CASWE Blog Post by Dr. Laurie Hill, St. Mary’s University
Do differences still make a difference?
In the study of gender, it is still commonly accepted that we focus on the examination of differences between women and men and how these differences impact respective gender identities. In the past, this focus allowed us to study the ways in which women and men acted, spoke, worked, and built relationships and the ways in which their related gender identities shaped and influenced the conditions and contexts that they lived their lives in. Identifying differences was essential to this undertaking. Yet, in seeking to identify and deconstruct the various ways in which gender has an impact on our lives, we are heightening the focus on differences, even though our goal is to ultimately erase the significance of difference. Is it still worthwhile to talk about difference?
In 1999, Susan Hekman identified a paradigm shift in feminist theory in her book “The Problem of Differences.” She argued that feminism must no longer “rely on a universal metanarrative,” but provide a “stable basis for meaning” (p. 26) by developing an epistemology of multiple truths. The notion of multi-feminism and accompanying multiple anti-oppression practices seems to fit more easily in a society where differences are (often) acknowledged and (sometimes) accommodated. We recognize that we no longer say that men act in one way and women act in another; we realize that there are more similarities than differences between these groups and indeed that the groups have grown in number, so that the lines between gender identities is fluid and blurred. So while there seems to be a greater awareness of the importance for grounding the study of gender in particular social contexts, social identities, and practices so that ‘multiple paths to truth’ (ibid, p. 149) can be honoured, there still exists a drive to uncover differences. We find ourselves drawn to illuminating gender differences and to investigating the social contexts that helped to construct/reinforce those differences.
Is this an important practice for us to continue to engage in? I believe that it is. The pervasiveness of gender as an organizing category in our society still exists. The way that our lives unfold is in part based on the delineations of gender roles and the intersection of gender with other aspects of identity. Consult any news platform, media outlet, or public institution and the idea of gender will be visible. In politics, we have narratives reflecting women’s participation in public life. While Prime Minister Trudeau has appointed a gender-balanced cabinet, currently women account for only 26% of the members in the House of Commons (Peckford, Dec. 2, 2015). There is no present discussion on improving daycare options for parents, even though the availability of affordable and accessible daycare is shown to support work opportunities for women (Anderssen, 2016). In education, women have made considerable progress over the past few decades. While more men completed post-secondary education 20 years ago, now more women than men graduate from postsecondary institutions (Turcotte, 2011, p. 19). In the early school years, girls are often better prepared, but as both boys and girls move through elementary and secondary school, the differences in skills are only slight. Girls do better than boys in reading, while doing slightly less well in mathematics than boys (ibid, p. 10). Another trend in education worthy of attention identifies young men as less likely to earn a high school diploma within the expected time frame and boys as being more likely to drop out of school (ibid, p. 12). Yet, despite these circumstances, “women’s employment earnings are on average still lower than men’s, even when they have the same educational level” (ibid, p. 22). These are measured differences that allow us to probe further for a more nuanced understanding of the conditions and contexts that give rise to these circumstances and lived experiences.
Identifying public representations of gender is an important focus for us to continue to have. These representations and accounts of gender are powerful and help to maintain lived distinctions and divisions in and between genders. Stories about gender presented and shared with us in the media and in the more formalized discursive practices and policies of institutions need to be examined, analyzed and evaluated and then challenged if necessary, so that the effects of difference are illuminated and the varied interconnected contexts that support differences are highlighted. Talking about gender and differences allows us to understand and challenge gender norms, even as we are trying to eliminate gender as a categorizing framework. This is the goal I think of all gender study; the desire to eliminate as completely as possible, the unhelpful and at times discriminatory practices related to gender so that we can open our minds and hearts to multiple truths.
Anderssen, E. (2016, January 22). Trudeau showed optimism for the future of women but gave few policy details. The Globe and Mail.
Hekman, S. J. (1999). The future of differences: Truth and method in feminist theory. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press,
Peckford, N. (Dec. 2, 2015). As prime minister Justin Trudeau well knows, this is not his father’s parliament. Retrieved from: email@example.com
Turcotte, M. (2011). Women and education. Research Paper – Women in Canada: A gender-based statistical report. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 89-503-X.