Essentialization: Another problem with gender in development

Part 2: Essentialization: Women are strong/good/peaceful/caring/etc

Every time I see a sentence that starts with “women are….” or “men are….” I just feel exhausted. Generalizing about 3 billion people is a doomed and stupid project, and yet it continues. And continues. In Cosmo, in sitcoms, and sadly even in gender and development.

Andrea Cornwall has argues in the Guardian that gender in development continues to use and perpetuate certain gender myths:

“that women are more industrious and responsible than men, that women politicians can’t be corrupt and always represent women’s interests, that women care more for their children and the environment and that they are closer to the earth…”

And of course too often men are implied to be the opposite: the violent aggressor, the lazy husband, the selfish drunk, the disinterested father.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t study gender gaps. Gender gaps are real, and it’s useful to measure them. It’s useful to know what poor households tend to spend on men’s consumption vs women’s consumption vs children’s consumption. It’s useful to know how that balance changes depending on who controls the finances. But it’s important to keep these numbers in perspective, because

  1. Statistics have to be treated as statistics. While it’s useful to know that “men tend to spend more on personal consumption by an average of n%” it doesn’t mean that all men spend more. I know, it’s an obvious point – everybody knows that. But way too often it seems like because of a statistic it’s ok to imagine and talk about two homogenous groups of people, and that hides all the variation within groups and all the overlap between them.
  2. Statistics are only descriptive. Not asking “why” leaves the impression that a statistical difference is some kind of inherent gender difference, to be reacted to rather than examined.

By using “men” and “women” as functional categories in rhetoric and programming (this money is for women, this program is for men, etc) don’t we just further entrench the idea that men and women are different in some kind of essential, basic way? Too much programming assumes a-priori that the woman is always the caretaker, and by using that sex-based definition accepts that the woman should be the caretaker. The caretaker role (or the peacekeeper role or the self-sacrificing role, or whatever) becomes further defined as some kind of innately gendered trait.

I realize that obviously no one literally thinks that all women are nurturing and all men are irresponsible. But we all need to be more careful about the lazy generalizations that sometimes underlie our thinking, because programming based on that will perpetuate this essentialization and exclude those who don’t fit our stereotype.

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About marisa burton

graduate student, masters of development studies, IHEID, geneva
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One Response to Essentialization: Another problem with gender in development

  1. G. Coulas says:

    The issue can be resolved by good methodology — which usually means triangulation of the methods used to derive your position. What we often have is research that is biased by a theoretical position, or by a preference for a certain method of obtaining information. All data can be skewed.

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