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Gender Equality and Socialization: An Introduction

A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation at a local high school on gender equality and socialization as part of their multi-day diversity event. Although this is a topic I feel very comfortable discussing, I wasn’t sure how an auditorium full of teenagers would receive what I had to say.

My concerns were completely unfounded and I couldn’t have asked for a better audience. These students showed enthusiasm, interest, and a desire to learn more about this subject and put that knowledge to use.

Since then, we’ve decided to share the content of that presentation here and use it to frame future conversation about women in technology, a topic we’re passionate about. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be sharing blogs about the lack of women in technology, why this happens, and how to work to overcome this diversity challenge. To get started, here’s a quick overview of America’s gender equality problem and how socialization plays a role.

Take a look at this video, the first thing I showed the students.

This gendered segregation and expectation seems ridiculous. It would never happen in real life, to grown adults, right? 

Unfortunately, it happens all the time. This kind of socialization starts from the moment we’re born (sometimes before) when the first question asked about us is whether we’re a boy or girl. This focus on gender continues through adulthood with gender targeted marketing, expectations, bias, etc. Looking for a concrete example? If you think the gendered laptops are ridiculous, you probably haven’t heard of Della, Dell’s female-friendly notebook aimed at making things like the Internet and calendars easy for women, wrapped in a cute, fashionable piece of hardware.  

Socialization as Children

store shelf featuring action figures targeted at boysI first became aware of how early we’re socialized when I had to complete an assignment for Intro to Sociology my sophomore year of college. The assignment was to go to Meijer, stroll through the toy aisles, and write an explanation of what I saw.

Consistently, when you go through the toy aisles they’re not only gendered based on color, but they have completely different types of toys.

Walking down the “boy” aisle you’ll find blue and green packages filled with super hero gear and action figures, Legos that teach you how to build cities, and, for whatever reason, multiple fart machines.

Boys are given toys that teach them to be strong, to protect others, build things, and have an important career (often you’ll find doctor, firefighter, and other similar dress up costumes in this section).

store shelf featuring dolls targeted at girlsThe “girl” aisle is a tidal wave of pink boxes with dolls to care for, princess clothes and makeup for dressing up, and “Lego Friends” that focus less on construction and more on hanging out with friends at the local juice bar (this is a real toy).

Girls toy include cooking and cleaning toys (a child-sized broom is not a toy, no matter your gender), ones that teach them domestic life and how to care for children.

This is not to say that any of these toys are inherently bad, but that they should be offered and marketed to both boys and girls. Learning to build, create, care for, and cook are things that everyone should have the opportunity to do and to feel comfortable doing it. These gendered toys clearly outline the expectations we have for boys and girls.

What’s the effect of this socialization on children? Boys learn they are supposed to be tough and strong and girls learn that they’re appearance is one of their most important qualities.



Socialization as Adults

This socialization doesn’t end at adulthood. As adults, we continue to receive messages that tell us how and what to be based on our gender and the messages are very similar to what we start learning as children. Men are expected to be strong and “manly” without any feminine characteristics and women are expected to be passive and polite.

Here are a few examples of what this looks like in practice.

Expectations of Men: 

Expectations of Women: 

Sure, these are comedic dramatizations, but the message remains the same. We expect different characteristics and behaviors for men and women simply because that's what society teaches us.

Effects of Socialization

You might be thinking, what’s the big deal? So we get different toys and we like different things? Is that really a bad thing?

I get it. It seems silly. A member of the audience asked me the very same questions. The problem is that we start to believe that men and women are inherently different, with different skills and characteristics. Though this may not be the case in reality, we start to treat men and women differently based on these expectations and develop biases.

Here’s an example:

This is an example of gender bias. Even though the men and women in this video are doing the same things, they’re perceived differently.

Gender Bias

There are two different types of biases we'll talk about here.

Descriptive Bias

Men and women are often described in certain ways according to their gender and regardless of how they perform.

Women are typically viewed as caring, warm, emotional, and sensitive whereas men are seen as competent, objective, rational, and decisive. This is called the descriptive bias. Men and women are described in these ways regardless of how well or poorly they perform simply because they are expected to fit these stereotypes.

This bias has real-life negative effects. In a recent study, participants were asked to hire candidates for a math task that both genders perform equally. The participants were twice as likely to hire men, even when the candidates were equally competent and qualified because men are perceived as being better at math.

This effect continues even after women are hired. A 2005 study showed that when evaluating group work, without information about individual contributions, participants rated the women as being less influential and doing less work.

Prescriptive Bias

Unfortunately, women who don’t conform to the stereotypes laid out in the descriptive bias they face further consequences. When women don’t act according to these gender assumptions, they’re seen negatively even when they do the same things as a man, as seen in the video. This is the prescriptive bias.

Women who break through typical gender roles and claim a male position or display typically male characteristics are seen as violating social norms. These women who act more forcefully instead of being passive or quiet are labeled as uncaring, abrasive, bitchy, and rude. Women who succeed in male domains are disliked and women who are self-promoting (discuss their accomplishments and qualifications openly) are less hirable. Furthermore, women who negotiate for higher pay are seen as not team players.

One study in particular took a look at performance reviews from 180 managers around the country. Women received significantly more negative feedback while men were given constructive feedback. Women were also called abrasive 17 times. This word did not appear in men’s reviews.

The Pay Gap

bar graph showing average relative pay rates for white men, white women, black women, and hispanic women

Not only do women have a harder time getting hired and promoted because of gender bias, they also receive smaller paychecks than their equally qualified and educated male counterparts. This discrepancy is even greater for women of color. 

After the presentation, a very well spoken student asked me why I was using white men as the standard in this chart. A fair question. I chose to use white men because they have the most social power and privilege in our society, therefore everyone else’s salaries are represented as a percentage of what they could be making, which is the salary of a white man.

There’s a lot of debate regarding the pay gap, but the data is here. Out of 112 jobs studied, women earned more than men in only 3. Imagine the white man in this chart is making $50,000. An equally qualified Hispanic woman doing the same work will receive only $30,600. Hopefully, I don’t have to explain why that’s unacceptable.

Women in Leadership Roles

Not only are women underpaid, they’re also under represented in leadership roles. Currently, only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women and women fill about 20% of US House and Senate seats. Both of these numbers are record highs.

Even when women reach these powerful positions they still face discrimination and harassment. One US senator recently referred to his female collegue as “ugly as sin,” though what this has to do with her job performance, or why it was his place to say, I can’t be sure. And as Senator Kristin Gillibrand has pointed out, this kind of behavior is not isolated. She explained in her book experiences of harassment where a male senator repeatedly commented on her weight and it’s affect on her attractiveness.

As you can see, socialization based on gender has negative consequences later on in life. While these problems are pervasive throughout our society and in many industries, we unfortunately work in one that is particularly notorious for a lack of women and diversity of thought. STEM careers have a difficult time both recruiting and keeping talented women on their teams, in part because of the socialization described earlier. In the next few weeks, we'll take a closer look at the technology industry in particular and how the issues discussed here are at play in tech as well as how we can work to fix them. 

Photo Credit: Sharon Drummond via Compfight cc

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