Gender Stereotypes: We Can Do Better

Laura Ziesel

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Gender Stereotypes: We Can Do Better

When my husband and I were engaged, we read a lot of marriage books. While these books were all helpful in some way, they became less helpful when the advice in them was based on gender stereotypes. For example, we read that husbands need to be willing to communicate their feelings, that wives ought to thank their husbands for providing for the family, and that women should accommodate the higher sex drives of their husbands.

These things were frustrating to read, because Josh and I are the opposite of typical gender stereotypes in many ways. He prefers to deal with emotions, I prefer reason. He prefers things for form, I favor function. He likes to shop for fun; I only like to shop if I have something in mind. He is more relational, I am more, um, not. We do fulfill typical gender predictions in some ways, but overwhelmingly we stick out. And that irks me, not only because it’s frustrating for us, but because I don’t know that these typifications are helpful.

The problem became more clear to me at a conference when I came across a handout from a workshop that contained lists of these “Male Characteristics” and “Female Characteristics”:

Male:
– Initiate, provide, protect
– Big picture focus, macro
– Task-oriented
– Objective decision-making
– Analytical
– Words used to convey facts
– Compartmentalized view (filing cabinet)
– Emotions less influenced by hormones
– Intimacy: physical

Female:
– Respond, give life, nurture/care
– Detail focus, micro
– People-oriented
– Subjective decision-making
– Intuitive
– Words used to convey feelings
– Integrated view (white board)
– Emotions influenced by hormonal cycle
– Intimacy: emotional

What struck me wasn’t so much that these lists are not accurate. While I personally find them offensive, I can put that aside and admit that they are probably true for many people. But, regardless of the accuracy, I believe that the pervasive use of gender stereotypes in the Church is actually destructive.

1) It is destructive for those who don’t fit the stereotype.

People who don’t fit the mold begin to think, “Am I not a real man?” or “I guess I’m not a true woman.” While these are normal thoughts, we should be evaluating them on the basis of Scripture, not on the basis of a cultural norm. Men should doubt their manhood when they are lazy or abusive because those behaviors are sinful and characteristic of immaturity, not because they experience intimacy through emotions, or are intuitive. Those characteristics are in no way sinful or immature. The same is true for women: we should doubt our womanhood when we are sinful, not when we stand out from other women.

On a personal level, gender stereotypes are hurtful because they communicate to me, the one who doesn’t fit the mold, that there is something deeply wrong with my design. I’m not talking about sin here, I’m talking about the redeemed person that God is bringing to the surface slowly but surely. When I sit in a group of women, I often feel that the true me is wrong. In moments of discouragement and frustration I catch myself thinking, “God, it seems you made some mistake here. I think I was supposed to be a man.” That is hurtful to my heart and breeds a lovely playground for Satan.

I can accept that this pain is part of life in a theoretical sense. But I get angry when I see it affect those I love, especially my husband. When he is made to feel unmanly for the way God designed him, I grieve for the hurt and isolation he feels. For the comfort and convenience of the masses, those of us who exist on the fringe are made to feel more excluded instead of included. But Jesus did the opposite: He invited in those on the fringe, often making the masses uncomfortable. Not only did He invite them in, He sought them out as well– changing His schedule for them, interrupting the conversation for them, going into their homes.

2) It is destructive for those who DO fit the stereotype.

Those who fit the mold often excuse or make light of sinful behavior because it is stereotypical. People can be permissive toward sins that fall into the dominant paradigms for male or female. Gender normative sin is more easily accepted not only by culture at large, but also within the Church. The gravity of sin is lost. Take the cliché example of a man struggling with pornography. In culture at large, this is acceptable. Within the Church, struggles with porn seem to be expected of men, and when talked about, the dialogue is about “men being visual,” not about men being sinners.

People who fit the gender-normative mold begin to feel more secure in their manhood and womanhood simply because they fit the mold, not because they are maturing in Christ. Men who like sports and don’t work well with others start to think, “Hey, I’m a man!” And women who like to decorate and have coffee “dates” think, “Hey, I’m a woman!” I think this is akin to putting one’s identity in what one does rather than in one’s position in Christ. Are we Christians because we are loving others and being charitable and praying? Certainly not! We are Christians because God loves us even when we act horribly unlovable. Likewise, we should feel assured of our manhood or womanhood when we are in a fruitful relationship with Christ, not on the basis of societal validation.

3) It is destructive for the Church and the advancement of God’s Kingdom.

The beauty of the Gospel is lost when we cater to the masses instead of to the outcasts. The lineage of Jesus was passed down through Leah, the unloved, unattractive sister instead of Rachel the beloved. The Jews were commanded to carry the Gospel message not only to other Jews, but also to their oppressors (the Romans) and “ugly step-sisters” (the Samaritans). In choosing the predictable road (gender stereotypes), we are not living up to the creative beauty displayed in the story of God.

When the Church promotes gender stereotypes, it alienates non-Christians: especially those who value society’s movement beyond gender norms and those who don’t fit the mold. Seeing Christianity modeled mostly by Christians who encourage stereotypically gender normative behaviors and beliefs can be an unnecessary hurdle to jump to become a part of the family of God. Regardless of their beliefs about gender, non-Christians should “trip over nothing but the cross” when they are considering faith in Christ. I cannot even begin to count the amazing people I know who are searching for truth but feel uncomfortable searching within the community of the Church for these (and other) reasons.

To be clear, I am not saying that there are no differences between the majority of men and the majority of women or that we should ignore them. I am saying that highlighting these differences as we minister does more harm than good. I know that your two-year-old boy probably wants to shoot things and your two-year-old girl probably wants to carry around a pretend baby doll. But for all of the two-year-old boys who want to play dress-up and the two-year-old girls who pretend they’re adventurers on the high-seas, can we do better? Can we give them a fair shot at growing up as loved, accepted, thriving members of the body of Christ?

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For more on the impact of gender stereotypes see Perception and Gender RolesLittle Princesses and Mighty Warriors, and No Middle Ground for Women in the Church.

(Adapted from an original post dated February 24, 2011 on lauraziesel.com.)

Laura Ziesel

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10 Comments

  • Well said!
    Looking back, I can see that the pervasive gender-stereotyped marriage advice out there was absolutely counterproductive in my marriage. This was particularly true because I have Asperger’s, which makes me look like much of that “male” list and alienates from Christian womanhood.

    What’s good advice for marriage (and relationships in general)?
    1. learning your personality traits (such as the Meyers-Brigg profiles)
    2. learning communication styles, pitfalls, and guidelines
    3. learning appropriate boundaries (such in the “Boundaries” books by Cloud and Townsend)

  • Nice! Thank you! I could nit-pick (we are hardly ever make truly objective decisions), but your point is spot-on: the church doesn’t fulfill it’s kingdom role by stereotyping anyone.
    I’ve been married for 39 years to the more “female” person in the household.

  • We don’t fit the mold, either, but we’re really happy about that! 🙂 My husband gets pretty upset when people say insensitive things because we make decisions together… I can’t tell you how many times some well-meaning (?) person has decided that I “wear the pants in the family.” My husband has said on more than one occasion that we both wear the pants, because going around without pants can get you arrested! I’ve noticed how approving people get when I say I need to “run something past” my husband and how he gets teased for the same thoughtful behavior – they assume he’s henpecked or whipped!
    The pressure to fit the mold in a church setting can be really intense… women are not allowed to have a strong emotion without someone questioning their hormonal status. I’ve had Christian men tell me that no one would ever marry me because I wasn’t naturally as feminine as men like… while they ate the dinner I cooked and put their feet on my flowery furniture and drank the coffee I served! lol! All because I knew too much about whatever subject and could converse intelligently with the men. Logic and Reason are not allowed in a girl, I suppose, because it upsets the apple-cart. I don’t know why I care… 🙂 But I’m determined to help change the understanding of what it means to be a woman (anything a woman is, is what it means!) and what it means to be a man (again, whatever any man is, is what it means.) Characteristics are on a sliding scale, not of masculine and feminine, but just from higher to lower, and not gender-based. Time to stop judging the girl who drives a truck and wears boots and stop belittling the sensitive male music pastor who dresses too well and smells good. 🙂 We all bear the image of God. 🙂

  • My husband and I are very similar, and I appreciate how you elaborate on why it isn’t helpful to use narrow gender definitions. It can be isolating on both sides of the aisle when we don’t fit the stereotypical norm.

  • I also see many ways that the wording of these lists subtly puts women down.

    What IS “objective” vs. “subjective” decision-making? Generally, our culture tends to see objective decisions as being inherently wiser and more free of error, so what does it say to women (and men) when they see that men can make “objective” decisions and women can only make “subjective” ones? And what are they saying women are being “subjective” about, anyway? Their feelings? Feelings are an equally valid type of knowledge, and sometimes making decisions with input from feelings is critical.

    Also, noting that emotions are “influenced” by hormones makes it seem, again, as if the thinking/feeling process is being co-opted by outside forces (thus making them less correct than the thinking and feeling processes of men). Again, men are the default of how feelings/thinking “should” work, and women have “extra lady stuff” that makes our thinking less reliable. For this list to be truly equitable even w/in a complementarian framework, the male category should not say “feelings less influenced by hormones,” but rather should say “feelings influenced by knowledge” or “feelings influenced by competition” or “feelings influenced by ego” or something like that, rather than saying that women ARE influenced and men are NOT influenced.

    I laughed at the big vs. small picture thinking example. I can’t tell you how many times I have huffed at my husband, “I’m always trying to make a larger point and you lose it by focusing on the details! Would you just wait for the big picture I’m trying to give you?” Seriously. I have said that exact thing times uncountable!

    • I agree with your comments about hormones. I think though that when people make this comment that they are overlooking that men’s emotions and behaviors are indeed influenced by hormones, just in a way that is different.

  • I’m currently engaged so have been reading a lot of marriage books. Out of all of them I have only read one that doesn’t have any chapters on the difference between men and women and their God-given roles within the home. I haven’t yet finished this one, but it seems to reflect the idea that your spouse will be different from you because all humans are different, not because men and women fit into distinct personality categories.

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