We all know the stereotypes. But where do they come from?
“Women have better social skills.”
Until about fifty years ago, the vast majority of women were relegated to the roles of wife and mother. Watch Pride and Prejudice. Parents pressured their daughters to be as charming as possible to catch the interest of a man and win his parents’ approval as well. To be a “good wife” was a woman’s JOB. Being a good spouse, a good partner, a good catch requires social skills. To do 100% of the raising of children also requires complex social skills. Think about the teachers you had in elementary school. Which ones the kids “liked,” which ones they didn’t. That was based on social skills. Raising or working with young children –> social skills. Men have always been taught that their aim in life should be to go for what they want, but women have been taught that their aim in life should be to please others. While going for what you want usually requires some social skills, pleasing others is, by definition, social skills.
This is more controversial, but it’s also not a stretch to imagine that a person barred from economic independence, who has to live with a physically bigger and stronger person to survive, might break out some *social skills* to make him less likely to batter her. For legal, economic, cultural, and physical reasons, women have always had to *understand* men to a greater extent than men had to understand women.
If we had a time machine and could go back and socialize with women from different eras, I think the women would have better social skills the farther back you go.
The transmission of social skills from mother to daughter is not hereditary, it is cultural. Mothers pass on to their daughters all the things that they personally deployed as women. Some of these lessons help, others keep the stereotypes going.
Think about young girls’ toys, movies, and books. They promote the cultivation of social skills. Being nice to each other. Getting along. Compromising. Apologizing and reconciling. (All of which are good things when men and women do them equally.)
I’m a girl who was a kid in the 90s and 00s. When I was a newborn, my dad’s friend asked him if he was going to “try for a boy.” My dad said, “What difference does it make?” Both my parents were egalitarian regarding gender, immigration, LGBT, race, everything. They raised me to do “boy stuff” and “girl stuff.” I was in organized sports every year ages 6-17. I grew up with no difference in my mind between being female and being male.
I also was a socially awkward child. I liked people and I wasn’t mean, I just didn’t really understand social interaction. What I really wanted was a manual with all the rules. In elementary school and middle school, before starting a conversation, I would write a list of things I could say to open it. From each thing I could say, I would do a flow chart of things the other person might say. I was trying to account for all the edge cases in advance and make sure that the conversation could not possibly fail.
Social skills are something I have worked on over time, because it’s important for everyone. I really enjoy spending time with other people and find them fascinating to get to know. I didn’t want to learn less about people I liked just because I was awkward and scared. This merely serves as just one example of a woman who was raised with a premise of gender equality from day one, whose social skills were not any better than the average boy or man. We all know men with great social skills and women whose social skills could improve.
So, this is where the stereotype comes from. History and culture. Not biology. So, let’s stop condoning these myths already! If you hear someone say women “naturally” have better emotional intelligence or social skills, call them out. Respectfully but firmly. If you hear someone say women have better emotional intelligence or social skills, but they don’t specify a biological component, they still might intend what they say to imply biology. Unless it is very clear that they are not implying any kind of biological component, it is important to clarify that any observable differences are due to socialization and not biology.
The proposition of women being biologically suited for different things entails that men are biologically suited for other things. Therefore, raving about all the things that women are supposedly “better at” actually hurts women. And whenever a trait is claimed to be biologically associated with women, there are men at the ready to pervert this notion and use it to disadvantage women. “I can’t be nice to women, because I’m a man and men biologically can’t be nice!” “I can’t listen to women, because I’m a man, men have naturally bad social skills, and therefore men just can’t listen!” “I can’t tell what’s offensive and what isn’t because I’m a man, and men biologically can’t pick up on these things!” “Male software engineers sexually harass women because we’re nerds, and nerds don’t have enough social skills to know what’s sexual harassment and what isn’t!” “It’s better for the mother to raise the children than the father. Fathers are just too insensitive. Guess that means women should drop out of the workforce to raise kids, and never come back!” There have been so many times when some guy told me that he wasn’t rude, he was just being a guy. The idea of a person taking PRIDE in their INABILITY to do something, or their own rudeness, sounds very strange on the surface, and yet men often loudly and proudly tout their inability to do skills coded as “girl stuff” or “woman stuff.” The idea that any man would take pride in his inability to parent sounds heartbreaking, and yet, Elon Musk referred to his son as an “eating, pooping machine” and proudly proclaimed that, “There’s really not much I can do about it.” So the man engineering electric cars can’t work out a diaper? And is willing to ADMIT it? There’s clearly more to that story, the “more” being that he thinks changing diapers is beneath him, but not beneath a woman. Slating some traits with men and other traits with women is never good when so many misogynistic men believe the most ignoble “guy thing” is better than the very best “girl thing.”
Patriarchy as a social system has differed across time and place. There is archaeological evidence that prehistoric humans (gatherer-hunters) respected women equally. Patriarchy is not biological. It’s not caused by testosterone. Yet men have always used bioessentialism — the idea that everything men and women can do, and should be allowed to do, is determined by our biology — to justify patriarchy. Their bioessentialism has been debunked. So if someone, female or male, uses a bioessentialist argument to support the idea that women are worthy of rights, workplace inclusion, and respect, it’s not a compliment and it’s not okay. Women deserve rights, workplace inclusion, and respect because we’re people. We don’t have to be innately better than men at anything to earn our keep.