WPU Professor Discusses Gender Stereotypes

Since the early 1980s, women have broken down old gender barriers, presided over colleges and companies, ridden space shuttles, run for vice president and their success has relegated gender stereotypes to the dustbin. Right? Wrong. According to a study of gender stereotypes from 1983 to 2014 published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, titled “The Times They are a-Changing…or Are They Not?” William Paterson University Professor Elizabeth Haines is the lead author. She spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.

Williams: Thank you for being with us.

Haines: Thank you.

Williams: What exactly are gender stereotypes and how do you measure them?

Haines: That’s a great question. Gender stereotypes are over generalizations about the beliefs of about men and women and we tend to look at them, we tend to measure them by looking that the differences between how people perceive men versus women on different categories. So, in the study we’re reporting on we looked at traits, like as being nice or being kind, those traits are usually associated with being female in our society. Being aggressive, independent and agentic are associated with being men. But also the interesting thing about this study is that we looked at role behaviors like tending the house and bread winning as well as occupations and then physical traits as well.

Williams: How do gender stereotypes in your research impede women’s growth in the ranks of their companies?

Haines: Well gender stereotypes, they can be two ways. They can actually be self limiting behavior you if believe that only women can be nurturing and communal, you believe only men can be agentic and powerful leaders, that’s going to limit your own behavior in its own kinds of ways.

Williams: So it’s a self selection.

Haines: Yeah, like a self fulfilling prophecy. So, maybe women are less likely to lean in as Sheryl Sandberg says when they need to be promoted. But more importantly it’s helped other people view you. If other people view you in terms of old stereotypes that only women can be taking care of the house or children, then that’s going to be a problem if you are looking for a leadership position.

Williams: Where do you find the most significant differences in gender stereotypes?

Haines: The most significant differences in gender stereotypes tend to be occupations and physical traits. Although, they exist everywhere and that was one of the supersizing things about this study. They were as strong today as they were in 1993 on all dimensions, on trait behaviors like being communal, like being warm and kind that the typical man is seen as way lower on those dimensions than the typical woman. But also on role behaviors, such as tending the house, does laundry, gets emotional, all those kinds of things.

Williams: But also the same behavior would be viewed as strength in a man and witchy in a woman?

Haines: Yeah we do find that when women engage in stereotypical things associated with being male in our society — tough assertive, independent — those things receive backlash on other people in terms of emotions they engender.

Williams: How do you explain how gender stereotypes remain fixed this many years after the doors were kicked in virtually in 1971?

Haines: So, we think that there’s some really important psychological processes. One thing that we know is that when people have beliefs, especially about a group, again stereotypes or beliefs or over generalization about any particular group member that once you believe that to be true you tend to look for information that confirms and initial beliefs and we don’t look for information that dis-confirms the belief. So when we think about what are women like? Well, let me think. Who comes to mind first? My mom, my sisters and so forth. They’re really emotional and kind of nice and not too independent and then you don’t tend to look, well what are some of the counter examples? What is the spread or the diversity within women? Once you believe a belief to be true that you don’t look for the dis-confirming evidence. Another important thing is that people tend to when they come in contact with someone that’s atypical of their gender, they tend to dismiss them as being, well that doesn’t represent the entire category, they’re very different.

Williams: How are you going to apply this research?

Haines:  There’s a couple of different ways. I’m really interested to see how, understand people, incorporate the stereotypes as part of their self concept. How that effects what they choose in life. Are they less likely to go for leadership positions if they’re women or if they really endorse gender stereotypes when they are completely capable of doing these things. My concerns are also with men in a lot of ways, is that we know that women have changed a lot in the last 30 years. Men have changed very little. I’m really interested to see how gender stereotypes are limiting men’s participation in caring for their children and those different types of activities.

Williams: All right, thank you very much for being with us.

Haines: Yeah, thank you!