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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Limitations to equality: Gender stereotypes and social change

Gender stereotyping remains entrenched in society in spite of the many legal, cultural and intellectual challenges that have called it into question, and this, argues Sophie Smith, is behind the failure of much legislative change. Are slow and incremental shifts in consciousness, and therefore in the workplace, really the best we can hope for?

An outsider surveying British political life over the past 30 years – who the players are, what the legislative record shows – could pretty reasonably deduce that the equality of women to men has been an issue of some urgency in the UK, and that meaningful progress has been made. After all, women now make up 22 per cent of the House of Commons; until 1987, the figure had sat stubbornly at 5 per cent. Marital rape was recognised by law in 1991. The women of Ford had helped to secure equal pay legislation by 1970 and the Equality Act of 2010 would, we were told, close the remaining loopholes and address ongoing issues of discrimination. In the last two decades, legislation has been passed that better enables victims of domestic violence to seek protection and prosecution (1996); which recognises gender persecution as grounds for asylum (1999); and which provides legal recognition for transgender women (2004).[1]

Viewed through legislation alone, the story of British women appears a whiggish one of ceaseless progress. But if these laws sought to change normative culture and end discriminatory practices, they have not had their intended effect. In fact, the focus on equal rights may have obscured the many active and entrenched assumptions about gender that inform social practices in Britain and which contribute, in systemic ways, to the continued disadvantage of women.

The continued gender disadvantage

Legislation has consistently fallen short of protecting women from various kinds of sex discrimination. Recent evidence suggests not only that the pay gap for women persists, but that for some it is getting worse. Even bearing in mind the difficulties in accumulating and analysing data, the figures are stark: in 2013 the median pay for a woman was 19.7 per cent less than that for a man, and women in management positions received lower basic salaries and bonuses than men in equivalent roles. Workplaces where women are in the majority (as cleaners, say, or care workers or in the temporary sector) are some of the lowest paid and most precarious: as a rule, sectors traditionally seen as 'women's work' command the smallest salaries. And while the issue of care-provision is too big a one to go into in any detail here, it is notable that the vast majority of unpaid domestic work is also provided by women. In 2012, the IPPR's own research revealed that 77 per cent of married women do more housework than their husbands, while just one in 10 married men do an amount equal to their wives.[2] For many women these domestic demands are a barrier to better-paid jobs. While it is certainly true that human activity need not be viewed simply as potential labour to be sold on the market, it is also true that this unpaid domestic work props up other workplaces and eases knock-on demand on state finances. Meanwhile, austerity measures continue to affect women disproportionately, and poorer women most of all.

Nor are things better at the other end of the spectrum. Only 20 per cent of the directors of FTSE 100 companies are women; only four of those 100 companies have female CEOs. There are more female MPs than ever before, yet women make up less than a quarter of the Commons (and a smaller percentage of the current cabinet: only four out of 23 ministers are women). In work, as well as in government, the vast majority of this country's high-paying, high-powered positions are still filled by men.

Systemic disadvantage exists well beyond these areas. As the recent revelations from Yarl's Wood suggest, we are far from dealing with gender discrimination in the provision of asylum, for example. Nor in terms of sexual violence: between 2009 and 2012, five times as many women as men reported a rape or sexual assault by penetration,[3] and rape conviction rates in the UK remain among the lowest in Europe.[4]

Many women who speak publicly on these issues – or, indeed, on almost anything at all – find themselves on the receiving end of vitriolic attacks, which include rape threats and gender-specific taunts. One study of sexually violent Twitter abuse has put the ratio of targets at 30:1, female to male. Public women are all too often assessed not simply according to their professional capacity but by their appearance, and are held to gender-specific standards in ways that deflect focus from actual performance. In sum, there is overwhelming evidence that being a woman remains an impediment to achieving certain goods, at every level and in very different social and professional contexts.

It is perhaps in recognition of the complexity and particularity of these contexts that we have seen increasing fragmentation in our responses to gender disadvantage: we now discuss, for example, 'women in tech', 'women in politics', 'women in the media'. Each has its own research base and dedicated activists. But might the ubiquity of women's disadvantage across these diverse contexts also suggest some common thread that unites them, however limited and contingent? Here I suggest we need to look more closely at conventions which reinforce gender stereotypes that are, in many ways, foundational to the very culture we attempt to reform. Any legislative or policy intervention must be mindful of the great difficulty in bucking against such an ingrained cultural imagination.

Silencing, masculinity and the persistence of gender stereotypes

Any intervention must also take into account that there is no such thing as a single 'woman's experience'. As bell hooks and Kimberl?(C) Crenshaw, among many others, point out, articulating a homogenous idea of 'woman' means ignoring the many intersecting aspects of difference that inform both social identities and social exclusion. These include, but are not limited to, race, class and sexuality; gender fits into this complex in different ways, for different people. And yet it is also true that there exist certain practices most women recognise and all kinds of women report, regardless of privilege, prominence, ethnicity or education.

In an excellent article in the London Review of Books last March, Mary Beard isolated one such ubiquitous practice, which she labeled 'silencing'.[5] The term covers a range of ways women's voices are often shut down, from the use of gendered slurs, to rape threats (because rape, of course, is one of the most brutal ways of dismissing a woman's voice) and gender-specific imperatives: 'shut up, silly woman' is the logic common to so many put-downs women face. Silencing includes describing women who speak publicly with adjectives that prompt all number of negative associations: 'shrill', 'whiny', 'strident' are all ways of positioning women outside of the norms of good rhetoric. Each of these methods works by undermining the authority of women's voices.

A proper understanding of the social foreclosure of women's voices relies on appreciating the long history of such practices. Throughout Greek and Roman antiquity, not only were women excluded from authoritative speech by men, but that exclusion was, as Beard puts it, paraded: silencing women publicly was a central part of demonstrating masculinity. Even the exemptions to these rules contributed to the foreclosure: when women could speak it was, on the whole, only as victims, martyrs or to articulate 'women's issues'.

What Beard reveals, then, is a 'tradition of gendered speaking'. And while it is not exclusively our tradition of speaking, it is not as alien as it might seem: the texts which articulated these conventions were, until the mid-20th century, the mainstay of western school and university curricula. The institutions which are so often accused of sexism now were built by men who had been inculcated with these rules. The echoes of classical conventions are present in the very terms used on social media to silence and abuse women who speak publicly; the topoi deployed all have parallels in ancient literature. The media via which much of this abuse is expressed might be new, but the terms used are not.

The similarities in the terms of silencing don't just stretch across time, they also unite, in contemporary discourse, a number of disparate spheres. Attempts to silence women using these tropes are as likely to be found below the line in the Daily Mail as they are in the Guardian, as likely in an elite gentleman's club, a university seminar room or a meeting of the Socialist Workers' Party. When the Travellers Club released its members' responses to the question of admitting women it wasn't really a surprise that so many objected. What was surprising was the uniformity of reasoning: women's voices were too shrill, they were battle-axes, nagging wives, the character and content of all conversations would be changed unalterably by their presence. The manifold complaints could be summarised as objections to how women speak and what about. The report is an amusing read until you consider how many senior diplomats and business leaders currently pay to be a part of this group. (Would we shrug off such crude statements of antisemitism, say? Would the club's grandees even allow them to be released?)

There is, then, a long tradition of not regarding women's voices as authoritative. Our own storytelling has not overturned these conventions. For all the subversive narratives that exist there are many more which reinforce the old norms where the majority of characters with complex agency and authority tend to be men. If storytelling is an apt source for thinking through conventions about authoritative speech, many of our own cultural productions haven't come all that far from ancient Rome.

We reinforce these problems by having so few women act as experts in the media. This is, after all, at least on one level, another kind of storytelling: it is how we represent ourselves – our society, the wider world – back to ourselves. On radio, TV and in almost every news outlet, male experts overwhelmingly outnumber female experts. Most of the big literary journals continue to have writers who are disproportionately male reviewing books mainly written by men. The excuse 'there are no good women to choose' no longer cuts it. But this failure of editorial imagination is reinforced by conventional understandings about who speaks, how and about what. There are so few women in positions of authority because we do not imagine women as authoritative; we don't imagine women as authoritative because for so long we've been told that they are not the authorities.

Conventions around women's speech are not only a concern for women at the top, or women in the public eye, they have ramifications for women everywhere. Indeed, the ways in which we restrict, value and gender speech have an interesting relationship to how we restrict, value and gender much work. Norms around speech – about who should speak up and how comfortable some men feel about women taking on certain topics and in recognising them as authorities – are surely connected to why we don't find women in certain work. Being heard is one of the criteria for getting almost every kind of job. It is a criterion for promotions and passing interviews and getting credit for your ideas. It is probably a factor in the just-released research about promotions in academia. Despite identical research productivity – in terms of both volume and quality – women in US sociology faculties are 51 per cent less likely to gain tenure than their male counterparts.[6] To take the conversation back to some of the examples with which we started, conventions around speech and gender are surely part of the reason why women don't ask for pay rises and why rape and sexual violence so often go unreported (the law has a particularly nasty history when it comes to disregarding women's testimony). Often the expectation of not being heard becomes as inhibiting to women as the fact of it.

Sex, science and stereotypes

Mary Beard's story about masculinity and authoritative speech is part of a wider story, with an even longer history, about the relationship between sex, science and gender stereotypes. The limited efficacy of some legislation suggests that the insights of activism and academia about the contingency of gender (as opposed to sex) have not been assimilated into popular understanding. Undeniable social change – the entry of women into education, work, politics – has not moved some of the cruder benchmarks of gender difference, which themselves are often explained with appeals to nature, backed up by science.

This move, too, has an ancient provenance. 'In all animals in which the distinction of male and female is found,' wrote Aristotle in his History of Animals, 'nature makes a similar differentiation in the characteristics of the two sexes.' Women, he argued, were inferior both in political and intellectual capacity to men, a claim we can see repeated, though far more rarely opposed, over the next 2,500 years. As with the issue of rhetorical conventions, the use of 'science' and ideas of 'natural characteristics' to prop up claims about gendered characteristics and social roles persists, and essentialist claims about gender roles proliferate in public discourse. But as numerous neuroscientists have now shown, the social differences we have inferred from 'nature' far exceed any neurological differences that have been found; in many instances the brain has been shown to be susceptible to society, with environment and culture affecting everything from neurological 'soft-wiring' to hormone release. And yet despite this, biological difference is still used to prop up all number of social myths. And once you look, they're everywhere.

The first categories of identity children learn are 'girl' and boy'; by preschool they can designate a vast number of adjectives, activities, behaviours and objects as male or female. They castigate each other for transgressions of these norms and build group identities around them. These assumptions don't govern experience in later life by any means, but they are always there, influencing perception and communication, always being reinforced by popular media.

And while capitalism did not create the idea of social roles based on sex, it has done plenty to entrench the ones we've got. Until the 19th century it was common for children of both sexes to wear the same clothes in their earliest years, and to play with many of the same toys (Victorian nursery rhymes attest to the relationships between boys and their dolls). Now, as with so much else, the market is deeply invested in maintaining a division of needs: a family with girls and boys is expected to buy them separate clothes and toys, an expectation consistently reinforced by advertisers. The imaginary worlds conjured by children's stories are often even more restrictive than the real one. None of this is to say that a person's gender knowledge determines insuperable outcomes; it nevertheless remains that a person's social role cannot be considered outside of their gender knowledge. The irony of those who cry 'social engineering' at any suggestion of quotas or affirmative action around gender is that this is precisely what we do to children from the moment they are born.

It's easy to sound alarmist about gender stereotypes. Plenty of people and stories subvert them. But it's also easy to underestimate how quickly they can scale, particularly when twinned with new technologies and market backing. When codified in scientific practice they become the basis for so-called objective knowledge. When codified in law, they directly affect how and who legislation protects. Jude Browne's work shows that in UK law, the distinctions between maternity and paternity leave are based on stereotypical notions of caregiving – notions, as we've seen, repeatedly reinforced in most children's literature. They might also sit behind the pay gap. Browne has shown elsewhere that 'time after time, employers and in particular managers responsible for recruitment and promotion make a priori stereotypical assumptions about women's capacity for productive output'.[7] The stubbornness of gender stereotypes is a direct if not exhaustive part of understanding the continued disparities between men and women that the law has been so unsuccessful in redressing.

This is not all about the lot of women. The conventions damage men too. Evidence suggests that there are even fewer gender-subversive stories aimed at boys than there are at girls. The same evidence that shows boys are associated with adventure, danger, bravery, authority also reveals the taboo of demonstrating 'female' qualities. This gets less attention because, the argument goes, why would anyone want to claim weakness, timidity, vulnerability? (Trans women often report being asked the same questions after their decision to transition: 'Why would you give up male privilege? Why descend the ladder of social worth?') And yet stereotypical forms of masculinity and the expectations they produce are part of explaining why so many more men than women fail to address depression and other mental health issues. Many of the issues themselves arise out of frustrations at not fulfilling designated social roles ('provider', say) or are the result of bullying for transgressing gendered norms. Suicide is the most common cause of death for men under 50. The privileges of 'robust' masculinity, it seems, can be as double-edged as the supposed safeties of traditional 'protected' femininity.

Addressing gendered conventions

Academic and activist discourses have shown that many of the conventions around masculinity and femininity are behind continued patterns of discrimination. These, in turn, are often based on unfounded but ubiquitous conclusions concerning the relationship between biology and social characteristics; conclusions which, while artificial, are also very real. How do we bring the emphasis on plural voices and plural experiences that characterises fourth-wave feminism into the mainstream? Can politics or policy help?

Given the nature of the problem, an obvious solution is education. There is still plenty we could do to address gender stereotypes and sexist conventions in the curriculum – not least, we could address the pitiful state of sex education. But this is also something of an illusory response, for two reasons. First, it's unlikely to be anything near enough. The same evidence which shows that subversive gender narratives can have concrete effects on behaviour also shows that these effects dissipate in isolation. This is why 'gender-neutral' parenting usually fails. Kids exist in a complex matrix of influences; revising the curriculum and addressing teacher training might help a little, but it's no solution. The global media and the global market will always get through. Palpable change requires more than a few anomalous individuals; it requires a significant shift in popular opinion (viewed globally, even popular British opinion is the anomaly). Second, in practice, systematically removing stereotypes from education looks an awful lot like policing speech. Where would we stop? How would we arbitrate?

Looking beyond the state, Mary Beard appeals to 'consciousness raising'. The internet can solve the problems of scale which limited this as a tool for feminists in the 1970s, but it can't do all that much about another problem they faced: backlash. There is significant money and power behind maintaining the conventions just as they are. And can 'consciousness raising' really help to stop the kinds of creeping, insidious sexism that so easily escapes the law and that is, so often, relatively unwitting? Maybe. But there are good reasons to be pessimistic. Not least because pessimism can serve to remind us just how entrenched a problem we face. Pessimism is not, however, the same as fatalism; it means recognising how difficult change is to effect but it doesn't mean that nothing can be done. Beard is right: more people – men and women – need to be aware of the social conventions which underpin so much gender inequality. And we certainly need more men to take an active role in publicly debunking them. The difficulty remains in working out how those very conventions don't stop the story from ever getting through.

Sophie Smith is research fellow in political thought at Christ Church, University of Oxford.

This article appears in edition 21.2 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas.

1. A number of minor corrections of language were received from the author after this edition (21.2) had been printed. These corrections have been incorporated into this version of the article, and as such, the online version of this article is the definitive, final published work. ^back
2. Ben-Galim D and Thompson S (2013) Who's breadwinning? Working mothers and the new face of family support, London: IPPR. ^back
3. Home Office and Ministry of Justice (2013) An overview of sexual offending in England and Wales, London. ^back
4. Smith L (2014) 'Why is Rape Conviction Rate so Low in UK?', International Business Times, 16 January 2014. ^back
5. Beard M (2014) 'The Public Voice of Women', London Review of Books, 36(6): 11–14. ^back
6. Jaschik S (2014) 'Productivity or Sexism?', Insider Higher Ed, 18 August 2014. ^back
7. Browne J (2007) 'The principle of equal treatment and gender: theory and practice' in Browne J (ed) The Future of Gender, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ^back