Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the stereotypes that we place on one another, and the implications of those stereotypes, particularly along gendered lines. (Jerry’s recent post reminds us, however, that issues of race & gender are deeply intertwined). As the macro-level, I know about the destructive nature of many of dominant stereotypes that exist in our society. But at a personal level, it is often difficult for me to know how to respond to gendered stereotypes.
In discussing why gender inequality continues to persist amidst social changes, sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway (Framed by Gender, Oxford, 2011) notes that the gendered stereotypes we hold are often resistant to change. This has important implications.
What people think “most people” assume about gender… [is what] people use to coordinate their behavior with others on the basis of gender (159).
In other words, stereotypes are often more important in shaping our actions that our beliefs about our “own gendered characteristics.” In part, this happens because of a pressure to conform to public expectations, or bear negative reactions from others.
]These stereotypes are destructive. While they hurt both men and women, women face more restrictions and consequences than men from them. Recently, our department hosted a screening of Miss Representation. This 2011 documentary highlights the ways that negative media representations of women and girls are connected to the low levels of leadership that women have in our society, especially in politics. Although it’s not addressed in this film, most of us would acknowledge that in the evangelical world, additional pressures exist that can hinder women from leading.
How do we respond? As a professor at a Christian college, one of my goals is to encourage my students to be open to wherever God would lead them, and to be willing to follow Him in radical ways. I want to see them use their passions for His Kingdom. Frederick Buechner writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Wishful Thinking, HarperOne, 1993, 57). I want my students to discover those places, wherever they may be.
As I suspect is the case with most readers, I daily encounter gendered expectations. I know I am not alone. Our society of course, is not monolithic, and those expectations vary in different contexts (even as some consistency may exist). Some seem quite innocuous. Others don’t. They all matter.
As a Christian covered by grace, I want to live a life of extending grace to others. Sometimes my first thought is to downplay the significance of these stereotypes and expectations. I don’t want to make a person feel bad by letting them know I don’t fit their assumptions. Life will just be easier if I go with the flow. It’s not really that big of a deal if I change my behavior in this setting. I know that I’m more competent than they see me, and I don’t want my pride to get in the way.
Yet reading Ridgeway, I was reminded that this is not about me. It’s about stereotypes that will hinder (and have hindered) students I hope to encourage, my daughters, my friends, and people I don’t know. They are destructive, and my acquiescence can be part of the problem. One of my hopes this holiday season is that I will take more responsibility in challenging these gendered stereotypes in grace, and encourage others to do so as well.