Recently I have been hearing and focusing a lot around ideas of gender identity-in politics, in my personal life and in my academic life. As a skeptic, I’m generally suspicious of the idea that girls and boys naturally tend towards certain roles, likes, dislikes and actions. As a woman, it seems to me that a lot of people have used gender roles in the past in a way that is extremely detrimental to women. And recently, it’s becoming more and more obvious to me that not enough people are currently skeptical about gender, gender presentation, sexuality, and the variety of topics that are related to these ideas.

I was talking to a friend of mine who is pre-med. This girl is smart. She’s pretty up to date on current issues, politics, etc etc. And yet when I told her that female doctors earn significantly less than male doctors, she was incredibly surprised. At first she didn’t even believe me. When I was talking to my boyfriend (a pretty feminist kind of guy) he was surprised to hear that Bill Clinton was accused of raping multiple women. Embedded sexism. It’s great. Violence, discrimination and condescension are considered acceptable in our culture when they’re directed towards women. For example Johann Hari explores how violence against women is ignored http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-why-do-we-ignore-the-abuse-of-women-400397.html . There have been horrible bills introduced surrounding abortion and women’s rights in a variety of states recently.

And one of the things that I wonder about is why the conservative forces in our country generally think that gender roles (and strict ones at that) are really awesome. We were talking in one of my classes this morning about the idea that women and men are particularly suited to certain things and that only by acting in their gender roles can they be fulfilled. We also considered the idea that gender roles are one of the ways we base our society and our structures, and that without them everything would fall apart. These gender roles seem to be the reason that when women step out of the home to work or to speak up against a famous man, people view them negatively. And often people who are big on family values just love the idea that we can only live harmoniously and well if we stick to these strict gender roles.

So my question is…where is the evidence that gender roles are beneficial??

When women get out of the house, into the work force, educated, the quality of life nearly ALWAYS goes up tremendously.

There is very little by way of neuroscientific evidence that gender differences are based in the mind, or that females and males are patterned to certain behaviors based upon gender.

In addition, the whole concept of sexuality isn’t even a given in every society. Gender roles differ hugely based on time and place, and the concept that a heterosexual norm of a family is the building block of everything is ridiculous since some of the most powerful civilizations in history haven’t even had a concept of sexuality at all (see the Greeks).

Finally, there isn’t even such a thing as a binary of gender. There are people who are intersex, somewhere around 1% of the population, who have genitals of both sexes (usually one less well formed than the other, but still with some of both present). How does that fit into the nice neat box of gender roles? I think it blows open the whole concept of strict gender roles and essentially proves the necessity of gender fluidity.

Why do skeptics ignore this HUGE fallacy that is propagated by conservatives and family value proponents?

If as scientists and skeptics we have a problem with religion being used as a cover for bad behavior, shouldn’t we also be worried about other faulty and fallacious beliefs being used to cover up bad behavior?

Isn’t the consistent oppression of half the population bad behavior? This issue should be bigger for the skeptical movement, and I’m still uncertain as to why it isn’t. Thoughts?


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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com


  1. March 9, 2011 at 7:00 pm —

    I’ve never heard Clinton is a multiple rapist. Mind substantiating that?

  2. March 11, 2011 at 2:11 pm —

    If this is “Critical Thinking for Everyone,” then at least we should apply some critical thinking to allegations of rape against a world leader. I say this as a survivor of an attempted rape, who has also had a family member victimized. The author is referring to the Juanita Broaddrick case, which has been discredited and called into serious question by most credible journalists. I strongly urge that when young skeptics hear of a claim, no matter how injurious or personally disturbing, that they investigate it fully before repeating it without qualification.

  3. March 11, 2011 at 3:18 pm —

    I did check out the Broaddrick claim in 3 different sources, and I trust Johann Hari as a good journalist. I didn’t see any journalists who discredited it while I was looking, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that any didn’t. I don’t think that wikipedia is the greatest source ever though…

    I do feel like that’s beside the point. There are any number of examples of violence against women that has been ignored in our society. This particular one isn’t that important. Norman Mailer. The point I’m trying to make is that “women’s issues” are pushed to the side due to a preconceived notion of women’s roles. I would like to question these gender roles.

  4. March 11, 2011 at 3:57 pm —

    Fair enough, though you may want to consider that you are weakening your point by by using the Clinton rape allegations as an example. A far better example would be the NY Times treatment of the recent Texas mass rape story:

    FYI, while Wikipedia certainly has its faults, the references to sources that question Broaddrick’s story are all substantiated. She changed her story several times, and all versions are filled with inconsistencies. Unfortunately, an ugly but necessary truth about skepticism is that it has to be applied in cases where the purported fact is of political convenience to one particular agenda or another. The hatred against the Clintons was so severe and irrational, and the media and false-legal campaign against them so spurious and calculated, that it calls into immediate question any outrageous allegations. It’s also worth noting that those who cooked up the anti-Clinton hate campaigns are some of rationalism’s worst enemies. I don’t personally know the truth of Broaddrick’s claims nor can I judge her motives, but I strongly suspect this allegation, where I would not in a similar case.

  5. March 11, 2011 at 4:06 pm —

    That’s totally legitimate. I just hadn’t seen any evidence of controversy surrounding it, so it seemed a decent choice. I entirely agree that the anti-Clinton hype is nothing I want to be associated with. And I entirely agree that skepticism should be applied across the board. I guess I just wasn’t thorough enough 🙁 Didn’t have oodles of time to research all the examples I used, so I just did a bit of research, not tons.

  6. March 11, 2011 at 4:11 pm —

    Don’t apologize – your post has some great points. You give all us old jaded skeptics hope. Keep up the good work.

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