It’s Not About Gender!

downloadIn a literature review on mentoring for a graduate course I ran across a table outlining gender differences.  I was struck by the caricature inherent in the gender definitions offered by the author. One author illustrated the differences between how men and women approach life in a the table of traits, one representing men and the other representing women. As is typical of lists like this it seemed to reflect biases rather than insights. I find such caricatures unhelpful in illuminating what it means to be a man or woman. Bifurcated and stiff gender caricatures trouble me because I observe that typical gender differences are not at all helpful in guiding the development of men and women or of describing their capabilities (which exercises designed to define gender differences seem to perennially attempt). Rather attempts at identifying gender differences often have a toxic consequence relationally and developmentally in people’s thinking.  I described the problem elsewhere,

The social mores by which the concept of male or female is defined often create a bigger barrier to growth than a help.  The failure to differentiate between the idea of sex (the biology of what makes men different from women) and gender (the social constructs that outline what it means to be a man or woman) has led to faulty conclusions and stereotypes about what defines the ideal man or women. When stereotypes are uncritically accepted as “biblical” models of maleness or femaleness, important distinctions between men and women are lost amid either/or descriptions that fail to account for basic humanness.  The challenge to approaches that formalize radical stereo types of gender is that the rich diversity of the calling of God in individual lives is lost to the many that simply don’t fit the mold.  In other words, confident women, sensitive men don’t make the gender cut.[1]

So, what did the author propose as predictable gender differences?

Table 1: Differing Emphases of Gender[2]

Gender v Human_Page_1

Elmore declares his table to be “the primary differences between men and women in the practice of mentoring.”[3] Before I go on I should note that I am not targeting Elmore specifically rather I use Elmore as an example of an error that Fine points toward when it comes to identifying gender differences.  In Fine’s view the role of culture and socialization has a far greater impact on how we define gender than our genetic makeup. It is this impact that Fine emphasizes and the fact that research or observations like those of Elmore, start with biases about gender so that popular writing seems to use neuro-research or one’s own observations as a way to reinforce sexism and not uncover deeper insights into the male and female mind.[4]

The question that arose in my mind is do we regularly interpret data about male and female behavior with a biased lens that inhibits us from seeing any results outside our expected stereotypes?  To address the question I put together a questionnaire that asked men and women to idenfity which of the characteristics named by Elmore they felt best described themselves. The questionnaire simply listed Elmore’s traits and asked people to decide which traits they were most like using a five point Likert scale. The survey is non-scientific.  I did not validate the traits nor did I have a valid sample group. The participants were self selecting based on an open invitation which did not assure that the sample group I used was random. I had 25 participants (9 male and 16 female). The ages of the participants ranged from 30 to over 60 years of age.

Having provided the disclaimer which simply is to say what results I record are interesting but may not reflect the general population – I will never-the-less question the observations characterized in Elmore’s work.

When reading the following charts it is important to know the scale respondents used. The Likert scale I used was: 1, very much like me; 2, somewhat like me; 3, neutral; 4, not much like me; and 5, not at all like me.

Chart 1: Female Respondents

Chart 1

Chart 1 record the gender roles assigned by Elmore to women (the red line) and the self selected characteristic of the women who responded to the survey (the blue line). Notice in Chart 1 that Elmore’s contention that women are more feeler than they are thinkers was not at all supported by what the women in the survey said about themselves. The median score on the “thinker” characteristic for women was 1 (i.e., very much like me). The raw scores ranged from 1 to 4 (i.e., not much like me).

Similarly results contrasting relational focus to results focus were not as distinct as Elmore observed but much more nuanced. Women agreed that they are relationally focused (mean score of 1, very much like me) but also claim to be definitely results focused (mean score of 2 i.e., somewhat like me). The high individual score on results focused was 4 (i.e., not much like me).  On the empathetic versus problem solving descriptors Elmore’s observations were flatly wrong to the small sample I surveyed. The margin of error for the holistic v categorical items was significant as well among the women who responded to the survey. So, how did the men do?

Chart 2: Male Respondents

Chart 2

The male respondents demonstrated that they were much more feeler oriented than Elmore implied and much less categorical. The median scores show a fairly inclusive set of character traits with median scores of 2 (i.e., somewhat like me) on the: relational focused, results focused, communicator, doer, detail oriented and empathetic scores. Like the women, the men simply did not correspond to the holistic versus categorical score in any significant way.

Chart 3: Male and Female Respondents

Chart 3

The differences highlighted in Chart 3 between men and women are extremely nuanced in this sample and do not correspond with Elmore’s ideals.

Here’s my point, trying to decide who you are by the use of gender differentials is about as futile an exercise as can be engaged. What may be more helpful is to use characteristics like those identified by Elmore as simply personality characteristics that may be exhibited by men or women. Viewing oneself as a unique person with unique capabilities and unique perspectives and characteristics gets rid of the nuisance created when we try to make the differences between men and women something other than differences in sexual identity. Does this mean that unique perspectives or ways of seeing are not evident between men and women?  No. Fine contributes two important observations:

If hormones determine the roles, one would expect to find the same sex occupying the same roles in all societies. This is patently not the case.[5]

…Genes don’t determine our brains (or our bodies), but they do constrain them. The developmental possibilities for an individual are neither infinitely malleable nor solely in the hands of the environment. But the insight that thinking, behavior, and experiences change the brain, directly, or through changes in genetic activity, seems to strip the word ‘hardwiring’ of much useful meaning….we should ‘view biology as potential, as capacity and not as static entity.[6]

We simply cannot force people into a stereotypical behaviors that make them men or women. We cannot make whether a person is a man or women the criteria for ability. It is far more a matter of personality and inherent cognitive ability. I illustrate the challenge of trying to define set gender roles in the following:

I often ask students in my leadership courses to make two lists. On one side of a sheet of paper I ask them to write out descriptions of what it means to be a man.  On another side of the paper I ask them to write out what it means to be a woman. Typically they describe men with adjectives such as: strong, confident, firm, forceful, carefree, aggressive, bossy, sarcastic, rude, feeling superior. They describe women as: patient, sensitive, devoted, responsible, appreciative, timid, weak, needing approval, dependent, or nervous. After we discuss the observations they have made I ask them to return to their lists to identify adjectives that apply to Christ.  To the astonishment of my students they highlight all the positive traits they identified as male and female i.e., Jesus is patient, strong, sensitive, confident, devoted, firm, responsible, forceful, appreciative, and carefree.  What does this mean? Was Jesus confused about his gender identity or are our categories fluid and inaccurate?  Since there is nothing in the gospel record to suggest Jesus ever demonstrated any question about his sexual identity it is safe to assume that our ideas of appropriate gender behavior are more fluid than they are rigid. When gender stereotypes are interpreted as rigid and worse when this rigidity is described as “biblically” rooted both men and women suffer in their sense of identity.[7]


Men and women both can find a new sense of identity and confidence in being themselves, unique, gifted, wired like Jesus. Understand your own emotional being to exercise self-awareness and a sense of the impact you have on others. This is a far better path to self-definition and understanding than charts like those illustrated in Elmore’s work. Again, it’s not about gender it’s about personality.

[1] Raymond L. Wheeler. Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today’s World. Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2015, 115.

[2] Tim Elmore. Mentoring: How to Invest your life in Others.  Atlanta, GA: Equip, 1998, 42.

[3] Elmore, 42.

[4] Cordelia Fine. Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 2010.

[5] Fine, 127.

[6] Fine, 177-178.

[7] Wheeler, 118.

6 Replies to “It’s Not About Gender!”

  1. Excellent post, Ray. Thanks for believing in us over the years! These things resonate as you know. Very freeing to be ourselves even though each of us do not always fit the cultural stereotypes. Actually, any stereotypes are usually off.

  2. Excellent post, Ray. Thanks for believing in us over the years! These things resonate as you know. Very freeing to be ourselves even though each of us do not always fit the cultural stereotypes. Actually, any stereotypes are usually off.

Leave a Reply