Psychology of Gender: Gender Stereotyping
Gender stereotypes are simply fixed ideas relating to the way the social characteristics of male and female members of society should be determined. These stereotypes are defined on the basis of simplified, generalized, and emotionally conceived images of masculinity (for men) and femininity (for women). In order to conform to these stereotypes, men and women tend to behave in ways that help them fit in the respective categories. This reinforces the notion of gender stereotypes, making them appear to be socially constructed categories of masculine and feminine attributes. Gender stereotyping is responsible for the differences that exist with regard to the social status, distribution patterns the genders, social behaviors, and psychological needs.
Stereotyping on the basis of gender remains a serious societal problem. It is in efforts to deal with this problem that efforts are being made to promote gender equality as well as to reduce the extent to which people tolerate sexism. Many positive outcomes have been achieved from efforts to discourage sexist behavior. For example, today, unlike in the past, it is not socially acceptable for a woman to be denied access to education or promotion on the basis of her gender.
However, although much progress has been made, this has not prevented gender stereotyping to pervade all public realms. The only major difference is that it is not explicitly displayed in public life. Cunningham (2011) best captures this reality by referring to a new form of sexism known as benevolent sexism. Benevolent sexism is a contemporary phenomenon whereby there is an expectation for men and women to adhere to certain conventional sex roles. For example, although it remains illegal for a women to denied employment on their gender, female job candidates who display counter-stereotypic behavior are get less favorable treatment compared to men who display a similar behavior.
This paper is based on the thesis that gender stereotyping is best understood from both cognitive and social aspects. The argument made in the paper is that cognitive aspects manifest themselves mainly through within the gender, like in the case of benevolent sexism, while gender stereotyping between gender is best understood from a social perspective. A review of literature is presented on both social and cognitive aspects of gender stereotyping. A critique of the literature is presented and conclusions derived.
Social aspects of gender stereotyping
The literature on social psychology has shown that people have a tendency to think about others in terms of categories. They judge them on the basis of their membership to different social groups. For this categorization to take place, various cues have to be referred to, such as hairstyle, clothing, and sex-typed belongings. Other cues, such as associated structures of knowledge about an individual, which are stored in memory, trigger strong responses, which are stereotype-based, hence very difficult to control. The attention-related resources required for such responses are all made available through social interactions and transactions.
The social environment in which we live is full of cues for use in creating gender stereotypes. These cues trigger stereotypic thinking, and people tend to be unaware of the negative impact that this way of thinking may have on individuals as well as society in general. Once a gender stereotype has been entrenched in a social setting, there is little that can be done to ameliorate its influence.
Literature shows that it is possible to draw many parallels between the way categorical thinking manifests itself and the extent to which gender stereotypes persist within the wider society. With time, these stereotypes change into gender-based beliefs about male and female members of society. Nevertheless, some researchers hold a contrasting view, arguing that the beliefs that people hold about men and women are the ones that give rise to gender stereotypes (Guimond, 2006; Heesacker, 1999). These researchers argue that in most cases these beliefs are culturally specified. For example, in many cultures, the woman is stereotyped as the homemaker while the man is stereotyped as the financial provider.
The social cues for categorizing people on the basis of gender are present as much among adults as they are among children (Cunningham, 2011). In many societies, people tend to reinforce gender identities as soon as a child is born. For example, Cunningham (2011) points out that in most Western societies, the color pink is associated with a baby girl while color blue is associated with the baby boy. With such cues in place, children are bombarded with items that represent identification with a certain gender. With time, it is possible for children to learn about these gender associations and categorizations even before they have learned about their biological sex identities.
The availability of social cues for categorizing people creates an impetus for making gender comparisons. According to Guimond (2006), these cues play a key role in determining the way men and women look at themselves, both in relation to members of same-sex as well as those of opposite sex. The example that Guimond (2006) presents involves women, who hold themselves in higher regard in terms of relational interdependence compared to men. This demonstrates a strong case for in-gender social comparison, which may serve to reinforce the existing gender stereotypes.
In discussing within-gender comparisons, Guimond (2006) points out that the concept of the self constitutes one of the most crucial differences between men and women. The self-concept is as much a construct of the society as a component of one’s cognitive being. Unfortunately, little research has been done on the psychological processes that underlie self-concept as well as gender stereotyping. It would be imperative if further studies were done to determine why there are differences in the self-concept of men and those of women and reasons why this is the case.
Another major concern among psychologists is whether it is possible to do away with the problem of stereotyping without necessarily doing away with the concept of gender. Gender plays an important role of ordering our view of the world as well as creating an orderly system through which social relations take place. These social relations apply not only between women and men but also between different social groups. They also apply in humans’ relations with nature. According to Guimond (2006) it is not possible to disentangle the concept of gender from that of gender stereotypes. The problem is one that is deeply rooted in philosophy, in which binary classifications of society lead to the identification of people and objects as male and female, strong and weak, masculine and feminine, blue and pink, and so on. Moreover, such a philosophical tradition is markedly judgmental and normative in nature, thereby creating numerous opportunities for binary identification of people and objects on the basis of stereotypes.
The social aspect of gender stereotyping also manifests itself in the fact that it exists in all societies. In a study that focused on cross-cultural comparison across 30 countries, Guimond (2006) found out that the same tendencies were found to exist among all men, while women across these cultures exhibited character traits that were almost identical. The men under study were found to be largely associated with assertiveness and competitiveness. On the other hand, traits such as concern for others and explicit display of emotions was associated with women (Guimond, 2006). Through analysis in a social context, it was evident that gender stereotypes are simply beliefs regarding the character traits of men and women as groups and not as individual selves. These characteristics have little to do with personality and a lot to do with abilities, occupations, social roles, physical traits, and general orientations.
Marcus (1978) also adopts a social perspective in his explanation of gender stereotyping, in which case he proposes the concept of agency. In this concept, the typical male orientation is that of an autonomous agent Marcus (1978). In contrast, the female orientation is typically a communion, in which there is a lot of focus on relationships and others Marcus (1978). Indeed, agency and communion are the two dimensions that have been extensively used as the foundational concepts in the psychology of gender. These themes have been derived from keen observations of men and women with regard to the way they undertake different social roles.
From the social perspective, stereotyping on the basis of gender stems largely from the observation that men and women do on the things that people of their respective genders have traditionally been doing (Kliuchko, 2011). For example, from this observation, it is evident that women are expected by society to become homeowners while men are expected to be providers of the family’s basic needs, mainly security and financial stability.
Indeed, in conventional settings, discussions about gender are greatly interwoven with ideas relating to the family. On this basis, many stereotypes relating to gender, family, and social life have remained unchanged, and sometimes unchallenged. In most cases, the stereotypes go unchallenged because of the reluctance by people to distinguish between issues of gender identity and those of the social characteristics that are attributed to it. In such a situation, the demands of social settings put people in very rigid normative cages, in which they have to explicitly assert their gender identities by acting in the way society expects of them.
Sometimes, gender stereotypes are associated with personal traits and psychological qualities attributed to women and women. These stereotypes emphasize on aspects of femininity and masculinity. In this regard, masculinity is associated with attributes of ‘active-creative’ traits, which include dominance, activity, aggressiveness, self-confidence, leadership ability, and logical thinking. On the other hand, femininity is associated with ‘passive-reproductive’ traits, which are portrayed through anxiety, dependence, solicitude, emotionality, and low self-esteem (Heesacker, 1999). Typically, masculine characteristics are viewed in contrast to feminine ones and are viewed as the exact opposite.
In contemporary societies, the gender stereotypes that trace their origin in the family end up finding their way into the professional life of men and women. This explains why for a women, a housewife or mother is regarded as the most acceptable social role. In this regard, her sphere of life is a private one, whereby she stays at home, gives birth to children, and is responsible for interrelations within the family. For men, the most acceptable activities include participation in social life, success in a profession, and being the family’s breadwinner.
Additionally, gender stereotyping in the social realm manifests itself even in the way men and women are supposed to undertake their activities in their various professionals. In other words, women who venture out into the world of careers find themselves being constrained by gender stereotypes. These stereotypes put borders on what women and men can do and what they cannot do. For example, it is generally accepted that women are supposed to undertake tasks that involve serving, which emphasize a lot on expressiveness. This is evident in the fact that most women find work in healthcare, retail, and education sectors. On the other hand, men find most of their work n areas that require creativity and management.
In all these social constructs, it is imperative to note that attitudes and stereotypes emerge as crucial yardsticks for determining what one can do or cannot do in a certain area of social engagement. Gender stereotypes emerge as significant components of an individual’s sphere of self- and social-based value and meaning. Typically, both a woman and a man feel a compulsion to identify themselves with two key social development dynamics: reproductive and productive realms. In the reproductive mode, emphasis is on solicitude and concentration of consciousness. Productive mode, on the other hand, which is mostly attributed to men, requires the individual to fully engage with the world, be aggressive, and to stand his ground assertively, all in efforts to ensure that he is best positioned to succeed in his role as a breadwinner for the family.
Gender contributes significantly to the way our worldview is ordered. Similarly gender stereotypes contribute significantly to the way people perceive their roles in society. They determine how social relations are to be structured and how men and women should contribute to the well-being of society in general. From this point of view, it is easy to understand why these stereotypes have permeated the economic, military, and political aspects of life of all human beings.
There are also numerous cultural beliefs that have permeated many societies regarding the way men and women should behave both in public and private realms. These beliefs greatly influence the nature of social-relational contexts in which people live. This influence is always critical in determining the core components of the prevailing gender system. When the gender debate forms the core of all social interactions, men and women endeavor to abide by the rules that society has prescribed in order to have a sense of belonging. In these efforts, the stereotypes can be discerned in the biases with regard to the way decisions are made regarding the acceptability of the behaviors, and performances presented by men and women. It is for this reason that the cultural beliefs regarding gender normally promote stereotypes. On the basis of these stereotypes, a biased assessment is provided regarding the activities that people undertake in society, leading to gender inequality.
Interestingly, most of the gender stereotypes that exist in society are promoted by the biological differences that exist between women and men. For example, women’s biological characteristics and mannerisms manifest themselves in a way that creates the image of emotional vulnerability, particularly when viewed through the lens of men (Chiaburu, 2008). This leads many people to associate emotional vulnerability with women, thereby propagating an element of gender stereotype. When one is emotionally vulnerable, he or she has tends to be open to having his or her feelings hurt or even to go through the experience of rejection.
Guimond (2006) argues that in the contemporary society, the standards of determining gender stereotyping are changing. In this regard, Guimond (2006) notes that the standards and processes through which men and women have traditionally been evaluated are changing. If proven to be true, such dynamics would confirm the complexity that characterizes the theme of gender, particularly when aspects of stereotyping are brought into perspective.
As people grow, their revels of reliance on stereotypes keep on changing. However, research on the nature and extent of these changes is yet to attain conclusive findings. It is clear, though, that the inferences that children make related to gender stereotypes differ remarkably from that of adults. The same case applies with regard to people’s tendency to adhere to gender stereotypes. Many differences exist in this regard, although, again, no conclusive research findings have been reached. Further research on these issues may help shed light on functioning and development of gender stereotypes.
One of the core features of stereotyping is that it is assimilative in nature. The same case applies to gender stereotyping. In this regard, gender stereotypes are normally intended by inculcate a structured view of society, which people of respective gender adhere to the roles that the society prescribes for them. This is the case even when judgment is being passed regarding people on the basis of their gender. For example, a member of a group that has been stereotyped as possessing a certain characteristic is typically judged as having more of that characteristic compared to a member of a comparison group. Nevertheless, this is not where the discourse on the assimilative nature of gender stereotyping ends. There are further claims to the effect that gender stereotyping can manifest itself by way of contrast and even null effects. This normally depends on the form and nature and form of the outcome that is being assessed. With regard to gender issues in society, contrast in judgment exists both within gender and between genders. For example, it is normal for women to assess their behaviors to determine whether they match with those of their fellow women. Similarly, they may also want to know whether the behaviors match the expectations of men in society.
Cognitive aspects of gender stereotyping
The basis of arguments that offer support for a cognitive view of gender stereotyping is that there is an underlying cognitive structure that determines the behavior of men and women. This cognitive structure applies in the case of self-stereotyping (within gender) as well as and stereotyping between genders. Within the gender, the cognitive structure determines the balance that is created between in-group representation of gender identity and the representation of the self. Sometimes, an overlap occurs between in-group representations of gender identity and the representation of gender according to the self (Marcus, 1978).
In order to understand stereotyping within gender, the concept of self-stereotypes should be analyzed in greater detail. The Self-categorization theory (SCT) can greatly enhance the existing understanding of self-stereotypes. The SCT theory is based on the notion that the individual and the group are always intrinsically connected, to the extent that it is not possible for a person’s self-construal to be studied independently of his social group (Marcus, 1978). The implication of this argument is that in order to understand the stereotypes that apply to women or men, focus should first and foremost on the self-construal of the men or women. This entails understanding the perceptions that the men and women regarding the stereotypes that apply to their respective genders.
In cognitive theory, a lot of focus is on human differentiation based on gender. This differentiation is viewed as arising out of the experiences that men and women go through since childhood. The experiences are presumed to give individuals the motivation as well as the ability to self-regulate the so-called ‘gender-specific’ and ‘gender-appropriate’ behaviors. in this regard, much focus is on the psychological component of gender stereotyping, meaning that there is more focus on the individual than on the environment in which he lives.
In cognitive, a wide range of possibilities are provided for with regard to gender stereotypes. Unlike in the social perspective, cognitive theory leaves little space for fixed types of behaviors to be dictated on people by society. Rather, it is the individuals’ experiences that govern the gender stereotypes that they are going to respond to and to propagate. In this regard, the responsibility of nurturing a gendered personality is shouldered upon the individual, who has to focus a lot on self-development.
Cognitive-development theory is one of the frameworks that explore the concept of gender differentiation from the point of view of how people learn about the relationship between gender and sex as they grow up. Toddlers and infants tend to discriminate sexes as well as the attributes that are correlated with sex. One of these attributes is gender. One of the things that children have to learn is that their sex does not change with time. They have to learn that it was the same at the time of their birth and it will remain the same even in the future when they eventually become adults. In this way, they learn to accept the gender attributes that go with either male or female sex. Unfortunately, in this process, they also accept the social stereotypes that go with either sex. This is because the stereotypes constitute some of the cues that children are always searching for in efforts to reinforce their association with a certain gender.
In their search for cues relating to their gender, children are normally interested in learning whether they should engage in a certain activity, who should perform a specific task, who is supposed to play which game, and why there are differences between boys and girls. Incidentally, the environment in which they live is full of cues, such that the children are able to form a series of gender cognitions, which include gender identity (gender self-conceptions) and stereotypes relating to gender.
From a cognitive perspective, the assumption is that children are always in search of ways in which they can make sense of the world surrounding them. This assumption is propounded in both gender-schema theory and cognitive development theory. As a child realizes that he belongs to one gender group, he develops a gender identity. The consequences of this development are normally evident. Some of these consequences include preference for members who belong to their own gender group, motivation to look like members of the gender group, and memory for and selective attention to information that is of relevance to their gender. This way, cognitive perspectives appear influential primarily because of the way in which they increase understanding of the way children develop and embark on the lifelong process of applying gender stereotypes. The cognitive perspective is also valuable because of the emphasis it accords the active role that children play in gender socialization.
Critique of theory and research on gender stereotyping
Both the social and cognitive perspectives provide valuable insights into the ways in which gender stereotyping occurs in society. Social perspectives focus more on the social dynamics that influence the way men and women behave. It is evident that there are certain universal attributes that are associated with men and others that are universally associated with women. Masculinity is associated with men while femininity is associated with women. This is as much a social issue as it is a philosophical one. As a philosophical issue, emphasis is on the binary way of structuring the world. For example, there is a tendency to view people and objects in terms of weak/strong, feminine/masculine, active/ passive. This binary analysis extends to the stereotypes that are attributed to male and female sexes. The physical attributes that men and women possess are used as a reference point for promoting certain gender stereotypes. In response, men and women endeavor to behave in ways that conform to these stereotypes, in the process reinforcing them.
The society is full of social cues that give a hint on which gender an individual should conveniently belong to. Such cues are normally made available to newborns at the earliest opportunity, upon determination of their sex. These cues are sometimes based in cultural beliefs. For example, in many Western cultures, the pink color is preferred for the clothes of young girls while blue is thought to fit in with the boy’s gender. Such an analysis provides valuable insights into the importance of gender in ordering our society. However, I feel that the social perspective is ill-suited for examining gender stereotyping from within the gender. The approach seems more suited for the analysis of ‘between-genders’ analysis of stereotypes as opposed to the ‘within-gender’ analysis.
On the other hand, cognitive theories, mainly cognitive development theory and gender-schema theory seem more suited for the analysis of ‘within-gender’ aspects of these stereotypes. This perspective sheds light on the way children acquire gender stereotypes, and what motivates them to associate with one gender and not the other. I agree with the contention that the cognitive perspective is more influential because of the way in which it increases our understanding of the way children develop and embark on the lifelong process of applying gender stereotypes. It is also true that the cognitive theories are valuable because of the emphasis they accord the active role that children play in gender socialization.
In cognitive theory, gender stereotyping is portrayed as one of the unfortunate outcome of children’s outcome of their efforts to make sense of the world surrounding. Nonetheless, these efforts also ordinarily yield positive results because of the way they lead to the acquisition of a gender identity. As children struggle to assert and reinforce this gender identity, they end up acquiring behaviors that can best be interpreted as gender stereotypes.
In contrast, I view literature on social perspectives as ones that express the inevitability of gender stereotyping. The impression created is that as people interact in the social world, they subconsciously propagate gender stereotypes without foreseeing the negative impact they can have on the affected individuals. For example, when women are viewed as weak, both physically and emotionally, the intention may not be to make them have a low esteem or to lose a sense of empowerment.
In summary, gender indeed does matter in the contemporary society. It is normal for young boys to learn to associate themselves with the male gender and girls with the female gender. This is a crucial step towards enabling the children make sense of the world surrounding them. Moreover, human beings have a tendency to think in terms of categories. The philosophical basis of this binary thinking is that it helps people make sense of their world and to understand it better.
However, as the cognitive theories demonstrate, efforts to nurture a gender identity are normally accompanied by the development of gender stereotyping. Nevertheless, gender matters in society since it is an integral part of social system of division of labor. Social and cognitive perspectives are important in our understanding of stereotyping ‘within gender’ and ‘between genders’ respectively.
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Cunningham, S. (2011) The color of gender stereotyping, British Journal of Psychology, 102(3), 598-614.
Guimond, S. (2006) Social Comparison, Self-Stereotyping, and Gender Differences in Self-Construals, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(2), 221–242.
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