Gender Stereotypes

‘Men are insensitive’

‘Women are bad drivers’

‘All men love sports and sex ’

‘All women love shopping and gossiping’

How often have we heard these comments in our culture? Some people may feel angry when gender based comments are made, while others may agree to these comments as genuine differences between the sexes or some others may just crackle up seeing the lighter side of this battle between the sexes.

Difference between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’

How then do we understand the important issue of sex and gender? Women’s and men’s gender identities follow from their specific female or male bodies. We need the distinction between “sex” as a biological category – genes, hormones, external and internal genitalia and “gender” as a socio-cultural word – learned characteristics, cultural expectations and behavioural patterns. This helps account for differences in the notion of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ in different cultures over time and space. The different views of how men and women behave in different cultures show that gender difference and identity is given not only by our biology but also from the views of our society. Gender views may change, while being male or female doesn’t.

Common gender stereotypes in our culture

Let’s examine what acting like a man and being ladylike means in our society and what might be some gender stereotypes in the Indian culture:

‘It’s a boy!’, says the nurse and from then on, subtle stereotyping begins. Conscious and unconscious motives of having the family race continue through him bring joy. Guns and cars are bought for him, preferably blue and never pink! While growing up, if he cries he will be told ‘don’t cry like a girl!’ He perhaps learns to suppress his emotions as he thinks it is ‘girlish’ to express them. It’s likely that he’d be encouraged to act strong, to act brave, to be tough etc. Developing the ‘right male interests’ like sports, taking care of the outside work, managing money, learning to ride/drive, fixing the bulb etc. will most likely be encouraged in him. He would perhaps be discouraged from cooking and serving. He is likely to have fewer restrictions while going out. While choosing a career, he would be encouraged to be ambitious. He is likely to be discouraged from choosing careers like teaching, counselling etc. as they are seen to be ‘softer’ career options meant for girls. The question of balancing home & family could may not arise for him as it is assumed that his gender defines his primary role as bread winner.

On the other hand, if the nurse says ‘It’s a girl!’, the equations tend to change from that minute. Her room is perhaps decorated with the supposed feminine colour pink and dolls are bought for her.  In many communities in India, she could be considered inferior to a boy child. Conscious and unconscious motives of some day ‘giving her away’ and ‘saving for her dowry/marriage expenses’ may bring despair. While growing up, she will be allowed to cry and express herself emotionally. ‘Good manners’ like talking & laughing gently and not loudly, being delicate, being submissive to elders, not ‘fighting like boys’, being sacrificial, caring etc. is most likely to be taught to her. Developing the ‘right interests’ like cooking, dancing, singing, tiding up the house, serving etc. will most likely be encouraged in her. She may not be encouraged to go out as often as her brother and is likely to have many more restrictions. While choosing a career, she is likely to be discouraged from choosing careers such as civil services or defence services as she will not be able to ‘balance’ family & home later on. It is most often assumed that her gender would define her role & function at home as primarily home maker and mother.

Research on gender stereotypes

Perhaps gender stereotypes are a result of ‘nurture’ more than ‘nature’, as suggested by many research studies on this subject. A recent research study suggests that differences between individual girls or between individual boys are much greater than those between the “average” girl and the “average” boy. Yet we tend to generalize from the “average” girl or boy to individuals.

In our culture, the ideal male is perhaps seen as competent, stable, tough, confident, strong, accomplished, non-conforming, aggressive and is the leader. The ideal female is perhaps seen as warm, emotional, kind, polite, sensitive, friendly, fashionable, gentle, soft and is the follower. In urban contexts, these gender expectations and stereotypes could be more subtle and indirect.

Research also shows that these stereotypes create dangerous consequences that limit a person’s full potential and well being. Men and women, because of these stereotypes, are forced to ignore their personality traits, temperament and unique characteristics that make them who they are. Instead there is always a tendency to conform to the cultural notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.

There may be several men who are soft & gentle in their temperament, who love to cook and are often bombarded by our society for not being charismatic and extroverted. On the other hand, there may be several women who are naturally extroverted, brave and tough and they are bombarded by our society for not being gentle & submissive.

Also, the tendency to over generalize ‘that all men are from mars’ and ‘all women are from venus’ is all too common. Exaggerated differences between men & women, most of which are researched to be individual differences, are glorified and generalized as gender differences. The nature-nurture debate still continues as to the definitions of masculinity and femininity.

In his book, ‘Men are from earth and women are from earth’, G Soh challenges stereotypes and proves that there are more similarities than differences between men & women, even anatomically. Men & women have the same desires, wants, dreams and fears.

Going behind the layers of gender

Somehow, in all this chaos, our real self is often lost. Many of us realize this but wonder how to get out of these boxes that seem to be so deeply ingrained in us. We know we have the power to decide what makes sense for us, even if it requires us to look beyond our gender.

Perhaps the best way we can bring about change in our society is by becoming aware of our own biases and stereotypes in the way we see ourselves and others. Psychologists suggest that every human being has both masculine and feminine parts to themselves and the integration of both these parts lead to psychological wellbeing and balance.

If you’d like to think and brainstorm more about this subject, consider the following questions:

  • Who decides and defines ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’?
  • How much of a role do both nature and nurture play in the above definitions?
  • Does gender define roles and functions at home, workplace & community?
  • Are there inborn traits in men or women that predispose them to make better or worse leaders?
  • Are both boys and girls intellectually gifted? Are some subjects or fields the preserve of one sex, which the others cannot aspire to?
  • Can the culturally defined roles of husband & wife be shared, interchanged and adjustable?

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About Monisha Srichand

Monisha Srichand is the Director of TalkItOver Counselling Services. She is also a counselling psychologist, executive coach and leadership development facilitator. She has served in Marketing & HR roles before pursuing the counselling profession. Over the last 6 years, she has trained & coached over 4500 organization leaders in Fortune 500 companies across India on people management, diversity & inclusion, leadership development and emotional intelligence. She was awarded the university medal for outstanding performance in academic excellence in M.Sc Counselling Psychology and outstanding management student at Mount Carmel College, Bangalore. She enjoys travelling, photography, cooking, baking, reading and dancing in her free time.