By: Marthe Wittkamp
Imagine a little girl. Then imagine a little boy. What are the first things your mind jumps to? Maybe the colors pink and blue? Dressing up as princesses versus pretending to be pirates? Or maybe playing house and climbing trees?
Gender stereotypes and gender-based expectations are very complex. Depending on where we are and how we grew up, we might associate very different things with different genders (Baron and Branscombe 2014; Frith 2015). In Western culture for example, men are often expected to be tough, dominant and reckless, but also to be more stoic than girls, suppressing their emotions rather than expressing them (Altavas 2019). These stereotypes come from the unconscious biases we have about others (Baron and Branscombe 2014; Frith 2015).
Where do our Biases come from?
Everyone – even someone rationally against prejudices and stereotyping – has an unconscious bias. These biases develop from an early age: We are born with a preference for the sort of people we are surrounded with, and learn from them (Baron and Branscombe 2014; Frith 2015). Cultural values further shape our attitude towards people different from us, both implicitly and explicitly (Baron and Branscombe 2014). The books we read, the movies we watch, the songs we listen to and the stories we hear all influence how we perceive others.
Our brain registers this information, subconsciously processing impressions and looking for patterns. When two things always seem to occur together – such as the male driving instructor or the female cashier for example – the brain starts to expect to see these two attributes together. This is also called a mental shortcut (Baron and Branscombe 2014). When these mental shortcuts are not challenged, stereotypes will form which can result in prejudiced or discriminating behavior difficult to change in later life (Baron and Branscombe 2014; Frith 2015).
Primary school is often when gender-based peer groups are first established. Kids want to belong to a group, and from around the age of 6 this group is most likely their gender-group (Adler et al. 1992; Rafferty 2018). Children will want to do what the others in their group are doing, and if this group so happens to be their gender group, they will learn to do things that are in line with the societal expectations towards this gender (Rafferty 2018).
These gender-based stereotypes are perpetuated by teachers and peers at school. Heavily repeated phrases such as “boys will be boys” or the idea that when a boy teases a girl he actually likes her (in Dutch: “meisjes plagen, kusjes vragen”) are examples of how gender-based differences in behavior are upheld and justified early in life. Later, when the children are older, girl- and boy groups start to mix again, but at this point stereotypes have already been ingrained into the mind.
How can Stereotypes lead to Sexual Harassment?
Gender-based stereotypes ingrained into the mind early on are considered the root cause of unhealthy sexual relationships and even harassment later in life (Borman and Frankel 1984; Fromme and Emihovich 1998; Altavas 2019). In fact, studies have shown that adolescents and young adults identify a widespread double standard wherein boys are rewarded for sexual aggression and girls are shamed for sexual agency (Wilder 2018). This creates a problematic dynamic wherein subconsciously it not only becomes acceptable for men to disregard consent in the context of sex, women are expected to appreciate advances towards them, be they stereotyping jokes or physical harassment (Wilder 2018).
Adler, P. A., S. J. Kless and P. Adler (1992). “Socialization to Gender Roles: Popularity among Elementary School Boys and Girls.” Sociology of Education 65(3), 169–187.
Altavas, A. (2019). “‘Boys Will Be Boys:’ The Negative Effects of Traditional Masculinity.” On the Pulse. At https://pulse.seattlechildrens.org/boys-will-be-boys-the-negative-effects-of-traditional-masculinity/.
Baron, R. A. and N. R. Branscombe (2014). Social Psychology (14th edition). Essex, UK: Pearson.
Frith, U. (2015). “Unconscious bias.” The Royal Society. At https://royalsociety.org/~/media/policy/publications/2015/unconscious-bias-briefing-2015.pdf.
Fromme, R. E. and C. Emihovich (1998). “Boys will be Boys: Young Males’ Perceptions of Women, Sexuality, and Prevention.” Education and Urban Society 30(2), 172–188.
Murnen, S. K., C. Wright and G. Kaluzny (2002). “If “Boys Will Be Boys,” Then Girls Will Be Victims? A Meta-Analytic Review of the Research That Relates Masculine Ideology to Sexual Aggression.” Sex Roles 46, 359–375.
Rafferty (2018). “Gender Identity Development in Children.” HealthyChildren.Org. At https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/Pages/Gender-Identity-and-Gender-Confusion-In-Children.aspx.
Wilder, C. (2018). “Sexual harassment, gender stereotypes prevalent among youth.” Medical Press. At https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-03-sexual-gender-stereotypes-prevalent-youth.html.