Gender on a spectrum

In her last column Courtney Martin challenges the way we think about gender roles, sexual orientatio

Like most teachers, I have a few quirks that seem to emerge over and over again, every semester. I ban the word “weird” from my classroom. It is, in my experience, used as a substitute for critical, original thinking and a buffer from dealing with new learnings and discomfort. Which brings me to my next quirk—I am constantly advocating discomfort. I borrowed this idea from my brother, who borrowed it from Piaget—to be optimally uncomfortable (i.e. just a little, so you can concentrate but feel a little thrown off) is the most fertile time for real learning. And finally, I am constantly talking about spectrums.

One of the questions we ask in feminist theory is: what part of our behavior is socialized and what part is biological? Basically, we are modernising and gendering the nature vs. nurture debate. I ask my students not to peg themselves as one or the other—a social constructionist or an essentialist—but to consider where they might fall on a spectrum and where they might move on that spectrum with regard to specific issues.

For example, are women more prone to multitask naturally or because they have been socialized that way? Some neuroscientists suggest that we have more fibers in our corpus callosums, the part of the brain that links the two hemispheres; this appears to facilitate faster movement back and forth between the right and left brain, and therefore, quicker shifts in thinking and action.

On the other hand, perhaps girls are socialised to believe they are better at multitasking because it props up a whole economic system which depends on women taking on a greater range of responsibilities (sometimes called “the second shift”) than men. Or perhaps both are true. What do you believe? And where does this plop you down on the nature-nurture spectrum? (Note: for far too long the majority of us have indiscriminately placed ourselves on the nature spectrum when it comes to issues of gender and sex.)

Another spectrum that I ask my students to engage is that of sexual orientation. Rather than thinking of attraction as existing on a binary—heterosexual or homosexual—or even as tri—throwing bisexual in the mix—why not consider the possibility that our attractions develop along a spectrum? This rocks the foundations of so many of our current political debates and social realities in a really good, unsettling way. If I’m not heterosexual, but merely participating in a heterosexual relationship at the moment, it changes the way I might consider engaging issues like “gay marriage” or “family values.”

And finally (this one will really blow your mind) what if sex itself exists on a spectrum? Anne Fausto-Sterling, a widely-read and celebrated, feminist scientist, argues that there are in fact five sexes, not two. Four percent of babies are born intersexed, meaning that their reproductive organs don’t all fall into just one category—male or female.

In our current medical system, these babies are “assigned” a sex through reconstructive surgery (sadly, often based on whether the penis appears to have the potential to be “large enough” to be normal.) Four percent! That means that out of a college of 6,000 students, 240 were born intersexed.
That day of class always sends my students home to the dinner table asking, “Mom, dad, was I really a girl when I was born?” By the end of the semester, most parents have been bewildered by at least one question inspired by our class discussions. I consider it an honour.

Courtney E. Martin is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn, NY, and the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normality of Hating Your Body (Piatkus Press). Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com
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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.