Being a feminist may subconsciously protect you from stereotypes | Tech News
Women who identify as feminists seem to be more resistant to the effects of negative stereotypes – even if they don’t consciously notice them.
Plenty of research has shown how negative stereotypes can be harmful to individuals. For example, telling girls that boys are typically better than maths seems to make them score worse on maths tests. There’s evidence that other stereotypes similarly affect the success of people who identify as ethnic minorities, too.
Efforts to improve diversity in the workplace have been growing, says Jolien van Breen at Exeter University, UK, but that doesn’t mean harmful stereotypes have disappeared – expressions of prejudice may have just become more subtle. This may be more insidious because it is more difficult to confront, so van Breen and her colleagues have investigating how harmful this may be to women.
The team recruited female volunteers to participate in a number of experiments, some of whom strongly identified as feminists. The team also asked each participant how much they feel they identify with the typical concept of what it means to be a woman.
Each volunteer then underwent a maths test and an anagram test – both of which featured increasingly difficult questions, ending with an unsolvable problem.
Mathematical ability is typically ascribed to men, while women are generally assumed to be better at language, says van Breen. To subconsciously remind their volunteers of such gender stereotypes, during the tests the volunteers were shown images and asked to state whether they depicted either a leisure activity or a chore. Some of these images weren’t particularly stereotypical, while others illustrated traditional gender roles, with women shopping or cleaning, while men did DIY or fishing.
The team found that these images prompted the women who didn’t identify with stereotypical concepts of being a woman to put more effort into the maths test. After viewing stereotypical images, these women spent longer on the difficult and unsolvable questions.
“People try to resist stereotyping,” says Jenny Veldman at KU Leuven in Belgium. “If confronted with stereotypes, one way women prove they belong is by distancing themselves from other women, so that they can be seen as an individual.”
In another test, the volunteers were faced with the philosophical thought experiment known as the trolley problem – should they sacrifice one person to save the lives of multiple others? The team found that feminists were more likely to sacrifice the person if it was a man – but only if they had been exposed to gender stereotyped images.
This doesn’t mean that feminists are “man haters”, says van Breen. Overall, all women treated the hypothetical men equally. “It’s the exposure to stereotypes that makes [feminists] harsher to men, while counter-stereotypes make them kinder to men,” says van Breen.
The results suggests that feminists are more keenly aware of gender stereotypes, even when they are presented subliminally, and automatically react to reject them, says van Breen. “These women are more sensitive to and aware of gender-based cues,” she says. “Feminists are able to access more coping strategies.”
The findings could mean that such feminists are better equipped to deal with prejudice against women, says Veldman. If they resist stereotypes without spending too much time thinking about them, they might be protected from some of the negative impacts of prejudice on mental health and wellbeing.
The study is an important step towards understanding how subtle stereotypes can be resisted, says Veldman. “Future research will have to tell whether these findings can be replicated, and whether they hold in other contexts and among other groups.”
Journal reference: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin , DOI: 10.1177/0146167218771895
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