Historically, mothers and fathers have been especially scrutinizing their female offspring. Traditionally, women have been raised to be afraid. To fear the world. To fear their fathers. But most of all, to fear themselves. “Close your legs”, “don’t anger him”, “dress modestly so you don’t provoke him”, “don’t attract too much attention to yourself”, “stay home”, “don’t go outside after dark”, “don’t be alone with a boy”, “respect your husband” and much more, are very common phrases female children hear growing up. These phrases are most instilled with the intention to protect the child from the atrocities the world can subjugate them to. These atrocities are unfortunately predominantly committed by men. Not any men, but men who have been socialized to believe in hierarchy, entitlement, and misappropriated and selective human rights. Through repeated gendered socialization, women grow into adults with fear and terror enshrined. Men, socialized to believe in equality and equity or to believe in gendered and classist rights and hierarchies, both benefit from that fear.
Statistically, women apply for fewer jobs, they challenge their male counterparts less assertively, they are less opinionated in professional environments, but most of all, they are unaware of how the reality around them is what it currently is and why they need to act submissively in public endeavors. These unequal opportunities, gendered comparative advantages, and unfair institutionalized notions are what have created the hegemonic bloc; the self-fulfilling prophecy and closed cycle that perpetuates the idea that men are the leaders, the drivers, and the guardians of the world. This paternalistic, egoistical, and delusional idea feeds and is fueled by the maintenance of the status quo. The more the cycle has repeated itself, the more the prophecy has rung true. It has become a theorem; a law of nature which has been undisputed and only rarely subjugated to any type of falsifiability.
The replicability of this theorem in different contexts and circumstances allowed its audience to believe in its internal and external validity. Yet, this scientific method of inquiry was never questioned. No one ever has asked “why” the data self-perpetuates, or what that initial igniter of this data was. Why is it that minority ethnic, working class, queer women are less likely to be visible or even apply for high-profile positions than their white, upper class, straight counterparts of both sexes? The answer for that is very complex, which is why this researcher needs to focus on one specific variable: the need for illiterate women as one of the variables which have allowed for the theorem of male superiority and female inferiority to perpetually and a-contextually ring true. We need to further examine how the condition of fear as a source of power for the theorem is jeopardized by the education of women, and forces already marginalized persons to disappear from entire domains of life – such as being a CEO of a multinational corporation in a non-tokenistic capacity.
So, what options does a person have if they wish to challenge these false conceptions and liberate women from a fear-driven upbringing which would define their entire lives? Firstly, we need to recognize that social conditioning occurs during a child’s formative years, between the ages of zero to eight. Secondly, we need to socialize female children to become more assertive and remove the element of ‘terror’ most adult women operate under, which dictates most of their choices, ranging from which streets to walk down to which discipline to study and even what job opportunities they pursue, all with the hope it would reduce their risk of being ‘prey’ to humans, environments and institutions which have embedded gender norms and discourses.
This process would require an awareness of the implications of Gender Socialization as the root cause for the ‘fear’ women operate under; the term is defined as the “process by which individuals develop, refine and learn to ‘do’ gender through internalizing gender norms and roles as they interact with key agents of socialization, such as their family, social networks and other social institutions” (Netu, et al, 2017:6). By reforming gender socialization to strictly mean pro-social behavior as opposed to gendered behaviors that are dictated by gender expectations and solidified by the roles one is assigned, we would accomplish a safer social environment for women and an egalitarian society in which members pursue their desired ambitions unencumbered. However, as hopeful as that may sound, it is unrealistic to expect eons of traditions, structures and discourses to disappear overnight. So we must focus on what we can do after gender socialization to offset its drastic implications on women’s lives.
To combat this, the education of women is essential to challenging existing power dynamics and reforming perceptions of women’s supposed inferiority (implicitly and explicitly). Similarly, the World Bank (2022) attributed the significance of girl’s education which goes ‘beyond getting girls into school’, stating:
It is also about ensuring that girls learn and feel safe while in school; have the opportunity to complete all levels of education, acquiring the knowledge and skills to compete in the labor market; gain socio-emotional and life skills necessary to navigate and adapt to a changing world; make decisions about their own lives; and contribute to their communities and the world.
This is an explicit confirmation that barriers to women’s education are in essence socio-culturally and politically motivated. In spite of Western nations seemingly being ‘more egalitarian’ with regards to equal access and opportunities in the public sphere, the observation of gender attainment and awarding gaps identified by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA, 2021), highlight that gender socialization is an implicit cultural barrier affecting women in developed and developing countries alike. Admittedly, this is to a varying degree depending on the context of the country under investigation, but gender theoreticians agree it is a universal issue. Scholars such as Matherson, et al, (2021), who argued for patriarchy significantly affects health inequalities and urged for a reorientation of our current systems, and Gruber and Szoltysek (2014) who developed the Global Patriarchy Index to showcase that patriarchal norms affect all countries at varying degrees, both negated any country’s ‘immune’ against gender discrimination.
Further research needs to focus on the following phenomena to unpack why education is still a gendered pursuit and a highly patriarchal one. Research ought to unpack why fear is a condition for the continuation and survival of male hegemony and the role of education as a development tool in maintaining or challenging socio-cultural discourses around rights and obligations. Within this, researchers should discuss the socio-cultural, political and legal role of colonial history and its effects on gendered understandings and opportunities should ensue. Researchers should frame the role of education in terms of degree attainment, which is still alive and was epitomized in the A-Levels Post-Code Lottery scandal of 2020. Research should focus on the role of female and male socialization to understand the impact it has on gender dynamics, norms, performativity, and strategic gender interests. We need to challenge the institutionalization of gender dynamics and frame it in its appropriate context of rights and opportunities so we can create a future in which fear is no longer a barrier to the growth and development of any individual.
Dr. Reham El-Morally, AFHEA, is an Associate Lecturer in International Development |Teaching & Learning Project Officer at the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading.
Gruber, S., and Szoltysek, M (2014). “The Patriarchy Index: A Comparative Study of Power Relations across Historic Europe”. Max-Planck Institute for Demographic Research, working paper 2014-007.
Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), (2021). “Higher Education Student Statistics, UK: 2020/2021”. Higher Education Statistics Agency, (accessed online): https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/25-01-2022/sb262-higher-education-student-statistics
Matheson,A., Kidd,J., Came, H. (2021). “Women, Patriarchy and Health Inequalities: The Urgent Need to Reorient Our Systems”. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18: 4472.
Neetu, J. A., Stoebenau, K., Ritter, S., Edmeades, J., Balvin, N. (2017). “Gender Socialization during Adolescence in Low- and Middle-income Countries: Conceptualization, influences and outcomes”, Innocenti Research Briefs, no. 019.