The OHCHR defines gender stereotypes in the following way: “A gender stereotype is a generalised view or preconception about attributes or characteristics, or the roles that are or ought to be possessed by, or performed by women and men. A gender stereotype is harmful when it limits women’s and men’s capacity to develop their personal abilities, pursue their professional careers and make choices about their lives.”
In an excellent recent paper about gender stereotypes, Naomi Ellemers from Utrecht University dispels some of the most common ones.
Man Are Bigger Risk Takers
It is true that men engage in a risky behaviour more often, e.g. in gambling, driving, alcohol consumption and drug use, but this is not simply because women are naturally more cautious, while men are naturally more reckless. Rather, it is a consequence of how men and women are generally expected to behave in a society. Namely, the accomplishments of men are generally judged in terms of task-performance, while women are judged in terms of sociableness and emotional warmth. Men are pressured to take risks to prove themselves to others, while this is not something that it is generally expected of women.
Women are More Caring
The whole cluster of stereotypes represents women as naturally predisposed to be caring and nurturing because they can bear children. Historically, taking care of children and home was predominantly seen as women’s main social role. This stereotype is reflected in career choices women and men make. For example, nurses are predominantly women, and women are more likely to choose professions with lower pay that are less time-consuming and allow them to spend more time at home.
The above two stereotypes combined lead to a stereotype that men should be economic providers, while women should take care of home and family.
However, empirical studies show that rather than being biological, these differences stem from different social expectations attached to gender, that influence how individuals see themselves and their goals in life.
Women Are Better at Languages, Men are Better at Maths
This stereotype stems from the fact that women are generally considered more talkative, combined with the fact that the vast majority of the top scientists in STEM fields are men. In order to explain this apparent difference, a pseudo-scientific explanation is often invoked that our brains are hard-wired differently through evolution because we were predisposed for different activities. Men, because they are physically stronger, went hunting, and thus developed certain areas of brain, while women who stayed at home taking care of children developed certain others.
However, research in which over 1,400 human brains were scanned showed no significant difference between men and women, and neither are IQ tests showing any significant difference in intelligence.
The consequences of gender stereotypes are widespread and harmful because they perpetuate gender inequality in various contexts. For example, when boys excel at maths, this is seen as an indication of their logical reasoning skills, whereas girls that get the same results are perceived as hard-working. Also, based on the same CV, employers are more likely to judge a person as more competent if they are men.
However, empirical studies strongly indicate that differences between men and women are not inherent and unchangeable, but are the result of the way boys and girls are raised and educated, as well as different social roles and power positions attached to gender.