Gender stereotypes and norms
When we encounter an object, we use our experience and knowledge to try and identify it, understand it, or respond to it.
We make generalisations about an object based on the way it appears similar to objects we already know.
- That building looks like a convenience store, I bet I can get some chocolate there!
- All Marvel Movies are great I can’t wait for the next one to be released.
- ‘That small flat thing you’re holding looks like a phone and I need to make a call – can I borrow it please?’
By focussing on obvious similarities, generalisations can help us make sense of things as we move through the world.
These objects don’t appear to be similar, but both are phones, and both can be used to make calls.
Generalisations are flexible and can be modified by new information.
We also make generalisations about people.
- a person wearing a police uniform can be approached if you need help
- a person carrying a tennis racquet knows how to play tennis
- a person pushing a pram is a parent
Generalisations can help to quickly clue us in on how to interact with the people we meet. But when we rely too heavily on generalisations to make assumptions about people, these generalisations can become stereotypes.
A stereotype is an over-generalised belief or idea about a group or class of people. Stereotypes are fixed and assumed to be true for each person in the group it applies to.
Stereotypes can be harmful when they attempt to limit and pigeonhole an individual to conform with the assumptions about the group they belong to.
Stereotypes don’t consider each unique person with their own rich inner world full of thoughts, feelings, experiences, beliefs, values and desires. They narrowly define and essentialise (reduce people to one thing), and have the effect of constraining our thinking and choices.
- All criminals had troubled childhoods.
- All overweight people overeat.
- All teenagers rebel against authority.
Sometimes a stereotype can appear to be positive, by suggesting every member of a group has a certain skill or ability. But the effect is still to apply generalised assumptions about a group to an individual person.
- All Asians are good at math.
- All Australians love the beach.
- All African Americans are good at basketball.
Stereotypes can evolve, but it takes time for broader social and cultural acceptance to modify an established and accepted stereotype.
Norms define the behaviours that a group, community or culture considers to be acceptable. Norms help provide social order by setting group or community expectations.
For example, things we accept to be norms when out in public:
- shake hands when you meet someone
- don’t pick your nose
- if there is a line don’t cut in front of someone else.
Social norms are helpful to individuals who want to know how they should behave and be accepted as part of the group.
Sex and gender
The terms sex and gender are sometimes used as if they’re interchangeable, but they are different things.
A person’s sex - male or female or intersex - is determined at birth and describes their biological and physiological characteristics like chromosomes and genitals.
A person’s gender is their sense of themselves in relation to their biological sex. A person’s gender identity can be the same as their sex assigned at birth, or it can differ.
Gender stereotypes are generalisations about a person based on their gender. These generalisations usually reflect the conventional gender roles of the specific society or culture we live in.
In our society, common gender stereotypes include:
- Boys like to play with cars and girls like to play with dolls.
- Males are good at science and math subjects, and females are good at English and humanities subjects.
- Males are strong and aggressive, and females are caring and nurturing.
Any phrase that begins with ‘males are good at/females are good at’ or ‘females are best suited to/males are best suited to’ is a GENDERED STEREOTYPE.
Gendered stereotypes can negatively compromise the position of one gender over others:
- It’s unfeminine for women to play a sport like AFL football or rugby.
- It’s embarrassing for a man to have a job usually done by a woman.
- A woman should want to give up her career to raise a family.
- A man should want to be the breadwinner to provide for his family.
Gendered stereotypes can also positively influence the position of one gender over others.
- Men are better suited to leadership positions and making tough decisions.
- Men write books that tackle the difficult and important topics.
- Men are better at thinking logically.
- Women are better suited to caring for children.
Gendered stereotypes can be harmful because they ignore the individual person and make unfounded assumptions about a person’s inner and outer worlds based on their gender identity.
Gendered stereotypes attempt to enforce the social norms that prescribe that, if you are of a particular gender, you should like certain things, do certain things and want certain things in order to be socially accepted.
Unconscious bias occurs when our experience of the world – personal, social and cultural - leads to quick judgements about others without us realising that we’re being influenced.
We can be biased about a person or situation based on prior experience of a similar person or situation – we prejudge.
Sometimes these prejudgements can be helpful and can keep us safe in risky situations.
Other times prejudgements of people or situations cause us to discriminate or be prejudiced against others, for no valid reason.
Gendered stereotypes that imply males are better suited to one thing and females better suited to another, feed into our unconscious bias. When we assume that one group is better suited to something, we’re implying that the other group is not suited, and might even be discouraged from even trying.
These prejudgements are lurking at the back of our minds when we meet new people, encounter new situations, and importantly, make decisions that could affect someone else, positively or negatively.
Gender stereotypes and violence against women
Gender stereotypes and norms negatively impact both men and women.
But gender stereotypes that portray women as weak or lesser or entitled to fewer rights than men, can lead to gendered disrespect, abuse and violence. And this is what makes gender stereotypes so dangerous.
The National Community Attitudes Survey (NCAS) found that more than 1 in 5 young people believe that ‘men should take control in relationships’ (22%) while over a third (35%) agree that ‘women prefer a man to be in charge of the relationship’.
There is no scientific evidence to support the belief that men are predisposed to being in charge or being a leader, either at home or at work. This is a gendered social norm that disrespects women’s inner worlds and basic human rights to be treated equally and without discrimination.
Not all disrespect ends with violence, but all violence begins with disrespect.
NCAS found that 1 in 5 Australians believe domestic violence is a normal reaction to stress, and that sometimes a woman can make a man so angry he hits her without meaning to.
The Field Model is all about preserving our own individual freedoms and rights, and recognising those of others - whoever they are.
If someone ignores the rules and takes action without shared agreement on the action, it’s a line move. Line moves are at least disrespectful, and at worst abusive.
CAN I HIT ANOTHER PERSON IF THEY MAKE ME ANGRY?
When someone takes action specifically to hurt or control another person, that’s abuse.
Regardless of gender, there is no place for disrespect or abuse in a healthy relationship.