Myth #3 – The Weaker Sex

For most of history, we have been an agrarian society the world over. Groups would live close to water bodies, toil hard in the fields to bring back food, hunt beasts, fight wars and construct homes and great monuments literally by hand. Men being physically stronger were best suited for hard labor and blood & glory in the war zone. Also, for most of history, average life expectancy of humans was below 50 years.(1) Infants and children died at a horrific rate (some say up to 1/3 of all died before the age of 5) and a significant percentage of women died in association with childbirth: 5% perhaps from the birth itself, often dying with the child, and a further 15% from childbed fever–the infections that followed a poorly managed delivery. (2). Lack of preventive medical care, hard labor, direct exposure to climatic conditions and the vagaries of war threatened human life. Life expectancy began to rise in the 19th century hitting 49 years in the United States and then doubling in the 20th century.(1)

Life expectancy however does not mean that every individual dropped dead at the age of 40 but this is an indication of the high child mortality. It technically means “life expectancy at birth” or “life expectancy at age 0” and refers to the average number of years that a newborn baby can expect to live in a given society at a given time. The calculation would go like this – If half the children die before the age of 12 (let’s say, at the average age of death of 6), then the remaining half would have to live on average to be 74, for the life expectancy at birth to come out to be 40.(7)
With such high child mortality rates and a need for men to protect the community borders; women had a very important role at home. They were literally supporting society. Bearing children was critical to society’s growth and without today’s medical aid that we take for granted, this was with considerable pain and a lot of time and effort. Caring for the child and ensuring they don’t become another child mortality statistic was required for the society’s existence itself. Therefore, while men fought the big wars and became the protectors, women were the nurturers. Both roles much needed for survival. An outcome of this was men who won wars became leaders and kings and women ruled the home. Men held the power in society and women in family. These were not stereotypes but practical need of the times.

Industrial revolution, development in technology, medical aid, better food and work shifting from hard labor to office jobs has brought Life Expectancy to 87 years in Japan (the highest) and lowest being 52 years (Mozambique) in Africa (reasons being obvious).

During Industrial revolution (1760-1840), machines replaced human hard labor, work moved from intensive agriculture to office jobs requiring more brain analytical ability than physical strength. Education became increasingly important to acquire better paying jobs and close-knit communities began spreading based on availability of better job opportunities. Better jobs, developing infrastructure and technologies, progressing economies, multiplying inflation and a need for families to bring home higher incomes.

So how equipped are men and women to live in this new world?

Let’s begin with health – Scientific research has now brought out facts about human beings that we need to be aware of. We now realize that from the moment of conception on, men are less likely to survive than women. It’s not because men take greater risks or hazardous vocations than women as it was normally believed. There are poorly understood — and underappreciated — vulnerabilities inherent in men’s genetic and hormonal makeup.

weaker sex

While there are differences, much of the brain areas are quite similar although many stereotypes are simply ingrained in our cultural make up – Men are better in Maths & Science. Women in language skills. Men aggressive – Women emotional. As more research is being done and we have help to better understand ourselves, we find little actual differences – just different ways of doing things. However millions of years of stereotypes play a major role in how our brains are trained to react. Here’s an example: Psychologists conducted a behavior test at Harvard with a group of 46 Asian-American female undergrads. The subjects thought they were taking a tough 12-question math test. Before one group attacked the advanced algebra, they answered written questions emphasizing ethnicity (“How many generations of your family have lived in America?”). Another group’s questionnaire subtly reminded them of their gender (“Do you live on a co-ed or single-sex dorm floor?”). Women who took the math test after being reminded of their Asian heritage–and thus, it seems, the stereotype that Asians excel at math–scored highest, getting 54 percent right. The women whose questionnaire implicitly reminded them of the stereotype that, for girls, “math is hard,” as Barbie infamously said, scored lowest, answering 43 percent correctly. (6)

The power of stereotypes, scientists had long figured, lay in their ability to change the behavior of the person holding the stereotype. (6)

The perceptions of male superiority and females as the weaker sex has emerged and entrenched in the human psyche through history as men fought wars and became kings. Slim & dainty being the idea of female beauty and the knight in shining armor saving the damsel in distress defining genders and validating stereotypes. Progressing from barbaric brute male strength to technological advancements has been much easier than stepping out of the psychological box. Gender roles then had a reason and gender equality now is a need.

Stereotypes emerge with resistance to change, a need to maintain status quo and sheer insecurity. The more things change; the more we want them to remain the same.

Today considering the relative biological fragility of men, isn’t it counterintuitive for us to urge them from boyhood on, to cope bravely with adversity, to ignore discomfort, to persevere in spite of pain, to accept without question the most dangerous jobs and tasks we have to offer(3) and continue trying to prove their superiority?

Are we putting undue pressure on one and unfairly discriminating against the other at the cost of our species?

It’s time to leave behind our psychological insecurities, stop feeding the stereotypes and look at males and females as integral parts of the same species. Ruben Gur, PhD, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania says, “Most of the differences between sexes is complimentary. They increase the chances of males and females joining together. It helps the whole species.” (5)


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