Men Are People, Women Are Women

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Are “Do-It-Herself” workshops and “Puzzles For Her” really necessary? Or are they only creating a deeper divide between women and men?

The sections of a popular clothing website are labeled “T-shirts” and “Girls’ T-Shirts.”

The aisle in the pharmacy says “Deodorant” and “Women’s Deodorant.”

In the toy store, there are “Puzzles” and “Puzzles for Her” and a “T-ball Set” and a “Girls’ T-ball Set.” 

And let’s not forget the Bic pens.

At the popular blog Sociological Images, there’s a name for this phenomenon: Men are People and Women are Women. Despite the very obvious statistical ridiculousness of this attitude, maleness is considered the norm and femaleness a deviation that requires extra explanations and adjectival modifiers.

Given that more than half of the United States is female (50.8% as of 2008), it would actually make more sense for female to be the default and male to be the other. Thought experiment: Imagine if the aisle was labeled “Deodorant” and “Men’s Deodorant.” Something feels off when you frame it like that, right? It’s almost like interlacing your fingers the “wrong way,” it shouldn’t feel so weird, but it’s hard to break years of habit without a little discomfort.

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A few days ago, I posted to Facebook a link to Home Depot’s website, which displayed three types of classes, Do-it-yourself and Do-it-herself, and workshops for kids. A perfect example of Men Are People, Women Are Women, right? “Not so!” cried a handful of my friends, arguing that the do-it-herself class was a perfectly valid attempt by Home Depot to reach out to an underserved home-repairing community with special programming. Wrote one friend, C., “I think this is a form of affirmative action—DIY for everyone, special women’s workshops for those who may not feel comfortable attending DIY workshops with ‘the guys,’ and then things for kids.”

Is he right? Is Home Depot actually helping the cause by trying to create future parity with special attention for female DIY-ers? Or are they contributing to what another friend called “overlexification,” continuing to other women and cement the male default? Can it be both? As a comparison point, C. brought up a Women’s Leadership forum that exists in his law firm, “Law is vastly male-dominated and the reason why these things [women’s groups] exist is to support women in an otherwise male-dominated field. Would you prefer gender-neutrality here at the risk of women-specific issues getting overlooked (because they will)?”

On one hand, many industries and activities are severely imbalanced; it’s not sexist to note reality. Companies and institutions are right to actively reach out to underrepresented groups to encourage higher participation rates for the sake of future equality. Though most of the time that means reaching out to women or people of color, it can work for men too. Would I object to a support group for male nurses at a hospital where the nursing staff is 80% female? Would I object to a nursing program actively recruiting at all-male schools because they believe that a diverse workforce is a stronger workforce? I wouldn’t, because I do believe that a diverse workforce (and diverse in every sense of the word) is a stronger workforce.

What about a yoga class that is open to everyone but marketed specifically to men, like Broga Yoga? The majority of yogis are women, but there is no inherent reason that yoga shouldn’t be equally accessible to everyone. Is there anything wrong with targeting a new population to expand the pool of downward-facing dogs? No, because yoga is for all people and everyone should feel comfortable on the mat.

On the other hand, the overwhelming list of examples of Men are People Women are Women makes me wary of even well-meaning attempts to target women for special attention. Why is deodorant inherently male? Men and women wear deodorant in equal numbers, right? Why not say “Male Deodorant” and “Female Deodorant?” (Or even just “Deodorant?” Don’t you think folks would find their brand just fine?)

The deodorant example is a silly one, but some are more damaging. If a little girl walks down a toy store aisle and passes Puzzles and Puzzles for Her, don’t you think she wonders why she needs special puzzles? The implication is clearly that puzzles are for boys and that some special puzzles (Pink puzzles? Easy puzzles? Puzzles of unicorns?) are for her.

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So the question is, where does Home Depot fit on the spectrum between deodorant (idiotic) and Women’s Leadership Forums (still, sadly, necessary)? My Facebook commenting friends have successfully convinced me that, as a specific example, DIY for the ladies is not a bad idea. If some women are intimidated by the concept of DIY, especially in a co-ed setting in which they feel under-equipped, than an all-female class is a valid approach to easing a new generation of female DIYers into home repair. Given that about a quarter of new homes are purchased by single women, perhaps this is truly a service after all.

Even if we give Home Depot the benefit of the doubt, let’s not forget the bigger picture; we are humans, not some strange alien cousin of men. As Soc Images puts it, women are not “a special kind of person.”

Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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