Ok, let’s touch at once the core of the problem ….Truly, how big the differences between us are? I wonder what can evoke the low self-esteem in a woman and what in a man? What does ennoble them?
It is a difficult question because you are talking to a person who believes that real differences between men and women aren’t as big as we consider them to be. What we perceive as behaviors expressing a woman’s or a man’s feature, in fact it is an exaggeration, typing into a pattern which is convenient from a social point of view.

So there are no differences?

Of course there are some differences between men and women but they themselves are not responsible for what kind of men and women we can see around us. What we observe it is a result of the fact that we live in a society awaiting clear differences between sexes and creating for each of the genders some different conditions of living and socialization. We live in a society that is specifically formed. Therefore, inevitably our reception of some issues, preferences, fears must be different. So, if you ask about differences between a typical man and a typical woman, certainly there are a lot of them. For example, women often form their identity in relation to intimates – a husband or a partner, children, their family. Men,
according to the ideal of “masculinity”, should be more independent. We can see this in sociological studies in which women usually describe themselves as mothers, wives, and only on the further place they provide the terms: ,,woman” and ,,human”. Men perceive themselves as…men. Their being a husband or a father is an issue somewhere further in the background. The consequence of an identity formed in such a way (relational vs. independent) is the way how we work, how we spend our free time, how we perceive our life, successes, failures. An average Polish woman usually has problems with resting, relaxing – her so called ‘free’ time is a time devoted to family – washing up, cooking, bringing children to schools or other after schools activities. Men off duty, on the contrary, can lie down on a sofa or meet with their mates, optionally dumping rubbish as they go out. For such a woman the idea of going out with her friends, or devoting her time only to herself may be petrifying because her family is an inherent part of her identity. Meanwhile the man doesn’t see anything bad in having a good time on his own. Of course this vision is exaggerated but certainly everyone sometimes finds elements of this ‘ideal’ woman or ‘ideal’ man in themselves or their loved ones.

And how was it at the origin of our civilization?
The patriarchal relations with masculine domination and feminine subjection, and with assigning those first to the public sphere and the latter to domestic sphere, hasn’t appeared automatically at the beginnings of the homo sapiens’ existence. Many researchers investigating on the social structure of our ancestors claim that the first relations were egalitarian. Regardless of actual (and reasonable) differentiation between some tasks, which was connected with human reproductive functions, no groups were treated as more or less valuable. The purpose of any social group was to survive and each role serving this purpose was equally valuable. All associations, values, meanings, taboos, orders and prohibitions which are now connected with the division of various occupations between started to develop later on, during Neolithic times, when—due to economic reasons—one group of people gained more power and influence than others.

These were men…
These were shepherds. And mainly men were shepherds as for women, who were then for most of their adult life either pregnant or taking care of children, it was more difficult to go out with herds. So women took up the agriculture. The foundations of statehood, institutions, and religious and social life which were developing at that time, finally became formed in this spirit – of new beliefs in superiority of man and his activities. The goal of this was to solidify predominance of men as a privileged group. Although we do not live in Neolithic times any more, we still bear consequences of that ages. We’re trying to out its many other remains defining them as useless for today humans, like for example the ethos of war or bloodshed typical for the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age. But we still maintain in the world the gender-based social hierarchy. It is so deeply rooted in the very fabric of our societies that only recently we have started being aware of this. Relations between genders are not exclusively a private matter between men and women but we usually perceive it in that way. Women’s (but also men’s) magazines run a race in giving good advices how to understand a partner from a different planet. But the truth is that it’s not just about relations in a family or in a relationship. This is also about the wider social dimension, about who has power in the society.

How much do the stereotypes and preserved for years scenarios of social roles limit a development of both genders ?
In case of the traditional division of roles in the family and stereotypically formed identity of both partners, their personal development and areas of interest may be located in totally different spheres. Such a woman takes up “feminine” activities”, meaning those connected with house, aesthetics, animals, children or art, while a man will have “masculine” interests, such as automobiles, extreme sports, or football. Both will be cautious not to get interested in something forbidden, which means assigned to the other gender. It might be very exhausting and limiting. Think, for how many people it knocked the wind out of their sails – or they did it by themselves not following the path of their interests.

So women’s position has been defined not so much by characteristics specific for her biological sex, but rather by the social conditions which are pretty dreary?
That’s right, although probably not always only dreary. At the same time we can observe that most of us (both women and men) have been shaped in rigid molds since our birth – like in this movie “AntZ”, in which young ants just after birth were given either soldier’s helmets or worker’s shovels, and after that their dreams, ideas, ways of thinking, aspirations were to adapt to this. I often ask my students whether they could imagine the world without a rigid division between “masculinity” and “femininity” which exists today. And they usually respond that such an idea of the world without the division is terrifying and repellent because without these two concepts there won’t be mutual attractiveness and it just will be boring. But what about the world where we’ve got only two possibilities of behavior, can’t this boring to some? We like to boast that the human being as a species is unpredictable, creative, with the head full of information and readiness to seek answers to difficult questions, to explore. And then it turns out that this species is divided into 100% predictable women and 100% predictable men (at least one easily gets such an impression looking through glossy magazines, watching TV soaps and commercials). Their features, preferences, behaviors, lifestyles and dress styles are strictly defined.

As for me – boredom.

On the one hand boredom but on the other – a stalemate for a woman. A man is put into a scheme that predicts success about which woman can only dream. .. It is sad because the truth is that the potential of a human development is incredibly wide regardless of our sex, but only if we do not let ourselves be put into any stiff mold. Fortunately, gender awareness is raising in the society. Some 100 years ago you wouldn’t have asked me about my opinion on any important issue. What motivates and stimulates men and women should be simply the things which give them pleasure and satisfaction.

Does the bigger inclination to risk-taking, for example in business or on labour market, men also owe to this wretched scheme of ideal virility? When I think about a person who behaves aggressively or undertakes extreme risk which has a chance to result in something great, it is rather view of a men which comes to my mind, not of a women…
I’m not surprised at all because after all you are a ‘product’ of your society which promotes male aggression and bravado versus female submission. When women and men are to achieve a goal and they can do this using aggressive and risky behaviors, men are more eager to do this because this is what is expected from them. However, research shows that women reach for these instruments as often as men when they think that no one watches and it will be impossible to verify how they achieved the good result or if they are dropped a hint that such behavior is acceptable and even expected from them. Pressure of social norms is a power which can’t be ignored.

It’s easy to list women from public life who achieved success. If we assume that social conditions still promote men, how do women challenge this?
They may respond in many different ways. There are women who want to succeed on their own terms but also women who do so on the terms dictated by men’s majority. These first are keenly interested in parity and equality in the private and professional spheres. They want to break the “glass ceiling” that is built of stereotypes of the traditional manhood & womanhood, and constitutes a barrier preventing promotion and professional development of an average Polish woman. These women are prepared for a long-lasting war with injustice and are happy with every, even the smallest ‘crack’ in patriarchal monolith of our society. The other category of women are ladies who deny sex discrimination. We can hear their voices in forums, in comments to statements about gender (in)equality. They are those who always cry: “Personally I’ve never been subject to any sex discrimination, so it surely is some rubbish”.

What is interesting, they also sometimes achieve success. How do they scrape up in this men’s environment?
Firstly, I would say that their way to the top is not (actually – for any woman) so easy. This is not to say it is easy for all men, but for success for females may be a hard thing to achieve. It may be because women who succeed in science, business, politics can’t count on mentors or some support from other women-colleagues—at least not to the same extent as men. Such women may receive a label of strange, suspicious weirdos. Once they reach the dreamed peak, they may want to fence off out there. They pull the ladder up not to let other women – potential rivals— climb up., It’s a very sad phenomenon.

Is it different in men’s world?
Gentlemen stereotypically are more competitive but in fact…they often help each other. They practice networking, form groups, clubs, old-boys network. At the same time women crush rivals with a heel. Some time ago a special term was coined for such ladies– the queen bee. Lonely among men in suits, although they achieved a success on “masculine” terms, they don’t want the change of this world for other women.

To break this deadlock, we need more women from this first category?
I guess. We need more of such women, women that not only believe in their strengths, are assertive, ready for hard work, and seeking partnership with men in workplace and home, but also wanting other women to succeed. Women who, at some point in their career and personal development, could and would like to become mentors for younger women that are just at the beginning of their careers.

Can we help each other in a way? What could we do in order to benefit from the fact that the society and other conditions created the schemes of roles and characteristics of men and women?
Let’s theorize a bit here and we could imagine a couple of persons with relatively traditional features, that is a typically “masculine” man and a typically “feminine” woman but who nevertheless are still open to suggestions from the other gender. Within the traditionally understood “femininity” and “masculinity” there are many good features that we could exchange. Women could “buy” from men a little bit of assertiveness, decisiveness and high self-esteem, while men should learn the skill of listening to others and understanding their problems, as well as having concern for another human being. These are features which our society ,,builds” in each of the genders, thus creating men-leaders and women-nurses. These features aren’t direct outcome of different biology of men and women, but they are largely learned. Let’s remember that nowadays more and more often it turns out that some aspects of women’s style of managing (focused on people and their problems) positively influence business and the whole big world. And then, suddenly, men assimilate this style without any problem.

Can the business world still benefit from women?
Yes, however we cannot say that everyone should be only caring and only listening to the problems of others. This must be cleverly combined with other features, and in good proportions. Many years ago in psychology appeared the concept of androgyny – this is when a person possesses psychological traits of both genders, traditionally attributed either to men or women. Androgynous individuals are characterized by a wider range of behaviors and an ability to adapt to requirements of many situations – simply speaking, they can function better in the society. Obviously unless this society burns them earlier on a stack.

Interviewer: Janusz Schwertner

Dr Joanna Roszak
Department of Social Psychology, The Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities. She teaches students how to plan and carry out research projects, and runs courses on academic writing, intercultural psychology, gender and violence in intimate relationships. In her doctoral dissertation she was interested in how we perceive people who—due to their life choices of social roles or professions—differ from socially dictated patterns of “femininity” or “masculinity”.