Gender-based II: The Myth of the “You Can Be Anything”-Society

So, why did I talk earlier about the idea that in our society, everyone can become whatever that persons wants to become? Because it is an illusion many of us cling to as if their lives depended on it (and in a way, at least the perception of our lives does). More than that, it is an illusion which is probably the reason why so many people – men and women – deny the ongoing discrimination of women, as well as of migrants, working class children, etc.

I ultimately know that I can become an astronaut after succeeding, not at any time before. What is clear now already is that becoming an astronaut would require me to cut back on many other things. I very likely couldn’t become an astronaut AND, do a PhD in philosophy AND spend time with my numerous friends and family AND go as often to the gym as I like to. The Lukas Knopp that could become an astronaut would be a completely different person to the Lukas Knopp writing these words.

Not all of us can become the chancellor of Germany – not at the same time, most of us not as hard as we tried, no-one solemnly out of his or her own effort. However, using the fact that the current chancellor of Germany is a woman as evidence that women in Germany can become everything assumes that Mrs. Merkels socialization and the specific context of her life’s journey would match those of any other women in Germany. It also would require the random women to have the goals and priorities necessary (Merkel, for example, doesn’t have kids) or the social skills and will to become friends with people like then-chancellor Helmut Kohl. Furthermore, she would have to be safe from unfortunate destiny such as being the child to parents that are being deported back to Syria, or having a brother who needs intensive care 24/7 that insurance doesn’t entirely account for, or becoming the victim of violent crime as a child and suffering from trauma ever since, etc.

Even if everything worked out in favour of our fictional character, she would still have to fight her way through a world chronically sceptical of her value and skills as described in the research above. It would be much, much harder for a she to reach that a prestigious and powerful position as it would be for a he.

And this is all not taking into account that, being born a girl, very likely will she have been raised in a society that doesn’t infuse her – a girl – with the idea that she would want to become the person that is a national leader, that this is a position fit for her (again, see the studies).

The fight against gender-based discrimination and derogatory stereotype of women, mind you, is a fight that men not only rarely have to fight. It is also one that, for a woman acting outside of gender stereotypes, is a fight with many frontiers. It simultaneously must be fought in all aspects of her career, in her family life, among her peers, in her gym, on holidays, drunk in a pub, and so on.

This is a context that is blurred out by many. In specific, I often see it being blurred out by people who are very much into economic liberalism. In economic models, I guess, all of these factors do not exist. Coincidentally, if you think humans meet their decisions without context or only the context you right now want to account for, the homo economicus and neoliberalism in general suddenly make more sense. But to me “Well, if she wants to earn more money, she could easily have worked somewhere else” is an argument that isn’t very logical in a world that knows social ties, or role expectations that were built up long before that person could decide for herself, or the blatant sexism that seems to be present in many well-paying fields, or even personal interest.

Be it racism or sexism or another -ism: Discrimination, as social scientist have found out, is more than generalizing factual or fictional traits of individuals to entire heterogeneous populations. It is functional. The goal is to legitimize existing hierarchies and privileges. At best, in a way that “naturalizes” the social reality, declaring the construction as something unchangeable and hence, giving way to defeatism.

Originally, this definition refers to racism, but as the aforementioned Pierre Bourdieau pointed out: Sexism works in much the same way.

The studies above provide heaps of evidence on how women have it harder to achieve many goals that in our society should be considered not related to gender. They are ignored away by many of us, because for many of us, the image of our selves is build around the idea that what we are and what we achieved is solemnly the product of our own skills and efforts. (Besides, to be fair, much of this discrimination isn’t easily visible.)

To challenge this not only means to challenge the understanding of ones personal history, it means to challenge narratives with which we have been indoctrinated for all of our lives, that shape the way we perceive reality. Narratives about the control we have on our path and, at the core, narratives of what it means to be an autonomous individual.

This I think is why to many people, even those who otherwise do not show or promote sexist behaviour, discrimination against women is a concept hard to fathom.

But now, you might think, it is perhaps infinitely harder for some people to achieve the same things as others, but it’s still up to the individual to make things better for him- or herself, right?

This is when we get to Part III.