Gender stereotypes are enacted from an early age. Boys are expected to wear dull, ‘masculine’ colours and faced with parental outrage if they want to dress up as a princess. Girls are told to ‘play nicely’ and steered towards ‘suitable’ games, rather than climbing trees. Toys are generally divided into what is seen as appropriate for each gender, with rare exceptions such as American store Target, who recently decided to cease separating ‘boys’ toys’ and ‘girls’ toys’.
Such stereotypes persist into adulthood. In an age of supposed equality, women still bear the greater share of responsibility for childcare, housework, and caring for aging parents, even when they work as many hours or more as their male partner. This is because such issues are seen as ‘women’s work’ – something that is quite shocking in the 21st century. They are also underrepresented in politics and business, and are often castigated if they behave in a way that is seen as unbecoming for females – even in supposedly liberated countries.
Gender stereotypes are even more marked in some societies where religion governs behaviour. Women are seen as inferior, deserving of fewer legal and moral rights, and may even be considered their husbands’ property. They have fewer job opportunities and are often expected to follow much harsher standards than men, for example in the wearing of concealing garments. To western eyes, it seems extraordinary that Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world where women are banned from driving, has only recently decided to lift that ban in the near future.
But what are the consequences of forcing or expecting people to conform to gender stereotypes? Both genders stand to lose from the imposition of stereotypes. Being denied the chance to experiment or express oneself is likely to lead to unhappiness. Inequality, whether in the home or the workplace, breeds resentment. A great deal of potential is lost, both on a personal and societal level. Resentment may lead to rebellion against the expectations of society, even if it is at a personal cost.
Indeed, in some ways, it is men who lose the most. They are expected to suppress their feelings; a tragic event such as the loss of a child is seen as greater for the mother, and the father is not allowed to mourn in the same way. Men are expected to be less emotional, and that can be very damaging. They are also mocked if they choose to go into professions that are traditionally seen as suitable only for women, or if they avoid more ‘manly’ pursuits such as sports.
Women, on the other hand, have indeed made gains and now have greater, if not equal, access to many job opportunities that were once considered only suitable for men. The battle is not over, however. There is still a significant pay gap and many professions continue to be male-dominated, especially at higher levels.
While some gender differences are inescapable – whatever the headlines say, a ‘pregnant man’ is still a biological impossibility – everyone should be able to avoid conforming to stereotypes. There is little harm in allowing boys to wear skirts when they are young; indeed, it is only social expectations that prevent them from wearing a dress when they grow up. Of course, most may not wish to do so. But if women want to be treated as equals to men, it follows that men should also be able to do anything that women do. It seems ridiculous that men are effectively prohibited from experimenting with makeup and wearing skirts or dresses, simply because it is seen as effeminate. Equality goes both ways.