Saturday, August 21, 2010

How Hard Is It to Change a Gender Stereotype?

The answer, as I am sure many of us know, is that it's very hard. We are struggling against the cumulative weight of the cultural center of gravity, and as Corinne Moss-Racusin shows here, there is also the backlash against those who step outside of the culturally sanctioned roles/stereotypes.

This article comes from the very cool site, Big Questions Online.

How Hard Is It to Change a Gender Stereotype?

Corinne Moss-Racusin answers.
Monday, August 9, 2010

Researchers who study gender stereotypes are often struck by how pernicious these stereotypes are, and how they operate in the context of both our private and professional lives. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that stereotypes are impossible to change (though it does suggest that these stereotypes may be extremely powerful). For example, in our research, we found that when people violate gender stereotypes, they encounter backlash (or social and economic sanctions) for breaking the traditional “gender rules." So if a woman behaves ambitiously or a man displays modesty in a job interview, they will typically encounter backlash from observers.

However, men and women are equally likely to administer this backlash, meaning that women aren’t kind to other self-promoting women, and men don’t take it easy on another modest man. The fact that we are all exposed to the same set of gender rules (and thus are equally likely to police them) speaks to the fact that these rules have been firmly established in our society at large. As a result of this rigidity, gender stereotypes aren’t likely to vanish anytime soon. In fact, additional research on dynamic stereotypes (i.e., people’s projections of future gender stereotypes) suggests that both women and men believe that gender stereotypes won’t have changed much even 50 years from now.

However, this doesn’t mean that stereotypes are set in stone. For example, some researchers have found that intergroup biases can be changed by diversity education. In this case, researchers compared the racist attitudes of students taking a “prejudice and conflict” seminar with control students in a research methods class. They found that over the course of the semester, students in the prejudice course became significantly more egalitarian, while the control students remained the same. This suggests that one method of reducing negative stereotypes is increasing education about their damaging effects, as well as exposure to people from a stigmatized group. Supporting this view, research on the “contact hypothesis” has shown that aggression and tension between members of groups in conflict may be reduced by bringing them into contact with each other.

When it comes to gender stereotypes, the most obvious way to bring about change is to support men and women who wish to behave in counter-stereotypical ways. For example, if women were free to pursue leadership without fear of encountering backlash from others, then an increasing number of women would likely be advanced to positions of power. These visible female leaders could then serve as role models to others, enhancing workplace gender equity still further. Over time, the gender diversity of leaders would likely begin to weaken workplace gender stereotypes. Simply put, if there were just as many women as men in leadership roles, the stereotype that “men are most fit to lead” would be undermined.

Similarly, if men were not penalized for their modest moments, they might feel freer to enact the full range of human behavior and emotion (rather than an unattainable hyper-masculine ideal), changing the stereotype that modesty is a female trait. Thus, the best way to change gender stereotypes may be to change our responses to people who violate them.

Corinne Moss-Racusin is a doctoral student in social psychology at Rutgers University.

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