It is human tendency to associate certain characteristics and abilities with things and people. It’s how the human brain functions, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. But a distinction needs to be made between this harmless association of attributes to certain things and stereotyping gender roles. Gender stereotyping refers to the process of ascribing particular characteristics, duties and roles to men and women. For example, women are assumed to have characteristics such as caring, nurturing and emotionally sensitive whereas men are assumed to have characteristics such as independent, assertive and caretaking.
What is the problem with Gender Stereotyping?
A very common question asked by people is what is the harm in associating characteristics with people? After all, it is a basic cognitive process; we always associate characteristics to things. For example, the characteristics of innocence, honesty and warmth are associated with children; wisdom is associated with old age; maturity and daring are associated with youth. What then is the problem with associating characteristics and roles to genders?
The problem arises when these stereotypes are internalized by the two genders and start limiting their abilities of growth and development, which is almost all the time. Because of the association of not just the other person’s, but also one’s own existence with a particular type of characteristics and abilities, these stereotypes start making their way into important decisions that we take, like for example, our career options. We start behaving in ways that are ‘gender appropriate’. For example, a lot of children are indirectly told that it might be okay for a girl to not become successful as they will be accepted simply for taking care of their house, but it is definitely not okay for a boy to perform poorly as they will have to support families in future.
There are two broad categories of stereotyping, one is negative or hostile stereotyping and another is positive stereotyping. In cases of negative and hostile stereotyping such as the disapproval of a female army official and common sexist statements such as ‘women can’t drive’ and ‘women aren’t as efficient workers as men’, there is no need of explaining how they ate detrimental to the society. However, it would be surprising to note that even positive stereotyping, such as classifying women as ‘nurturing’ and ‘emotionally sensitive’ can act as a barrier for women to reach their full potential.
While hostile stereotypes oppress the women into conformity with the existing order, positive stereotypes ensure the compliance of the women by justifying the existing order. In cases of hostile stereotyping, one possibility is that the woman feels aggravated by such stereotypical comments that demean them and hence, to prove themselves they work harder. But in cases of positive stereotyping, the women internalize values such as ‘emotional’, ‘caring’ and ‘sensitive’ and start believing that as they are valued for these qualities, they do not need to prove their competence in other fields.
This was also substantiated by an activity carried out by Dardenne, B., Dumont, M., & Bollier, T (2007) titled ‘Insidious dangers of benevolent sexism: Consequences for women’s performance’. It passed two kinds of stereotypical comments to women before a job interview and observed their results. It was seen that the women who were positively stereotyped performed significantly worse. One important aspect here is that while hostile stereotyping can be easily pointed out in the society, positive stereotyping can go unnoticed and hence is more dangerous. This is because the person holding the stereotype may not even realize that these are not words of appreciation, but are words containing benevolent sexism.
Qualities such as assertive, independent and responsible are often associated with men. It is almost always assumed that it is they who will ‘do the needful’. This is why boys at a young age internalize the need for being the assertive, brave and the responsible member of the family. According to the American Psychology Association, this internalization of the need to take care of his counterparts is what causes stress in males and leads to biological health issues such as blood pressure and cholesterol, and in extreme cases depression and suicide.
When are Gender Stereotypes taught?
It is common knowledge that children are not born sexist. Stereotypes are learnt through the inevitable process of socialisation and are taught in very simple and seemingly unimportant ways, such as giving boys a period of carpentry and girls a period of stitching in schools as their extra-curricular activities, or giving dolls and kitchen sets to girls and cars and guns to boys as toys for playing. These attitudes are reinforced by society in the form of books, T.V. shows, movies, advertisements etc. Books, especially fairy tales, too reflect stereotypes; in most of the cases, it is the prince charming, or the knight in shining armour that comes to the rescue of the damsel in distress. It is only in the last few years that a strong female protagonist is chosen in movies like ‘Frozen’ and ‘Moana.’ Most of the times in advertisements about washing dishes and cleaning the house, the protagonist is a woman.
Phrases such as ‘don’t be such a girl about it’ and ‘be a man’ certainly don’t help. These might seem like very insignificant things but it needs to be kept in mind that these very things are what a child observes and learns while growing up. These early years of a child are what forms the base of all of his/ her future perceptions of the world and hence it is very important to control the different sorts of expectations of their roles that are demanded by the society.
These roles are not always explicitly told and that is where the issue lies. Often the person holding the stereotype might not even realize that he/she is classifying the genders simply because of the normalisation of such phenomena by the society. It is not always easy to point out these stereotypes. In order to do that, we will have to magnify each and every action of ours to a great extent, a task that might seem a little strange and pointless to which comments such as ‘get over it’ will be received in tonnes.
The best and the most effective solution would be to avoid such stereotyping in childhood itself, by targeting the education system. While giving colours to fill a page, it is better to let the children pick themselves instead of us assigning them pink and blue. With respect to societal reinforcements in terms of entertainment shows and books, a strong male-centred bias should be avoided. It would not be prudent to segregate feminine and masculine co-curricular activities among them based on their genders.
In the periods of adulthood, what is important is the readiness to unlearn these values and think from a rational perspective, putting our egos aside. As noted above, in order to notice each and every little action of ours, we will have to magnify them because a lot of subtle notions that we hold might go unnoticed because of their normalisation.
Editor’s Note Gender Stereotyping is one of the major (unnoticed) problems that we are facing in our society and culture at present. The article tends to explain what is gender stereotyping and how exactly does it affect our perceptions and also how it obstructs the way to development and success. The author has also explained that people learn gender stereotyping through socialization from childhood itself. The author concludes by saying that this issue needs to be noticed by the society and effective steps need to be taken for prevention of the same, and one such step would be to avoid gender stereotyping from the childhood itself and unlearning it in the adulthood.