Chapter 2 - Power Subchapter: Gender & power

Gender norms and 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 sometimes be harmful because they may limit or pigeonhole an individual based on assumptions about the group they belong to.

  • 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 a person and deny their individuality and freedom.

  • All Asians are good at maths.
  • 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 change an established and accepted stereotype.

 

Norms

Norms are 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 queue don’t cut in front of someone else
  • face forwards in a lift.

 

Five illustrated characters are crowded into an elevator; one is standing near the door facing toward everyone instead of facing the door, while each of the other characters look mildly affronted.

 

Social norms are helpful to individuals who want to know how they should behave and be accepted as part of the group.

 

Gender norms

A norm becomes a gender norm when the behaviour defined is gender specific:

  • boys wear blue and girls wear pink
  • boys are loud and boisterous; girls are quiet and gentle
  • men should never show fear or emotions
  • men should be ambitious with their career
  • women should be the primary carers for their children.

Gender norms define how males and females should behave in a way that a group, community or culture considers to be acceptable and conforms to expectations for that gender.

 

Early last century, babies were typically dressed in white. In 1918, towards the end of World War 1, fashion magazines began to suggest pink was a good colour for boys because it was strong and bright, and blue was suggested for girls because it was dainty and pretty. Or you could pair blue-eyed children with blue clothing. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that clothing became sex specific, and the norm became blue for boys and pink for girls.

 

Gender norms change over time and vary across cultures but have always played a role in defining what sort of roles are acceptable for men and for women.

 

Gender roles

Gender roles define how males and females are expected to speak, think and behave based on their gender and societal expectations.

When a role or behaviour is described as masculine, it means that society considers it acceptable for males. If a role or behaviour is described as feminine, then it’s considered appropriate for females.

 

Split frame; the left panel is blue and has a 'male' symbol above three characters – a police officer, a lab technician and a construction worker. The right panel is pink and has a 'female' symbol above three characters – a teacher, a doctor, and a mother holding a baby.

 

Gender roles can be extremely limiting. They take no account of an individual’s ambition, passion or talents. Instead, they rely on the expectations of the group or society to define what your personal ambition should be and how your abilities should be directed towards achieving it.

 

Gender stereotypes

Gender stereotypes are generalisations about a person based on their gender. These generalisations usually reflect the conventional gender norms and roles of a specific society or culture.

 

An illustrated male character handing a second baby to a female character who looks overwhelmed.

 

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 are influenced by gendered norms. The reality is that there are as many differences between men and other men, as there are between men and women.

Any assumption made about a person because of their gender is simply that, an assumption. It’s just as likely for the assumption to be reasonably accurate as it is for it to be completely wrong.

 

But I want to be this, not that

At some point we all feel pressure from others concerning our ambitions and relationships. The desire to fit in and conform to the expectations of people we care about and respect can feel overwhelming.

Once expectations are established, they can be difficult to shake. Going against them can cause conflict.

 

A confused looking illustrated character is scratching their head looking at two doors; one has a sign which says, 'Jobs for you', and the other door's sign says, 'Other jobs'.

 

We might feel pushed into education and career pathways that are expected of us, based on gender or family background.

We are also prone to be heavily influenced by our friends and peers. The desire to be accepted can see us behaving in ways that go against our personal needs and desires. The possibility of being thought to be different, and not in a good way, is a powerful motivation to conform.

When someone falls outside of the accepted gender stereotype, or they exhibit characteristics that are traditionally associated with the opposite sex, negative labels can often be used to describe their appearance or behaviours.

Bossy, aggressive, determined, butch, effeminate, soft, rough, ambitious—these words are often gendered. When a female is labelled as ‘determined’ it can be meant as an insult. But a determined male is someone who knows what they want. A female labelled as feminine conforms to societal expectations, but an effeminate male might be teased or abused.

Gendered language and societal expectations of conforming to gender roles and norms takes no account of you as an individual person, with your own inner world of passions, interests, preferences and ambitions.

We all want to be accepted and respected for who we are. But, in seeking acceptance and respect from others, we must also accept and respect others for who they are.