Gender stereotypes are preconceived ideas whereby females and males are arbitrarily assigned characteristics and roles determined and limited by gender. They are used to justify and maintain the historical relations of power of men over women as well as sexist attitudes that hold back the advancement of women. Gender stereotypes often are internalized by men and women, and we therefore focus both on how men and women are seen by others and how they see themselves with respect to stereotyped attributes. The differences in men and women are oftentimes, captured in stereotypical images of these groups.
Men and women face different expectations about how they should dress, behave or work. Relations between men and women, whether in the family, the workplace or the public sphere, also reflect understandings of the talents, characteristics and behavior appropriate to women and men. Gender thus differs from sex in that it is social and cultural in nature rather than biological.
Gender stereotyping can limit the development of the natural talents and abilities of boys and girls, women and men, as well as their educational and professional experiences and life opportunities in general. It is harmful when it limits women’s and men’s capacity to develop their personal ability, pursue their professional careers and make choices about their lives. An example of wrongful gender stereotyping is the failure to criminalize marital rape based on societal perception of women as the sexual property of men, and the failure to investigate, prosecute and sentence sexual violence against women based on the stereotypes that women should protect themselves from sexual violence by dressing and behaving modestly.
Gender stereotypes, compounded and intersecting with other stereotypes have a disproportionate negative impact on certain groups of women, such as women from minority or indigenous groups, women with disabilities, women from lower caste groups or lower economic status, migrant women, etc. Stereotypes about women result from deeply engrained attitude, values, norms and prejudices against women. Universally, there are clear patterns of women’s inferior access to resources and opportunities. Women are systematically under-represented in decision making process that shape their societies. This pattern of inequality is a constraint to the progress of any society because it limits the opportunities of one half of its population. When women are constrained from reaching their potential, that potential is lost to the society as a whole.
Equality between men and women exists when both sexes are able to share equally in the distribution of power and influence; have equal opportunities for financial independence through work or through setting up businesses; enjoy equal access to education and the opportunity to develop personal ambitions, interests and talents; share responsibility for the home and children and are completely free from coercion, intimidation and gender-based violence both at work and at home.
However, it is important to acknowledge that where gender inequality exists, it is generally women who are excluded or disadvantaged in relation to decision-making and access to economic and social resources. Therefore, a critical aspect of promoting gender equality is the empowerment of women, with a focus on identifying and redressing power imbalances and giving women more autonomy to manage their own lives. This would enable them to make decisions and take actions to achieve and maintain their own reproductive and sexual health. Gender equality and women’s empowerment do not mean that men and women become the same; only that access to opportunities and life changes is neither dependent on, nor constrained by their sex.
On a global scale, achieving equality also requires eliminating harmful practices against women and girls, including sex trafficking, femicide, wartime sexual violence and other oppressive tactics. UNFPA stated that despite many international agreements affirming their human rights, women are still much more likely to be victims of domestic violence. The fact that gender attributes are socially constructed means that they are also amenable to change in ways that can make a society more just and equitable.
The international human rights framework prohibits gender stereotypes which undermine the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Gender equality is the fifth of seventeen sustainable development goals of the United Nations. Gender equality is intrinsically linked to sustainable development and is vital for the realisation of human rights for all. The overall objective of gender equality is a society in which women and men enjoy the same opportunities, rights and obligations in all spheres of life. States have obligation to eliminate discrimination against men and women in all areas of their lives. This obligation requires states to take measures to address gender stereotypes both in public and private life as well as refrain from stereotyping.
Gender mainstreaming is an approach of policy-making that takes into account both women’s and men’s interests and concerns. It was established as a major global strategy for the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women in population and development activities. It requires the integration of a gender perspective to the content of different policies, and addressing the issue of representation of women and men in the given policy area. Gender mainstreaming therefore aims to strengthen the legitimacy of gender equality values by addressing known gender disparities and gaps in such areas as the division of labour between men and women; access to and control over resources; access to services, information and opportunities; and distribution of power and decision-making.
Gender mainstreaming, as a strategy, does not preclude interventions that focus only on women or only on men. Specific interventions aim to reduce identified gender disparities by focusing on equality or inequity as the objective rather than on men or women as a target group. In such a context, sex-specific interventions are still important aspects of a gender mainstreaming strategy. When implemented correctly, they should not contribute to a marginalization of men in such a critical area as access to reproductive and sexual health services. Nor should they contribute to the evaporation of gains or advances already secured by women. Rather, they should consolidate such gains that are central building blocks towards gender equality.
Evidently, we still have a long way to go before all the components of traditional gender stereotypes fully dissipate and recede, allowing men and women to be judged, and to judge themselves, on the basis of their merits, not their gender.
- Gender Stereotyping: United Nations Human Rights
- Goal 5 of Sustainable Development Goals
- Gender Equality: United Nations Population Fund
- Gender Mainstreaming: European Institute for Global Equality
- Tanja Hantschel, Madeline E. Heilman, and Claudia V. Peus (2019) “The Multiple Dimensions of Gender Stereotypes: A Current Look at Men’s and Women’s Characterizations of Others and Themselves.”