Study Notes

Feminism: Gender Stereotypes

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 6 Nov 2018

Feminists claim that gender stereotypes serve to uphold patriarchy and place boundaries upon women’s lives.

From an early age, gender is constructed in a way that deliberately undermines the status of females and puts them at a disadvantage throughout their lives.

Take the case of education. Sociological studies have found that children are already conditioned via gender stereotypes before they even enter the school gates, and these gender-defined labels appear to impact upon educational attainment. For instance, Barbara Licht and Carol Dweck found that girls sampled in their research tend to underestimate their academic ability, fail to attach significance to their success and lose confidence when they fail. They also found that girls are more self-critical and tend to blame failure upon their own intellectual inadequacies. Equally, their educational success is more commonly attributed to luck rather than their own ability and hard work. This internalised narrative is a product of gender socialisation and demonstrates how a patriarchal society serves to stereotype females.

Throughout the life course, agents of primary and secondary socialisation repeat the message that females are to be defined by their outward appearance. This serves the interests of men because it links female self-worth with external beauty rather than actual achievement. By adolescence, girls may well shift from a focus upon achievement to a focus upon affiliation. Over time, females are greatly encouraged to be nurturing, selfless and caring.

The idealised stereotype of a female is one that places the needs of others (particularly her children) above her own career and self-interest. Moreover, behaviour that is socially acceptable amongst men often meets with social disapproval when done by women. Stereotypes of females within a male-dominated society are deliberately designed to hold women back. In stark contrast, the stereotype presented to males actively encourages them to succeed without any overt concern for their outward appearance or their ability to empathise with others.

There have been several studies into the importance of gender stereotypes and its impact upon females. The liberal feminist Ann Oakley (1982) found that parents ‘channel’ their children towards toys appropriate for that child’s gender. Obvious examples would be a pink doll’s house for a girl and a toy gun for a boy (a process she labelled canalisation). Oakley is also associated with the term verbal appellations, which may at times have a gender emphasis like “brave boy” and “pretty girl.”

Gender identity is also shaped via manipulation and children observing the domestic division of labour at home. Taken together, this process of socialisation is part of a broader social construct of femininity that matches the interests of a profoundly patriarchal system.

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