Gender Differences vs Gender Stereotypes

What’s the difference and why does it matter?

Posted Nov 30, 2019

I teach and write about gender. So, I may say, or write, something like: “On average, men are more aggressive than women.”

My statements like these are sometimes met with agreement (“that is so true!”) or simply taken as information (“will that be on the test?”). However, sometimes they are met with disagreement, frustration, or even anger.

Initially, this was surprising to me. My statements were based on methodologically strong research studies. There typically are a few nuances, e.g., women engage in intimate partner violence as frequently as men. Overall, though, the literature indicates that men are more aggressive than women.  

With time and experience, I came to understand the negative reaction. A common response to my statements like these was “that’s just a stereotype!” Another common response was to give examples of people who did not fit the pattern (e.g., a very aggressive woman).

I came to realize that there is a lot of confusion about the difference between a gender difference and a gender stereotype.

I realized that angry reactions to my statements about gender differences were often motivated by a concern that I was not appreciating differences among men and among women, or the idea that there are individual men or women who don’t fit the typical pattern.

In fact, these ideas are well-accepted by social scientists. We refer to differences among women and among men as within-gender variation, and someone who doesn’t fit the typical pattern is engaging in gender atypical behavior.

If social scientists, writers, and professors/teachers want people to understand the difference between a gender difference (i.e. a difference between men’s average scores and women’s average scores) and a stereotype, we need to do a better job of conveying that: (a) there can be a gender difference (e.g., men are taller than women) AND (b) there still can be variation within gender and exceptions (e.g., a woman who is taller than most men).

Why, then, do social scientists not make this clear? First, social scientists may think that these points are understood. However, clearly they are not or statements about gender differences would not be received so negatively at times. Second, it is more parsimonious to discuss gender differences without disclaimers.

The second point is illustrated by conversation I had with my daughter when she was young. We were going through a drive through at a fast food restaurant, and the person asked through the intercom if we wanted a "girl toy" or "boy toy" with the kids meal. After we got our food (and her toy) I gave my speech about how there are not really “girl toys” and “boy toys” and that children should be able to play with any toy they want.

“Well, mom,” she said, “I think he means that there are some toys that lots of boys and not as many girls like, and there are some toys that lots of girls like and not as many boys like. But he doesn’t have time to say all that because people want their food.”

She makes a good point. I might say “men are more aggressive than women” because I don’t want to add all the disclaimers.

How, then, can we tell the difference between a gender difference and a gender stereotype? A single statement (“men are more aggressive than women”) does not provide sufficient information to tell the difference. If we talk more with someone, though, there are telltale signs regarding whether the person is discussing a mean-level gender difference or whether the person is motivated by stereotypical thinking.

The following are characteristics of stereotypical thinkers:

1. Thinking that all men are the same and all women are the same. If someone says that men are better at math than women, and they mean that basically all men are better than all women at math, this is stereotypical thinking. People who believe stereotypes typically do not accept the idea that is a sizable minority of individuals who do not fit the overall pattern. They may allow for exceptions, but the exceptions are rare. They may be seen as the exceptions that prove the rule.

2. Thinking that all men and women should be a particular way. The previous example, that men are better at math than women, is an example of a descriptive stereotype. Statements about how males and females should be are driven by prescriptive stereotypes. Consider, for example, someone saying that contact sports are not for girls. This person may feel that girls are too fragile for contact sports, or that it’s inappropriate for girls to play contact sports. If so, this person’s statement is driven by a prescriptive stereotype. The person may know that some girls do play contact sports but thinks that no girls should.

3. Stereotypes are used to make inferences about individuals. The most telltale sign, and problematic aspect, of stereotypical thinking is that stereotypes can be used to make inferences, or assumptions, about individuals. For example, if a guidance counselor suggests to a female student that she take an advanced language arts class because she probably isn’t that interested in math anyway, the counselor is using a stereotype (boys like math more than girls) to make an assumption about an individual student (she doesn’t like math). Likewise, if a male nurse is consistently called “doctor,” his patients are using stereotypes (nurses are women, doctors are men) to make an assumption about his profession.

Descriptions of gender differences simply provide information about how men and women score on some construct, relative to one another. However, when these differences are misunderstood and drive stereotypical thinking, this can be damaging to both women and men. For example, if the female student were guided away from the advanced math class, she would never have the  chance to explore whether she is skilled and talented in mathematics.

Stereotypical thinking also can be damaging when it masquerades as objective statements about gender. For example, a doctor may tell an expecting mother that moms are better with infants than dads. In fact, on average, mothers do demonstrate more sensitivity in caring for infants than fathers. However, there are many families in which the dad is a more skilled caregiver than the mom. In this case, because the doctor represented a gender stereotype (women are better with babies than men) as a fact, there may be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Because both parents expect the mother to be a more skilled caretaker, she may develop better caretaking skills over time.

Because issues related to gender (and ethnicity, and race, and SES) are complicated and can lead to stereotypical thinking, sometimes it may feel easier to sweep them under the rug and avoid discussions about ways in which girls and boys, and women and men, differ from one another. However, I don’t think this is the right answer. Instead, I think we should push ourselves to recognize the difference between mean-level gender differences and gender stereotypes in others’ statements and in our own thinking. Learning about the ways in which females and male differ from one another on average, and about the variability within each gender, will provide us with the most complete understanding of the role that gender plays in our lives.