What Is Gender Blindness?

Cropped shot of unrecognizable man holding a piece of paper with gender equality symbols indoors

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Gender blindness describes the practice of ignoring differences between genders, including historical differences in the treatment of various genders.

Some research shows that certain gender blind strategies can positively influence women, especially those in fields and workplaces dominated by men.

On the other hand, there are drawbacks to gender blindness that ultimately serve as a barrier to gender equality. One glaring issue concerning the term is that is ableist in the way it conflates blindness with a lack of awareness and acknowledgment.

The following article will start by defining gender and explaining its role in the way different people may be treated. Then, it'll outline the positive impacts gender blindness can have, followed by the negative impacts. Finally, the article will wrap up with a summary of how you can practice gender neutrality instead to maximize the positives of gender blindness and minimize the negatives.

Defining Gender 

Gender is one way an individual defines their identity and includes both the gender they identify with and how they express their gender through their appearance and behavior.

While gender is often presented as a dichotomy in which a person is either a man or a woman, the reality is that gender is a spectrum. This spectrum includes nonbinary, genderfluid, and transgender identities, and people can define and express their genders in many different ways. In addition, gender shouldn't be confused with sex, which refers to one's biology.

Gender plays an important role in the way people are treated. While there is an increasing push for gender equality, ongoing issues like sexism and transphobia continue to contribute to the bias and oppression faced by cisgender women and other transgender and nonbinary people.

Impacts of Gender Blindness

There are both positive and negative impacts of implementing gender blindness practice in the workplace and in other organizations. Let's take a look at what some of those are.

Positive Impacts
  • Increases confidence in the workplace

  • Decreases bias against women in STEM

Negative Impacts
  • Overlooks history of gender discrimination

  • Negatively impacts gender equality at companies

Positive Impacts of Gender Blindness

Because of the impact it has on their lives, women and all transgender and nonbinary people's knowledge of culturally ingrained gender differences and expectations may impact their thinking and behavior, especially in work environments dominated by men.

Research has shown that practicing gender blindness can help cisgender women overcome this issue, leading to greater confidence in the workplace and less bias against them in science- and math-related fields.

Increased Confidence in the Workplace

Gender stereotypes suggest that men are assertive, risk-taking, and natural leaders. Meanwhile, women are seen as timid, uncertain, and nurturing. This cultural understanding of gender roles has helped promote the notion that men are more suited for the workplace than women are.

However, research by psychologists Ashley E. Martin and Katherine W. Phillips demonstrates that gender blindness practices may help women more easily attain the confidence they need to succeed.

In a series of five studies, the researchers found that in male-dominant environments, such as business school and managerial positions, men felt more confident than women. In order to see if this could be altered, participants were given activities that advocated for gender blindness, like reading a passage that downplayed the differences between men and women. After reading these passages, women felt more confident in the workplace and increased their identification with words like "dominant," "forceful," and "leader."

This also led the women to say they would be more willing to take actions like speaking up first and negotiating for what they wanted.

Gender blindness had no impact or lessened men's workplace confidence. In an interview with the researchers, they observed that because men tend to be more overconfident than women about their skills, using gender blindness to lessen their confidence while increasing women's confidence could decrease the confidence gap between men and women and increase gender equality.

Decreased Bias Against Women in STEM

Women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Biases against women have been blamed for this gap. For example, a study found that when scientists were presented with applications for a lab manager position that was identical, except that half had traditionally masculine names attached and half had traditionally feminine names, the supposed woman applicants were rated lower than the supposed man applicants in competence and hireability.

Moreover, the scientists were less willing to mentor the "female" applicants and offered them salaries that were almost $4,000 less than the "male" applicants.

An investigation of potential interventions to overcome such gender biases found that strategies employing gender blindness were more useful than strategies employing its opposite: gender awareness, the practice of emphasizing and embracing gender differences.

Across six studies, the researchers found men who already believed or were primed to believe in gender blindness were less likely to buy into biases against women's abilities in STEM fields. Gender awareness did not have this impact. As a result, the researchers concluded that gender blindness strategies could help close the gender gap between women and men in STEM.

Negative Impacts of Gender Blindness

While the studies cited above demonstrate the value of gender blindness practices in academic and professional settings, gender blindness can also be problematic in a variety of ways.

It Overlooks Historical Differences in the Treatment of Genders

Just as colorblindness (i.e., the practice of ignoring racial differences) ignores centuries of racial oppression, gender blindness ignores the many ways gender minorities have been discriminated against.

Using gender blindness as a blanket policy erases that struggle and overlooks ongoing gender-related issues. This can prevent frank discussions about gender and the ways gender equality can be achieved.

It Doesn't Advance Gender Equality in Organizations

Research has shown that gender blind or gender-neutral policies in organizations may contribute to maintaining sexist beliefs and behaviors in workplaces, creating a barrier to gender equality.

For example, in a study of workers and managers in banking organizations, the researchers found that, although participants spoke about terms like "flexible work" and "work-life balance" in gender blind ways, this didn't advance gender equality.

While the study participants claimed their organizations enabled everyone to make individual decisions about their working hours, male and female participants also indicated that such choices were primarily associated with women with families. In society, women with children have been expected to work a "second shift" (this refers to domestic life) after they get off from their day jobs. This is something that men have not been expected to do.

As a result, in organizations with policies that are supposed to be gender blind, women who wanted to get ahead would forego flexible working opportunities to be seen as essential and avoid being sidelined.

Practice Gender Neutrality Instead

Gender blindness isn't always the best policy in all situations. The term itself upholds harmful stereotypes about blind people. It's also true that we all learn to see and understand gender from the time we're children and denying that ignores the way gender differences have shaped people's lives and society as a whole.

Moreover, gender blindness can deny an important part of one's identity, something that may be especially true for gender minorities who have worked hard to define and embrace their gender.

Given the spectrum of gender, ensuring workplaces are diverse is immensely important. Due to the inherent ableist nature of the term gender blindness, we encourage following a different ideology, gender neutrality, instead. Gender neutrality capitalizes on the positives of gender blindness with less of the negatives.

While gender blindness encourages disregarding gender in social interactions, gender neutrality was created to focus on institutions. It calls for structural change, for roles to no longer be distinguished by gender. There are many circumstances in which gender neutrality can be implemented where it can help overcome long-standing gender biases, such as:

  • Redacting names from job applications
  • Emphasizing similarities between co-workers' skills regardless of gender

Meanwhile, in workplaces and other organizations, it is useful to continue to educate others about the history of and ongoing issues related to gender discrimination and to encourage the observation and reporting of any instances of gender bias. This can ensure that gender-neutral policies are thoughtfully deployed without sweeping gender issues under the rug.

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6 Sources
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