Gender studies is a relatively new academic field that explores ideas around gender identity and gendered representations. It evolved out of women's studies and was heavily influenced by postmodern and poststructuralist theory. As such, gender studies is deeply suspicious of grand or naturalized narratives. It rejects, or at the very least subverts, traditional assumptions on what it means to be a 'man' or a 'woman' (quote marks important). A quote from the French philosopher and social theorist Simone de Beauvoir is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the subject. She wrote: "One is not born a woman, one becomes one.” This basic idea is the center point for many of the most influential gender studies theorists, including Judith Butler, author of the seminal text Gender Trouble.
Through what Butler calls "performativity", she argues that gender, whether male or female, is constructed more through social and cultural conventions than innate biological drives or genetics. Gender Trouble proposed that the concepts of man and woman, or boy and girl, are projected onto us by an incredibly complex web of language, meaning, and signs which are re-enforced by dominant ideological positions. In most cases, this begins as soon as a new baby is born, or even before. Just ask anyone what colour is traditionally associated with a baby boy, and then ask the same question for a baby girl. Not everyone will give the same answer (some will even be suspicious of the question), but the overall responses are highly likely to reveal some preconceived notions about gender - blue for a boy, pink for a girl. These traditional roles are then re-enforced by our expectations of how each gender should behave, or, more importantly, through how we encourage them to "act."
Since the 1990s, there’s been a 300% increase in the number of gender Studies graduates. Many young people are drawn to the subject's explicitly political and social purpose, which aims to build a more inclusive world where gender expectations do not restrict opportunity. Doreen Mattingly, chair of San Diego State’s gender studies programs, writes, “Our curriculum is really about social justice, and I think at this moment a lot of students are realizing that this is where students want to put their energy."
But while Gender Studies is a good route into political or social activism, there are many other benefits to studying gender. Gender studies is a broad, interdisciplinary subject that encompasses literature, history, sociology, law, public health, and much more. It also encourages a critical approach to identifying problems, intellectual curiosity, and open and creative thinking that's essential for innovation and progress. In other words, students who opt for gender studies are not limiting their career choices. In fact, it is arguable they are doing the very opposite.
So here are four reasons why you should study gender studies.
It relates to pretty much anything
The idea of gender as a social construct requires a multidisciplinary approach. Because if gender is more of an abstract idea than a biological fact, then it is impossible to focus on a single subject area. For example, gender roles have changed dramatically within the last century, but this change was driven by an intersection of cultural factors ranging from science, economics, shifts in religious attitudes, political movements, digital technology, artistic representations, and medicine. Just think about the contrast between the traditional idea of a 1950s housewife and the contemporary advertising archetype of the city-dwelling young professional woman. This 'new' gender role is now accepted and promoted in many cultures, and is borne out of many political and social developments, such as the availability of birth control, equal opportunity legislation, and free market principles which create services and products that reflect and enable new gender norms. This is why no television network from the 1950s could have possibly produced a show like Sex and the City.
When you major or minor in gender studies, you will study politics, critical theory, literature, history, sociology, and psychology, all from a feminist or gendered perspective. To put it another way, gender studies can apply to pretty much anything, and a three-year undergraduate course will give you a solid grounding in a range of academic subjects that can lead to many different career opportunities. It will also help in your personal life. Gender studies is about looking at the world from a new perspective, and you will be able to use your critical skills to make sure you're getting the best out of everything. It can help you build better friendships and relationships based on a deep understanding of who you as individual, rather than a gender.
It transcends gender
One of the most critical terms in gender studies is intersectionality, which can also be referred to as intersectional feminism. Intersectionality describes the interconnected relationship between social categories, such as gender, race, and economic status. This overlapping system of identity creates a more nuanced view of how individuals relate to dominant ideological positions. For instance, and depending on the context, the experience of a white woman is likely to be very different from a woman of colour. The same can be said of an able-bodied woman of colour when compared to a disabled woman of colour born in an economically deprived area.
Without the concept of intersectionality, such individuals can become lost in broad social categories, which can fail to adequately express individual difference or identify the potential for oppression or exclusion. Gender Studies clearly acknowledges the role of gender in creating identity, but, by applying its own multi-faceted approach to gender, it has conceptualised a new analytical framework for understanding (and potentially overcoming) the interlocking systems of power that impact the most marginalised members of society.
Gender studies is about equality
The elimination of prejudice and discrimination isn't just a moral issue, it is also a vital legal one the world over, making gender studies an essential tool in the ongoing struggle for equality and opportunity for every individual.
Woman make up half of the workforce and yet are noticeably underrepresented in the top political and corporate positions, and even more so in specific industries like engineering and tech. And while some scientific research posits the possibility that hormonal differences can, albeit very subtly and indirectly, affect the type of professions men and women are drawn to, gender studies raises a vital question: are such choices driven by our biology or are males and females more influenced by cultural norms and expectations?
Either way, a female engineer will almost certainly be outnumbered by her male colleagues, and an awareness of new concepts around gender ensures that employers create a working environment that provides enough opportunity for every worker, no matter their gender. And there's plenty of evidence that this is already happening. In the 1970s, women occupied just seven percent of jobs within the STEM fields. Today that same figure is at 24%. This might not be the jump that many people had hoped for, but it's proof women are benefitting from more opportunities than ever before, and of how genders studies is making a significant contribution to this continuing trend.
Gender Studies has real-world consequences
Gender Studies is a complex subject, and leading academics like Judith Butler and Julie Kristeva are among some of the greatest intellectuals of the last 20th century. Their texts re-examine the very foundations of psychoanalytical theory, Western philosophy, and the objectivity of scientific research. Their arguments are incredibly nuanced and can take years of academic study before being fully appreciated. As such, a cursory reading can lead to the incorrect conclusion that such ideas are purely theoretical, but it's important to remember that they have real-world consequences.
Gender studies graduates have a variety of career options beyond academia, including roles in NGOs, charities, and women's organisations. What's more, many people working in professional and volunteer sectors are turning to the subject to deepen their understanding of the issues they face daily. Examples include people running women's shelters on a volunteer basis or humans rights lawyers working towards the protection and expansion of anti-discrimination legislation.
Studying gender provides a unique and stimulating intellectual challenge. More importantly, it can be your first big step in enacting real changes that can improve the lives of countless people all over the world.
Gender studies is about so much more than women's rights. In fact, the same arguments can be applied to theories of masculinity and the ways in which they may enforce cultural stereotypes upon men. It's essentially an inclusive project aiming towards creating the social, political, and cultural conditions that can provide the greatest freedoms and opportunities to every individual, regardless of their gender, race, or sexuality.