Competing theories about gender and sexuality underlie many debates on hot-button issues like abortion, pay equity and transgender identity. Gender studies programs impart knowledge and skills that help in navigating gender-related controversies.
What Is Gender Studies?
“Gender studies gives language and voice to social inequalities, processes, conditions, arrangements, and rituals that can otherwise go unspoken and unnamed,” Deborah Cohan, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina–Beaufort, wrote in an email.
Gender studies focuses on the ways gender identity and sexual orientation shape behaviors and feelings, and it investigates power dynamics that relate to sex. This field includes men’s studies, women’s studies and queer studies, and occasionally addresses widespread social concerns such as domestic violence. The academic discipline also investigates causes of sex-based discrimination and harassment and solutions to the problem.
“Research tells us that we learn what our culture considers ‘appropriate’ gender and sex roles by the age of two or three,” E. Michele Ramsey, an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Pennsylvania State University’s Berks campus, wrote in an email. “Thus, children feel pressure at a very young age to conform to expectations based on their perceived sex (or) gender and may limit themselves as a result of these expectations.”
Topics in Gender Studies Courses
Gender studies often focuses on expanding the scope of other liberal arts disciplines by examining materials that were previously overlooked because of their association with marginalized groups, according to some experts.
“It’s filling in the gaps for all the things that were left out when history and all of the fields were focusing more on men,” says Emily Meghan Morrow Howe, founder of the American Association of Corporate Gender Strategists, an organization that focuses on reducing workplace gender bias.
For example, a gender studies literature class may concentrate on the works of underappreciated women authors, says Howe, who frequently uses the nickname “Femily,” an allusion to her queer identity.
Howe notes that gender studies is similar to ethnic studies in its focus on the distribution of power in society and its examination of “the systems of privilege and oppression.”
Taryn A. Myers, an associate professor of psychology at Virginia Wesleyan University who teaches women’s and gender studies courses, says the field of gender studies provides relevant information for everyone, regardless of gender.
“For example, the same patriarchal factors that say women are weak and disregard women’s strengths also say that men cannot express emotion, which is linked to men’s mental health issues and the higher rates of death by suicide for men,” Myers wrote in an email.
Gender studies is an interdisciplinary field of study that incorporates insights from the traditional humanities subjects, social sciences and physical sciences.
“The topics really range,” Myers says. “For example, they might study a mental illness that disproportionately affects women, such as eating disorders or depression. They may study the role gender plays in electability of political candidates. They may study interpersonal gender violence and its repercussions.”
Misconceptions About Gender Studies
Some gender studies scholars and degree recipients say a frustrating myth about the academic discipline is that its mission is to denigrate masculinity. The field is not intrinsically antagonistic toward men, Howe says, because “everyone benefits without social norms forcing them into a box.”
Mark Justad, a member of the religious studies faculty at Guilford College in North Carolina and director of its Center for Principled Problem Solving, says gender studies offers many lessons about cultural ideals surrounding masculinity.
“The flip side of gender inequality is this notion that boys and men have been limited in terms of the range of the humanity that they can express,” he says.
Intellectual exploration in gender studies can help a man realize that he is no less capable of showing compassion for others than a woman simply because of his gender, Justad says. “The capacity for bonding isn’t limited to any one specific gender, and that’s important if we want to raise boys and men that have the ability to be empathetic and to sustain good relationships.”
Exploration of gender studies can help someone reflect on what type of person he or she would like to be, without feeling hindered by gender stereotypes, Justad notes. “It opens the door to a deeper and broader understanding of one’s humanity.”
He adds: “Gender is a significant part of what it means to be human. Why wouldn’t you want to understand it?”
Robert J. Mundy, coauthor of the book “Gender, Sexuality, and the Cultural Politics of Men’s Identity in the New Millennium: Literacies of Masculinity,” wrote in an email that “the misnomer that gender studies is a discipline for women remains a concern we must contend with as a field.”
Mundy, an associate professor of English at Pace University in New York, suggests that some men avoid engaging in conversations about gender or worry that challenging gender norms will threaten their masculine identity.
“So, no, gender studies and feminism are not based on this widely held but false belief that such work will be the ‘end’ of men or that men will somehow be ‘replaced,'” he says. “The field is also expansive and ever-growing, though some might believe otherwise.”
What You Can Do With a Gender Studies Degree
Gender studies degree recipients often choose to work for advocacy organizations and charities that frequently assist women — such as domestic violence shelters — or similar groups that help lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
An undergraduate degree in gender studies can also provide preparation for graduate school in a wide array of fields, including medicine. Gender studies grads frequently become lawyers, social workers, or therapists.
Having a gender studies major doesn’t mean you have to pursue a career that relates to gender, says Howe, since someone with this type of liberal arts education can do a variety of jobs that involve critical thinking.
Howe notes that many gender-focused nonprofit roles pay low wages. But one lucrative way to use a gender studies degree and focus directly on sex equity issues, she says, is to provide strategic advice to companies on how they can promote fairness in the workplace and guard against sex-based bias.
A degree in gender studies cultivates a person’s empathy and creativity, Howe says, adding that an understanding of gender and race issues is crucial for success in the modern business world. “You really can’t run a business today if you are clueless about those things.”
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