Challenging gender stereotypes

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Most scholars today understand gender as being partly biological (sex) but to a large degree socially constructed. Many aspects of our lives are implicitly and sometimes overtly gendered, which means that women and men are expected to behave and appear in certain ways, and this affects us personally as well as the ways our workplaces and society at large are organized. Gender mainstreaming can make a key contribution to addressing these gender divisions and stereotypes.

Today we know that personal interests and abilities cannot so easily be divided according to gender, such as assuming that girls are more interested in arts and literature and boys are more interested in science. We also know that many traditional views of women and men have historical causes that lack relevance in contemporary society.

However, gendered notions of everyday life may linger on long after they have lost any relevance. The division between what is regarded as typically male and female has created gender stereotypes and gendered norms that still prevail and prevent both women and men from fulfilling their visions and ambitions in life. These underlying assumptions set out implicit rules for what women and men are supposed to do and how they should act or appear.

This creates difficulties for those who want to do things differently, such as men who want to be able to be active parents but work in organizations where few men take advantage of their right to parental leave or are supported by the organisation to do so, or women who want to work as fire-fighters but find there are no dressing rooms for women or suitable protective gear at the fire stations (as ESF funded projects in Sweden have addressed). A gender analysis can help find these often unnoticed and unquestioned biases hidden in organisational structures and procedures.

Today we also know that the category of gender itself is not as stable as previously believed; it might in fact be more relevant to speak of genders, and there is a growing community of people do not want to be identified as belonging to a specific gender. The impact of gender is also affected by intersecting factors such as ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, disabilities etc., which means that a person is never solely defined by gender. When the analysis is broadened to include these other factors, different patterns of gender inequality appear on all levels of society. Gender equality is more than the relationship between women and men.

There are however many gender disparities and inequalities between women and men in terms of the division of power and resources in society. The value that we tend to place on what historically has been regarded  as “typically” female and male activities is still affecting individuals. Because many women are in certain jobs or positions, and have family responsibilities, while men are in others and have other responsibilities, inequalities still exist between women and men in most spheres of life.

In sum, a “gender system” has been created in society in which women and men, in their diversity, do different things with different consequences, which has affected the labour market and created problems not only for individuals but for society at large, because gender stereotypes create rigid and un-flexible structures and hinder people’s potential capacity within many fields. It has also affected the democratic system, because women are often underrepresented in political assemblies and government departments.

Why, then, is the progress towards an equal society so slow? One explanation is that gender divisions and stereotypes are constantly and unreflectively being (re)created at home, at work and in culture, media and politics. The Swedish ESF project Vidare Vägar, for instance, found that decisions taken by social workers and employment officers were often based on implicit notions of women and men as being different and having different needs, which resulted in unintended and negative consequences. Once these differences were exposed it was possible to do things differently.

Another example is that the existing gender gaps or problems of gender equality often have complex and interlinked causes. Individual choices that might seem rational at the moment, such as for parents to work part time, might have unexpected and unwanted effects in a long-term perspective, such as lower incomes and pensions, loss of work skills and experience, and poor working conditions. The German Gender Equality Report published by the German government in 2012 has shown how a life-course perspective can give a better understanding of how to address inequality.

Further reading

Many models and methods for addressing gender issues in various areas are widely available today; for one example, see the Swedish website Include Gender

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Created: 2013/01/08   Changed: 2014/12/04