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Stereotypes are tools for the perpetuation of inequality

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | November 19, 2010

My last blog entry, “Racism against whites: The overlooked phenomenon,” received a lot of comments, including a few flames. One in particular has stayed with me:

“Wow, if that post didn’t reek of privilege….”

The comment begs the question: when the heap of unfairness falls on the shoulders of the stigmatized, how necessary is it to point out unfairness towards the stigmatizer?

I think that pointing out instances of prejudice towards whites, rather than reflecting privilege, can actually help us overcome the differences in privilege that we seek to do away with. Let me give you an example of how prejudice against both stigmatized and privileged groups maintains the status quo, and actually keeps the status hierarchy alive and intact.

Just last week, after dropping my son off at school, I had a chance to chat briefly with a fellow parent. We began talking about the balance of professional life and parenthood, and this parent said to me, poignantly,

— You know, when people find out that I am a mother, they suddenly treat me differently.

A study in 2007 by Shelley Correll and colleagues in the American Journal of Sociology clearly demonstrates this “motherhood penality” phenomenon empirically. The authors had judges assess the application materials of job candidates. The candidates–a woman without children, a woman with children, a man without children, and a man with children–had identical qualifications, and thus varied only in terms of gender and their parental status. The candidates who were presented as parents were described as being coordinators for their local PTA, whereas the non-parents were described as being fundraisers for the neighborhood association.

source: Sydney Morning Herald

The findings validated the comment that my fellow parent shared. Compared to the non-parent female, mothers were rated as less competent and less committed, were recommended to a lower salary, were allowed fewer late days, and were deemed less likely to be recommended for promotion. Yet exactly the opposite pattern emerged for men. Compared to non-fathers, fathers were seen as more committed and likely to be promoted, were allowed more late days, and were recommended to a higher salary!

Talk about perpetuation of gender inequities. People penalize moms in the workplace, but fathers? Hey, give that upstanding family man a raise!

Why this opposite pattern of findings for men vs. women? My guess is that perceivers have different “pictures in their heads” when they think of mothers vs. fathers juggling professional duties. People may be more likely to visualize mothers changing diapers, wiping noses, and screaming at the kids, but visualize fathers instead as coming home, enjoying dinner, and reading to the children… while mom still screams and changes diapers. As I’ve pointed out in a previous blog, these “pictures in our heads”–also known as stereotypes–drive many of our impressions of others, sometimes outside of our knowledge. As the study authors write: “To the extent that employers view mothers as less committed to their jobs and less promotable, the glass ceiling women face, could be, in part, a motherhood ceiling.”

In a world where many of us strive for egalitarianism and smashing the “motherhood ceiling,” it would seem natural to propose the following simple solution: get more daddies to be in charge of the diapers, thus breaking the stereotypic association.

But there’s a problem.

When daddies try to change diapers in public, people have no hesitation in shaming, chastising, and tsk-tsking them–in other words, stereotyping them as incompetent caretakers. And, ironically, much of this chastising comes from moms themselves, many of whom feel quite justified in doing so. I myself am no diaper changing chump, but I’ve experienced comments ranging from compassionate to nasty to, well, paternalistic. My brother-in-law recently took my niece to the pediatrician and was asked, point blank, when the baby started crying:

“Where’s the mom?”

My colleague Jeremy Adam Smith has written an illuminating essay precisely on this topic in his blog, “The Daddy Dialectic,” and Lisa Belkin of the MotherLode blog expresses a similar idea in an essay aptly titled “Calling Mr. Mom?” She argues that, paradoxically, the empowerment of women now rests with society consciously empowering men to take on a greater role in caretaking. The upshot? Our culture’s tendency to stereotype men as clumsy caregivers not only leads to stereotype threat and a likelihood of actually showing the clumsy behavior, but actually discourages men from taking on diapering duties next time.

Which only serves to solidify gender inequities in parenting and the workplace.

Thus, far from reeking of privilege, this recognition helps us see how stereotypes about majority groups can, in a complex and troubling way, perpetuate the very inequities that those offended by privilege are trying to squash. In the case of my last blog, the point I’m trying to make is that the stereotype that all whites are racist is not only unfair to the targets of the stereotype, but is detrimental to our efforts towards equality because it makes the topic too aversive to face up to or discuss for a critical constituency in that effort.

So, I repeat: Let’s all be against racism all the time. Let’s all be against sexism all the time.

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UPDATE, Nov 18, pm– Fellow blogger Sam Sommers pointed me to this very relevant blog post on daddies and parenting

Comments to “Stereotypes are tools for the perpetuation of inequality

  1. I agree with you completely……as long as it is not mandated by government, let’s not be racist, let’s not be sexist. Let’s get over the stupidity of thinking less of someone based on how they were born.

    What I don’t agree with however, is the political correctness that is overtaking every part of the lives of Americans.

    When someone is using skin color as a description, or race as a description, there is no bigotry. “The man is Asian” is not bigoted. Just like saying “the person applying for the job is a woman.” Those are facts rather than an —ism.

    Let people be who they are, celebrating the diversity that makes this country great. There are not only African Americans, but Italian Americans, Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans, and the list goes on and on.

    These nationalities have different traditions, celebrations, likes, dislikes, languages, family structures, and many other differences. Celebrate that.

    Making everyone equal may seem like a utopia, but it is not. It is vanilla, plain, boring, unexciting, and not inspirational. I personally love the differences we have, the backgrounds we don’t share and the great diversity of this country.

    After living in a country where there was very little diversity because of strict immigration policies and racism, I can tell you that this country is the greatest on earth. And we have the best food. 🙂

  2. Ah, the good old Russell Peters Phenomenon or “RPP” for short. How somebody who is Indian (or more importantly “not white”) can get up on stage, make racist jokes about every race under the sun and everyone laughs. Now the wite guy get’s up there and slightly identifies somebody in passing conversation as a “Chinese person”, he is shot in the parking lot after the show.

    Ad far as stereotypes go, they are just simple human mechanisms that help us identify and catogorize things we are uncertain of. If you look at it objectively, stereotypes are just like broad generalizations or opinins we apply to almost everything we encounter. That is why Fords suck, and airplane food tasts bad, and politicians are branded as crooks and fat people smell, and smokers will die of lung cancer…the list goes on. It isn’t a mechanism for discrimination at all. Stereotypes do not perpetuate inequalities, they just explain and catagorize differences.

  3. I feel that things have changed vastly over the years. Growing up in a suburban Caucasian town, it was difficult as an Asian minority. My children now attend a school where Whites are a minority. Thanks for the article.

  4. Iam totally agreeing with you in most cases, and I notice that a lot of societies today is trying to get everything equally to the sexes. Though I dont think that is going to happen (even though we are more close than ever compared to 500 years ago) That was a great post and you just nailed it!

  5. I appreciate the even-handedness about stereotypes. In my own family, my husband stays at home with our son and we witness tons of anti-male caregiver stereotypes in action all the time. I get particularly irked when he’s labelled “Mr. Mom,” because what does that make me? Mrs. Dad? (Or Dr.Dad, in my case?)

    I think you’re missing one piece to this puzzle, however, which is implied by your observation that stereotypes perpetuate inequalities. Stereotypes are political tools which are intentionally disseminated and activated in the interest of creating political outcomes. Asking people to simply disregard stereotypes ignores the framing and agenda-setting functions of those stereotypes’ existence. Meanwhile, asking people to investigate the question “what purpose does this stereotype serve?” gets us to a more interesting place, in my opinion.

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