Did you play with either Barbies or Hot Wheels as a child? Were your birthday decorations mostly either pink or blue? Do you remember watching mostly fairy tales or superhero movies?
I distinctly remember my childhood inundated by Barbies and kitchen sets, pink decorations, soft toys, and fairytales. You probably would have guessed that I am a woman. What gave it away? The Barbies? Or the kitchen sets? Or the pink color? Or fairytales? Probably all of them. My brother, on the other hand, was surrounded by Hot Wheels, Lego sets, blue décor, and action heroes.
We grew up in a society where girls simply play with Barbies and kitchen sets, while boys play with Hot Wheels and action figures. As a two-year-old, I certainly did not question it when I was introduced to these stereotypically girlish things, and neither did my brother when he was handed boyish toys. We just took them to be normal. However, what we assume to be normal choices are not actually natural. There is no evidence that little girls are naturally drawn towards Barbies or kitchen sets and little boys towards cars and action figures. It is only after years of education and actively seeking to understand the reasons behind the differences that I learned these differences had stemmed as a consequence of deeply entrenched gender stereotypes and expectations.
What are Gender Stereotypes?
Gender stereotypes are overgeneralized and oversimplified beliefs, notions, and expectations about how men and women should behave based on their gender. These stereotypes are often perpetuated through societal norms, media, and cultural traditions. They are often very restricting and limiting, as individuals are expected to behave in a certain manner and undertake roles that match their gender identity.
Gender stereotypes have existed in society for centuries. They are so deeply entrenched in our cultural practices and beliefs that it is nearly impossible to distinguish them. For example, women are expected to be nurturing, emotional, and caring, while men are expected to be strong, independent, and stoic. Consequently, women have historically been expected to undertake domestic chores and raise children, while men have been tasked with protecting the family and being the breadwinners. Even with the passage of time, these stereotypes and expectations have not altered drastically. Many people across the world continue to be bound by these stereotypes and expectations. These stereotypes are so deeply ingrained that most people often don’t question their validity or consider their impact on individuals.
Why are Gender Stereotypes and Expectations Problematic?
It is crucial to acknowledge the adverse impact of such gender stereotypes and expectations. They can have a significant impact on how individuals perceive themselves and those around them. They can be especially detrimental for one’s self-esteem and confidence. It also severely impedes opportunities for individuals. Additionally, these stereotypes and expectations can also limit one’s ability to express themselves authentically and fully.
The exposure to gender stereotypes and expectations often starts from an early age. These stereotypes tend to shape the views and behaviors of children, which they continue to carry for the rest of their lives. For example, girls are often given dolls and kitchen sets to play with, while boys are given cars and action figures. These toys reinforce gender stereotypes and expectations, such as that girls should take care and do domestic work, while boys should work outside and protect their family. These shape their perceptions and guide their path more often than not.
While women tend to disproportionately experience the negative impacts of gender stereotypes and expectations, men are not immune to the effects of such stereotypes and expectations. Women who do not conform to traditional gender roles can face discrimination at work or even their home. For example, a woman who does not adhere to the dressing style expected from women might receive inappropriate comments from their coworkers or supervisors at work. Similarly, men who do not conform to traditional gender roles may be stigmatized and ostracized. For example, a man who makes the decision to be a stay-at-home dad is often looked down upon and heavily criticized. Gender stereotypes and expectations often also impact academic and career choices. For example, women are often discouraged from pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers as they are perceived to be very difficult and not suited for women. Similarly, men may be discouraged from pursuing careers in nursing, care work, or teaching as they are seen as feminine jobs.
How can we Address Gender Stereotypes and Expectations?
It is necessary that we challenge gender stereotypes and expectations to promote equality and create an inclusive society. We can begin by identifying our own participation and role in perpetuating the stereotypes and expectations. While many of us do not intend to cause any harm, due to our social conditioning we have adopted some of the stereotypes and expectations. By assessing our own actions, it is possible to step back from them and pave the way for a more equal society. We can also work to promote gender-neutral toys and activities, encourage children to pursue their interests, regardless of their gender, and create workplaces that are free from gender bias and discrimination. It is also important to call in our family members and friends who display such behaviors and educate them about the adverse impacts of gender stereotypes and expectations.
Another important aspect that needs to be recognized is the intersectionality of gender stereotypes and expectations with other forms of discrimination, such as racism, ableism, and homophobia. For example, Black women may face unique challenges related to both their gender and race, such as being perceived as angry or aggressive when they assert themselves, while disabled women may be seen as less competent or less deserving of opportunities. The intersection of multiple marginalized identities often compounds the discrimination faced by individuals. It is imperative to be cognizant of such intersectional discrimination when challenging gender stereotypes and expectations.
The “Did You Know?” section is brought to you by the CILP Program Assistants team covering various topics on social justice issues. This week’s author is Anusha Thotakura.