When Do Attempts to Counter Gender Stereotypes Backfire?

The framing of well-intended messages may inadvertently reinforce stereotypes.

Posted Nov 29, 2018

 U.S. Federal Government, Public Domain
Source: U.S. Federal Government, Public Domain

If you’re shopping for a child this holiday season, you may have noticed a new trend in children’s publishing: anthologies of influential women. The anthologies feature a curated collection of scientists, artists, writers, athletes, activists, and politicians. They vary in format and reading level, but most were published within the last few years, spurred by the #MeToo movement and other changes in the cultural discussion around gender.

Here’s a sampling: She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World (Philomel Books, 2017), Herstory: 50 Women and Girls Who Shook Up the World (Simon & Schuster, 2018), Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018), Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World (Bloomsbury, 2016), Women Who Dared: 52 Stories of Fearless Daredevils, Adventurers, and Rebels (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2017), Anthology of Amazing Women: Trailblazers Who Dared to Be Different (Little Bee Books, 2018), The Book of Awesome Women: Boundary Breakers, Freedom Fighters, Sheroes and Female Firsts (Mango, 2017).

The intentions behind these anthologies are clearly good: to highlight the contributions of female visionaries, to detail the struggles behind those contributions, to address the gender imbalance in historical biographies, to inspire girls to pursue male-dominated vocations. But the anthologies themselves may convey a different message: that some women have the capacity to be influential but most do not.

Devoting a book to female visionaries implies that visionaries, in general, are not female. Why else would they need their own book? Ironically, a book that includes both male and female visionaries may be more effective at combatting stereotypes than a book that includes only women. A book that covers a single female visionary may be more effective as well, as it draws less attention to the contrast between men and women and thus the contrast between those who are more and less likely to be thought of as brilliant. To make matters worse, the visionaries in female-focused anthologies usually have little in common other than gender. Amelia Earhart, Anne Frank, Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, Rosa Parks, and Malala Yousafzai are staples of this new genre, but they are hailed for very different accomplishments in very different contexts. It also doesn’t help that many anthologies feature the same cast of women, implying that female visionaries are few and far between.

Evidence of the unintended consequences of highlighting female success comes from a recent study by psychologists Eleanor Chestnut and Ellen Markman of Stanford. The researchers gave participants a report on the lack of gender differences in standardized math scores for seven million students (a true finding) and then asked for their opinion on which gender is naturally more talented at math. When the report used neutral language—“boys and girls do equally well at math,” “girls and boys performed as well as each other”—participants showed no preference in whether they judged girls or boys as naturally more talented. When the story contained comparative language—“girls do just as well as boys at math,” “girls performed as well as boys”—a different result emerged. Participants now judged boys as more talented by a margin of two to one.

The reason for the difference is that comparisons are inherently biased. One group is seen as more typical of the dimension of comparison, and the other as more extreme or more variable. A statement like “girls are as good as boys at math” conveys that boys are typically good at math but girls are more variable. Even though the statement is intended to counter the stereotype of male superiority, its framing implicitly reinforces it. In this same vein, an anthology of visionary women intended to counter the stereotype that men are visionaries may backfire by inadvertently reinforcing the stereotype that women are not.

Combatting stereotypes without also reinforcing them is a tricky business. Another recent study, by the psychologist Marjorie Rhodes and her colleagues at NYU and Princeton, sheds more light on how it can be done. The participants were children between the ages of four and ten. They played science games where they made predictions, such as whether an object would sink or float, and then tested those predictions with observations. Before playing the game, some children were told they were going to “be scientists” and were given a brief tutorial on who a scientist is. Other children were told they were going to “do science” and were given a tutorial on how science is done.

The games were long, and children were given the opportunity to stop at any point. As expected, children’s persistence varied by how the activity was framed in relation to their gender. Priming boys to “do science” yielded no more persistence than priming them to “be scientists” (in some cases, they persisted more when primed to be scientists), but priming girls to “do science” lead to substantially more persistence. Girls are less likely than boys to think of themselves as scientists, so activating this stereotype decreased their motivation to persist in scientific activities. But encouraging girls in a way that circumvented the stereotype allowed them to maintain their motivation and presumably also their self-image as competent problem solvers.

These studies indicate that the recent spate of female-focused anthologies may be a mixed blessing. Books that tout women’s accomplishments are a welcome change to those that ignore them. But the psychological impact of such books depends on subtle aspects of their framing. A book that ignores the pragmatics of gender comparison and gender role identification could reinforce the very stereotypes it hopes to combat.