Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Completing not competing

How today’s men and women view each other and their respective life roles was the focus of a recent event in Cairo, writes Omneya Youssry

Al-Ahram Weekly

Many men and women nowadays seem to be struggling to achieve a balanced coexistence. Why do they sometimes seem to be competing with each other instead of figuring out how to communicate?
In an attempt to find an answer to this question, UN Women, in cooperation with the International Federation of Medical Student Associations, and the AUC Heya Club recently held a “Take the Floor” event at the Cairo International Conference Centre on International Women’s Day.
The event shed light on some of the problems facing women today, including discrimination, labelling and categorising. “Since the dawn of human civilisation, equality has remained an ideal that we strive to work towards but never attain,” said Mohamed Ismail, founder and master trainer at the Regional Centre for Training and Reproductive Health at Ain Shams University in Cairo and one of the speakers at the event.
People are divided by class differences, racial differences and, most fundamentally, gender differences. Being male or female is something we regard as a prominent part of our identity, an essence that we cannot escape. However, this essence need not become a prison, Ismail said. Achieving gender equality was something that had to be the responsibility of the whole of society.
“There’s an increasing consensus that gender equality requires contributions from both women and men,” Ismail said, pointing to the importance of encouraging men to understand the positive consequences of gender equality. “Healthy adaptation helps us to understand our partners better. We should try to change the way we communicate, react and respond to each other, in order to successfully get the support we need.”
Ahmed Nader, 26, a musician, said that one problem between the two genders was that they lacked a common frame of reference and they had different priorities and interests. Such things could be resolved by trying to discover each gender’s characteristics, he said, adding that society still had a long way to go in its treatment of women.  
“There is a struggle between men and women, but this struggle is not there by nature. It is something that is created by their thinking too much about how different they are instead of focussing on their points in common,” commented Sara Khairi, 25, an English language instructor.  
“Men think women are needy and crazy, while women think that men are selfish and irresponsible, just like kids. Neither side seems to want to reduce the gap. Each is stubborn, and neither tries to get closer and understand the other’s needs,” she said.
Khairi said that many of the problems between men and women could be put down to negative social backgrounds. “People raise their male kids to be ‘better’ than their sisters, instead of teaching them how to complete each other.” They should shift their minds in order to think more positively about the opposite sex, she said. Women in particular should not be seen as simply a “supplemental part of life”.
Khairi said that even some men she knew were capable of acting offensively towards women. She cited the story of one of her acquaintances who had got married in a very traditional way according to conventional standards to a handsome and rich man. She had done so mainly because she couldn’t bear being 26 years old and not married like her sister and cousins. But after two months of marriage, she began to realise that her new husband was not psychologically stable, and he started to get angry with her and to blame her for anything that went wrong.
She lost her first baby as a result of depression, and even when a second birth went well her husband seemed to be getting worse and worse. Then she got pregnant for a third time, and this seemed to make her life even more of a challenge. “She is a university graduate, pretty, and from a good family. It’s all a cultural issue. She thinks of herself as too weak to live alone without a man,” Sara said.
One of the reasons behind such feelings may be that women are less competitive than men, which could also explain why they are often not given senior positions and responsibilities. Researchers have found the issue important enough to study, and a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper entitled “Do Women Shy away from Competition? Do Men Compete too Much?” found that women are indeed not well enough represented in corporate positions, or in science and engineering jobs.
As the authors of the paper observed, the “standard economic explanations for such occupational differences include preferences, ability and discrimination.” To this list they added a new factor: attitudes toward competitive environments. If men prefer more competitive environments than women, then there will be more men represented in areas where competition is more intense.
Of course, discussions of gender differences of any sort can only be statements about averages; it is clear that there are women who thrive in competitive environments and men who do not. Furthermore, attitudes towards competition may be ingrained or they may be the results of factors like social stereotyping. Men are more likely to enjoy competing with each other, perhaps because they feel more confident about their abilities.
The data support this hypothesis, with 75 per cent of men believing that they had won a competitive game given to them in an experiment, and only 43 per cent of women thinking they had been the best in their group. Though both groups were overconfident about their performances, the men were much more so. Women seem to be much less likely than men to do well in competitions, even when their actual performance is as good as that of men, the authors concluded.  
Abdel-Rahman Yehia, a 29-year-old veterinarian, believes that there is no necessary struggle between men and women. “It all depends on mentality,” he said. “You can’t generalise. The main problem has to do with the assumptions and the lack of communications of each due to their different approaches. Through better understanding and putting yourself in his or her shoes and thinking things through from his or her point of view, the gaps will lessen. Men and women should listen to each other and strive for better communication.”
“For me it’s not a struggle. Or, to be more precise, you have to be more specific about how you want to define the issue. There are so many other variables that need to be taken into account, such as socio-economic class, stereotypical thinking, and personality,” said Aya Shoman, a 24-year-old communication executive.
“For me, calling it a struggle is too much, because I think it’s more about missed communication, or having different perceptions of roles and expectations. In our society, we see constant underestimates and stereotypes regarding women.” Unfortunately, it is not only men who see women in this way, underestimating their emotional, physical, social and professional skills. Even some women reinforce such views by submitting to stereotypes, and this can impede cultural change, Shoman said.
“I think the solution will come from raising young girls differently and making them believe that they are not second-level creatures but are an active part of society. This may lead to changes in the wider culture,” Shoman said.
Every society gives men and women different roles, responsibilities and social standing, though both men and women have also asserted themselves against stereotypical ways of thinking, validating their importance to the societies from which they come. The human race cannot do without either.
So, why is it that men and women have sometimes not been able to coexist peacefully? Is modern civilisation truly egalitarian? Are the roles of men and women predetermined by biological differences, or does social conditioning play a larger role?

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