Women think irrationally. This perception is portrayed all across the Western media. The word “hysteria” originated from the Greek word for “uterus.” This demonstrates how even in the Victorian era this notion was so strong that it gave birth to an utterly false medical diagnosis. In Indonesia we often hear rumors about the mythical hormone-controlled emotional mess of a girlfriend that everyone, for some inexplicable reason, seems to believe in.
The impression that women think irrationally is no new concept, or, to be more precise, it is no new stereotype. It’s just a part of a wider group of gender-based stereotypes, which means that it’s an oversimplified idea that a group of people always acts a certain way, even when it’s not necessarily true.
For the progressive individual, discrediting stereotypes is easy. However, most of the developing world continues to cling to them. I was surprised to learn that on a number of occasions, some female friends of mine actually embraced the stereotype that women are irrational, like when one off-handedly commented that they desired a male leader because he would be a “firmer” leader.
These contrasting views bring us to these questions: How did these stereotypes come to be? Is there any possibility that they are actually true and men and women do naturally behave differently from birth?
To answer these questions, let us look into the history of stereotypes. Many conventional psychologists believe that the genes passed down to us from our hunter-gatherer ancestors predetermine our personalities and behaviors. However, many modern psychologists now reject the idea that inherited DNA plays so big of an influence on who we are. Instead, distinctions in behavior between sexes occur because we are expected and encouraged to be different.
“Yes, there are basic behavioral differences between the sexes,” says Cordelia Fine, author of the book Delusions of Gender, “But we should note that these differences increase with age because our children’s intellectual differences are being exaggerated and intensified by our gendered culture.”
In other words, we can conclude that the environment in which we are raised is the biggest factor affecting our behavior.
But for the sake of humoring hardline believers of intellectual differences between sexes, let’s go back to the question, is there any possibility at all that the stereotypes are true and the different sexes naturally behave differently from birth?
The answer is it really doesn’t matter.
This is because any difference that might exist is small. Very small. We could debate to the moon and back about “nature vs. nurture,” but what it boils down to is that the biological behavioral difference between men and women is soft, not hard. This is to say that any initial difference that might exist between men and women is practically insignificant since our brains continue to change and develop after birth.
“There is almost nothing we do with our brains that is hard-wired. Every skill, attribute and personality trait are molded by experience,” says Lisa Eliot to the New Scientist. "All such skills are learned, and neuro-plasticity – the modifications of neurons and their connections in response experience – trumps hard-wiring every time."
Much like a self-fulfilling prophecy, stereotypes exist because we believe they exist, and it’s pretty clear that this process is alive and well in Indonesia.
How do we put an end to this self-fulfilling prophecy?
Returning to the notion that women are irrational, we must examine its source to put an end to it. Stereotypes don’t happen in a vacuum, which is to say that they are widely affected by varying social factors.
A recent study conducted by the World Health Organization and Johns Hopkins University, found that stereotypes start to set in ages as early as 10 years old. Thus, children must be the focus. As a parent, colleague, relative, or friend, we can support each other to have diverse interests not restricted by gender. It’s okay for boys to reach out to their nurturing side through playing with dolls, and it’s okay for girls to step into the world of exact science through playing with toy cars and blocks. We can help encourage them to learn more diverse skills and broaden the amount of possibilities they see for themselves.
In the adult life, it is also very possible that this stereotype is reaffirmed by poorly resolved conflicts between men and women. Considering that the gender stereotype culture in Indonesia is still strong, different sexes are raised to prioritize values differently.
In his best-seller Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, John Gray explains that men and women have fundamentally different methods of calculating the values of their actions, which often causes conflict. One example is when faced with a problem, many men view unsolicited assistance as undermining their effort to solve problems alone, whereas women prefer communication and cooperation to solve a problem together. When things turn sour, the natural response would be to roll your eyes and say, “my ex was crazy.” It is easier to say that it was the opposite gender’s fault than it is to say that we were wrong, thus further contributing to the already existing stereotype.
The government is also a key actor in the movement to stop stereotypes. Some governments have already started taking action. Last year, Britain made a decision to ban advertisements that promote gender stereotypes. Perhaps one of the first steps for Indonesia would be to reforms schools by removing stereotypes in government-issued textbooks.
The notion that women are irrational is, well, irrational. Let us start to change this by moving forward and leaving gender stereotypes in the past where they belong.
Illustration by Adhitya Pattisahusiwa