Is the Year of the Woman Still a Distant Vision?
Research finds that traditional roles for women are becoming more popular.
Posted September 11, 2020 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
The first two decades of this century held the promise of a steady—if slow—march toward greater gender equality. The Internet and social media gave a microphone to millions of formerly voiceless women around the globe. #MeToo brought consequences to perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence. Nancy Pelosi won the Speaker’s chair and an unprecedented number of women are serving in Congress. The Democratic primary field had several qualified female contenders, and Joe Biden named Kamala Harris as his vice president. Finally, Taylor Swift out-earned Kayne West last year by $35 million.
It once seemed plausible that 2020 might be the elusive Year of the Woman. Yet the Kudzu-like grip of traditional expectations for women is still tightly wound around the neck of our culture. Even the advances mentioned above will not kill the vine. Today, gender stereotypes are what Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman calls Zombie Ideas “that should have been killed by contrary evidence, but instead keep shambling along, eating people’s brains.”
Life is still scary out there for women challenging the traditional stereotype of the nurturing caregiver without ambitions of her own. Women who behave outside the confines of expected gender roles continue to be perceived as deviant.
Take Elizabeth Warren. When she dropped out of the presidential race, she named issues of sexism and likeability as factors. In a New Hampshire poll, voters thought highly of her overall competence—67 percent—but her likability numbers were a dismal 4 percent. In other words, her competence was unattractive and off-putting, so she was pushed to the outside. She is not alone.
A 2018 Ohio State study found that hiring managers preferred women of modest academic achievement to those who had top grades. Why? Because those doing the hiring thought the not-so-smart women would be nicer. Managers “gravitate toward women who are moderate achievers who are described as sociable and outgoing…They regard high-achieving women with much more skepticism.”
At the same time, a 2016 study in the Psychology of Women Quarterly discovered that gender stereotypes remained constant between 1983 and 2014, despite impressive gains for women over the past 40 years. Women are still expected to be passive, suited more for caring roles than for leadership, and primarily concerned with the welfare of others. Shockingly, the survey found that expectations that women will behave in these narrow, constricted ways are actually growing stronger.
Worse yet, Covid-19 will accelerate these trends. A study by researchers in the U.S. and Germany finds that the crisis is likely to make inequities worse “as more women than men will be strongly affected by the rise in child-care needs.”
When a family with school-aged children faces the reality of closed schools, the mother is likely to assume the bulk of childcare because she most likely earns less than her husband. Thousands of women will lose potential earnings and interrupt their careers; many will drop out entirely.
So, why are these gender paradigms so strong? And why do they hold on so relentlessly?
As Time reports, “In almost every society, from Baltimore to Beijing, boys are told from a young age to go outside and have adventures, while young girls are encouraged to stay home and do chores.” These findings come from a 2017 six-year study of 10- to 14-year-olds and their parents in 15 countries.
Early adventures give boys a sense of freedom and power that they don’t associate with girls. In later years, this power can morph into male dominance in the workplace. Once a group has power, it rarely surrenders without a fight. Women have won many anti-discrimination battles in the workplace. But we haven’t yet fully succeeded in breaking down the stereotypes that led to major discrimination in the first place.
Today, young women are in a Catch-22, caught between the voices urging them to live authentic lives, and deeply entrenched forces determined to push them back to traditional roles. The “Please Others” imperative is a ball and chain dragging down the dreams of girls and women. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg sees this issue as the major force holding women back as they try to rise. She writes, “As a man gets more successful, he is better liked by men and women, and as a woman gets more successful, she is less liked by men and women.”
Author Malcolm Gladwell says some men are in the grip of what behavioral scientists call moral licensing. “When a favored majority group performs an act of generosity toward an outsider, it doesn’t necessarily signal that more acts of generosity are coming. Sometimes it just gives them license to then go back to their old ways.”
So far, our battles against harmful gender stereotypes have been scattered, not given high priority, and have lagged behind the research. We need new ideas, especially as the pandemic puts gender parity on the back burner.
First, we need to dismantle one-size-fits-all stereotypes of toddlers and young children. We must recognize that traits are not all innate; most are learned and developed. We need to celebrate the girl who takes risks, dares to follow her interests, and takes her cues from her passions. A set of policies can help with this task. They include:
- Eliminating the “Gender Gap.” Women employed full-time had to work three months into 2020 to earn what men made in 2019. Women earn 82 cents for every dollar that men make. Black women have it worse, making only 62 cents for every dollar earned by a man.
- Repairing the “Broken Rung.” Females often stall out in entry-level jobs, whereas “men hold 62 percent of manager-level positions. Women hold just 38 percent of them.
- Getting rid of the “Motherhood Penalty.” Mothers who work do less well financially than both non-mothers and men, reports the Harvard Business Review. Mothers are perceived as “less committed to their jobs, less dependable, less authoritative, more emotional, and more irrational” than non-mothers. Fathers get a substantial “Fatherhood Bonus” in wages because they are perceived as stable and committed to work.
Only a well-coordinated effort among policymakers, activists, and scholars can reverse the gender stereotypes deeply embedded in everyday American life
If we want today’s young girls to take the Nancy Pelosis and Elizabeth Warrens of the world as real role models, we must stop treating high-achieving women as outliers. We must see them as they are—people who have realized their own potential. Otherwise, the so-called Year of the Woman will remain out of reach.
A version of this article appeared in Washington Monthly.