Gender stereotypes permeate our culture. Some are formed by hundreds of years of tradition and a basic understanding – or misunderstanding – of the roles that genders play. Unfortunately, gender stereotyping often proves more harmful than it does helpful. Understanding gender stereotyping can help you make better decisions about the roles you play, and the roles you encourage your children to take as well.
What Is Gender Stereotyping?
Gender stereotyping began thousands of years ago, before the term existed and before people began to consider how it could impact their lives. In essence, a gender stereotype is a simplistic generalization about the roles that people play in society based solely on their gender, and not on any truly qualifying factors.
Taken by itself, a stereotype can be either positive or negative; it can be used to complement someone or it can be used in a derogatory way. Rarely, however, is a stereotype true in the larger sense. For example, a typical stereotype states that men are good at math. For some men, this may be true, but not all men are good at math, therefore the stereotype does nothing but promote a false image.
Gender stereotyping has evolved over many hundreds of years, defined by the first roles that men and women often took on in society. Some of these rules were imposed by religion, while others became the natural process of selection within a society. And while society as a whole has changed dramatically, particularly in the last century, gender roles and gender stereotyping remain.
Many people speak out against gender inequality, wanting to make roles between men and women more equal. Parents and child workers taking classes on raising optimistic and healthy children often try to avoid them as well. Unfortunately, many of those same goals are the ones being blocked and/or harmed by the perpetuation of gender stereotypes.
Common Examples of Gender Stereotyping
The most common examples of gender stereotyping have to do with the perception of traditional male and female roles.
Stereotypically, the traditional female role is one of a homemaker. The stereotype further says that a woman’s goals should be to marry and have children. Once this is accomplished, she should put their needs above her own, while being nurturing, compassionate, tender, and loving. Above all, she should also take pains to maintain her appearance and continue to “look good” for those that see her, but particularly for her husband.
The stereotypical male role is of the breadwinner. As the financial provider of the home, he is also expected to be assertive, competitive, and career focused. While he should seek out a wife and family, once he does, he is also expected to hide his emotions, remain career rather than family focused, and to be the driving force behind his and his wife’s sex life.
Gender stereotypes don’t just stop at the typical “roles” that men and women are expected to assume once they reach adulthood. They permeate every part of our culture, beginning with what colors we are expected to dress our children in. Slightly more than 100 years ago, pink was considered a masculine color, and blue to be feminine. Now, however, gender stereotyping assumes that most little girls will like the color pink, while boys will shy away from this “obviously” feminine color and choose the color blue.
Other gender stereotypes work within the small deviations from the norm. For example, a girl that is not stereotypically “girly” is given a new stereotype, one of a tomboy. Girls are not expected, for example, to enjoy both frilly dresses and playing in the dirt with trucks. Unfortunately, the same stereotypes that group girls into one of two “typical” groups, continues to lump most boys together under one acceptable label, while boys deviating from the norm are often given derogatory names and are instructed to “toughen up”.
The Harm of Gender Stereotyping
Beyond the obvious that not everyone will fall neatly into their stereotypically defined roles, stereotypes are more than just a benign system of classification. Social scientists have shown that gender stereotyping does real, long lasting harm, particularly to children.
Stereotypes limit or eliminate individual expression, particularly in children who look to peers and adults to learn behavior from. Additionally, gender stereotypes can slow down or get in the way of personal and professional growth. A woman that has worked for years to get advanced degrees and hold a leadership position within her company may feel conflicted upon having a child and feeling pressured to stay at home. While there is no reason why a woman would need to leave her career, other than for personal satisfaction, stereotypes cast her in a different, negative light if she chooses to continue her current career path. Therefore, a woman may choose to leave the workforce – even temporarily – to put her family first, thereby harming her personal career path.
On the other side of the spectrum, if the man in a relationship is not the high earner, or is laid off in this economy and chooses to become a stay at home dad instead, this is looked at negatively as well; according to stereotypes he should be pursuing his career above all else. Stereotyping does not look at personal or individual circumstances where making a different decision than the “norm” may be the most beneficial.
How Gender Stereotyping Is Perpetuated
While most people when questioned will answer that of course they are in favor of gender equality, stereotyping still exists, and still has a large influence over the populace at large. Why?
Social scientists have been able to prove that despite people’s best intentions, stereotypes are handed down from adults to children, as well as amongst children on a regular basis. This is because while gender roles are changing – and are expected to continue to change – socializing agents have not. This means that from the get go, many people will indulge in traditional gender roles by selecting clothes based on color for boys or girls, and grouping toys by gender as well. Gender becomes inherently known by a child around age three, so children around this age will begin to question what they are, see differences in others, and want to reinforce what they believe to be true. If a three year old girl is given a pink dress, and sees other girls in pink dresses, she will assume that pink is a girl’s color, and that she should always seek out things that are pink, because she is a girl. Once these seeds are cast, it becomes very difficult to break the social constraints that continue to reinforce the message that kids receive every day.
Eliminating Gender Stereotypes
While most people will agree that gender stereotypes are both untrue and damaging, they are often continued simply because most people don’t know of any alternatives. One approach that can help to work toward eliminating gender stereotypes is to promote androgyny. Androgyny is a blend of male and female characteristics within one personal. This allows for more personal expression, because a person can be more fluid with their choices.
Androgyny is already beginning to be more accepted amongst girls and women, then amongst men and boys. Because a tomboy, or a woman who chooses to have a career rather than a family, are already accepted in society, girls that enjoy stereotypically male pursuits are also more accepted. As this trend toward androgyny continues, it may be possible for boys and men to get the same type of acceptance for enjoying what are normally seen as stereotypically female pursuits.
To that end, parents and people that work with young children need to be made aware of gender stereotypes in general, and how damaging they can be. Parents and child workers can then work toward stopping the typical divide of “boy” or “girl” toys and activities, and work toward allowing children to gravitate toward what they enjoy most. Like every stereotype, there will always be some children and adults that gravitate toward more traditional gender roles naturally. This is fine and the goal of eliminating the stereotypes does not also seek to eliminate this practice. What eliminating the stereotype does is allow little boys that enjoy trucks, but also enjoy the color pink and the TV show My Little Ponies to feel comfortable in their own skin, without needing to hide their preferences or feel like a deviant.
Eliminating gender stereotypes will take time. This practice has already been in place for decades, and little headway has been made. As public awareness grows, however, it will begin to be possible to allow for more, true gender equality in both children and adults.
Once of the best ways of combating the ignorance of gender stereotypes is to stay educated and informed. Most people who continue to spread stereotypes do so unwittingly, or because they are not informed of alternatives or about the negative connotations that stereotypes can often bring with them. By educating yourself in what social science has to say about the developing role of gender in the raising of children, you can find yourself better prepared to combat stereotypes and allow for more individual expression and personal growth. Consider taking classes in parenting to learn how you can affect your own child. You may also want to take a course in human development to see how people learn and grow, or a course in raising creative children. Learn to combat gender stereotyping today, to raise more balanced kids for tomorrow.