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Science Without Prejudice: We Should Stop Calling People "Karens"

Disentangling gender stereotypes from pandemic related discussions

Key points

  • Gendered roles and beliefs may be worsening during the pandemic.
  • Gendered microaggressions are common yet counterproductive to pandemic and public health discourse.
  • Considerations such as avoidance of gendered memes and engaging in perspective taking are important in scientific discussion.
Daniel Schludi/Unsplash
The COVID-19 vaccine has become a contentious political issue rather than a public health matter.
Source: Daniel Schludi/Unsplash

The last two years have been replete with discourse regarding both racial injustice and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Spurred by prominent cases of police brutality, racial injustice conversation and science have centered on topics like systemic racism and ageism, and police training methods. The pandemic has become the subject of research in many ways, such as the largely hyper-politicized debate over public health solutions like vaccines and masks.

The racial injustice and pandemic debates share many things in common. One is the frequent use of “Karen” to depict a stereotype of the culprits of prejudiced or anti-science acts. The archetype of “Karen” conveys an image, born of memes in recent years, of a middle-aged or elderly adult white woman engaging in some type of prejudicial or anti-science behavior. The use of “Karen” in such contexts is at best, ironic because it reflects an example of the very stereotyping many of these discussions seek to stem. At worst, employing “Karen” as a visual symbol or moniker may actually do harm to individuals and society as a whole.

Recent Science On the Pandemic and Use of “Karen”

Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash
Child rearing duties have fallen more on women during the pandemic.
Source: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

The pandemic appears to have a complicated relationship with gender and gendered beliefs. For instance, emerging evidence suggests that women may be more likely to leave the workforce during the pandemic, in part because of assuming increase child care responsibilities.

Moreover, a 2021 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology reports findings suggesting that adults in the United States may endorse more traditionally held gender role beliefs as the pandemic has gone on. Put simply, our gender role stereotypes may be getting stronger during the pandemic. Such strengthening of stereotypical beliefs may set the stage for use of gender-stereotyped names and images such as “Karen” memes or references.

We know that gendered and other microaggressions can do harm to the mental and physical health of the victims. Yet, in the active discourse regarding matters like vaccines and prejudice, we often invoke “Karen” and other gendered memes. Another recent study points to the potentially harmful societal implications of such acts beyond the individual. An article recently published in the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy demonstrates that persons on both sides of the vaccine debate use gender-stereotyped “Karen” content. Authors of the article warn that such uses of stereotyped content likely weaken the intended positive impact of promoting life-saving or health-enhancing behaviors such as wearing masks. The science seems clear that gendered microaggressions, no matter their intent, do damage to the individual targets and to the public as a whole.

What Can We Learn From the Science on the Pandemic and Use of “Karen”?

Anti-racism and pandemic conversations are ever vital in our public discourse. Yet, employing the “Karen” stereotype undermines the very equality and public health-focused messages we often aim to achieve. The first and simplest lesson: Cease the use of “Karen” and other gendered stereotypes. It is possible and more effective to have science-focused discussions in the absence of gendered content.

A second lesson regards next steps. A recent study implicated perspective-taking as a possible target for intervention to reduce gendered and other microaggressions. An avenue for social science to pursue can continue work on perspective-taking as a possible intervention to reduce microaggressions across situations.

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