Gender image of a group of university students: advances or immobility?

Educational institutions can be spaces promoting gender equality as well as centres for the reproduction of discrimination, whose naturalisation is one of the elements favouring the longevity of patriarchy.

In Cuba, the institutional laws and policies favour the access of women and men to university, as well as professional work; but historic-cultural mandates prevail that determine different ways of socialising for one and the other based on what is conceived as feminine and masculine. The social and subjective changes are not on a par with the implemented laws and policies. After working for five days with a group of young university students it was possible to reveal a gender image that, while inheriting traditional ways of conceiving gender relations, attempt to incorporate innovative ideas and seeks referents – non-existing – that distance themselves from what is understood as inequalities, which is why they are constantly submitted to contradiction and to a way of conceiving reality in tension, typical of contemporary times.

The dichotomist character of western thinking establishes the dimorphism based on sex.  It responds to a formal logic from which reality is understood and society is organised, while dividing women and men based on what is conceived as feminine and masculine, respectively.

The masculine, associated to men, rests on the meaning of virility based on the attributes of strength, sexual erection, economic success, personal initiative, courage, homophobia. It is a model recognised as superior and hegemonic. The events of humanity that are considered vital ratify these values as the meaning of power, ensuring the androcentrism of the model. In this way, what is expected of men points to being intelligent, knowledgeable, always sexually active, emotionally controlled and cool.    

Contrary to this, the roles of wife-mother-housewife is attributed to the feminine – fundamentally associated to women -, from whom it is expected that they develop qualities like sensibility, sweetness, affection, empathy, that they be experts in interpersonal relations and masters of feelings, that they contribute to the care and education of all human beings by providing support, confidence and strengthening of self-esteem. The mandate consists in being protectors par excellence of the hygiene, food and emotional care of the family, of descendants, couples and elderly relatives.

The occupation as caregivers of humanity, given to others and for the happiness of others based on their very essence, implies maintaining an image of corporal and spiritual beauty, thus the frequent allusion of women to flowers, stars, and the demands referring to the way they dress, do their hair and look. One of the most rooted mandates based on individual and collective subjectivities is that of women as the objects of erotic and sexual enjoyment for men.

Today the vindication transformations that have an impact on feminine identity range from the most social aspects to the most intimate: sexual liberation, eroticism, the enjoyment experienced by the body based on pleasure and satisfaction, divorce as a personal decision, the maternity projects assessed based on professional training, there’s a greater opening to the different sexual orientations, diversity of love dynamics, different models of union, new notions of sexuality, other conceptions with respect to fidelity or infidelity, new models of maternity and paternity, greater economic independence, access to knowledge and leadership spaces.

However, modernity’s changes, though they favour advances, have not become equity fundamentally in the spheres of power, understood as: leadership posts, science, multiple job posts and even personal life spaces like access to certain decisions, to the capacity for autonomy. In the public as well as private sphere, situations of discrimination still persist, diversified according to the social fabric in which the women move.  

The counter positioning of the public and private space is a phenomenon that marks the feminine subjectivity and that generally is expressed in malaise, since it implies a demand for skills, conceptions and competence that are counter positioned between ways of being traditional and innovative. The breaking of the traditional guidelines that maintained women marginalised has not implied the extinction of the inequalities, but rather the permanence of many of them, together with the rise of other innovative conceptions.
Psychologist Lourdes Fernández  confirmed this when referring to the subjective fragmentation as the consequence of a process of transition in which, despite the transgressions, women continue perpetuating traditional forms of conceiving, assuming and assigning femininity, masculinity, being women, being men, family life, maternity and love life, based on the patriarchal ideology.   

The abovementioned has been proven in studies carried out with women academicians of diverse generations and areas of science, in whom traditional and innovative gender conceptions coexist. The women, while having access to the academic sphere and being competitive because of their skills and professional work in the space of knowledge they have had to conquer and which was historically banned to them, maintain traditional beliefs regarding their role in the family, which favours the contrast between the public and private space, fundamentally due to demand for time, disposition and personal effort.

The stereotypes of self-sacrificing mothers, the assessment of women based on order and care of the home, and life in couple persists as the only alternative to happiness. These conceptions demand from women different communication skills and styles and, on occasions, contrary to the demands in the public space. Such is the case of the women who hold leadership or decision-making posts.   
Within the family they do not experience their choice of life “related to being academicians” as a family project, even when the support networks (headed by mothers and/or mothers-in-law) have permanently favoured their professional upgrading. The children’s reproaches, the professional competition with the couple, divorce and the feelings of guilt because of their absence at certain moments in the raising of the children are a sign of this.

The fact that women have equal access to spaces of knowledge and compete on an equal basis as the men, does not guarantee that life in the public sphere is subjectively equally assumed. The differences in terms of the socialisation of women and men during their lifetime marks distances that lead to inequality if measures are not taken that see to the promotion of women in these spaces in a differentiated way.

Underhanded discrimination is also manifested in carrying out the professional role. An assumed protection towards women with small children is put into practice when the time comes for proposing them for posts or responsibilities that demand time for extra work. Many of them perceive during their professional life the need to make efforts to demonstrate their knowledge and deconstruct the assessments made of them as referents of beauty. The image of women as a sexual object still prevails in the academic space.

IN DIFFERENT WORLDS?

Based on these pre-assumptions it was decided to work with students of a career of social sciences to find out about the gender image that functions among the young generations. The study’s aim was not to generalise the results but rather to analyse in depth the understanding of the phenomenon, which is why it comprised a group of 18 students.  

Through the holding of five two-hour-long workshops and methodology of working groups, priority was given to dynamic experiences, participatory interactions and reflections based on experiences and sense of the participants. The aim was to explore if there were advances or not in the new generations and to promote reflections that would mobilise awareness and the criticism of the students of both sexes from the gender perspective, which implies an initial step in the promotion of a culture of gender equity in the chosen group.  

The group was made up by 16 women and two men, representing the composition that characterises the careers of social sciences. The group’s image analysis was made in depth based on psychological interpretations of the group’s work, which included conscious (manifest) and unconscious (latent) contents.  

It is pertinent to highlight that when talking about the group’s image it includes both the men and women; however, there also emerges an image shared by women and another shared by the men which is not ignored and is coherent with the principles of gender perspective, which is why they were extensively approached.

Following are some of the results arrived at:

-The meaning of the family
-The meaning of maternity and paternity
-The relationship between the private space (in this case the family) and the public space (work)

Coherently with the conceptions of life of western societies and of the Cuban in particular, the spaces from which they imagine life is based on the conquest of two areas: the professional and the familiar, which translates into goals to be met. The professional, meaning upgrading and economic solvency. The familiar, in relation to the created family, which includes the couple and the children, in all cases referring to heterosexual couples.

The economic solvency because of work in the professional area has a different meaning for women and men. The first places emphasis on their interest to be independent, as compared to what is expressed in the men’s discourse. This establishes a difference between the value it has for women and the value it has for men: in the women it means change, conquest, breaking away from the traditional; while in the men it maintains a natural meaning, since it is given as something that is implied.

Ana: …when one works it can happen that, because of the wage you get for what you do, in addition to personal realisation one can achieve a certain level of Independence, no? “I can maintain myself; I can make my own decisions”

The projects related to the professional space are characterised by a greater clarity and security in terms of the strategies to follow; the private space implies greater uncertainty and contradiction for the young people.

The family emerges with a different meaning for one and the other. The women see it as obligatory and a priority, while it is a tradition and hinders professional development; thus the anxiety, contradiction and ambivalence that the projects represent in this area. The conciliation of the public and private spaces is thought of based on their ages because both are viewed as counterpoised, according to the times and demands of life. It implies a dilemma based on values and gender conceptions not studied in higher education as part of the professional training, though it affects everyone and fundamentally the women.  
 
Another contradiction expressed by women, and not by the men, is that referred to their wish to “constitute a family” or “being a mother,” but this is also expressed in a latent way, that is, underhandedly and indirectly, the devaluation of other projects in the private space (historically associated to the feminine), understood as couple, the myth of love, marriage. This corresponds to a rejection of the traditionally feminine with a marked negative valence, understood as what has been historically assigned to women, the feminine, the domestic.

Katia: I don’t know, building a family, having a husband, these are things that people, that women…that is I thought, “I’m going to write that I want to marry and have children,” but I see it as old (the group laughs), no, I have to become a professional, I’m not going to start thinking “I’m going to get married and have children,” it is important and it is half of my life, but I can’t be thinking that I am going to spend 20 years working and I’m going to be a recognised professional, then after 20 years I’m going to look for a husband and I’m going to have children because both things have to be done at the same time, and I think this thing with the home is a bit behind the women who want to be professionals.

The contradictions mentioned up to here are indicators of the crisis of identity of contemporary women, while they try to permanently resolve the problem of not being traditional women (which excludes the profession and only includes the care of the family) or just being professional women (which would exclude family responsibilities and being a good wife, mother, daughter, etc.).

The counter position of the times and spaces, the multiple demands that determine the identity of contemporary women starts being a dilemma for some of them at an early age, even without experiences in a real present. It is no longer a question of the double work shift that would seem predestined beforehand, but rather even becoming aware of it represents a great burden for their life projects and places them in contradictory positions, while deciding what type of woman they will be. Gaining time is presented as a challenge.
There are no models or referents for the ideal contemporary woman; in any case there exists an image of stressed women, making great efforts, while these reflections are still not linked to men.  

Katia: … if you have, I don’t know, support like from your mother, then perhaps you have more time because supposedly grandmothers are retired and stay at home and do the housework, then I do believe collaboration is necessary and it’s necessary to have the backing of another person because it is very difficult to do it all on your own.   

For the group, both the ideal woman and man imply professional development and success (self-realisation and Independence). In the women, parallel to achieving a family; not so in the case of men who, while not excluding that project, do not have it well drawn up or express it as a sense of life.

While the group expresses itself with innovative ideas – as mentioned before -, it continues being the heir of a traditional culture, which cares for women being deep-rooted to the family, to the maternal, to giving love, to establishing affective relations, to the ability to maintain the emotional balance within the family and developing certain abilities for this, which functions like a cultural mandate. Thus the group rejects (the women included) the fact that some women express a priority for professional realisation over the wish to be mothers.

Therefore, the marked rejection of the traditional appears according to the role of wives and not as mothers. It would seem there is a shared image regarding women, in which a positive assessment of the fact of being a single mother stands out, with a marked meaning of pride and of total belonging of the children, as well as the satisfaction and acceptance of the model of superwoman.   

Zenia: …some people think both things cannot be carried out at the same time; I think one can carry out both at the same time, if you have the cooperation of someone who helps you it is much better, but if you are alone, you feel even more realised if you can do both things at the same time, being a professional, being the entire day at work until five, but when you finish at five and you’re feeling super good because you succeeded in a new project at work, getting home and being able to care for your children and teach them to bathe themselves and prepare their meal.  

There is also an image that explains the distancing of men from family projects. The males share giving priority to the professional area in relation to the family. This is coherent and at the same time impressive in terms of the fact that, based on their image, the structuring of a family project without support necessarily from the couple prevails. The forecast is that of a man who is absent or insufficient in the house and family chores, which is complemented with an image shared by the men where a greater closeness and dedication to work prevails over the family.

Raúl: … it has always happened and currently occurs that the man is the breadwinner, he has to maintain the family, he is always the one with a professional development, he is the one who has to look for the money.

In general, it is possible to affirm the existence of fragmented projects because of the different images men and women have, even when living together, which explains the counter position in which men and women are educated based on a patriarchal culture that does not privilege education for coexistence, communication, cooperation and complementation, and that conceives the feminine and the masculine (embodied in a stereotyped manner in the bodies of women and men, respectively) not just as different but also opposite.

The way of conceiving amorous relationships is also significant, since it is much related to the responsibilities of the home and children. The group defines women as “currently liberated.” This, for the men, has a negative sense, dangerous and contrary to the role of mother, to having a family. Meanwhile, there is awareness by the males with respect to their exclusion from the family project, which is determined by the women as the maximum responsible persons and decision makers. For women the debate revolves around whether they will be good mothers or not; for the men whether they will be fathers or not, or if the women will allow them to be fathers or not.

Raúl:…because then that Independence women would have nowadays…which will be to seek a sort of stallion to have a child and does not go beyond that.

All the aforementioned rests on an understanding of maternity as something mythical, ethereal, sub-realist and biologist notions are confirmed from which one can explain the close links of children with the mothers and not the fathers. Contrary to paternity that, in effect, is undervalued as compared to maternity.  

Raúl: I suppose that women feel more that they own them because they are practically the ones who form them, no? In the sense that they are the ones who spend nine months with children inside them…men think…about the role they have to play, and since now women are championing the idea of being more liberal, being professionals, being empowered, being free, I suppose one has to reach some type of consensus.

The image of a woman is created, responsible for the family while having the ability to be professionally successful, capable of balancing her life in couple and the education of her children with labour upgrading and achieving economic solvency. A woman who while not abandoning her personal and professional projects, assumes a position as the males’ caregiver as well as the conciliator and protector of others’ wellbeing.

During the sessions, debates and the project’s tasks that were carried out, beliefs and conceptions also emerged regarding fidelity and the amorous link that allows for the group’s gaining awareness of the socio-psychological differences between men and women, which we will attempt to summarise as follows.  However, always confirming a contradictory reality, absolutely not lineal but rather complex, which is indispensable to take into account in the group experiences.

While advances have been confirmed in the way of conceiving gender relations, there also persists a patriarchal essence that decides the roles, feelings and traditionally established attitudes for women and men, and the hierarchical assessment of the masculine in relation to the feminine is fundamentally maintained. A hardworking and critical woman is discerned, at the same time as peaceful and subordinate to men to maintain the amorous relationship, motivated by satisfying others, pleasing, conscious of their infidelity and resigned to the lack of dialogue because of the limited interest of the men in terms of communication (in relation to family and interpersonal matters).

Moreover, there emerges an image of men, in some cases less involved than in others, with an important distancing from questions of relationships, affection, who form personal development; concentrated on the professional space, as a means of achieving their masculine identity, which is enriched with achieving of the economic sustenance of the family; concerned with women’s contemporary changes, which are alarming, threatening and incomprehensible.

It would seem there is a model of the masculine that becomes static in relation with the participation in the private space, with the complexity involved in the formation of families, the education of human beings and with the conciliation of the daily demands of life.
From the group it would seem there is an image in which women act as experts and being interested in the behaviour, personality, functioning of interpersonal relationships and of life in general, while the men are apprentices who try to fulfil the mandates of behaviour, without this implying an active, critical and personal position, because it is not part of their meaning of life, of their image as males.  

There emerges a woman associated to the care of her children, housework and being faithful to the man, to the detriment of her dreams. Meanwhile, men are defined by their enjoyment of women as sexual objects (objects while they assume the position of “owners”), the inconsistency to assume the education of minors and the role of family caregivers in general, while they demand their belonging to the family. What’s most significant is that the assessment of the latter’s superiority over the first prevails.

It is necessary to point out that this image does not appear in an obvious and direct way, but rather in an underhanded way and based on expressions, behaviours, feelings and even silences read from the coordination of the group, based on a psychological interpretation of the phenomenon, since not only from the discourse do these stereotypes emerge.

CONCLUSIONS

–    Even though in this group of young people there are innovative notions of gender, like the case of women’s ability to play a role in the public space, to be economically autonomous and independent, other roles are repeated of a traditional character that do not favour the future conciliation of the public and private space, nor the coexistence between men and women as couples, as is the case of the over-extolling of maternity, the devaluation of paternity, the image of the superwoman as an ideal to be accomplished, as well as the little or no involvement and lack of elaboration with respect to the role of men in the family space.

–    There persist gender socio-cultural mandates that favour the existence of a gender image shared by men and a different image shared by women, which promotes counterpoised lifestyles.

–    It is significant that from an early age, when the constitution of their own family still doesn’t exist (in the case of the members of the group), one can see in women an awareness of the dilemma, the conflict, that the conciliation of the public and private spaces will mean in the future.

–    Women’s mobilisation in favour of change, in the search for new forms to be more autonomous, and the slow pace of these changes in men, significantly influences the family project, while women start thinking as single women capable of assuming the responsibilities, independently of whether or not men are involved, which is a sign of the breaking away from the traditional family model.

The aforementioned points to the need to promote more equitable lifestyles in women and men. In women, so that the conquest of new spaces does not mean the intensification of gender inequalities and in the men to create the need for a greater incorporation to the private space and to break away from the patriarchal mandates that are still immovable.

It is indispensable to place gender relations as a fundamental subject in educational, orientation and social influence spaces, like for example the media, which respond to the current changes and demands of society in order to accompany them from an educational perspective and the wellbeing of human beings. (2013)

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