"I think there is a way to change"

"I think there is a way to change"

Social psychologist Francine Deutsch on her approach to gender studies
  • Professor Francine Deutsch ©Mount Holyoke CollegeProfessor Francine Deutsch ©Mount Holyoke College

Social psychologist Francine Deutsch is Professor Emerita of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College. Her research focuses on issues of gender justice, from gender equality and the division of domestic labour in the contemporary American family to the status of child care workers. As a member of PRESAGE’s Advisory board, she answered our questions on her research and approach to gender studies.

You are working on the social psychology of gender in everyday life. Could you explain what social psychology is?

Social psychology is the study of how the social environment affects individual behaviour. Usually sociologists study bigger groups than social psychologists, who often study individuals and how their attitudes change. Although I am a social psychologist, my research is not classically social psychological. It is very close to sociology.

How can social psychology help analysing how gender shapes people’s lives?

I think you do need social psychology for gender studies. Social psychologists study topics like how people internalize ideas about gender, and how these ideas influence their behaviour.
As social psychologists, we also look at some of the same variables sociologists study. A social psychologist would be classically more interested in people’s attitudes than in the institutions they are in. I think it is a slightly different approach. But, as I said, in my work I address both.

In Undoing Gender (2007), you propose to use the phrase “undoing gender” to refer to social interactions that resist gender stereotypes. More than ten years later, has the situation improved?

A few years ago I went to the literature to see how many people had cited this paper. And a lot of people have cited it! The problem is that sometimes people still want to say “gender persists ”, which it does, of course it does, but I think there is not enough emphasis on how we can be successful in resisting.
Yet now a number of really good papers using this idea exists. One I love in particular is a study by an Harvard researcher of men working on oil rigs: the company was having a huge problem because of accidents, so they instituted rules to try to prevent them. And actually, part of the problem was that these men were acting out masculinity, you know, taking risks, doing things to show how manly they were. So in the process of trying to reduce those behaviors, they essentially undid gender. And so the men gave up those ideas and along with it they gave up other ideas about masculinity. This is a really interesting intervention.
So, yes, I think many more people have examined how gender is undone, although I would still say that dominant literature is about how gender persists.

In Undoing Gender, you discuss how gender operates at the interactional and structural levels. You write that :
“Just as the form that gender oppression takes varies across race and class, what it will take to undo it will vary as well.” Would you have recent examples of research which addressed those questions? Would you describe it as intersectional?

Well... I guess it is a kind of intersection, because we try to understand what it means to undo gender in different contexts. I will give you an example from my own research on social class.
When I did “Halving It All”, the book I wrote in 1999, I interviewed both middle class and working class couples who shared parenting equally.

For middle class couples, there was a lot of choice about how they were going to organise their work lives: they had a lot of opportunities that they discussed before making decisions. So the interactional level was really important; it really drove their equal sharing. They made choices together, like whose job they were going to follow - they did not automatically go where the husband's job was. Because they have more freedom in some way - because they have more money - their views and their choices are really critical for how they become equal.
Working class couples had fewer options. They organised their work lives so that one person is working and the other takes care of children. Even though they had very traditional attitudes, because of structural constraints, they lived in a very equal way.

A lot of people talk about the myth of equality: many middle class couples claim to be equal, but if you look closely they aren’t. Working class couples often had the myth of inequality: even when some things they say sound very traditional, if you look at their behaviour they are truly equal.

This is an example of how different things play a bigger role in some groups than in others. When you are talking about undoing gender, it means something very different when you are talking about one group or another.
There are probably other examples now. Every once in a while I go back to see who is citing the paper and how they are citing it, because that is what is interesting.

You also work on couples that achieved equality at home by resisting gendered norms. Who are “equally sharing parents”?

"Halving it all" is almost twenty years old. Now I’m about to publish another book which is international: "Creating Equality at Home". In this new book we have case studies of 25 couples from 22 countries around the world who are equally sharing.

When you ask the question “who are they ?” that’s a difficult question to answer because we don’t have the macro data. I cannot tell you even what percentage of Americans are equal sharers because no one collects that data. People don’t look specifically at this question, or no one has, as far as I know. But if you’re asking me “who”, in terms of “what are the factors ?”, a variety of factors seem to be contributing to their being able to share equally… and they all involve undoing gender.

So first, equally sharing men have unconventional relationships to work: it is not the central part of their identity. Equally sharing women, on their part, are willing to give up their idealised ideas about motherhood. Saying that their careers are equal does not mean that they’re necessarily career-driven; it could mean they both compromise and focus on the family.

Also, one thing that is true in every single country, no matter how egalitarian, is that equally sharing parents are all non conformists: in no country is it the norm to share equally.

As a researcher, you have to ask what makes someone able to thwart gendered social norms. And here is where social psychology comes in. There is literature about what it takes for people to do just that. For example, nonconformists need to be self-confident, they sometimes find a subgroup you can identify with. Typically, equally sharers do not believe in what we call “essentialist ideas”: they do not believe that men and women are fundamentally different, which also enables them to thwart the norm.

Then, we looked at their families of origin: how did the families they grew up in affect them. It was very interesting. If your parents were non-traditional, are you more likely to be more traditional? There is some evidence for that. But when you look at equal sharers, sometimes they had parents who were very traditional, and they did not want that, especially the women [laughs] … but even the men, they did not want to be fathers like their fathers. Another factor is that some of the men who grew up in very traditional families, had mothers who expected them to do what we consider “feminine” work: they learned how to cook, they took care of children and they were close to their mothers. So these are different paths according to the families of origin.

And the last thing I would say is that these equally-sharing couples put a very strong emphasis on family. Not just the wives but also the husbands. They are willing to make sacrifices to spend time with the family, like anti-materialism: even if their salaries are less, they choose family time.

What do you see as most important in the study of gender?

What I think is really important in the study of gender is not simply to document all the ways in which gender is oppressive. I think it is really important to have research that examines how we can change things. If you have too much of just documenting how women are treated badly, it eventually gives the sense that there is no way to change things. And I think there is a way to change, and so we really should be focused as feminists on how things can get better. That’s my main message.


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