The most basic gender role in our society is this:
Men act; women are acted upon.
This paradigm is old; it is also vast. It shows up in every culture on Earth and during every time period. We may, ourselves, have inherited this essentially patriarchal construct of reality from our cultural ancestors, the Romans. C J Cherry writes, in her primer on Latin:
First of all, not every human born thinks in the same order. […] Let me show you the Latin thought pattern.
<ACTOR /ACTED-UPON> <ACTION>
Right there. That’s it. Which sex do you think Roman’s saw as naturally ‘acted upon’ and which as natural ‘actors’?
Modern science has also identified this deep dichotomy. Gray and Wegner write in Moral Typecasting: Divergent Perceptions of Moral Agents and Moral Patients:
Moral agency is the capacity to do right or wrong, whereas moral patiency is the capacity to be a target of right or wrong. […] Across a range of targets and situations, good- and evil-doers (moral agents) were perceived to be less vulnerable to having good and evil done to them. The recipients of good and evil (moral patients), in turn, were perceived as less capable of performing good or evil actio
Across a range of targets and situations, good- and evil-doers (moral agents) were perceived to be less vulnerable to having good and evil done to them. The recipients of good and evil (moral patients), in turn, were perceived as less capable of performing good or evil actions. Moral typecasting stems from the dyadic nature of morality and explains curious effects such as people’s willingness to inflict greater pain on those who do good than those who do nothing.
People are type cast into moral agents and moral patients. Moral agents do things, moral patients have things done to them. What’s really important to note is that we think people are one or the other, not both. Also important is that a villain is typecast in the same ‘classification’ as a hero, they’re both moral actors. In fact we see villains as closer to heroes then either are to victims.
Now that we’ve taken a quick look at just how deep and pervasive this paradigm is, what are its effects?
Let’s look at some findings about smart girls. Heidi Grant in The Trouble With Bright Girls writes about Carol Dweck who studied fifth graders in the 1980s and how they approached new and difficult material.
She found that Bright Girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up; the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel. In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses. Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts rather than give up.
At the 5th grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science. So there were no differences between these boys and girls in ability, nor in past history of success. The only difference was how bright boys and girls interpreted difficulty — what it meant to them when material seemed hard to learn. Bright Girls were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence and to become less effective learners as a result.
Researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference in how difficulty is interpreted, and it is simply this: More often than not, Bright Girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.
Notice how the boys Carol Dweck describe believe their actions are what count, not their current level of abilities. They know if they work at it, they’ll achieve results. The girls, on the other hand, are convinced that their actions are meaningless.
This phenomena is just another reflection of moral typecasting. The girls see themselves as passive, unchanging moral patients whose actions have no effect; the boys recognize themselves as dynamic moral actors whose actions have results.
Remember again that moral actors are not villains or heroes, but both. Both villains and heroes capable of doing bad and good.
Ms. Grant continues:
We continue to carry these beliefs, often unconsciously, around with us throughout our lives. And because Bright Girls are particularly likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, they grow up to be women who are far too hard on themselves — women who will prematurely conclude that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena, and give up way too soon.
Women have been taught their actions have no real consequence either to their lives or anyone else’s. They’ve internalized the gender role that women don’t act, instead they are acted upon. Because of that when women encounter something challenging, say, inventing a new type of music, trying to understand calculus, negotiating a raise, they simply give up.
As a species we really love this particular dichotomy and there are some benefits to women in engaging in excising their own agency (it’s all in the finding that people prefer to cause moral agents suffering then moral patients) but when it comes to achievement, women will always find themselves on the short end of the stick.
The wage gap? Yep. The last female getting a nobel prize for theoretical physics in 1963? You bet. The lack of women in STEM fields? Better believe this is why.
Promoting the moral typecasting of women as victims diminishes their ability to rise to a challenge and overcome it. It chains them to a system in which they always must appeal to their betters, oops, I mean moral agents to save them. It excises their agency, and with it much of their belief in their own potency and self worth.
Moral typecasting women as victims is toxic.
Every time we knee-jerk seeing women as “acted upon” absent evidence or in the presence of evidence that refutes it, we are engaging in furthering this archaic gender socialization that limits and belittles women. Every “but women are hurt more” or “women are the real victims” or “women and children first!”
Traditions are very hard to change and this tradition is carved deep into our collective psyche, so deep that the people who defy it are very few. The people who promote it, on the other hand, are loud, powerful and many.
 Yes there may also be biological causes, however until we live in a society that doesn’t engage in these particular shenanigans, we won’t know for sure.