The times are changing. All around us we see progress for gender equality. There’s a long way to go but laws are improving; institutions are becoming more aware of important gender issues; and there’s a woman running for US President. There does seem to be more awareness of gender politics recently and it’s obvious that the acceptable jobs and roles of men and women have changed over the decades. Despite all this, it seems that our internal beliefs might not have changed much at all. According to a new study, gender stereotypes are just as strong as they were 30 years ago and some have actually gotten worse.
The study, called “The Times They Are a-Changing … or Are They Not? A Comparison of Gender Stereotypes, 1983–2014”, compared the beliefs of people 195 people back in 1983 and 191 people in 2014. The participants were asked about different roles, behaviours, personality traits, and jobs that were associated with different genders. Men and women, in 1983 and 2014, showed a tendency to link genders with specific traits and jobs. Men are strong, women are kind, men shouldn’t clean the house, and women make better nurses.
Both men and women stereotyped people by their gender. This is an important fact to recognise because, although women get the worst of the sexist treatment, it isn’t only men causing it. Women frequently hold beliefs that are sexist towards other women and it’s shown clearly in this study.
One positive change over the decades is that people today are more likely to feel that men and women should be equal when it comes to finances and making important decisions. However, some results suggested things have gotten worse since 1983. The beliefs about male gender roles haven’t changed but there has been in increase in female gender role stereotyping. It seems that people haven’t become more likely to believe that men do “male things”, but they do believe more strongly that men don’t do “female things”. Women are seen as more likely to be the ones doing female gender roles in 2014, but because we’ve got worse at accepting that men can do these roles.
In reality, genders aren’t very different. There’s obviously no reason a man can’t make a great nurse or clean the house. Women can be bodybuilders and be brave. But when asked, these participants in 1983 and 2014 thought that men and women have totally different personalities, behaviours, and jobs.
It’s important not to take too much from a study like this. Firstly, the views of a few hundred people don’t represent all of us. It can be difficult to extrapolate results into the real world. Another issue is that the surveys and the study itself are very cisnormative. Asking about male and female gender roles isn’t overly helpful when not everyone identifies as one of those two options.
This might seem seem like sad news but not necessarily. It doesn’t mean there’s no progress; it just means that the progress is in our society and not in the beliefs of individuals. If we believe the results of the study, people are still just as likely to stereotype genders, but knowing this actually empowers us because it means we have to work hard to improve society in spite of the persistent beliefs. If we’re aware that gender stereotyping is still just as big an issue, we can be more proactive when teaching students, interviewing prospective employees, and working with colleagues. If we’re not changing internally, we’ll have to work twice as hard changing things externally.
Main image © iStock/Anetlanda