Providing girls with positive role models could help in breaking the glass ceiling for women in the future, but including methods of educating both girls and boys on gender-stereotyping would be even more beneficial. Gender stereotypes can lead to a condition known as stereotype thread, which provides clues to why the glass ceiling is still a problem to be dealt with.
The phenomenon of stereotype threat was first identified and described in the mid 1990’s by social psychologist Joshua Aronson and his colleagues Claude Steele and Steven Spencer. (7) It is defined as a threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype or the fear of doing something that would confirm that stereotype. Stereotype threat can be manifested both physically and psychologically, resulting in impaired performance. For the sake of an experiment, conducted to test this hypothesis, researchers recruited 30 female and 24 male first-year University of Michigan psychology students, both with strong math backgrounds and similar math abilities. They were divided into two groups, and the researchers administered a test. For one group there was an existing threat condition, as they were told that men performed better than women on the test. The other group was told that there were no gender differences in test performance. The results showed that women performed significantly worse than men in the threat situation and that there was almost no gender difference in the nonthreat condition. (8)
Gender stereotypes have been researched for decades, with the purposes and objectives of the research being introduced within a discipline better known as Social role theory. Social role theory argues that widely shared gender stereotypes develop from the gender division of labor that characterizes a society. (1)
Gender stereotypes, in terms of professional life, refer to men’s appropriation of paid positions of higher power and status in contrast to the standard of assigning nurturant roles to women.
Social role theory targets interaction in all contexts and its predictions are that women will generally act more communally and less instrumentally than men in the same context and that these differences will be most visible when gender is highly significant in the situation. The gender differences will, however, be weak or absent when people enact formal, institutional roles. (2)
The findings of a study conducted in the 1968 provided strong evidence for stereotypes portraying women as “less competent, less objective, and less logical than men,” and men as “lacking interpersonal sensitivity, warmth, and expressiveness in comparison to women.” (3)
The study was conducted by Dr. Inge Komers Broverman, a psychologist known for her studies of persistent sexual stereotypes at the Worcester State Hospital. She did a stereotype survey on college students containing several bipolar questions. The participants got to choose between two extremes such as “not at all aggressive” and “very aggressive” in defining themselves, which allowed Broverman to examine how responses to the questionnaire related to sex-role stereotypes. The results were in favor of specific sex-role stereotypes, confirming that the changes brought about by events such as the women’s movement, failed to play a major role in their dismissal. According to the results, men continued to see themselves as more confident and aggressive, while women continued to consider themselves to be more gentle and quiet.(4)
Broverman chose not to stop there and soon after, extended the research to another area. She was interested in seeing how these sex-role stereotypes and self-concepts affected clinicians as well as their practices in terms of diagnosing and treating patients. She wanted to know how they define a mature, psychologically healthy adult. 79 mental health professionals, including psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers, took the stereotype questionnaire used in the college student study. Some of them were supposed to describe a male, others a female and the rest were asked to describe a healthy adult with an unspecified sex. The results were staggering. They indicated that participants believed that a healthy adult and a healthy male had almost the same characteristics. Confidence and independence were considered their key features. In contrast, a healthy female was described as kind and considerate to others, a description differencing significantly from the one associated with the healthy adult with unspecified sex and the healthy male. In such context, if women demonstrated the traits considered healthy for a woman, they were simultaneously classified as an unhealthy, psychologically immature adult. (5)
However, in the beginning of the 1970s, the one-dimensional and bipolar paradigm of the masculinity–femininity construct came under attack when prominent researchers began challenging this concept. Among the loudest opponents was American psychologist Sandra L. Bem, a proponent of androgyny theory. She introduced a sex-role register, which represented two fully independent scales of culturally defined masculinity and culturally defined femininity.
In order to develop the inventory, Bem assembled a list of 200 personality characteristics that seemed positively valued and stereotypically masculine or feminine, as well as 200 gender-neutral characteristics (seemingly neither masculine nor feminine).
Aggressive and analytical were associated with masculinity, while moody and happy were associated with femininity. In addition to noting that some individuals were exclusively feminine or masculine, Bem also found that some individuals have balanced levels of traits from both scales. She described those individuals as androgynous. Bem’s original definition of androgyny was that androgynous persons possess relatively equal levels of masculinity and femininity as measured by the BSRI, not that they possess high scores on both scales. (6)
Bem managed to introduce a new paradigm under which it is possible and acceptable for an individual to conceive of him/herself as possessing traits belonging to both personality types. The so called psychological androgyny enabled behavioral flexibility and better self-esteem, since having both masculine and feminine traits, regardless of biological sex, was not considered abnormal anymore. The conceptualization of the androgynous person promoted the ideal of a gender-blind society in which we are all the same, igniting the potential of humanity to banish sexist attitudes and behaviors for good. (7)