What is gender and why should older learners study it? Which areas of life does it affect and how? What language does it reveal, conceal and impose?


We can define gender as a cultural construction of ideas of masculinity and femininity, sometimes weakly corresponding to the real potential of men and women. In other words, gender reveals how each of us has been socialized in relation to our sex. As women near old age, they tend to accept their stigma and be invisible as human beings. Invisible women “reach for the book: it is a weapon,” would say Bertolt Brecht. Knowledge about women, their social position, about fostering their social identity is a weapon. In this module, we provide advice for how women can take control of their identities. As you read, keep in mind that gender affects all areas of life and that language should be gender neutral whenever possible.


Module in a nutshell

The module consists of three units followed by Check Your Understanding and References.

  • Unit 1. Gender framework
  • Unit 2. Life areas are affected by gender
  • Unit 3. Gender and language
  • Check your understanding
  • References

Unit 1. Gender framework


Have you ever observed how couples behave in public interviews? The journalist addresses the man first and the woman last. Men are talking, and women are mostly waiting to confirm their ideas or add some thoughts of their own. Such are the social expectations related to gender. The concept of gender is not the same as the concept of sex. “Women are not born as women, they become women” argues Simone de Beauvoir, describing the difference between biological attributes attached to sex and social attributes attached to gender. Social gender typing or gender construction begins from the very moment one is born. We say things like “What a cute little girl!” And, “What a strong young boy!” Or, “Boys do not cry” and ”Girls play with dolls not trucks”.  Other misconceptions include that girls like pink and boys like blue, girls are soft spoken, and boys can use rough language. It is also common to think as certain professions as female, and others as male. All of these comments and ideas consolidate one’s gender.


Gender is socially constructed, but what has been constructed can be deconstructed, by education, political or ideological changes, etc. The socially constructed gender is attached attributes, social roles and stereotypes about men and women that are different given the historical time and cultural context.


Gender can be defined as a cultural construction of ideas of masculinity and femininity, vaguely corresponding to the real potential of men and women. Gender is included in a broader socio-cultural context, into which other important factors for its analysis are integrated, such as racial and ethnic origin, age, level of poverty, etc.  In other words, gender reveals how each of us has been socialized in relation to our sex; it is a facet of social/cultural expectations and experiences.


In each society, women and men are assigned to different tasks, roles, and social positions, so there are differences and inequalities between women and men concerning the responsibilities assigned, the activities carried out, access to resources and control over them, as well as opportunities for access to decision-making.


Despite the progress made since the 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women, discriminatory patriarchal norms still maintain power inequalities. One of the key points to access women’s rights is women's economic autonomy.


Economic independence for women is a reason to raise gender awareness to help communities find ways to change existing beliefs, attitudes, and social norms that restrict gender equity and equality. Older women, in particular, should study gender issues and improve their critical thinking, so that they can struggle against discrimination and self-actualise themselves.


Research shows that there are different approaches to learning for men and women because formal, informal and non-formal educational contexts carry prejudices founded on gender stereotypes. This can and often does negatively impact the learning experience of both men and women.


Experiences related to gender influence the way knowledge is acquired, the expectations one makes about oneself, subject choices, and a learner’s self-confidence. The use of gender lenses to deconstruct such learned norms should be included in the field of older adult education as a way to promote (social) subjectivity of contemporary older learners.

Unit 2. Life areas are affected by gender


Gender socialization occurs through four major agents of socialization: family, school, peer groups, and mass media. Each agent reinforces gender roles by creating and maintaining normative expectations for gender-specific behaviour. Secondary agents such as religion and the workplace also consolidate such behaviour. Over time, repeated exposure to these agents gives men and women a false sense that they are acting naturally rather than following a socially constructed role.


According to Gamble & Gamble, family is a primary source of gender identity because it provides its members with their earliest socialization experiences. Families reveal their values, communication, and influence in sex role development. The same authors argue that families continue to reinvent themselves to reflect the dynamics of 21st-century living.


Most boys and girls learn early on, which are the activities more valued for boys or girls. The same occurs with the activities that they are discouraged from undertaking. 


Men’s friendships may not involve the same kind of intimacy that characterizes women's friendship. Some observers view them as less deep and more superficial. Perhaps a better explanation is that the kind of closeness they attain is simply different. For women, closeness is intimacy; for men, it is loyalty.


Gender moderates some of the differences in personality traits in specific contexts. Women are said to be more agreeable with friends and with work colleagues. Men are much less neurotic with parents than women, but there are no gender differences in relations with friends and work colleagues. Gender differences may be specific to the situation or context. Personality differences between the genders may be due to varying social roles rather than innate differences. However, the fewer gender differences at work may be because work environments are likely to constrain behaviour in both males and females in the same way. Therefore, any differences between the genders will be more minor at work than in general.


Social and cultural norms determine the behaviour and beliefs within a specific cultural or social group. For example, older women are more likely to volunteer while men are more engaged in physical activities within the community. Older women are more often involved in education than men. Social and cultural norms highly impact individual behaviour in a wide variety of contexts.


Health, illness, and violence are gendered. Norms determine what is (un)acceptable in human interactions.  Gender-based violence mostly affects women and girls. The abuse can be physical, sexual, psychological, or verbal. Crises further increase the risk of abuse. Online violence against women, which includes gender-based hate speech, is a rapidly emerging form of gender-based violence.


The gender pay gap is a consequence of various inequalities women face in access to work, progression and rewards.


Around 30% of the total gender pay gap is explained by the over-representation of women in relatively low-paying sectors, such as caregiving and education. On the other hand, the proportion of male employees is very high (over 80%) in better-paid sectors, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).


Women spend fewer hours in paid work than men on average do, but more hours in unpaid work.


The glass ceiling. The position in the hierarchy influences the level of pay: less than 10% of top companies leaders are women. The profession with the largest differences in hourly earnings in the EU is managers: 23 % lower earnings for women than men.


In some cases, women earn less than men for doing jobs of equal value.


Inequalities in professional success are sometimes attributed to women taking maternity leave after having children. Furthermore, women are accused of intentionally seeking out jobs with fewer hours and lower pay in order to be more flexible for their children.


The gender pay gap has also been attributed to the diversity of workplace characteristics (education, hours worked, occupation, etc.)


The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities between women and men in almost all areas of life.

Unit 3. Gender and language


The linguistic structure of our mother tongue trains us to see the world and think in certain ways. For instance, there are masculine and feminine nouns in most languages that condition how we see the world. Old age is mostly feminine; success is masculine.


It has been found that gender-neutral language may increase equal participation of men and women in the labour market (it reduces the gender gap).


 Women may feel excluded by language and are often erased linguistically. We should remember that language is a choice, and we can combat sexist language in all fields and manners: in public appearances, social media, etc.


Gender-inclusive language includes everyone, even men. It does not harm anyone. Freshman becomes first-year student, chairman becomes chair, you guys becomes you all. In short, language is a tool for building communities, and we need a world that takes women seriously also from the linguistic point of view.


Gender communication differences begin during childhood. Girls are told to use their manners, play quietly, and be ladylike. However, it is okay for boys to use rough language, play loudly. Girls are allowed to show feelings. Boys, however, should not cry in most cultures.


Some authors highlight that education or social conditioning can influence gender attitudes in speaking and writing (for example, to make speech more or less politically correct). Women should be more “politically correct” than men.


Language plays a critical role in how we interpret the world, how we think and behave. The words we choose often reflect unconscious assumptions about values, gender roles and women and men’s abilities.


It is now widely accepted that gender in language can reflect sexism. A broad array of language practices has been considered sexist.


Research indicates that men and women socialize differently and, consequently, have diverse styles of speaking and use different words.


Studies that focus on how women and men enact authority in professional positions suggest that linguistically women try to minimize status differences between themselves and their subordinates or patients, whereas men tend to use strategies that reinforce status differences.


It has been found that men view conversation as a means to exchange information and to solve problems. Men stay away from personal topics and discuss events, sports, news, and facts. They tell more stories and jokes than women, wanting to show their status and power. Men are direct, blunt, and speech includes slang or swear words. Men get straight to work on a task and build relationships while working on the project. Men reflect and process information for decision making internally.


Generally, women avoid using aggressive and threatening language irrespective of their position. They exhibit their subordinate status by being polite and soft-spoken. They avoid direct and threatening communication.

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