Consequences of Gender Stereotypes - The Case for Nurture

Gender, Nature, and Nurture - Richard A. Lippa 2014

Consequences of Gender Stereotypes
The Case for Nurture

Let's fast forward now and consider how gender is maintained in adolescence and adulthood. As adults, most of us have learned elaborate gender stereotypes, and these stereotypes influence our behavior in at least three different ways. First, we often try to live up to gender stereotypes. Second, we may influence others, both in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, to conform to our stereotypes. Third, stereotypes about sex differences in ability (e.g., "women aren't good at math," "men can't handle infants properly") may serve to undermine individual women's and men's performances.

Enacting Stereotypes

Women and men often act in gender stereotypic ways, particularly in situations that make gender salient (Deaux & Major, 1987). One study showed that college women are more cutesy and feminine when interacting with their boyfriends than when interesting with men they are not interested in (Montepare & Vega, 1988). Other studies have found that women act more traditionally feminine and even dumb down their performance on intelligence tests when they anticipate interacting with an attractive college man who values traditional women (Zanna & Pack, 1975). In one experiment, interviewed women acted more femininely—both verbally and nonverbally (e.g., they prettied themselves up)—when they learned ahead of time that the man interviewing them for a job approved of feminine women (von Baeyer, Sherk, & Zanna, 1981). Because stereotypes portray modesty to be a feminine virtue, women tend to offer lower estimates of their ability in public compared with private settings (Berg, Stephan, & Dodson, 1981; Gould & Slone, 1982). Similarly, because aggressiveness is considered unfeminine, women become less aggressive when they are observed and personally identified. However, men show no such change (Lightdale & Prentice, 1994).

Men as well as women conform to gender stereotypes, particularly when they are being watched. Men are more helpful during emergencies, for example, particularly when they are being observed and when the person who needs help is a woman (Eagly & Crowley, 1986). This suggests that men enact the gender-stereotypic role of masculine valor, particularly when they are being observed. Similarly, in conformity experiments, men stick up for their beliefs and resist group pressures more in public than in private settings (Eagly, Wood, & Fishbaugh, 1981). Apparently men feel especially motivated to show that they can't be pushed around when others are watching them. The general principle seems to be that both women and men are more likely to live up to gender stereotypes when they are being observed by others and when they interact with attractive members of the other sex.

There are additional settings that serve to make gender stereotypes salient. One is when a person is the token—the sole male or female—in a group. Imagine, for example, that you are the only woman seated on a jury, or sitting on a corporate board, or elected to a state Supreme Court. Token status tends to emphasize one's role as male or female, and it encourages the token to think about how she comes across as a women or how he comes across as a man. Similarly, when people take on roles that violate traditional gender stereotypes (a woman engineering professor, a male kindergarten teacher), they may be forced to think more about their own gender than their co-workers do. People in such situations may have to choose between enacting gender stereotypes ("Look, I'm feminine, even though I'm an engineering professor!") or rejecting them and facing the disapproval that results.

It is important to emphasize that we do not need to think consciously about gender stereotypes for them to influence our thoughts and actions. A significant number of recent researches show that well-learned stereotypes—and gender stereotypes are probably the most overlearned and entrenched stereotypes we possess—can be primed (i.e., triggered) by transient cues of which we are not even aware (Fiske, 1998). Indeed, one recent study of buyer-versus-seller price negotiations found that implicit (i.e., unconscious and beneath the surface) priming of gender stereotypes was more powerful than explicit stereotypic information (e.g., stating openly that "men and women have been shown to differ on this task") in undermining women's outcomes (Kray, Thompson, & Galinsky, 2001). Apparently, when we are consciously aware of an offensive gender stereotype, we sometimes consciously try to fight the stereotype (e.g., women may negotiate harder), but when a gender stereotype is triggered beneath conscious awareness, we are more likely to confirm the stereotype.

All of the factors just described—public observation, the presence of attractive members of the other sex, token status, gender-role violations—may serve as unconscious primes to gender stereotypes. When gender stereotypes come to mind, our internal gender gyroscope often directs us to behave as they dictate. Other common primes to gender stereotypes include sexist jokes, sexist language (e.g., referring to people-in-general as "he" rather than "she" or "they"), and gender stereotypic content in the mass media, including gender-stereotypic sexual images. The general principle is that when men and women are in settings that trigger gender stereotype, they are more likely to act in accordance with those stereotypes (Deaux & Major, 1987).

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies and Behavioral Confirmation

People not only act consistently with their gender stereotype but they also may influence others to do the same. Much social psychological research has shown that a person can induce others to act consistently with his or her beliefs (Olson, Roese, & Zanna, 1996). This process is sometimes referred to as a self-fulfilling prophecy (Jussim, 1986; Merton, 1948) or as behavioral confirmation (Snyder, 1981). Consider the following example. Based on gender stereotypes, you decide that that your student Mary is not good at math. Through your words and demeanor you convey your doubts to Mary. Mary begins to doubt her own ability and in fact does not perform well on her math tests. Your initial assessment of Mary's math ability is confirmed. What you fail to realize, however, is that your actions contributed to Mary's poor performance.

Gender stereotypes can often become self-fulfilling prophecies. Chapter 3 described an experiment in which college man and woman—sitting in separate rooms and communicating by lights—negotiated how to divide masculine and feminine tasks between them. Women chose fewer feminine tasks when their partners falsely believed they were males and they chose more feminine tasks when their partners correctly thought they were women (Skrypnek & Snyder, 1982). Translate this experiment to a real-life domain; Do married women choose to launder clothes and vacuum carpets because they love to do these tasks or because they are induced to do so by their husbands' and society's expectations? Of course, women as well as men may internalize gender stereotypes. One study found that both women and men were more likely to assign feminine tasks to women and masculine tasks to men (Lewis, 1985). The division of labor fostered by gender stereotypes may become an "unconscious ideology" accepted by both women and men, even when it is patently unfair (Bem & Bem, 1971).

Men may more readily influence women to behave in gender stereotypic ways than vice versa. Why? Because men tend to hold more sexist beliefs than women do, men may be particularly likely to induce women to behave in gender-stereotypic ways. Conversely, because women have greater sensitivity to nonverbal cues then men do, women may be better than men at reading their partner's expectations (Christensen & Rosenthal, 1982). As described later, because women tend to have lower status positions than men, women may need to accommodate male higher-ups' stereotypes more than the other way around.

Although subtle nonverbal cues (frowns and smiles, cold and warm tones of voice) are undoubtedly important in conveying information about how we expect others to behave, there are more direct means of influencing women and men to behave consistently with gender stereotypes. Studies of group problem-solving and leadership show that group members often praise men's suggestions and solutions more than women's (Altemeyer & Jones, 1974; Butler & Geis, 1990; Ridgeway, 1982). Conversely, people interrupt and ignore women more than men (Bunker & Seashore, 1975). You may recall that men tend to show more instrumental behaviors and women more expressive behaviors in group settings (see Chapter 1). One reason for this is that people discourage assertiveness in women but encourage it in men. To influence others, women often must adopt a warm, friendly, smiling (i.e., expressive) demeanor (Carli & Bukatko, 2000). Otherwise, their influence attempts are viewed as illegitimate and unfeminine.

Society uses sticks as well as carrots to keep people in line as men and women. For example, people often deal harshly with women who break rules of feminine behavior. Feminists are judged to be unlikable and unattractive (Haddock & Zanna, 1994). Women (but not men) who are brash and self-promoting are disliked (Rudman, 1998). Women who show a masculine, directive style of leadership are judged to be less likable than men who show the same style of leadership (Eagly, Makhijani, & Klonsky, 1992). Thus one reason women may choose not behave in assertive, masculine ways is that they know from experience that such behavior will backfire on them. When deciding how to behave in work settings, women often face a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" dilemma (Geis, 1993), Success in the competitive world of business, government, and academia requires women to be forceful, assertive, and aggressive; however, these traits are often deemed unfeminine. and women who show such traits are often disliked (Carli, 1990; Crawford, 1988; Heilman, Wallen, Fuchs, & Tamkins, 2004).

Men who violate gender stereotypes may also receive harsh treatment. For example, men who opt to stay home as house husbands may be viewed as weak, henpecked, and ineffectual. Men who work in professions that violate gender stereotypes (e.g., nurses, elementary school teachers, interior decorators) may have their masculinity questioned, often because of fears about homosexuality. In many different ways, people convey the message that feminine behavior is unacceptable in men and masculine behavior is unacceptable in women. Is it any surprise then that most men come to be act in masculine ways and that most women come to act in feminine ways?

Stereotype Threat: When Negative Stereotypes Undermine Performance

There is a third way in which gender stereotypes may influence women and men. When stereotypes question the abilities of one sex ("women aren't good at math," "men are inept with infants"), they may undermine the performance of individual women and men. This phenomenon has been labeled stereotype threat (Steele, 1997).

Imagine you are a college woman taking the math GRE (Graduate Record Exam) achievement test in a room full of men. Your token status primes the stereotype that "women aren't good at math," and this triggers anxiety and worry about how you'll perform on the test. Furthermore, you may worry about how your friends will react if you receive a disappointing score, if you do badly, you reason, you will have proven the detested stereotype true. Your anxiety and distracting thoughts may be particularly likely if you identify highly with the task (you are a math major) and if good performance in important to you (you are hoping to get into a good graduate school in math). Your anxiety ends up interfering with your test performance.

Two experiments by Steven Spencer, Claude Steele, and Diane Quinn (1999) confirmed the sequence just described. University of Michigan students were asked to work on a test that contained difficult math GRE questions. Some participants were told that the test showed gender differences and others were told that the test showed no gender differences, Presumably, women who thought the test showed gender differences would be worried about the stereotype that "women are not good at math." The results supported the stereotype threat hypothesis. When negative stereotypes about women's math ability were made salient, women performed worse than men on the challenging math test. However, when women were relaxed about gender stereotypes, they performed as well as men did. Other experiments showed that token status in work groups and even the mere presence of men in work groups can trigger negative gender stereotypes that undermine women's math performance (Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2000).

Long before experiments were conducted on the topic, British novelist Virginia Woolf (1957/1929) intuitively understood the phenomenon of stereotype threat when she wrote:

There was an enormous body of masculine opinion to the effect that nothing could be expected of women intellectually. Even if her father did not read out loud these opinions, any girl could read them for herself; and the reading, even in the nineteenth century, must, have lowered her vitality, and told profoundly upon work. There would always have been that assertion—you cannot do this, you are incapable of doing that—to protest against, to overcome.