Gender Stereotypes: Where do They Come from and Why do They Persist?


Questioning the origin of gender stereotypes is a complex and global issue, as multifaceted and layered as the cultures from which these preconceived notions originate. In Iceland, for example, almost no one (3.6%) believes that a woman has less right to available jobs than a man, whereas in Egypt, almost everyone believes such as an ineffable truth (94.9%).(1) What cultural variables could possibly account for this? Religion often takes the blame, but when one looks closer, different nations where the majorities are of the same faith often still exhibit a remarkable variety in the level and enforcement of gender stereotypes.

One hypothesis that accounts for the development of this discrepancy lies in the different ways in which various cultures practiced agriculture in the past. Ester Boserup, from whom this theory originated, found that gender roles are strongly correlated to plough use. Unlike shifting cultivation, which relied largely on the use of hand-held tools, plough usage requires “significant upper body strength, grip strength, and burst of power, which are needed to either pull the plough or control the animal that pulls it. Because of these requirements, when plough agriculture is practiced, men have an advantage in farming relative to women.”(1)

Naturally, as the centuries passed, it became thus assumed in those societies that men have an advantage when it comes to activities outside of the home (i.e. manual labour) whereas women specialise in those activities which take place in the home. The belief in this division of labour became so imbedded in these cultures that it effortlessly crossed over to those populations applying the same belief system to non-agricultural work.

To test this hypothesis, researchers combined pre-industrial ethnographic data from a wide variety of nations and ethnic groups which reported whether those societies traditionally practiced plough agriculture, alongside contemporary measures of individuals’ views about gender roles. Consistent with Boserup’s hypothesis, historical plough use was found to correlate very strongly with views on gender inequality today. (1)

In the digital age, where rapid and frequent cross-culture communication is a fact of life, the reasons why these stereotypes still persist is perhaps more baffling than their origins. After all, it is quite easy for someone from Egypt to observe the fact that Icelandic society is functioning perfectly productively, despite their belief that women work just as effectively outside the home as men do. Likewise, even countries with adequate workplace equality still have stereotypes about the preferences and natures of women and men as distint categories.

But when exactly do these develop?

The short answer would be, perhaps obviously, “in childhood.” Children become “gender aware” at a very young age (typically between three and five years of age, in our commercialised society even sooner), and begin to develop gender stereotypes almost immediately thereafter.(2) These concepts become rigidly defined between 5 and 7 years of age (Martin & Ruble, 2004), and begin to have lasting impact on identity and self-esteem by adolescence.(2)

Is this nature or nurture? It is a combination, but research seems to suggest that for the most part and at younger age, it is the latter. Children observe the roles of their elders, and begin to act them out in play with their peers as soon as they can walk and communicate enough to do so; through this process, they label themselves as being a boy or a girl, and begin to instruct themselves on what that entails.(2) “Imitation and instruction are vital components to children’s development. Adults promote this learning by role-modeling behavior, assisting with challenging tasks, and passing along cultural meanings to objects and events, all of which are components of gender development.” (Vygotsky, 1961)

Even if a child’s parents do not adhere rigidly to gender stereotypes, the pervasive nature of the media inundates children with preconceived notions about gender. Gender-typed messages are found on bed sheets, towels, bandages, clothes, school supplies, toys, and furniture (Freeman, 2007). Even the most well-meaning parent cannot shop for their child without exposing him or her to segregated pink and blue aisles for girls and boys. If aisles were thus segregated by race, most people today would be appalled, and yet it is considered normal where gender stereotypes are concerned (fortunately, activists, consumer groups and concerned parents are starting to react to this, demanding an ending to gender segregation in the marketing of children’s toys – see for instance the Lettoysbetoys and PinkStinks campaigns promoted in UK).

Likewise, adult role models are frequently shown perpetuating gender stereotypes via the media; for example, advertising related to computers typically depicts men and boys as “competent users, engaged in active or professional roles, while women and girls were passive observers or merely posed next to the computer while looking pretty or provocative.” (McNair, Kirova-Petrova, & Bhargava, 2001) This, of course, subsequently shows up in children’s play. It also keeps gender stereotypes perpetuated even as we move into a highly digital economy.

When a child enters school, this bias usually deepens, furthered by the biases of his or her teachers. “While unintentional, a teacher’s inherent biases can perpetuate unfair stereotypes and may be manifested in discriminatory classroom practices. For example, one group of teachers perceived girls as passive learners and therefore more “teachable” than boys.” (Erden & Wolfgang, 2004). In my research this was very evident as primary school girls (age 8-11) often complained of the double standard in terms of expected behavior from their teachers: boys would be allowed to be noisy and misbehaving in the class and playground to a much greater extent than the girls. An example is given by their conceptualization of “being a girl” as opposed to “being a boy” (see link Research shows that females often receive less active attention from their teachers, which reinforces lower aspirations of achievement and poor self-esteem. (2)

With all of these factors taken into consideration, it is logical to assume that gender stereotypes today are the product of cultural bias that is found on many different levels of society—in the home, in the media, on the playground, and in the classroom—which then perpetuates into later workplace, affecting our identity/sense of self and our relationship with others. Ending gender stereotyping, then, will take the concerted effort of many – parents, educators, activists, media producers, marketers, regulators, to name a few – to critically analyze and counteract gender bias found at all levels, in the media, the school system, the workplace, and the home.

 Main reading:
Boserup, E. (1970). Woman’s Role in Economic Development, London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.
Erden, F., & Wolfang, C.H. (2004). An exploration of the differences in prekindergarten, kindergarten, and first grade teachers’ beliefs related to discipline when dealing with male and female students. Early Child Development and Care, 174(1), 3-11.
Freeman, N. (2007). Preschoolers’ perceptions of gender-appropriate toys and their parents’ beliefs about genderized behaviors: Miscommunication, mixed messages, or hidden truths? Early Childhood Education Journal, 34(5), 357-366
Martin, C., & Ruble, D. (2004). Children’s search for gender cues: Cognitive perspectives in gender development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(2), 67-70.
McNair, S., Kirova-Petrova, A., & Bhargava, A. (2001). Computers and young children in the classroom: Strategies for minimizing gender bias. Early Childhood Education Journal, 29(1), 51-55.
Vygotsky, L. (1961). The development of scientific concepts in childhood. In K. Paciorek, & J. Munro (Eds.), Sources: Notable selections in early childhood education (pp. 11-18). Guilford, CT: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill.

The Plague of Gender Stereotypes


It’s been more than a couple of years now but I have seared into my memory how Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt –media icons for all humanitarian causes – got heavily bashed because they decide to allow their daughter Shiloh to dress however she wanted. And she wanted to dress in puffy jackets, tough boots and hip-hop knit hats.

The media portrayed this simple and personal decision as an almost deliberate effort of Brangelina to reshape Shiloh’s gender, asking absurd questions like “Do Brad & Angelina want to turn Shiloh into a Boy?”

So what if a girl doesn’t want to wear dresses? And what if the parents allow her to go beyond what the media has dictated to be gender-appropriate for girls? Who gave media the power to dictate over us? Sadly, WE did.

Comments that portray images of what is acceptable and how things should be are far more pervasive than we realise in a first glance. Cartoons of brave princes and beautiful princesses, TV shows with girls in sparkly pink costumes and boys in stiffly blue outfits, adverts constantly portraying girls indoor, playing with clothes, make-up and dolls with the contrasting images of boys playing outdoor, sport and rough: they all perpetrate gender stereotypes and force-feed these notions to us and to our children.

Many people confound gender stereotypes with gender roles, which are another notion altogether. While there are behaviours inherent to women and to men (gender roles), gender stereotypes are the generalization of attitudes that are a consequence of those behaviours, disregarding individual situations or preferences. For example, women can be mothers, which is a role we can fulfil, but men cannot. Mothers are then generalized into an image of tenderness and protection. Men, on the other hand, due to their original –and by original, I mean prehistoric – role, have the stereotype of the strong provider. What happens when individuals fail to meet the stereotypes that have originated from biological /historical /cultural gender roles?


An increasing number of studies from the field of psychology (see for instance Sharon Begley, 2000) provide evidence that stereotypes especially harm the people who fall into the stereotyped groups. In the case of Shiloh, girls should wear dresses and pink, “girly” clothes, not “boyish” clothes. Now think of how this can affect a little girl who feels comfortable wearing trousers and boots instead of dresses. Shiloh might be defended by her parents from all of the absurd attacks sensationalised by the media, but what do we do about the message that is being hammered into other girls’ minds? Girls who dress like boys are ridiculed, that’s what they will fear. In my research all girls had long hair without exception but most of them would complaint about the annoyance of long knotty hair: “so why don’t you cut them short then?” I finally dared to ask during a group session. Their answer was emblematic of what 99.9% of young modern girls would argue: “No way, then everybody would tease you to death, “YOU ARE BOY!”

That’s how their young lives have been co-opted to follow rules that make no sense.

But the issue would be a lot less damaging if it was only a question of style and fashion! Sadly it is not. It goes well beyond that. It affects what girls think they can do, say, think, act, fear, dream, love and hate! It affects their choice of extra-curricular activities and the professions they may pursue in life. And it goes without saying that the myth of masculinity perpetuates a similar set of absurd limitations on our boys.

The commercialised culture we live in provides a relentless reinforcement of gender stereotypes through an ever-widening array of media, until certain assumptions surrounding gender become utterly ingrained in children and adults’ mind. We’re hardly allowed to forget how society expects us to be: the pressure is constantly on.

The Council of Europe’s CDEG (the Steering Committee for Equality between Women and Men) has recently spoken very clearly about the negative consequences of G.S. and the need to end it:

“Gender Stereotyping is preconceived ideas whereby males and females are arbitrarily assigned characteristics and roles determined and limited by their sex. Sex stereotyping can limit the development of the natural talents and abilities of boys and girls, women and men, as well as their educational experiences and life opportunities” (CDEG, 2011)

Fortunately, gender stereotyping and self-concept issues have attracted considerable attention from scholars and researchers who are outlining the role that formal education and parenting should play in addressing the roots and consequences of the problem.