Feminism is cool again. From the success of the Women’s March through to the #MeToo movement, women (and many men) are coming together in solidarity, raising their voices and demanding just treatment and equality. As a lifelong feminist, this new wave of feminism is cause for optimism.
But when I look around and flick through my Instagram newsfeed and Twitter feed, and observe and analyse gender stereotypical behaviours and interactions around me, I can’t help but wonder: Have we as a society really come as far as we think?
The European Institute for Gender Equality defines gender stereotype as:
“preconceived ideas whereby females and males are arbitrarily assigned characteristics and roles determined and limited by their gender. Gender stereotyping can limit the development of the natural talents and abilities of girls and boys, women and men, as well as their educational and professional experiences and life opportunities in general.”
The stereotypical role of a female is to marry and have children, be nurturing and caring, put her family’s needs first, be polite, loving and be interested in grooming and maintaining her physical attractiveness.
The stereotypical role of a male is to be the breadwinner, be independent, assertive, sporty and competitive, ambitious and courageous, ‘rational’ and ‘logical’ as opposed to ’emotional’.
No one can deny that there are physical and biological differences between the sexes. And there’s nothing inherently ‘wrong’ in possessing these traits. But when our culture teaches our girls and boys what is expected of them given their ascribed gender we start to encounter problems. Do we really want our kids to default to the ‘gender duty’ and override their own individual preferences, desires, innate abilities and traits? And how do these gender restrictions impact non-binary people and those who identify as transgender?
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The focus should be on the individual, not their gender.
The gender message is communicated over and over again from the time a child is brought into this world. Pink is for girls, blue is for boys. Dolls are for girls, toy trucks are for boys. Girls are ‘pretty’, boys are ‘boisterous’. Girls are collaborative, boys are competitive.
Some people believe that gender differences are normal and that “girls will be girls” and “boys will be boys”. It’s fine if you think this way of course, but when you impose your conventional beliefs on the next generation so that kids start to behave in accordance with what is “gender appropriate” rather than their own truths, we may continue to see the same gender issues show up, such as the income pay gap, mental health issues and gender imbalances in political leadership.
Society’s ingrained gender assumptions need to be challenged, lest they limit individual expression and stifle personal and professional growth.”
So if your daughter shows an innate love of sports, let her play sports. If she wants to play with toy cars and trains, let her. If your son wishes to dance, let him dance. If he shows an inclination to play with dolls or wear nail polish, let him. Likewise, if kids show behaviour typical of their gender, leave them be. Each individual should be given the freedom to be who they are without undue gender influence from well-meaning but fearful parents and family.
What the research tells us about gender stereotypes
According to findings from a 2017 US-based study on the influence of gender stereotypes on children’s notions of intelligence, girls as young as six believe that brilliance is a male trait. Researchers carried out a range of tests with 400 children, half of whom were female. The study revealed that by age six, girls were less likely to associate brilliance with their own gender, and instead, classify more boys into the “really, really smart” category. The study also revealed that girls tended to avoid games that they felt were for the “really, really smart.” These findings provide some indication as to why in their later years, females narrow their academic choices, steering away from maths and science-related subjects.
“Unfortunately, this reveals another hurdle for efforts to recruit more women and girls into STEM. Not only do we need to break down the ‘science is male’ stereotype, but now we need to break down a ‘brilliance is male’ stereotype, too.” – Sarah Eddy from Florida International University tells The Atlantic.
In another six-year global study, which gathered data from 450 participants aged 10-14 years from 15 countries, researchers found that in every country studied, the “hegemonic myth” prevailed: “We found children at a very early age—from the most conservative to the most liberal societies—quickly internalize this [hegemonic] myth that girls are vulnerable and boys are strong and independent,” says Robert Blum, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and the director of the Global Early Adolescent Study in a Time interview. These findings could help explain why there are few women in politics and business leadership positions, and why activist shareholder investors are more likely to target female CEOs when dissatisfied with strategic policies and decisions.
Even research studies conducted by industry reveal shocking truths about gender stereotypes. Unilever, the second largest advertising spender in the world (USD $8.9 billion) and a company that controls over 400 brands including Dove, Lipton, Magnum, Rexona to name a few, conducted a study in more than 25 markets over a two-year period to understand how genders were being portrayed in advertising. It looked at more than 1,000 advertisements (theirs and others) and found that women and men were usually portrayed in a stereotypical way.
The study found:
- just two percent of advertisements showed intelligent women, defined as a woman possessing a multi-dimensional personality, or in a professional or skilled role,
- only one percent of ads portrayed women as being funny,
- 30 percent of female survey respondents felt advertising shows a woman as perceived by a man, and
- 40 percent of women polled didn’t relate to the women in the advertisements.
Why do gender stereotypes occur?
No matter which side you sit on the gender stereotypes debate (yes it exists and needs to be addressed OR no it doesn’t exist, it’s just PC, liberal BS), it’s hard to ignore the ‘gender norms’ perpetuated by our culture. From the television shows we watch, the influence of family and friends, social media and media portrayals of gender, and the gender depictions in our favourite books, movies and YouTube channels, messages about gender norms are consistent.
In a two-part documentary series that aired on Australian TV entitled “No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?“, Dr. Javid Abdelmoneim tackles gender inequality by running simple tests that show how differently elementary school-aged girls and boys are treated. It’s made clear in the program how adults, parents and teachers shape a kid’s gender view, and view of themselves by how they interact with them, what chores they allocate, and the gendered toys provided.
Films are also found to perpetuate gender stereotypes. An investigation by Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media of female characters in 120 popular films across 11 countries revealed that of the 5,799 speaking or named characters on screen, only 30.9 percent were female. This equates to a gender ratio of 2.24 males to every one female. Of these films, only 23.3 percent had a female protagonist or female co-lead. The study also found that women are often sexualised in film, with women twice as likely as males to be shown in sexually revealing attire, thin, and partially or fully naked. The study also found that women were five times as likely to be referenced as ‘attractive’.
Gender biases can also be found in the workplace. Dove conducted a global research study and found that “7 out of 10 women agree that they get more comments at work about their appearance than their achievements.”
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What can be done to challenge gender stereotypes? Plenty.
Two of the researchers of that study on gender stereotypes and how it relates to children’s notions of intelligence, Andrei Cimpian and Sarah-Jane Leslie, shares this advice in the New York Times:
“What is to be done? Research provides some clues. The psychologist Carol Dweck has written that emphasizing the importance of learning and effort — rather than just innate ability — for success in any career might buffer girls against these stereotypes. The relevant stereotypes, already in place at the age of 6, seem to fixate on who is supposed to have innate ability. If innate ability is seen as secondary, then the power of these stereotypes is diminished. Other research indicates that providing girls with successful role models might similarly “inoculate” them, boosting their motivation and protecting them from the idea that they are not intellectually competitive. One study even suggested that witnessing a more equal distribution of household chores could help balance the career aspirations of boys and girls.”
Parents can also help to banish sexism by pointing out gender stereotypes. “Help kids recognise stereotypes whenever you spot them and know how sexism shapes the world we live in,” Christia Spears Brown, a professor at the Centre for Equality and Social Justice at the University of Kentucky tells Forbes. “This is the only way children know that the gender divisions we see are not due to innate differences in abilities, but a result of a stereotyped culture.”
Inspired by this study, a new global alliance called the Unstereotype Alliance was formed to achieve “sustained transformation” in advertising. Founding members include UN Women and industry leaders such as Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Mars.
“Stereotypes reflect deep-rooted ideas of femininity and masculinity. Negative, diminished conceptions of women and girls are one of the greatest barriers to gender equality and we need to tackle and change those images wherever they appear. Advertising is a particularly powerful driver to change perceptions and impact social norms.” – Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women in a press statement.
The media too plays a role in positively transforming culture. BuzzFeed created a short educational video entitled “Things to Say to Young Girls That Aren’t “You Look Pretty Today!” to steer the conversation towards girls’ interests, achievements and activities rather than their looks.
It’s about respect
None of us are free from the biases we have been raised with or exposed to, but it’s important to be conscious of them if we are to tackle stereotypes. A more equal and just society starts with respecting individuals as they are and giving them the freedom to choose who they want to become, instead of trying to mould them into preconceived and archaic notions of who they should be based on gender. If this happens, we may finally achieve a more inclusive and fairer society, with more women in STEMM, politics and on company boards; more men in roles traditionally reserved for women, such as nursing, childcare and primary caregiving roles and greater tolerance and acceptance of those who don’t identify with the gender they are physically born with.
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