It is a very Human tendency to ‘essentialize’ things. This principle of ‘essentializing’ and ‘differentiating’ has been unfortunately applied to the question of gender, resulting in stereotyping of Men and Women, defining one as the ‘weaker’ sex, assigning of gender restricted roles, resulting in the dominance of and subjugation of the other which has been a cause of endless conflict and suffering through out human history.
In post-modern times, popular pseudo-scientific literature has only managed to reinforce such stereotypes. We have been told that Men are single-taskers, have better map-reading abilities, rational, have tunnel vision, are colour-insensitive, don’t listen, and not very empathetic as against women who are ‘naturally’ more empathetic and nurturing, are multitaskers, have wide-angle vision but no spatial abilities, emotional, see more shades of colour, etc. This has been attributed to all kinds of reasons- from evolutionary biology to genetic make-up.
With rising global awareness of Western notions such as ‘democracy’, and ‘individual rights’, and with rapidly spreading struggle for ‘gender-sensitivity’ and ‘gender-equality’, the pendulum seems to be swinging in the opposite direction. Gender has become a sensitive and touchy issue- at least among the urban intelligentsia. It is impossible to talk about it on the social media or at social gatherings without someone or the other taking extreme offence at people who merely hint that gender differences might exist. This may be because differences are conflated with biases — a tendency to over-compensate and to gloss over or deny gender differences- to erase those differences all together- to dream of a Utopian society — Classless, genderless, androgynous.
To me this is going to extremes of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Do we need to necessarily equate gender difference with gender hierarchy or bias? Can we acknowledge and appreciate the former without imposing the latter?
Dr. Simon Baron Cohen, a clinical psychologist and professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge came up with the theory of “Extreme Male Brain” while researching into the autism in children. He discovered that they (on average) have a higher “Systemizing” brain function as opposed to “Empathizing” brain function. “Systemizing” function involves the ability to comprehend and resolve complex abstract patterns and concepts, while “empathizing” involves the ability to read facial expressions and relate emotionally to other human beings.
In another controversial experiment, infants less than 24 hours old were shown two images; one of a woman’s face and the other a colour-banded sphere, and the duration for which the child stared at both were measured and compared by independent observers who were not informed of the gender of the child. ‘On average’ more boys stared at the sphere and more girls stared at the face.
Dr Cohen has been critiqued that his experiments reinforce gender stereotypes. According to Dr Gina Rippon, a professor of cognitive neuroimaging, scientists look for ‘differences’ in their ‘scientific experiments’ which are designed to find such differences, then they do find them, then disseminate them to the public at large through the media. The media then picks up on the controversies, sensationalizes the results and ignores the all-important nuances such as the rigour, conditions, limitations and the validity of the experiments and statistical averages.
Could this further risk the danger of reinforcing the existing stereotypes in popular imagination and exacerbating the victimization of one gender? She put forth these compelling arguments in a widely viewed public debate on the subject “Is the Brain Gendered?”.
Responding to these arguments and clarifying the caveat that what is ‘male brain’ and what is ‘female brain’ may not correspond to male or female sex, Dr Baron Cohen observed that a more nuanced approach to understanding sex and gender may be needed. While pre-natal biology seems to play a crucial role, growing up in a ‘gendered culture’ has undeniable influences on one’s gender.
Rather than asserting that being male or female is either only a result of Biology or that it is only the result of upbringing and the cultural environment, which are both ‘deterministic’, he proposes a more complex ‘interactionist’ model which consists of seven layers. One’s ‘shade’ of gender may be the outcome of a complex interplay between the following layers: 1. Chromosomal sex (XX or XY) 2. Genital sex 3. Gender assigned at birth 4. Current gender-identity 5. Gender behaviour 6. Sexual orientation 7. Brain sex (Empathizing or Systemizing).
While the West is moving towards more nuanced and layered models of understanding gender, there have been non-binary views of gender that have flourished for centuries in the Eastern cultures. India has it’s rich trans-gender tradition.
The Indonesian community of ‘Bugis’ acknowledge five genders — These are Oronae’ (feminine female), makkunrai (masculine male), Calabai (feminine male), calalai (masculine female), and bissu (androgynous person with both masculine and feminine traits). Calabai refers to biological males who take on more effeminate roles — like being a home maker, cooking, or more commonly being involved as part of a bridal party. On the other hand, calali refers to biological females who do masculine jobs such as that of a blacksmith. Bissu, being the combination of male and female, are thought to be imbued with magical knowledge and power, which is why they are often seen as conduits to the spirit world.
On the design front, the world of contemporary fashion has been at the vanguard of gender definition (‘re-definition’?) for many decades now — from using androgynous models to designers who have turned gender on its head in their highly experimental and sensational work, to so many well-known designers who have gone beyond the straight and narrow in their own personal gender definitions.
Celebrity culture and wide exposure in the social media have certainly helped create a climate of ‘acceptance’ to what was considered ‘deviant’ only decades ago. The notion of gender sensitivity and fluidity is fast seeping into other design disciplines as well, such as communication and products.
What is the role of gender in a design school? What are the implications of the ‘male and female brain types’ on the designer and the design process? What kind of a brain should a designer ideally have?
A design school to me represents a space of freedom- freedom to question conventions, freedom to explore, to experiment, to choose, to express, and freedom just to BE. As laboratories that produce new knowledge design schools offer the best environments to sensitize students to social issues including that of gender.
As a practicing architect since 1980’s, I have always believed in a healthy ‘balance’ of the ‘Empathizing’ and ‘Systemizing’ in the design process — long before ‘design-thinking’ diagrams came along, claiming to solve all the problems in the world of design and business.
It is interesting how all of them describe a ‘systemized’ step by step process that start with the first step- ‘Empathize’.
Extreme Systematizing with zero empathy has led to the global wars, the holocaust, the nuclear bomb, and the destruction of nature. Just Empathy without systemic thinking may be emotionally comforting but unproductive and ineffective in making positive change. This brings me to my central thesis.
A designer should train in being gender-fluid- at least at the brain function level. S/he should be able to move mentally — fluidly, from being Empathizing to being Systemizing –switching back and forth in the design process. I think a designer is somewhat of a Bissu, imbued with magical knowledge and power — The power to create. Perhaps the secret to good design may be this kind of mental gender mobility and gender-agility? Good Design is a result of a dialogue between the empathizing and systematizing brain functions.
The image above is of Avalokishwara, Bodhisattva of Wisdom, revered as Kuan-Yin in China in female form but worshipped as a male in other Buddhist countries.
Empathy (Buddhists call it compassion), has two components 1. Cognitive (the ability to put oneself in the other’s shoes and to know what the other is thinking and feeling) 2. Affective (the drive to reach out and to respond appropriately to another’s thoughts and feelings). A good designer must cultivate both these abilities. As a teacher of design, one must not only possess these qualities, but should also be able to skillfully transfer these to the next generation of learners.
1. How to Academy, 2019, Is the Brain Gendered: The Debate (Video Online) Available at:
https://youtu.be/kxfaE-gWZ9I, (Accessed 18 Aug 2019)
2. Joshua Lee, mothership, 2017, The Bugis believe there are 5 different genders instead of just male and female, Available at: https://mothership.sg/2017/10/the-bugis-believe-there-are-5different-genders-instead-of-just-male-female/