Gender issues

My first experience of gender issues occurred when my father expostulated about the number of people who had congratulated him on the birth of his second son who had not done the same after the birth of his first daughter. At university I encountered a number of female students who had been actively discouraged from going to university.

But I really began to engage with the issues after a colleague had recommended Carol Gilligan’s book In a different voice. This, and her later collaboration on Mapping the moral domain: a contribution of women’s thinking to psychological theory and education, led me to look afresh at Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Measure for measure in which Shakespeare contrasts the two ways of thinking about justice which Gilligan and her colleages had identified.

Around the same time I came across Fritjof Capra’s The turning point in which he argues that the natural sciences have been too obsessed with ‘masculine’ values and ignored the need for balance in their investigations. Since then I have come across numerous other examples of these different ways of thinking about things in a wide range of disciplines.

This prompted renewed interest in the writings of Luke because he is the biblical writer, par excellence, who presents the views and stories of women. This led me to realise how far Jesus took a ‘feminine’ approach to situations and how important this is to understanding the Christian message.

It also led me to see Euripides’ plays, which I had studied at university, in a new light — the arguments of Medea and Jason in Medea sound just like a 21st century couple quarrelling — and to look at Aristophanes’ anti-war comedy Lysistrata afresh.

I next read Dale Spender’s Man made language which revealed the extent to which English has developed words to put down women or to devalue female occupations. For example, the head of IBM would call herself a ‘woman manager’ rather than a ‘manageress’ as the latter has become associated with low level managerial roles.

Before that, a very successful female chair of meetings had disclosed to me some of the non-verbal ways in which she was able to manage meetings effectively and I had paid attention to the psychological research which had identified the different ways in which women and men typically relate non-verbally.

Then I read Deborah Tannen’s You just don’t understand in which she draws attention to the different assumptions that underlie male and female conversation and non-verbal behaviour.

Several female colleagues have been very helpful in pointing me in the right directions from time to time, not least when I had been taken in by less informed, and normally sexist, analyses of behaviour.

Geert Hofstede’s collection of papers Masculinity and femininity: the taboo dimension of national cultures was a revelation, not least in demonstrating that what women regard as ‘equality’ differs between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ cultures and therefore that there are no universal panaceas for promoting gender equality.

Interestingly, though some women and men have played up the differences, the research described in Burke and Mattis Supporting women’s career and advancement: challenges and opportunities suggests that the differences between women and men managers are not that great and that women who have similar opportunities to men are as effective managers as, if not more effective than, men.

In Wertheim’s Pythagoras’ trousers: God, physics and the gender wars, I found a book which combined my interests in gender and in issues of science and faith.

As my interest in these issues developed, I learned from my father some of the situations in which he had had to deal with sexism within the church and how he had done so; I also appreciated how, being brought up by a father who was aware of the issues — albeit to a lesser extent than one would be today — had had a formative influence on my attitude to the issues when I encountered them for myself.

‘Gender references’ lists the sources on which I have drawn over the years and the Gender.bib file provides them in a format suitable for BibTeX users.