Never a fan of televised sporting events, there was a time in my past that I pretended to be, just as a way of sharing cozy moments with my husband. I wasn’t a complete fraud. I could get caught up in the ballet of basketball or the graceful beauty of skiing and skating. And, although I found football a bore, I loved watching the post touchdown hugging, and even the congratulatory slap on the rump.
I’m used to seeing women embrace when they greet each other in a social setting, while most men show greater reserve and shake hands. Seeing men lose their restraint with other men, joyously sharing a celebratory bond, I find heartwarming. Sporting events used to be the only time I witnessed this, except among close family members. And in many families, the male embrace, even between fathers and sons, remains awkward or absent.
But over the past decade or so, this stereotype, that women are more physically expressive in a joyous moment, began to fade. I still vividly recall when, in the televised view of millions, President Bush, just before addressing a joint session of Congress, exchanged bear hugs with both Senator Daschle and Representative Gephardt. Those hugs were worthy of comment on the front page of the New York Times the next day, so at least then, men hugging in public outside the sports arena, was remarkable. Less so today.
Other gender stereotypes have also fallen by the wayside. Here are some I now often witness:
As more and more women entered the marketplace over the last 40 years, many men began to significantly share the care of infants and young children and found the role of nurturer as natural and rewarding as women have over time. These fathers are modeling for their sons and daughters that men and women alike can provide tenderness and comfort.
Many of the women who happen to have the higher income when couples divorce are no happier paying alimony than most men ever were. Those who’ve accumulated larger pension funds than their divorcing husbands often fail to see the fairness in having to share them with their spouse. They are likely to use the exact same rationale so often previously expressed by men: I’m the one who worked so hard to earn it, surely it is mine alone to keep.
Clearly, economic savvy and self-interest is not gender specific.
Women entering scientific fields so long dominated by men are proving, just as those who entered the legal profession have done, that they are as able as their male counterparts. Whether women are equally comfortable in this competitive arena is far less clear. I think not yet.
How often do we thoughtlessly accept, even act upon, stereotypes distinguishing the characteristics of men and women, the generalizations we grew up with, that men are more analytical and less emotional, that women are more nurturing, more intuitive? I leave it to scientists now bent upon identifying those sectors of the brain that light up to display different functions to catalog the impact of male and female hormones on behavior. For now, our assumptions bear reexamination.
I hope that women don’t diminish the importance we place on being expressive and fostering intimate relationships, as we continue to break through the glass ceiling and become more politically visible. The negative impact of social isolation on both brain and body is scientifically well established. So far better, from my perspective, for it to work just the other way round, with men more comfortable expressing their feelings and loosening their hold on cool reserve.