How Gender Stereotypes Influence Our Society

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What are gender stereotypes?

Gender stereotypes are beliefs that society has about the characteristics of females and males. These stereotypes vary over cultures and over time. Children learn some aspects of stereotypes at a very young age. Something as small as gender reveal parties, where pink represents a girl and blue represents a boy. We are bombarded with a crazy amount of information from the day we are born and to make sense of it all and the world around us, we stereotype. We put things and people into boxes that we can neatly organize and range ourselves. Stereotyping is something that starts at a very young age and can follow an individual through their whole life. Children learn to gender stereotype through activities and occupations as early as their preschool years. Gender stereotypes then broaden to elementary schools and include sports, school subjects, and personality traits.

Some studies have shown that boys hold more rigid gender stereotypes than girls and are held to more rigid ideals than girls.

“In adolescence, flexibility in stereotypes fluctuates in response to two opposing forces — increasing cognitive flexibility tends to increase adolescents’ flexibility in applying stereotypes whereas increasing pressure to conform to stereotypes in preparation for sexual roles and adult status increases adherence to stereotypes (Ruble and Martin 1998).”

When I was a kid, I used to be part of the chess team in kindergarten. I was the only girl that was on the team and despite being the best out of all the boys, I was still very intimidated by all of them. I was told by the rest of my classmates that chess was “for boys”. This is something that has stuck with me ever since I was around six years old. After that, I quit chess. I regret that to this day.

When I came to university for a science degree, I got so many comments saying my choice “was not a job for a woman”. Microaggressions are heard a lot in the science and medicine field. These can include, name-calling, sexist, racist or homophobic remarks, invalidations, overtalking and even though some may not be intentional, they can still be harmful.

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Effect on mental health

Research has shown that socially constructed differences between women and men in roles and responsibilities in the home, workplace, school, etc. Status and power interact with biological differences between the sexes that contribute to the differences in mental health problems that individuals suffer from. Gender stereotypes enforced by the segregation of boys and girls when they reach puberty contributes to significant health consequences, such as violence, victimization, and depression.

“Boys socialized to conform to traditional masculine ideology may demonstrate it through violence,” says Dr. Astha Ramaiya, a Global Early Adolescent Study (GEAS) research associate and the lead author of the study.

Stereotyped assumptions significantly limit younger individuals’ career choices, which in return contributes to the gender pay gap. The majority of parents are more likely to picture their sons working in construction and up to three times more likely to picture their daughters working in the nursing field or the care work field.

People with depression are more likely to experience loss of interest and poor concentration, which can significantly impact their academic performance, confidence, and self-image, which makes it even harder to get ahead.

Men are sadly encouraged to not express feelings or cry when upset. For example, phrases like “be a man” when you are trying to tell someone to toughen up. Men are instead expected to be tough, assertive, and rational. This also affects the way men might feel about seeking help for mental health purposes. Research has shown that doctors are more likely to diagnose women with mental illness than men. This could be due to the possibility that men’s mental health symptoms may not fit the typical mold of a diagnosis.

During adolescence, girls tend to have a much higher prevalence of depression and eating disorders and suicidal attempts and ideations. Boys experience more problems involving anger, risky behaviors and commit suicide more often than girls.

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Stereotypically Influenced Treatment of the Male Gender

Gender stereotyping is a product of our unconscious bias. Although we may not fully acknowledge it, gender stereotypes dictate the way we view each other. As such, its impact can be readily seen in the differential treatment of genders in our society. New findings show that men face social backlash when they do not follow masculine genders stereotypes.

For instance, research shows that men who demonstrate vulnerability result in a negative social image. Studies from 2015 showed that when male leaders asked for help, they were viewed as less competent, capable, and confident. It was also found that when men expose their weaknesses at work, they are perceived as lower status. This is unfortunate since being vulnerable enables real personal growth. Thus, male gender stereotypes seem to be a barrier to such development.

Similarly, this negative outlook is also seen in men who demonstrate qualities of being nice, empathetic, or modest. Research shows that men across multiple industries who are more agreeable make on average 18% less in income than more stereotypically masculine men. Another study found that female leaders who displayed empathy were less likely than men to be in danger of career derailment. It was also found that males who were more humble in expressing their accomplishments were perceived as less likable, less authoritative, and weaker than humble females. Agreeableness, empathy, and modesty are all qualities that enable deeper human connection. And so, it is a shame that gender stereotypes work to hinder these qualities.

Moreover, males are often stereotyped to be stoic and beyond emotional expression. This is deeply embedded within our society that a 2017 study even found that men who cry at work are perceived as more emotional and less competent than women who cry. Such stereotypical culture has the potential to cause mental health issues in men.

Lastly, males who relate to females are also found to face negative consequences in society. Findings show that men who identify as feminists or who are perceived to have feminine characteristics are more likely to be harassed in the workplace. It was also found that men who even ask for family leave, something historically used by females, are viewed as poorer workers in comparison to female counterparts.

As seen, gender stereotypes influence society’s perception of males. This hinders the progress of males to overcome stereotypes that negatively impact them. To enable social progress and equality for all gender roles, it is important to be aware of and address the unconscious bias that gender stereotypes create.

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Toxic masculinity vs healthy masculinity

Toxic masculinity is a term that has gotten traction over the past few years, though in some ways it has been controversial. Toxic masculinity refers to excessive aggression, emotional repression, sexual violence, and other negative traits, which derive from gender expectations. Emotional repression and being aggressive is seen as manly, toxic masculinity describe a form of manliness that is characterized by such traits. Toxic masculinity also involves the lack of willingness to seek help for fear of being seen as weak and maintaining a “tough guy” image in front of others, whether for mental or physical health. Men being socialized to express anger to get their way is another aspect in which toxic masculinity manifests itself. There are health consequences as a result of all this, higher suicide rate amongst men, about four times higher than women, is sometimes seen as a symptom of this lack of willingness to get help. Furthermore, conforming to the characteristics that toxic masculinity comprises of, increases the risk for substance abuse, academic challenges, and negative health outcomes for males.

There needs to be a push for a healthy form of masculinity, one in which we encourage men to be more open about how they feel and not excessively suppress their emotions. We must idealize a masculinity that discourages aggressiveness and orients itself towards conciliatory behaviors. A way to do this is to try to push for different social norms. Social norms can exercise immense power over the individual, to conform. Therefore, trying to minimize the pressure to conform to social norms that align with toxic masculinity is crucial to try to shift the behavior away from traits like emotional suppression and the constant valuing of hiding weakness.

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