Let’s start from the beginning: Gender stereotypes and their implications

Living in an extraordinarily complex world, humans tend to develop simplification strategies to effectively manage the amount of information surrounding them. To optimize cognitive resources, individuals become natural economizers, adopting various simplification strategies to navigate the complexity of the social reality that surrounds them. Stereotypes arise from this process of simplification and generalization, often based on merely superficial characteristics (such as age, gender, or ethnicity) shared within a group. These stereotypes result from centuries of culture and are assimilated during the socialization process. Stereotypes are often useful, and strategic, and assist us, but many times they can lead us to make a series of errors, known as biases, which can have significantly negative repercussions.

But what information is contained within these stereotypes? One of the most widely used theoretical models to understand the content of stereotypes is the "Stereotype Content Model" (SCM), developed by two social psychologists from Princeton University in 20021. This model suggests that stereotypes primarily consist of two fundamental dimensions: warmth and competence. The warmth dimension relates to the perception of a group as warm, friendly, and moral, while the competence dimension involves assessing a group in terms of skills, effectiveness, and competence in achieving certain goals. Based on these two dimensions, we perceive social groups differently.

In relation to gender, the SCM suggests that in the past, men were perceived as more competent and leadership-oriented compared to women. In recent years, this difference in the content of gender stereotypes has begun to diminish, but a marked difference remains regarding the warmth and morality dimension: women are still perceived as more empathetic, hence more suited to caregiving roles, and less inclined towards leadership roles compared to men.

This difference in the social perception of men and women has direct consequences on our daily lives because it leads to behavioral expectations and gender norms that prescribe a clear division of roles and tasks within society, based solely on generalizations of stereotypes.

It is important to be aware that, although there is some truth in all stereotypes, they primarily represent a simplification and generalization strategy of characteristics that cannot faithfully reflect the complexity of reality and individuals. Consequently, they can lead to gender discrimination and inequalities in work, education, and social opportunities.

For example, during school education, certain gender stereotypes are reinforced by directing girls and boys towards different educational paths, focusing more on fields stereotypically considered as feminine (e.g., humanities) or stereotypically masculine (e.g., STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). However, this stereotyped distinction by subject does not seem to reflect actual diverse skills between males and females; it is merely shared stereotypes that self-reinforce, posing a perceived threat to individuals. For instance, as early as 19972, an experimental study had shown that school-age girls, explicitly told that females scored lower than the majority of male peers in a series of mathematical tests, tended to perform significantly lower in these tests compared to scores of other women who did not receive the same communication. This effect emerged across different age groups and is known as "stereotype threat" (Steele, 1997)2: women tend to have poorer performance when aware of the gender stereotype and are called to engage in activities seemingly inconsistent with that stereotype, experiencing increased stress that interferes with their ability to fully express their competencies.

On an interpersonal level, gender stereotypes contribute to establishing social hierarchies where the stereotyped woman is commonly perceived as subordinate to the stereotyped man. This hierarchical design is intrinsic to traditional gender roles that view men as holders of power and resources, while women are considered as support figures or dependents. For example, according to 2023 ISTAT data (the Italian Central Statistical Institute), 23% of individuals aged 18 to 74 believe that men should primarily make economic decisions, and 24.2% think that a woman should have children to be considered complete.

The implications of gender stereotypes are also evident in the professional sphere, as we have seen in the previous article (Link to the article). Indeed, women "in the workplace are more disadvantaged by selection processes that favor individuals considered more competent by stereotype (namely men), thus more frequently being relegated to a role of economic dependence." To break free from the patterns that perpetuate these mechanisms, a study conducted in 2019 shows how reducing the role played by gender stereotypes in the underrepresented field of STEM can be achieved. Experimentally, this study highlighted that raising awareness of gender stereotypes in the selection process for female candidates led selectors to adopt more fair decision-making strategies, unlike selectors not made aware of these biases.

However, it is essential to recognize that many stereotypes are so deeply rooted in how we process information that they can influence our actions even when we are unaware of them. Consequently, we can limit their negative impact by creating awareness in sensitive situations where it becomes necessary to be vigilant about our behaviors, such as in the HR selection process.

In addition to the effort of self-monitoring and reflection, there is a need for the implementation of diversity and emotional education within school programs and corporate cultures. This way, greater inclusivity and respect could be promoted not only in future generations but also in those currently holding roles of responsibility. Although the process of acquiring and dismantling stereotypes finds a particularly favorable moment in developmental stages, as we will see in the upcoming issues, this does not preclude its occurrence at any stage of life.

Only through these interventions of awareness and education can we dismantle the vicious circle through which gender roles are fueled and simultaneously reinforce certain gender stereotypes.

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