Study: Sweeping Gender Stereotypes Determine Individual Success
There’s an unwritten, widespread, culturally ingrained belief that a man who isn’t the main provider for his family is a failure. It’s the same belief that says any sign of vulnerability makes him feminine. It’s the same belief that says femininity is weak.
Gender norms— popular and conventional ideas about how to perform masculinity and femininity— are taught either directly or through experience. Explaining how they were conceived in the first place would require piecing apart the entire social and natural evolution of humans. But for a typical human, gender norms begin their influence in the womb with one question: “Is it a boy or a girl?”
After that the gender stereotyping really takes off. Female toddlers engage in all manner of domestic activities: running a kitchen, taking care of their baby doll, “playing house.”
The ascriptions of so-called “innate” characteristics to girls (soft, demure, nurturing) and boys (strong, aggressive, smart) affect how people across the spectrum of genders have access to opportunity, education and advancement, according to a recent report from the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio and the Kirwan Institute at OSU.
“The Pervasive Power of Gender Norms” is the first report of its kind. Involving a mix of research methods, it looks not only at gender norms, but at how those norms turn into implicit biases — attitudes or stereotypes that unconsciously affect a person’s actions and decisions — and the effects of these resulting actions and decisions on the central Ohio economy.
The study did an analysis of Columbus metropolitan statistical area (MSA) results from an Implicit Association Test hosted by Harvard, which determined how respondents associate men and women with family or career. Research also included 13 focus groups to hear the narratives behind the data, and 919 central Ohio residents aged 9 and up were surveyed on their own perceptions of gender norms.
“By eighth grade, a girl that is struggling in math will hear from the teacher that it’s OK, because it’s probably her last math requirement,” said Nichole Dunn, Women’s Fund President and CEO. “Boys are told to hang in there and figure it out, because they need to prepare for future math classes.”
Dunn isn’t describing an isolated experience. The Women’s Fund’s report cites a national study of 600 girls aged 12-18. It found that more than half had experienced academic sexism, 76 percent had put up with athletic sexism, and 90 percent of the girls had been victims of sexual harassment.
This difference in treatment and opportunity throughout a girl’s adolescence determines her future opportunities for advancement, according to the study.
“Gendered expectations result in disparate educational opportunities, which in turn result in diverging career paths for many women versus men,” it said. “Studies suggest rigid feminine gender norms also are pushing girls away from the emerging field of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), which is expected to generate a disproportionate share of the high-paying, high-advancement jobs for the 21st century.”
The situation is similar for women in government and corporate offices. A woman hoping to be a statewide executive will find herself outnumbered by men 6-to-1; less than a third of Ohio House representatives, and less than a quarter of Ohio Congressional representatives, are women; and just one in 10 CEO and executive board positions are held by women.
Implicit biases go far beyond representation, however. They determine the office climate within which women have to exist. Paul Gotti, Vice President of Nuclear Pharmacy at Cardinal Health, said that before his division made its complete overhaul, he couldn’t even find a woman who wanted to work there.
Realizing the need for a more diverse workforce, Gotti’s colleague held a position open until a female candidate applied. It took a year.
Gotti said this indicated a fundamental problem with the hiring process. Five criteria should be met by applicants to the Nuclear Pharmacy Division, but Gotti said men would apply even if they only met one. Women who’d met three or four of the criteria would withhold their applications until they were “ready.” Gotti said at first he put the problem on the women – “They didn’t want to apply, that’s their problem.”
“Then we realized — no, it’s our problem,” he said. “We need to walk out there and say ‘You are the most qualified person. You are the best talent. You need to apply to this job. And that’s what you have to do as a gender ally. You have to start looking and breaking the norms – you have to realize that kind of thing happens.”
After implementing and incentivizing diversity and inclusion training, Gotti said the office is a more welcoming place for female employees overall. Now that changes are in place, he can look forward to hiring from the growing pool of nuclear pharmacists, 70 percent of which is made up of women.
The report suggests taking what Gotti did and implementing it in every office across central Ohio. The first step is confronting personal implicit bias, understanding where it comes from and how to act against it. It advocates for the elimination of the gender-based pay gap and the elevation of women to places of power. And lastly, it promotes the engagement of men and boys in the conversation about gender norms and implicit biases.
But the trick is getting men to show up. Gotti said change happens only with support from the top of the house, a position overwhelmingly occupied by men. Yet, out of the more than 400 attendees to the Columbus Metropolitan Club forum discussing gender norms and the Women’s Fund’s report findings, only a handful of men were present, a noticeable decline from last week’s talk with Jerry Springer.
This lack of attendance can easily be attributed to the name of the forum, “Looking Beyond Gender Norms,” which sets off in a person’s mind that since the word “gender” is used, the topic must be female-focused. While it is the goal of the Women’s Fund to promote and discuss issues from the perspective of women, gender norms place people of all genders inside tight boxes and prevent half of the population from accessing many opportunities.
So while change happens in corporate offices, change starts in individual conversations, Dunn said. To facilitate the conversations, a “Gender By Us” toolkit was assembled for forum attendees. The toolkit includes data cards, definition cards and conversational topics, and it recommends hosting a talk among eight or 10 people.
The lasting impact is made through a ripple effect, Dunn said. One person confronts their own implicit biases and coaches the next person through the same process. It’s a necessary awakening. As science, technology and math continue to move humanity forward, it’s making less and less sense that half of all humans are shut out of the conversation.
To host a discussion, or to read the report, visit www.womensfundcentralohio.org.
To test your own implicit biases, visit implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.