What is Androgyny?
Androgyny is a fascinating concept which has many applications in every day life. Being Androgynous usually refers to being both male or female and is commonly used when referring to the way someone looks (i.e. being male and female).
As a psychologist I like the idea of flexibility in the way we engage with our gender roles. There are many benefits to Androgyny and I believe it is a very useful idea for both men and women who want to utilise the full range of skills that comes from living androgynously.
Sandra Bem was one of the first psychologists to develop the idea of androgyny. Up to this point in time it was thought that individuals were on a continuum of masculine to feminine, but Bem suggested that we can be low or high in masculine AND feminine traits. Being high in both was called Androgyny and low in both Undifferentiated.
I professionally believe that this idea of being strongly feminine and masculine, is supported by leadership theories in the way leaders operate in being relationship- or task-focused.
The benefits can be in so many areas! For women and men, the ability to develop achievement and task focused skills, doesn’t mean devaluing nor neglecting feminine traits of caring. Both caring (relationship skills) and achievement (task skills) are important. I also believe there are days when being masculine or feminine is more appropriate than the other. It is a complicated task of defining gender related traits, so I’m keeping the idea simple in my references to relationship/caring and task/achievement traits.
In reflection I can remember many years ago when I was partner in a local construction company building residential homes in Brisbane’s Bayside. This role was perfect while my children were growing up as I had the flexibility of working at home, appointments were only a few times a week, and supervision of the building process worked around when I had childcare.
At this point I made an art of wearing my ridiculously high heels when clients visited the construction site. These days I would have been violating some workplace safety rule, but it was important in my caring role with clients that I dressed within my role.
Our roles are made easier if we are aware of other’s expectations and have the flexibility to change our behaviour to support the social situation where we are at the time. I suppose the mental challenge was to be unaffected by wearing high heels, and to be able pull out the engineering plans and ensure everything was on time and accurate before I left the work site.
Androgyny therefore is a very abstract internal cognitive process of being strongly male or female in the way we “think” about things.
Research has supported the idea that long term relationships work better with androgynous couples, than those that work in traditional gender roles. There are times when the male of the house may need to look after the children, and women need to embody less caring and focus on work. If your partner is ill or your are a single parent, then Androgyny might be a way to improve working through life problems. Some days focus on the tasks, other days focus on relationships. Keep a strong Androgynous balance in your social role.
What about being neither?
Bem describes this as being undifferentiated. To be undifferentiated means that a person lacks feminine or masculine traits. I think that we respond well when we are clear on the gender role of another person. When we are unsure, it can provoke anxiety because there are social rules that clearly define appropriate behaviour towards men and women. Being undifferentiated may be related to emotional stress.
Can Androgyny help Depression?
Treatment for Depression often involves counselling that has an emphasis on motivation, increased physical activity, improved self-care and enhanced self-direction. If you look at these activities in the light of gender roles there is a clear connection between these activities and masculine and feminine behaviours – self-care being more feminine, and increased drive being more masculine. Therefore Androgyny may assist some people who suffer from depression, to provide a focus on “what” is important. It is the careful balance of activating and caring for one’s self that helps.
Androgyny is a particularly helpful concept for adolescent girls who are struggling with their body image and “being female”. The depression rate doubles for females at about the age of 13 years and again when pregnant. The feminine role of caring about others is both demanding and draining for some women.
The option to be more task focused may lead others to question your motives (gender role), but this may be necessary if feminine roles do not come naturally. Your teenage daughter may benefit from categorising their behaviour as Androgynous, so that they can ignore negative social comments about their looks or caring skills, and focus on school work or sport.
How do You become more Androgynous?
This article is on mental androgyny – not looking androgynous. To increase your feminine and masculine traits, I would make these suggestions for both men and women:
- Find Androgynous friends and spend time with them occasionally. Learning something as complicated as Androgyny takes many years, and is more difficult if you come from a family or social group with traditional gender roles.
- Experiment with saying and doing things related to both genders. Try being more attentive to the way you look, versus focusing on the task and aim at achieving more. On different days challenge yourself to approach situations from either a masculine or feminine role.
- Pull back from judging others when you see someone do something not consistent with their gender role. Perhaps you teenager daughter doesn’t care how you feel and your son wants to learn how be a better friend. Identify your own behaviour as well as the behaviour of others, and practice expanding both feminine and masculine skills.
Over time I’ve benefited from using Androgyny as an explanation for how I might approach things differently. As CEO of Australia’s largest private 7 day psychology centre, I’m constantly working towards caring for clients and clinicians and the achieving the tasks of the business in an Androgynous way.
Some activities in my business are for the purpose of forming relationships, other activities are about achievement. The most difficult thing is to balance the feminine and the masculine, to be clear on the purpose of my role or the activity, and make it easier for others to work with me.
If you are keen to learn more about Androgyny as a cognitive process please book a single session with me to discuss. Psychologists are sometimes categorised into a mental health role, but we study concepts like Androgyny that have the potential to improve the lives of others in business, relationships and improve emotional intelligence.
Author: Vivian Jarrett, B Psych (hons), AMAPS.
Vivian Jarrett is passionate about providing high quality psychology services to Australians from all walks of life.
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