March 2014

Role Reversal

Author: Rebecca Edwards

LET’S BE HONEST. I MEAN TRULY HONEST. REGUARDLESS OF AFFLIATIONS OR BELIEF SYSTEMS (political, social, religious, or other), we all want to think we are open-minded.

Yet, we all come to the metaphoric table dining on preconceived notions, especially when it pertains to gender roles. And though we may inadvertently judge, we can quite consciously process, re-evaluate, and act against our judgment, resulting in a social changing of the guard that is responsive and sensitive to modern times. This is called being “progressive.”

What are gender roles?
“Women have a much better time than men in this world; there are far more things forbidden to them.”— Oscar Wilde.

Before we go forward, let’s step back and ground this discussion with the definition of gender roles. The dictionary defines gender roles as “the public image of being male or female that a person presents to others.” One Princeton University psychology course explained, “A gender role is a theoretical construct in the social sciences and humanities that refers to a set of social and behavioral norms that, within a specific culture, are widely considered to be socially appropriate for individuals of a specific sex.” My six year-old would simply say, “Girls like princesses; boys like trucks.”

So how do you define gender roles? This question can lead to comedic exchanges, reminding us of songs like Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” or movies like Mr. Mom. Or this question can be quite polarizing and shine a stark, truth-telling light on some serious and timely issues. Take today’s “modern family.” According to a new Pew Research Center nationwide survey done in association with TIME magazine, “The transformative trends of the past 50 years that have led to a sharp decline in marriage and a rise of new family forms have been shaped by attitudes and behaviors that differ by class, age and race.” The survey also found that “the young are much more inclined than their elders to view cohabitation without marriage and other new family forms, such as same sex marriage and interracial marriage, in a positive light.”

South Carolina has its share of stereotypes, one being that the Palmetto State is—let’s just say—set in its ways. Yet, several Hilton Head Island and Bluffton residents are proving this perception wrong. Let’s start with domestic partners Krista Dunton and Libby Cherrington. Both women have excelled in typically male-dominated fields.
Dunton is one of only 800 female PGA golf professionals (out of 28,000 total), was awarded the first ever Hilton Head PGA Chapter Teacher of the Year Award in 2010, and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated when she was only nine years old. Cherrington is a highly successful financial advisor, a profession in which only 10 percent are female. And both women know what it’s like to be a working parent.

The modern family & gender roles
“We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons…but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.”— Gloria Steinem

“Our children are Grady and Daisy,” Cherrington said. “Grady is four and a half and Daisy is two and a half. Grady is funny, detail-oriented and a leader. Daisy thinks she is Tinker Bell.” When it comes to gender roles within the family unit, Cherrington said, “I think the shift in gender roles [in the recent decade] has created a situation where children see both parents participate regardless of gender. In the family, there is no role playing. Each person is an individual and contributes what that individual has to contribute.”

Cherrington makes an interesting and substantial point here. The omission of gender in the family dynamic and in society allows for a much more successful—emotionally, mentally, and socially—individual.

Dr. Rip O’Keefe of Lowcountry Psychiatric Associates believes we need to reevaluate the language we use. “The word gender is a problem,” he said. “The word male is a problem. The word female is a problem. These words or concepts make us see differences that don’t exist. The word person is not a problem.”

Discussing the ramifications of a society without labels or stereotypes, Cherrington added, “Without labels we probably wouldn’t have preconceived notions. The Navajo Indians have no people who stutter. Research tells us that there is not a word for stuttering in their vocabulary. This may mean that stuttering is in the listener’s ear and that parents create stuttering when a child is actually going through a normal phase of life. With that in mind if there weren’t labels for fat, skinny, gay, or stupid, maybe people wouldn’t profile.”

Jobs and gender roles
“In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”— Margaret Thatcher

Kevin Ashdown might respectfully disagree with Thatcher. He gets a lot done. In 2006, he was named Nurse of the Year and now serves as the clinical lead at Hilton Head Hospital. Men account for about 10 percent of the nurses across the country—a statistic that Ashdown says has probably tripled in the past 30 years. “There are still people who stereotype and make jokes about men in nursing,” Ashdown said. “But the reality is men make great nurses. We can be kind, compassionate and caring. All the patients I see are having a bad day. If I can take their mind off their injury or ailments for a minute, I’ve done my job.”

Ashdown believes that gender profiling has changed in the past decade but still admits it exists. “Sometimes I walk in the patient’s room and he or she calls me doctor. I have to correct them and tell them that I am their nurse.” He attributes the perpetuation of gender roles, especially in the workforce, and even more especially when it pertains to nursing, to the media. “Other occupations have been seen as more acceptable, like women in criminal justice, as police officers, or as lawyers. But it seems to be different with nursing,” he said. “Yet, even the female nurses do not wear the little hat and the short dresses that people think of when they hear the word ‘nurse.’”

Like Ashdown, Johnson knows what it’s like to walk in the room and be the minority—and she likes it. “I embrace the fact that I am a woman in a male dominated field. I bring a unique skill set to the job,” she said. “I can relate to women (calling it the ‘girlfriend factor’) and men.” Johnson is the owner and president of Polaris Capital Advisors, an independent investment advisory company that assists with wealth management, estate planning and divorce financial strategies. Like Ashdown, Johnson talked about the impact of words. “I believe there’s a difference between gender roles and gender characteristics,” she said, suggesting that we can accept masculine and feminine qualities without feeling that those qualities are limited to gender or that those qualities are oppressive or stagnating.

Her insight sparked a conversation about the traditional Chinese concept of yin and yang, in which seemingly polar opposites or contrary forms are not only interconnected but also complimentary—transcending dualism into monism. The black section with the white dot is referred to as yin and the white section with the black dot as yang. According to traditional Chinese medicine, yin energy is characterized as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, and passive and is associated with water, earth, the moon, and femininity. On the flipside, yang energy is fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry and aggressive and is associated with fire, sky, the sun, and masculinity. It is important to point out that the yin-yang dynamic focuses on energy, or “qi.” Rather than being defined by one’s sex, a person is comprised of qi and that qi has several aspects, including masculine and feminine characteristics.

The future of gender roles
“The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.” — Matthew Henry

Mitra Toossi, an economist in the Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, reported, “By 2050, women will make up 47 percent of the workforce in the United States—up from 30 percent in 1950.” Citing Toossi’s research, in her article Gender Gaps, Martha Barksdale said, “Experts are predicting that, at least in the short term, the number of women in the workforce may surpass the number of men.” What’s the reason? According to Barksdale, “During the economic recession that began in 2008, many jobs disappeared from industries traditionally dominated by male workers, such as manufacturing. Unless many more manual labor and manufacturing jobs appear, it may be that women, who traditionally work in health care, education and other service industries, will take the lead in the American labor market.”

As a result, gender roles will continue to be less sketched in black and white and more drawn in an array of hues—especially when it comes to working moms and stay-at-home dads. According to the National At-Home Dad Network, “The U.S. Census defines an ‘at-home dad’ as a father not in the labor force for the past 52 weeks (this includes not looking for work or going to school) and whose wife was in the labor force for the past 52 weeks (if she changes jobs and is out of work for a week or more, the father does not count as an at-home dad).” The Census found that each year the number of fathers acting as the primary caregiver in the family increases. In 2011, there were approximately 176,000 at-home dads. In 2012, there were approximately 189,000. At this rate (roughly 6.9 percent), nearly 216,000 U.S. fathers will be at-home-dads by the end of 2014.

Observing, her two powerhouse sisters, Mary Frances Lowrey says this trend has positive implications. “I have two sisters whose husbands act as the primary caregiver for their children. Barbara, a retired air force colonel and nurse is married to Keith (a retired lt. colonel pilot). Susanna, an international purchaser of steel for one of the world’s largest car manufacturing companies, lives in Germany and speaks four languages fluently. She is married to Scott, an artist and stay-at-home dad to their one son, Lex, who is in first grade.

“The kids are normal kids [even though] they do not have the typical nap schedule or bedtime routine, and their eating habits are less strict (compared to mine and my other sister’s children),” Lowrey said. “Both dads are more relaxed and don’t seem to worry the way moms worry or compare their kids to other’s kids.”

Johnson, who is a single mom added, “I think it is fantastic that men now see more value in adding assistance in the home. I think it is especially interesting to look at how fathers interact with and inspire their daughters. I know my father was very involved with my two sisters and me. He always told us we could be anything we wanted to be.”

Everyone interviewed for this article touched on two big take-aways: 1) Gender roles are in eye of the beholder; as my dear friend and neighbor Dr. Debi Lynes says, “Normal is a dryer setting.” And 2) Regardless of our sex, we are all united. “Every being is the same and different. Meaning we all eat, but I might like Italian food and you might like Chinese food,” O’Keefe said.

What unites us are commonalities like a desire to be a good parent or successful in our career and a willingness to follow our heart and not the hype. 

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