Gender Stereotypes & Myths About Women

I listened to the speech on “Gender and the Law Stories: Learning from Longstanding Debates” made by Martha L. Minow, Dean of Harvard Law School. The speech was in honor of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she made significant contributions to bringing gender equality in America. The topic covered the increasing trend of single sex schools in US in the current decade. Ms. Minow articulately talked about the history of women education, the educational and professional challenges faced by women due to gender stereotyping and biases. I was impressed with the rationale she presented. I am covering some aspects of the speech below along with some of my thoughts on the subject.

Ms Minow mentioned how at one time it was thought improbable for women to enter into fields of law and medicine. In most cases women in 1950’s & 60’s were the first ones to enter the male colleges or professions. The gender bias was strong. Women were denied entrance to esteemed colleges and received rejections from good jobs. Now law and medicine schools have 50% women. The changing times can be depicted by Margaret Thatcher’s statement in 1969 on becoming Tory education spokesperson –  

No woman in my time will be prime minister or chancellor or foreign secretary – not the top jobs. Anyway, I wouldn’t want to be prime minister; you have to give yourself 100 percent.

A few years later, Margaret Thatcher became the Prime Minster. It didn’t change the world much though she proved to be a capable political leader.  Women across the globe continue to battle for equality. They still have to prove it that they can do it. Hilary Clinton became the first women in US to fight for presidential candidate nomination. On losing, in her closing speech she said-

 “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it. And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

Women will conquer all bastions I don’t doubt that. The main barrier continues to be gender stereotyping and various mythical differences perceived by society. Although some men are still depraved enough to consider abusing, degrading and humiliating women as a sign of masculinity, the thought is receding in some parts of the world. Conventional societies, including India, still consider women inferior.

The gender stereotyping starts when a girl is born. A few of them are as follows:

  • A girl is soft, a boy is tough, and hence a girl won’t be able to survive in the world without a man.
  • A girl is good in arts and literature, and boys are good at math and physics. In India in Class XII boards most of the toppers for science subjects are girls. However, the bias continues in engineering colleges, where numbers of women are less.
  • Women are not competitive, lack killer instinct and are emotional in nature. Hence, cannot be successful in the business world. Globally the number of women at board level in corporate world is less than 10%.

Ms Minow mentions that gender biases are so strong that initially in US co-ed schools were not encouraged. It was said boys would be coarse and corrupt girls. The logic given in favor of co-ed schools was that girls would civilize the boys. This argument doesn’t speak well for either of the genders.  

Men have not faced the negative impact of such twisted logic. However, women still face the challenges of typecasting. A woman breaks the conventional myths, she is said to be masculine. Take the example of Indira Gandhi, Ex-Prime Minister of India.  She served as a Prime Minister for 4 sessions totaling to 15 years and is globally the longest serving female Prime Minster. She was called as the only man wearing trousers in her cabinet. Margaret Thatcher was dubbed as the “Iron Lady” by Russia. She gave an excellent rebuttal to it in her speech in Finchley in 1976.

I stand before you tonight in my green chiffon evening gown, my face softly made-up, my fair hair gently waved. The Iron Lady of the Western World? Me? A Cold War warrior?”

 No woman escapes this gender stereotyping, whatever success she achieves. Her femininity is at stake if she rules the typical male bastions. Have you heard of a male politician being compared with stereotypical female traits?

In the current decade with the obsession of biology and psychology, the logic given is that men and women brains are wired differently.  Cordelia Fine in her book “Delusions of Gender” has debunked these pop psychology theories of intellectual and social differences between men and women. She states that there is hardly any scientific evidence available to state men and women behave differently because of the differences in brain.  Most of the areas of performance are touched by cultural stereotypes.  For example, men are not considered good cooks; however, most of the chief chefs in luxury hotels are men. Women in military and police have equal fighting capabilities but there is no evidence that this makes them bad mothers.  Society and not the human brain exemplify these differences.

Ms Minow has explained this aspect far better than I have. I would recommend readers of both genders, especially if they are parents watch the four parts. I am inserting my favorite Part 2 here and am giving the YouTube links for all. Hope you enjoy them.

  1. The Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law – 2011 – Part 1-4
  2. The Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law – 2011 – Part 2-4
  3. The Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law – 2011 – Part 3-4
  4. The Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law – 2011 – Part 4-4