Gender Stereotype

The concept of a stereotype was introduced into social science in 1922, when Walter Lippman used it to describe the ‘typical picture’ that comes to mind when thinking about a particular social group (Macrae et al. 1996). A stereotype can be thought of as a cognitive method or procedure, used by our mind in order to simplify the complex barrage of information it experiences. From this perspective, a stereotype is a method of understanding, which works through classifying individual people into a group category. This definition of a stereotype, however, omits the important issue of content. As a ‘typical picture’ about a social group, a stereotype may be negative or positive, accurate or inaccurate, justified or unjustified. It is, though, the negative, the inaccurate, and the unjustified stereotypes that cause us most concern (Schneider 1996). An adequate understanding of a stereotype must also include the idea that stereotypes are not only contained within an individual’s mind, but also exist at a collective level. This shared element of the content of stereotypes makes it possible to identify some easily recognised gender stereotypes. For example, that women are emotional and unpredictable, are bad drivers and like chocolate, or that men are rational and instrumental, bad at housework and like sport.With these points in mind, a gender stereotype can be defined as a standardised and often pejorative idea or image held about an individual on the basis of their gender. At a general level, the effects of stereotyping can mean that, rather than treating people as individuals, ‘we treat them instead as artificial persons, which means as an extension of the category we have constructed’ (Enteman 1996: 10).

Research within the field of Gender Studies has examined the presence of gender stereotyping in key agencies of socialisation, such as families, the education system and the media. For example, it is through the application of ‘sex role’ stereotypes by adults, especially parents, that infants and children learn what is deemed appropriate or inappropriate behaviour for their sex (for example, Parsons and Bales 1956). In a study of secondary schools, Riddell (1992) found that teachers stereotyped girls as mature, neat and conscientious, while boys were seen as aggressive and lacking in discipline. As a consequence, teachers devoted more attention to boys as a strategy of maintaining order in the classroom. Riddell also found that many of the teachers she studied subscribed to a gendered ideology in which femininity was equated with actual or potential motherhood. This dominant stereotype also served to marginalise girls and women as actual or potential workers, and so may have compromised the schools’ policy of equal opportunities. Studies of reading materials and textbooks used in schools have been shown to contain gender stereotypes. Masculine characters tend to predominate and to be depicted in a wide range of roles, while the few female characters tend to be stereotyped in domestic settings (Lobban 1974; Best 1993).

Research on gender stereotyping in the media also suggests that femininity is routinely associated with domesticity and sexuality. In a classic study, Tuchman (1981) examined media depictions of American women from the 1950s onwards. Her findings were that women were stereotyped either as sexual objects, or as housewives, or in jobs which were reflections of their domestic/caring role. Tuchman described such narrow and constricting representations as amounting to the ‘symbolic annihilation of women’, in that they failed to accurately reflect the range of women’s lives in reality. In its review of research evidence from the 1990s onwards, a report by the European Commission (1999) argued that changes in the portrayal of gender can best be described as ‘tentative and ambiguous’. One finding was that women continue to be underrepresented on television. In Britain, for example, only 30 per cent of people on television are women. Moreover, studies also showed that, compared with men, ‘women portrayed in the media are younger, more likely to be shown as married, and less likely to be shown in paid employment’ (1999: 12).

While it is relatively easy to identify stereotypical attitudes about gender held by, say, teachers, or stereotypical images transmitted through television, it is more difficult to establish a strong and direct link between such stereotypes and systematic discrimination experienced by groups to whom the stereotypes are applied (Pickering 1995). For example, to claim that there is a direct link between media representations and gender inequality involves a whole host of assumptions, not least that audiences are passive and fully accepting of the dominant gender stereotypes the all-powerful media communicate to them. In studies of media representations, the focus has shifted away from whether stereotypes of gender reflect the ‘reality’ of gendered experiences and identities. Instead, media representations are increasingly regarded as key ways in which understandings of gendered ‘reality’ are constructed, and attention is given to the processes through which audiences exercise power in actively negotiating meanings of the ‘text’ (the magazine, advertisement, film or television programme). ‘Depending on the socio-economic and cultural placings that media consumers already occupy, the text’s preferred interpretation may in certain instances be negotiated or refused altogether’ (Moores 1993: 6).

sample-advertisement_732176The issue of power in relation to stereotyping is also addressed by Jenkins (2000), whose discussion is framed in terms of social processes of group categorisation. Jenkins points out that some groups have greater power to make categorisations than others, and to generate consequences of their categorisations. If repeated and reinforced across different contexts, such categorisations are ‘crucial in setting the limits to possibility’ for those so defined. ‘The effective categorisation of a group of people by a more powerful Other is thus never “just” a matter of classification . . . As an intervention in that group’s social world it will to an extent and in ways that are content-specific, change that world and the experience of those living in it; in other words, it has consequences’ (2000: 21–2, original emphasis)


Source: Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan Sage Publications, 2004


Pickering (2001) provides a critical assessment of the concept of stereotyping from the perspective of sociology and media studies, and links it closely to the concept of the Other. A classic review of gender stereotyping in education is provided by Delamont (1990), although see Paechter (1998) for more recent evidence. A report by the European Commission (1999) provides an analytical overview of European media research on gender portrayal, and includes many references to British evidence.

Categories: Gender Studies

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