Differences Categorized (Gender Stereotyping)

​​What is a stereotype?

A stereotype is a widely accepted idea or bias about a person or a group. As in, girls are gentle and good and boys are bold and bad. Wherever you go you will find people who believe that girls and boys are vastly different, and they’ll want you to accept it as an invariable fact of life. This investment in gender stereotyping can seem very peculiar until you understand a little bit more about the brain and the psyche.

 

The human brain loves to organize knowledge into categories because it can help us make sense of our world as well as recall things more quickly. The downside is that important nuances about people get lost. Each and every person is unique and complicated so to make things a little less overwhelming, we rely on stereotypes to understand and form opinions.

This can be particularly thorny when it comes to how we understand the incredibly complex and nuanced concept of gender. Commitment to these stereotypes may provide a problematic unconscious benefit: it helps us justify to ourselves the ways we have been limited due to our gender, as well as justify the unfair expectations we place on others. 

muscular woman working out with weights defying gender stereotypes
Young male stretching with ballet shoes on defying gender stereotypes
When do stereotypes start?

Aggressive stereotyping begins as soon as the gender of a baby is discovered, which these days usually means in utero. Via toys and clothing, we are asked early and how often to make choices about our kids' likes and dislikes and their presentation to the world.

Gifts like pink blankies, stuffies and other passive items like rattles start pouring in for girls as do blue blankies, stuffies and other more active items like balls and trucks for boys. A smattering of yellow or beige may be among them regardless of gender but rarely does pink cross the boy barrier. (Blue and neutral colors may find their way into a girl’s wardrobe as boy stuff does not hold as negative a connotation as girl stuff).

If it’s a girl baby, we decorate their rooms with flowers, ballerinas, butterflies to convey a sense of grace and softness. We fill closets with frilly dresses and toy boxes with dolls, houses, and tea sets. Unwittingly, we are teaching our girls that being “a lady” means serving food and taking care of babies all while dressed in girly attire. In other words, the most common stereotype girls face begins in utero and continues immediately after birth.

We see the same stereotyping in terms of male babies: Boys’ nurseries are varying shades of blue with decor sporting themes of action and toughness - sports, action figures, dinosaurs, cars and trucks. Boys learn they are fearless defenders capable of venturing out into this dangerous, action-packed world. But facing-down dinosaurs and bad-guys means also they must check their vulnerability at the birth canal or sometime soon thereafter.

Little girl with power drill defying gender stereotypes
 
Why is stereotyping problematic? 

Stereotypes get us into loads of trouble because they’re overly simplistic and oftentimes inaccurate. By assigning identical qualities to each member of a particular group (let’s say all girls) without taking the existing differences among the members into consideration, it can and does lead to unequal or unfair treatment. Worst of all, this treatment can feed the stereotype even more. If parents, for example, think sports are for boys, they’re not likely to encourage their daughters to get involved in sports and -- guess what? -- their daughter is probably not going to develop into a good athlete. And voila — now the argument is you weren’t encouraged because you weren’t athletic. See how that works?  

Do women get caught up in stereotyping too?

The truth is, all of us, not just boys and men, possess unconscious gender biases. Why wouldn’t we?  We’ve grown up being taught that women flirt and nurture and men lead. So when a female exhibits stereotypically male traits - you know, leadership, assertiveness, sexual experience - we find her suspect. But in a guy, these traits are very attractive. They mean he’s strong and competent.

When we reflexively rely on our biases to make a judgement, we take other girls and women down. Let me say that again - we ladies, we take down other ladies because they don’t fit into some narrow box that’s been built for them. Why? Probably because we’re jealous they’ve gotten out, and we’re suffocating inside. We need to check ourselves, make sure we’re part of the solution rather than adding to the problems of gender biases and all the limitations (and violence) that come with them. If you're a girl or young woman reading this, do not criticize other girls because they wear more masculine clothing, stand up for themselves, or are running for president of their class. Hold them up, admire them, cheer them on and you will feel the love. Sisterhood is powerful is not just a cliche.

 
 
What is the Masculine Stereotype?

Qualities often associated with masculinity are being active, in charge, aggressive, knowledgeable, sexually experienced, independent and emotionally withholding

What is the Feminine Stereotype?

Qualities often associated with femininity are being passive, naive, sexually inexperienced, graceful, soft, flirtatious, nurturing, agreeable, and dependent.

 
Two girls in karate class
Tween girl jumping off rocks defying gender stereotypes
Father and son baking together

Four Types of Gender Stereotypes

The Planned Parenthood website does a great job of demonstrating four basic ways that men and women are stereotyped.

Personality traits: Girls and women are often expected to be cooperative and emotional while boys and men are frequently expected to be confident and aggressive.

Physical appearance: Girls and women should be slender and graceful and boys and men should be tall and strong. They are also expected to dress and groom in ways stereotypical of their gender such as wearing dresses and makeup for girls and pants and short hair for boys.

Domestic behavior: Women are frequently expected to be the primary caregivers of their kids and tend to the inside of the home such as the cooking and cleaning. Men are seen as better suited to take care of the finances and home and car repairs as well as the “outdoor” chores like mowing the lawn. So as kids, girls are often found helping their mothers in the kitchen and boys are found helping their fathers in the yard. She learns to clear the table and take baby to the potty. He learns to take out the garbage and shovel the snow.

Occupations: Women are to assume work roles involving nurturing such as teaching or nursing while men are to assume work that requires muscle and/or smarts such as construction worker, pilot, doctor or engineer. Overall, such stereotypes allow girls more opportunity to strengthen their ability for order and relationships while allowing boys more opportunity to strengthen their sense of competency and physical empowerment.

 

As Planned Parenthood so aptly puts it: “it’s harmful to masculine folks to feel that they’re not allowed to cry or express sensitive emotions. And it’s harmful to feminine folks to feel that they’re not allowed to be independent, smart or assertive." Breaking down gender stereotypes allows everyone to be their best selves.

 

Check out these descriptions of the more pronounced differences found in two children from the same family. What do you think of when reading them?

Hugo is very independent. He can put himself to sleep and he can entertain himself easily. Stella, on the other hand, is dependent on others for fun and has had trouble with separating from us, even for sleep.

  • Hugo is very independent. He can put himself to sleep and he can entertain himself easily. Stella, on the other hand, is dependent on others for fun and has had trouble with separating from us, even for sleep.​

  • Stella is very verbal but has had some trouble with math growing up while Hugo is stronger at math than verbal tasks.

  • Stella is sensitive and easily hurt whereas Hugo can laugh at himself and doesn’t take things as personally.​

  • Hugo is very caring and fair but Stella is so highly attuned and empathic that it almost hurts her to live in this hard world

 

I’m guessing you might say that it makes sense that the boy is more independent, shows grit, and is better at math. You might say too that since Stella is female it sounds right that she’s more dependent, sensitive, empathic and verbal.

 

Bait and switch! You might be surprised then to learn that I actually switched the names and gave Stella’s characteristics to Hugo and Hugo’s to Stella. In other words, these kids do not neatly fit into gender stereotypes because these are traits of personality and temperament, not gender.

 

I performed this bit of trickery to demonstrate that, as a culture, we cherry pick traits and ignore others to fit gender stereotypes. Here’s a totally different list that also describes these same kids, though this time, no trickery:

 

●    Hugo is athletic and loves wild rides; Stella is not and does not. 

●    Hugo plays sports and video games; Stella plays dolls, house and made-up fantasy games

●    Hugo prefers to eat mostly carbs like pasta and crackers while Stella’s choice is fruit

●    Hugo is energetic and outgoing and Stella is quiet and shy until she gets to know someone

 

False dichotomies! This time there was no name-changing. The subterfuge here is selectively choosing behaviors or characteristics that neatly fit the kids into stereotypical gender categories. So while this list does accurately describe these kids, it creates false dichotomies and doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. Instead it tells the story our culture uses to justify treating girls and boys differently which generally means treating boys better.

 

What you wouldn’t know by these descriptions is that Stella loves to run and balance on every garden border she passes and that Hugo babysits and is amazing with babies and puppies. You wouldn’t know that while Stella has very close girlfriends and loves nothing more than sleepovers with said friends, her giant imagination allows her to play alone for hours. Hugo, on the other hand, is dependent on playing with someone for him to not feel bored. And while he might be more dependent in certain ways, his passion for baseball is motivated and driven all by him. Stella, almost 3 years younger, had her first sleepover before Hugo felt comfortable having his. Now he’s the king of marathon sleepless sleepovers. Stella has slept like a champ almost consistently since birth whereas Hugo has struggled to sleep well. You wouldn’t know either that Hugo is highly verbal and Stella struggles more to find her words. Or that they both adore reading and digging for worms. In other words, choosing to categorize children by gender stereotypes robs them of all that is nuanced and interesting about them and damages their emerging senses of identity.

 
 

THE SKINNY: Introduce your kids to all sorts of toys and activities so they can figure out what they enjoy based on their personalities and innate abilities not because it fits into the false binary of boy or girl. Take note whether you're encouraging gender specific behavior and/or discouraging behavior that is considered appropriate in the "opposite" gender.

We have the power to change the messaging. Studies show that long-term exposure to counter-stereotypical role models has profound effects on girls’ career aspirations and that exposure to “counter-stereotypical pictures” helps combat gender bias.

gender neutral child playing with trains
Feminist Parenting