I once heard from a colleague who had someone attack her stating that her only problem was that she was a woman and she was Asian. Collapsed into those categories, it seems, were a whole host of negative characteristics, behaviours, ways of being. The person making this unbelievable statement felt it unnecessary to speak to the things that upset him. He simply caught up his problems or frustrations, or whatever it was, and threw muck widely, indiscriminately and in broad generalisations.
The blatant racism in his labelling her according to her ethnicity shut her down on the basis of however he stereotyped Asians. Neither she nor I had the answers to what that was. What was clear is that he had a negative stereotype and threw it with full force at her. She was a leader in his community, and I can make a guess he did not like her leadership style. Rather than talk about the specific issues, he made a broad sweeping stereotypical statement that said nothing.
Being a woman was another problem. The label itself was, it seems in his view, more than enough to define the problem. To be a woman, was a category of denigration. What it was we don’t know, simply being a woman was enough.
Stereotyping is an easy way to dismiss not just an individual, but a whole category of people. Which woman was this person speaking of? Women are not a homogeneous group. There are multiple diversities, and no one single description encapsulates all women. And yet, when we stereotype we usually focus on branding with a set of negatives, catching a whole group up in our own frustration and negativity.
Gender stereotyping defines women based on generalisations about who they are, how they behave, what roles they should have and how to manage them. While stereotypes have an adaptive function that enables easy categorisation, they are so often full of faulty assessments. Gender stereotyping limits agency, often denying, or seeking to deny, women’s creative agentic engagement with their world.
Some typical stereotypes around women include
• Victims of intimate partner violence are weak because they stay in the relationship
• There is something wrong with a woman who doesn’t want children
• Assertive women are unfeminine and are “bossy,” “bitches” or “whores”
• Women are natural nurturers; men are natural leaders
• Women don’t need equal pay because they are supported by their husbands
• Women who appear less feminine or reject advances from men are lesbians
• Women with children are less devoted to their jobs
Gender stereotyping is a barrier to gender justice and equality. They result from and are the cause of deeply held negative attitudes, values, norms and prejudices about women. They are fed by perceptions rather than actual realities and facts, and so often they are self-perpetuating.
As part of the work needed for gender justice and equality we must counter gender stereotypes with narratives of truth, offered without judgment and calling out labelling that diminish in its broad generalisations.