SEX-STEREOTYPIC ATTRIBUTES

Tuesday, April 7, 2009 4:39

If asked to describe a “typical man” or a “typical woman,” you probably would be able to do so. It also is likely that your descriptions would match those given by others. Whether subjects have differed in sex, age, religion, mental status, or educational background, researchers consistently have found substantial agreement in the beliefs that people have about the traits characteristic of men and women.

Studies of sex stereotypes have demonstrated repeatedly that men and women are viewed very differently; in fact, they are viewed as polar opposites in many personality attributes (Broverman, Vogel, Broverman, Clarkson, and Rosenkrantz). In achievement-oriented traits men are thought to be competent and strong, and women are thought to be incompetent and weak. Whereas men are described as independent, active, competitive, self-confident, and ambitious, women are described as dependent, passive, uncompetitive, unconfident, and unambitious. Men and women also are described differently in qualities of warmth and expressiveness, with women being rated more positively: they are described as tender, understanding, concerned with others, and comfortable with their feelings, whereas men are described in opposite terms.

It seems that little has changed since 1957 when McKee and Sherriffs found that when subjects were asked to generate images of men and women, males were characterized by (a) rational competence and ability and (b) vigor, action, and effectiveness. Women, on the other hand, were characterized by (a) social skills and (b) warmth and emotional support. Then, too, characteristics most commonly ascribed to men were those essential to achievement but those most commonly ascribed to women were those associated with nurture and affiliation.

The traits associated with women and men are not only different, but they are seen as differentially desirable. Although each is credited with a number of positive traits, subjects of both sexes concur that those associated with men are more valued than those associated with women (Rosenkrantz, Vogel, Bee, Broverman, and Broverman). Simply put, achievement seems to be more highly valued in our society than nurture or affiliation. A great deal of evidence supports this point. Smith found that as age increased, children of both sexes increasingly indicated a preference for the traits of males rather than of females. Fernberger found that college students cast male rather than female characters in fictional situations requiring intelligence and “all-around superiority.” Finally, McKee and Sheriffs found that a typical man is believed to possess a greater number of desirable characteristics than a typical woman.

Looking at the world around us it is apparent how stereotypical views are passed on and maintained. The images of men presented in children’s textbooks, for instance, are consistently active, curious, and independent; girls, however, are depicted as dependent, showing little initiative, and constantly in need of help from boys (Weitzman, Eifler, Hokadin, and Ross). Similarly stereotyped presentations) of men and women can be found in television commercials. In a recent study in which the roles of men and women in these commercials were compared, only 14% of the women were found to be in authoritative positions as compared to 70% of the men. Moreover, when they agreed to buy a product, men were shown to be motivated by potential social and/or career advancement, but women were shown to be motivated by the increased satisfaction of their families or men in their life (McArthur and Resko).

It is not difficult to see how stereotyped conceptions of what women are like are transmitted. But to what extent are these conceptions accurate reflections of reality? Are men and women actually as different as is commonly assumed?

Until recently it was generally accepted that the biological differences between men and women were paralleled by distinct psychological differences. In fact, several reviews of the literature focused on the nature of these sex differences (Garai and Scheinfeld; Maccoby; Tyler). The areas in which functioning was thought to differ was broad: intellectual ability, dependency, passivity, self-esteem, cognitive style, and perception. In some cases reported findings depicted males more favorably; in others, they depicted females more favorably, but the notion of differences was upheld.

However, in 1974, Maccoby and Jacklin, in their exhaustive book, The Psychology of Sex Differences, carefully examined the available data and concluded that many of the presumed differences between males and females are based on myth, not on reality. They found no support for the view that women lack the motivation to achieve nor that they are less intelligent than men. Patterns of task persistence and risk-taking behavior were found to be quite similar to both sexes. Also challenged were the alleged differences in the social needs often attributed to men and women. According to Maccoby and Jacklin, females have not been found to be more sociable, more dependent on others, or more oriented toward social stimulation and reinforcement than have males.

Additionally, a considerable body of literature examines women’s feelings toward and behavior at work. Results from many of these studies also contradict the notion that women are different from men. Women have been reported to have similar vocational interests (Diamond), leadership abilities (Day and Stogdill), and problem-solving abilities (Matthews) to men’s. In many areas directly related to achievement men and women are more alike than different. Yet, despite this fact, the view that crucial differences exist between the sexes persists.

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