I previously wrote about some challenges about raising an intersex child. This past weekend, I saw the inspiration family and they are thriving! The daughter described below is awesome sauce and the child with a disability is learning more social cues. His family joke that he is their ‘Sheldon’ – and it seems close. It was great to see this family and catch up with all their great news. Please let me know if you think that we unintentionally shape gender.
Repost from LabSpaces – originally posted August 27, 2010
Recently, Lab Spaces has had some interesting posts about gender roles in science: Lab Mom has some interesting thoughts about her young daughter’s experience at science camp and Disgruntled Julie has asked why we push women into the (physical) sciences if they aren’t interested? As someone who does a lot of science outreach for teens, I spend some time thinking about these issues. But this post is not really about that (sorry).
How much does society shape genders?Warning – this is anecdote-based, not a scientific review…
First, the difference between sex and gender. Sex is biology and gender is the attitudes, beliefs, and identity of masculine or feminine. Most of the time these things agree and we often use the words as synonyms. I’m not going to discuss these words anymore but I thought I should add in something ‘educational’. If you want more information on sex/gender, check out Separating Gender from Sex.
I know you are wanting the story…but a little more background first. I always considered myself an equal opportunity kind of person and thought I treated young-uns the same irrespective of sex/gender. My family joked that I coined the term ‘gender-neutral’ (but of course, I didn’t). I applaud parents who let their children follow their interests even when they don’t follow the gender rules.
I used to work with families as a counsellor and met many wonderful parents. A few years into my graduate program, I met one of the parents – her kids were doing well and it was great to catch up. She then confided in me about her youngest child. (Note: I have changed information and also asked her permission to share this so I don’t think I’m breaking any rules.)
Her youngest child was inter-sex. The advice from the medical experts was to stay gender-neutral and let the child decide. They chose a gender-neutral name (I’ll use Pat) and when the child was 4.5 years old, she decided to be a girl. The interesting thing about this woman’s story is that she didn’t know how to treat her child. This was a woman who had pushed gender boundaries with her previous children but had lots of examples where she had gone with established roles. She ended up keeping a checklist for decisions = if the last decision followed girl rules, the next was boy. Some of the small questions that quickly became big:
- Should Pat run in the house or sit quietly?
- Should Pat do things or use her words more? She realized that she had pushed her daughter to be more verbally expressive (ask) but wanted her son to do instead of explain.
- What type of bathing suit? (searched for girl suit in blue or green) What type of haircut? This seems trivial but she said they agonized over it (went for longer but no pigtails)
The list goes on but you can see why this would be tough. And they did it for over 4 years!
This post is just to share a story that helped me realize how much my small actions and expectations with pre-established gender roles impact our future leaders. It isn’t a call to action but just something to hopefully get you thinking.
Related to the above story: Because of my background in medical genetics, I have met several families with intersex children and I no longer ask new parents, “What did you have?” because that can be a difficult question at times. I now ask, “Is everyone healthy?”