Though sex discrimination in the workplace has been illegal since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, men and women still remain largely in sex-segregated occupations. Sex segregation is most apparent in the occupational fields of science, technology, engineering and math (collectively known as STEM). Structural discrimination accounts for much of the discrepancy between men and women within STEM professions. However, research shows that gendered stereotypes associated with those professions also account for the difference: women do not pursue job paths in STEM fields, and men do not hire them because neither group perceives those jobs to be appropriate for women. Shifting gendered stereotypes, then, is crucial for moving women into STEM professions.
Different academic theories suggest that gendered stereotypes fundamentally contribute to why males and females are ultimately placed and place themselves in segregated occupations. Though studies show that males and females who identify strongly with their gender are even more likely to conform to gender stereotypes, research shows that each of us experiences pressure to follow these traditional gender norms.
Children in the United States consume about seven hours of media per day, making it a primary influence on children’s beliefs about gender. The media commonly presents males as the main subject, engaged in action behaviors, portrayed as financial providers, and in occupations related to STEM and/or blue-collar fields. On the other hand, females are often wives, mother and/or sex objects presented in occupational nurturing fields such as, teachers, nurses, social workers, sex workers and secretaries.
The good news is that because stereotypes are socially constructed, they are flexible and capable of shifting. So while teachers may not be in a position to change what students consume in the media, they do have the power through education to change the way children interpret gender messages within the media, according to Dr. Linda Markowitz, professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice Studies, and Dr. Laurie Puchner, professor in the Department of Educational Leadership.
Through a grant from the American Association of University Women, Markowitz and Puchner worked on two projects to improve critical media literacy skills in middle school students. The projects were aimed at encouraging students to question the gendered stereotypes to which they are exposed. The research team looked at ways to get children to think critically about the media’s use of stereotypes, especially in relation to men’s and women’s job and career choices.
Markowitz and Puchner’s study focused on two main goals. One goal was to help students understand the hidden messages received from the different forms of media, such as messages promoting sexism and other kinds of discrimination. The second was to provide students the tools to create new messages that challenge and shift traditional stereotypes. When students feel empowered to create new forms of gendered knowledge, they can transfer that knowledge to outside the classroom.
In their project, Markowitz and Puchner worked with local middle school teachers and with Media Literacy Consultant Chantal Chandler to develop, implement, and evaluate a “Critical Media Literacy Curriculum Unit.” They taught the unit to five seventh-grade and five eighth-grade language arts classes. The critical media literacy (CML) unit consisted of four 45-minute lessons comprising discussion and activities revolving around multiple examples of print and video ads. At the end of the third lesson, students received an assignment, in which they were instructed to work in small groups to create a video advertisement for a product. The ad had to: “Advertise a specific product of your choice; challenge gender stereotypes rather than reinforce them; and pertain to occupations in some way.”
These students’ video ads showed that while the students produced ads that “flipped” gender roles, most simultaneously distanced themselves from the nonstereotypical role with techniques such as humor, exaggeration, and reinsertion of the feminine or masculine. For example, one group advertised a product called a “Mantu,” a tutu made for men. The boys in the video wore a skirt that was supposedly designed for males, but much of what they said and did was clearly meant to be humorous, demonstrating that when boys are feminine, they are silly, funny, and cannot be taken seriously. In another advertisement, two girls were throwing a football and one girl said, “Where did this come from?” The other answered, “I don’t know but it’s pretty.” At the end of the ad, one of the girls said, “Get your Pretty In Pink Football today!”In this ad, the girls are playing a male role by using a football, but they insert femininity into it by calling it a “pretty in pink football.”
Despite the students’ distancing of themselves from the nonstereotypical roles they played, Puchner and Markowitz are encouraged by the fact that virtually all of the students participated in some sort of conversation about the gender dichotomy. The researchers learned, not surprisingly, that children (like adults) have difficulty overcoming messages received by the media. The team believes that the goal of complicating and expanding students’ range of gender performances was, to a small degree, accomplished, and that the sexism in the student attempts to be non-sexist show CML education to be important. Thus, while difficulties should be expected along the way, it is only when students are given the opportunity to examine traditional gender schemas that can we hope to expand their repertoire of gender performances.
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Rideout, Victoria. J., Ulla.G. Foehr, and Donald. F. Roberts and Foundation Henry J. Kaiser Family. 2010. Generation M[superscript 2]: Media in the Lives of 8- to 19-Year-Olds. Henry J. Kaiser Family FoundationERIC, EBSCOhost (accessed November 25, 2013).