the authors then leaped to the conclusion that "male brains are structured to facilitate...perception and coordinate action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication."

This experiment and many others of similar nature share several grave problems. Firstly, it disregards the existence of other possible explanations. For example, brain connectivity gaps can be attributed to brain size rather than gender. Men on average have larger brains, hence the need for greater connectivity within each lobe to minimize energy demands and route distances. Ignoring diverse potential causes such as size, researchers hastily point to gender differences first. On a more fundamental level, the scope of these experiments is limited because they ignore environmental influences. A child's biological sex influences hobbies, conversations, and family activities; such experiences leave neurological traces on the brain. The brain is not an inanimate object. In fact, the brain continually makes new neural pathways, and it is therefore problematic to conclude that the behavior of an adult is always the result of fixed, innate traits. This is why in most cases, neurologists are very cautious in making reference to "hardwiring." By failing to take into account environmental factors, neurosexists automatically guarantee that all the data interpretations will conform to society’s beliefs, when in fact, more carefully designed research produces the opposite conclusion. In a follow-up study to the PNAS experiment, sex differences in executive control, memory, reasoning, spatial processing, sensorimotor skills, and social cognition turned out to be all trivially small.

Then why are neurosexist research results more widespread than those of better conducted experiments? And why is it that we seem to find real-life examples that match such stereotypes? The first question has much to do with the comforting appeal of blaming biology, but it also has to do with the media and the rise of pop-psychology. Popular authors zone in on potential hot potato topics and write pseudo-scientific books, where already weak neuroscientific conclusions are grossly overblown and preached to the masses. It's difficult for the public to doubt the undoubtable verity of science that the author boasts. Meanwhile, the media churns out provocative articles ordaining what men and women can or cannot do. Such irresponsibility of popular authors and journalists creates tangible ripple effects—which leads us to the second question.

As soon as a child is born, he or she is often force-fed society's gender stigma: blue rooms with Legos and automobiles for boys, and pink rooms with dolls and kitchen sets for girls. Because toys are often educative, exposure to different toys brings out different qualities in children. Parents further reinforce subconscious gender education as the years pass by. When parents take their children on trips to the science museum, boys are three times more likely to hear explanations from their parents on what they are seeing. Such disparate treatment of children becomes a tangible obstacle for young girls interested in math and sciences. Children rise and fall to what adults believe of them, so our imagined boundaries of gender eerily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The vicious cycle continues in the workplace. Because women are thought to be less analytical or assertive than men, companies hesitate in hiring women, especially for leadership positions and math, science, and tech fields: traditional male domains. These women are the brave souls who ran headfirst against society’s definition of womanhood to pursue their dreams. However, these precious few suffer "stereotype threat" throughout their careers. Instead of purely valuing a person's assets, society labels these women's performance at work according to a dichotomized definition of gender. This is the reality of the twenty-first century glass ceiling for women trying to advance in their occupations.

One promising method to counter the underground sexism of our society is to enact gender quotas for boardrooms. Many European nations like Norway, France, Italy, Spain, and Belgium have already implemented this policy. Since 2015, Germany too has joined this initiative. "But profit-seeking corporations are amoral," pundits say. "They would have hired women, or even monkeys, if deemed the best way to maximize profit." However, the minimum requirement for women, which is around 30 percent, has been reported to increase return on sales and invested capital. It is likely that corporations thought they were making independent decisions when in truth, those decisions were environmentally shaped since their childhood. After all, a corporation is simply a collective of individuals who are all influenced by society. To say that an organization can be amoral when its components are not makes little sense.

Another stereotypical phenomenon can be found in major retailers. The moment we step foot into the toy section of Korean retailers, a color dichotomy meets the eye. There is a pink section and a blue section, and many toys from bikes to recorders have different boy and girl versions. This division, called gendered marketing, is harmful for children's development. Girls have less opportunity to benefit from the positive values of "boy toys," such as physicality, competition, or construction. The same is for boys who are deprived from learning finer motor-skills, caring, or cooperation. All children should be raised to be caring, competitive, ambitious, and empathetic—regardless of gender. To resolve this dichotomy, the government should cooperate with campaigns like "Let Toys Be Toys" to mandate retailers to drop their "boys" and "girls" section signs. Toy advertisements explicitly targeting a particular gender should also be restricted. Industry and civil society must cooperate to create a truly unbiased childhood culture in which children can enjoy themselves without being judged.

Human beings are like a mosaic of characters. We shudder at the thought of conforming to a strict set of standards regulating our behavior. Then why is it that we let gender be an exception? As a Korean girl living in a highly gender-salient society, my life has constantly been at the receiving end of unwanted attention. When I play vigorous outdoor activities. When I receive good grades in math. I was considered an oddity. A "tomboy." Why I should be described as boyish when I am clearly a girl is unfathomable. I yearn to live in a society where we can be ourselves without prejudice. It is therefore crucial to be on guard for peddlers of pseudo-science, advertising "brain-based learning theories," who unwittingly divest us of independence and integrity.

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