We’ve all heard of gender roles and stereotypes, but we rarely talk about the palpable effects these have in terms of access to food, education, and the way some of our public institutions work.
Femininity vs. Masculinity
There’s a consensus in society regarding the specific characteristics attributed to femininity and masculinity : a social construction that the majority of cis men and women have come to accept, almost unconsciously, as part of our collective imaginary.
Femininity is associated with sensitivity, empathy, tenderness, nurture, and accordingly, childcare. Weakness and fragility are two other predominantly female-attributed traits, not only due to biological differences between men and women in terms of physical strength, but also because sensitivity is often associated with unsteadiness and instability, thus reinforcing the idea of women being the “weaker sex”. On the other hand, masculine traits are related to diligence, independence, being competitive, aggressive, and entrepreneurial. These preconceived ideas that we unconsciously attribute to men, contribute to maintaining the status quo in which men hold the majority of leadership roles and higher-paid positions.
But how do stereotypes really affect us?
Gender roles and stereotypes establish certain criteria, limitations, rights, and obligations expected from a person according to their biological sex. We can refer to these as social norms.
The Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations noted that stereotypes regarding the role of a woman in the household lead to an unjust division of domestic work, often translating into the feminization of poverty and lower levels of education amongst women. In other words, the stereotypical way of thinking that keeps a woman in the kitchen is, itself, a major obstacle for women’s access to education and employment, and as a result, becomes a threat to women’s access to food.
The good wife
In many societies, parents take their daughters out of school around the age of nine to thirteen to prepare them to become a good wife. They fear that if girls receive an education, they will be less willing to fulfill their traditional roles as wife and mother, which makes it difficult for them to find a husband and has negative consequences for the family. This predetermination of a person’s role according to their biological sex can be an extremely harmful perpetrator of gender inequality, often disguised as tradition, culture or religion.
According to the United Nations Development Programme, every year, 12 million girls are victims of forced early marriage. By region, the highest rates are registered in Sub-Saharan Africa, with 36% of women marrying before the age of 18, and 29% in South Asia.
Gender stereotypes also affect the way our public institutions and social structures treat and perceive women. For instance, the judicial system commonly shows disinterest or incompetence when it comes to sanctioning perpetrators of sexual offenses due to patriarchal notions and stereotypes regarding the appropriate sexual behavior of a woman or the appropriate way to dress, which affect the judges’ ability to be impartial and objective. These internalized notions often lead to the blaming or disregard of victims of sexual violence under the premise of sexual provocation or the easy girl.
Traditional masculinity for not-so-traditional men
Having said this, women are not the only ones who are negatively affected by gender stereotypes. A lot of men recognize feeling the social pressure of traditional masculinity – the expectation to be strong, cold, and austere. Phrases such as boys don’t cry reinforce the idea that men should never show their vulnerability, and unfortunately, masculinity is often linked to violence and aggressiveness – traits that seldom people would like to have. In addition, many feel the pressure to pursue a manly career (such as a lawyer) and to avoid feminine circles (such as ballet).
First change minds, then change the world
To achieve gender equality, not only do we have to implement laws and policies regarding salaries and safety, but we also need to change social norms regarding gender roles in households, workplaces, and politics. Luckily, the younger generations are starting to think beyond the gender binary, understanding that stereotypes prevent us from real progress towards a world in which everyone can be free. We are redefining what it means to be a woman, a man, a person, in the name of freedom of expression and freedom of identity, the freedom to choose who you are and who you want to be.