“But, let me tell you I am not the feminist-type”, Mona said. We all know Mona; don’t we? And the other morning, on a coffee break, a senior corporate professional told me “men get higher packages, we all know it; but it is okay. Because in the end, they run the families”. Yes, I had the same “Excuse me, what?!” face as you have right now. Women continue self-stereotyping and justify the patriarchal structures that continue to oppress and marginalise several sections of the society, including women.
Why does gender-based hierarchy still exist even when most of us are its victims? Why is it that not all the patriarchy-beaten individuals are together in the struggle for a gender-equitable world? Is it because we all end up justifying and internalising the hierarchy? Is it because we, ourselves, have become an instrument of this apparatus of subjugation?
Stereotyping and discrimination from the higher-status outgroup members are rampant and much talked about. Yet, it is also important to emphasise on the potential of self-stereotyping, internalisation of inferior position, as well as justification of the existing hierarchical social system by the ingroup members of the stereotyped and marginalised communities, which further strengthens the stratification of the society on these discriminatory lines.
For instance, the existing gender-stereotype that women are not as intelligent as men might lead one woman to believe that she is actually intellectually inferior to any man. This then translates to women not being as outspoken, second-guessing their opinions, not being confident in interpersonal communication etc. at workplace. I know women who have a driving licence, but feel underconfident and shy away from driving until and unless it is necessary. Even worse, I know a lot more women who do not even consider to take up driving because they came across a minimum of million times that ‘women can’t drive’ and then started conforming to this perception. This happens in so many other spheres of our life, starting from enrolling in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers to taking up a leadership role.
Two social psychologists, R. J. Brown and J. C. Turner (1981) brought the attention of the academic world to self-stereotyping which is a tendency of viewing the stereotypical traits as descriptives of one’s ingroup or self.
But are women more prone to self-stereotyping? Yes, women’s disadvantageous social position makes them more vulnerable to the internalisation of such negative stereotypes. Also, the nature of internalisation is often chronic among women and thus, it becomes a part of their self-definition. This explains why women often justify and gloriously accept a secondary status – why girls with perfect scores in Math often decide to quit numbers and science; why objectively accomplished women suffer from self-doubt. Because that is exactly what self-stereotyping does, it leads us to question ourselves. It makes us frantically check ourselves on the mirror and look for the stain that never existed. It impacts self-esteem and self-efficacy; in turn, determines the way women negotiate their career and life at large. Also, the key mechanism of stereotyping is its shared-ness, so, when we are self-stereotyping, we spread the ripples of stereotypes and anxieties involving those; this further handicap more and more women, and strengthens the existing stereotypes. It requires additional efforts from a woman every time she wants to do something opposite to these baseless beliefs.
But, why do women (or any other lower-status group members for that matter) internalise negative stereotypes? Well, simply because this is a mechanism, a conditioning that in turn justifies the existing system. But why do they need to justify the system? The first motivation might be emerging from the just-world hypothesis, where people believe that the world is a just and right place. This serves an adaptive function, since it decreases one’s pursuit to challenge the existing system of society. So, if you believe that the world is already fair, you will not lose your sleep and happy meals in attempting to change it toward a better world; neither you will feel guilty of not being able to do so.
Also, individuals with a lower position in the social ladder often experience some sort of cognitive dissonance, a conflict between the need to improve the status of their group and the need to conform to the existing social order. To deal with this constant dissonance, a person changes his/her attitude towards the social system and often support it. Living with the constant tension is not a pleasant feeling whereas changing the stable system is also not easy, therefore, they end up believing in their lower position by internalising the negative traits as an easier way out.
Psychologists also suggest that self-stereotyping and ingroup stereotyping might serve a mechanism of saving their own self-esteem by attributing their individual trait to the group identity; for instance, one might endorse and internalise that women are not good at Math simply because she is not good at Math. Therefore, generalisation is the key issue here and one must carefully introspect and be conscious about the problems of generalising one’s individual trait (positive or negative) to the group level.
Therefore, it cannot be emphasised on enough, that when others endorse gender stereotypes and discriminate us based on them, we need to do better than self-stereotyping and fight against it. We have to make sure that we do not internalise and/or further endorse any gender stereotype (whether negative or positive). We have to try and not tie ourselves with any prototypical group traits, because there is no such thing as group-traits.
Sucharita is a doctoral scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. She is interested in understanding psychology of gender, especially in the context of how gender works inside organisations. Besides being a coffee lover, she enjoys travelling and writing. She can be followed on Facebook.
Featured Image Source: Deccan Chronicle