Mythbusting at the MWF

On a good day I learn something new. On a really good day, I might get a few ah-ha moments. An excellent day is full of new facts…and that was my Sunday.

The issue of gender, as it relates to identity, equity and ability is an emotive one. I certainly know it’s a topic quick to raise my ire. It’s a passionate topic, but still, it is one best treated with intelligence and reason. The two sessions that I attended on Sunday did just that.

Dissecting Gender presented neurological, biological and psychological perspectives on what it means to be male or female, and explored whether or not we are in fact hardwired to be fundamentally different from each other. The resounding answer of the panelists; Jane McCredie, Rob Brooks and Cordelia Fine was clear – no, we are not.

Any such science that suggests that all males and all females are and must perform and behave in a particular way is at best mistaken, and at worst fraudulent.

McCredie, Brooks and Fine are, without doubt, committed to their work in this in field, each having published works seeking to dispel the many myths surrounding what it is to be a man or a woman. Interestingly, McCredie is even more inclusive in her study, investigating what it is to be “outside the binary” of gender, considering situations of ambiguity in gender allocation and idenfication.

Reassuringly, Fine assured us that although women have on average, a smaller, lighter brain than men this doesn’t in fact act as a determinant of success or intelligence in any field: “Claims about gender differences are based on incorrect, and at times fabricated data,” states Fine. Brooks argued well to dismiss the outdated notion that we are slaves to either our nature or our nuture, assuring that many options remain open to us all. And McCredie was decided: “Science should apply to us all, and not just to those that fit neatly within the accepted stereotypes…stereotypes seem not to apply to many people.” Further, she asked the question, how do any of us come to understand who we are, and what it is to be male or female. Science, in all it’s certainties and averages has not yet been able to explain many of the complexities that create differences between us all, let alone between males and females.

I left this session feeling encouraged…my little brain was not necessarily less powerful, and any stereotypical strengths and weaknesses would seem to be more likely about self-fulfilling prophesy or stereotype threat than about an overarching biological or neurological predisposition.

In this mood, I took my seat in the BMW Edge to listen to Sophie Cunningham. I had heard very good things, and was excited about being at this session. The crowd seemed to be feeling the same way, and I got the sense that the audience was eagerly awaiting inspiration, and perhaps a bit of illumination.

Many things were made much clearer to me by Sophie’s presentation A Long, Long Way to Go: Why We Still Need Feminism, not the least of which was the scale of the issue of women’s invisibility. Sophie provided a set of most incredible and infuriating statistics relating to women’s place in literature, business, fine arts and law. Example after example illustrated the extent to which women have disappeared, and the degree to which we’ve simply gotten used to it. Frightening stuff.

Cunningham laid blame for this in both the political and cultural sphere, and made several suggestions as to how this imbalance might be addressed. One of these solutions was featured in The Age today, namely the Stella prize, a women’s only literary prize. I will be watching this with great interest. Her conviction was strong, and she disputed the belief that women need simply to be more assertive: “You can be as assertive as you like, you’re still starting from a lower base,” citing examples of starting wages of male and female graduate lawyers and the distinct difference therein. It would seem that equality will take more than a loud voice and a forthright personality.

I was personally quite moved by her views of women’s self perception, our habitual self-loathing, which damages our chances and holds us back by diminishing our self-confidence in contexts such as work, earning and education. In Sophie’s opinion: “This self-doubt is political, it’s like tinnitus and we have to learn to ignore it, we must learn to block it out.”

I was moved by the presentation, and buoyed by the rousing reception that Sophie received. I trust that this is a sign that, should it be needed, the forth wave which Cunningham referred to would be fervently supported by a new generation of woman.

Did you attend any Sunday sessions? What were the highlights for you?

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