A stereotype is a widely held, simplified, and essentialist belief about a specific group. Groups are often stereotyped on the basis of sex, gender identity, race and ethnicity, nationality, age, socioeconomic status, language, and so forth. Stereotypes are deeply embedded within social institutions and wider culture. They are often evident even during the early stages of childhood, influencing and shaping how people interact with each other. For example, video game designers designed a game platform for girls in pink because that is what the parents (who purchase the game) perceived their girls wanted. The girls themselves preferred darker metallic colors (Rommes, 2006).

Gender stereotypes reflect normative notions of femininities and masculinities, women and men. Yet, like all aspects of gender, what constitutes stereotypical femininity or masculinity varies among cultures and over historical time. Gender stereotypes typically portray femininities and masculinities as binary opposites or dualisms, as, for example, between emotionality and rationality.

By oversimplifying their subject, stereotypes ignore both the complexity and the diversity found empirically when one examines actual people and their practices; by their very nature, stereotypes misrepresent the groups they seek to describe. Stereotypes often persist even when the statistical realities they were once based on change. For example, the stereotype of woman-the-homemaker has persisted even in countries where most women are in full-time paid employment.

For all these reasons, stereotypes are not a sound basis for making interpretations in the course of research or for making judgments about target users and customers. Researchers and engineers must challenge stereotypes and look instead for more empirically sound bases for thinking about the groups they seek to research or develop technologies for. Femininities and masculinities are dynamic and plural. Women, for example, have a wide variety of interests and skills. If a mobile phone is designed for a “stereotypical” woman, it will not appeal to women who do not fit the stereotype being promoted (Faulkner, 2004).

Avoiding Stereotypes

  • 1. Find out about actual people and practices—across classes, regions, educational backgrounds, etc.; do not make assumptions based on normative or stereotypical notions about women and men.
  • 2. Consider both the structural and cultural mechanisms by which gender divisions and inequalities are often sustained. Observation-based methods are more likely to reveal important invisible dynamics than are interviews or surveys, not least because people’s actual practices may differ from their accounts of themselves.
  • 3. Seek to expose “mismatches” between gender norms, assumptions, or stereotypes and actual people or practices. Doing so can reveal fertile spaces for creative, gender-sensitive innovation—innovation capable of driving scientific and technological progress and at the same time improving gender equality.

Stereotype Threat

Stereotypes can adversely affect performance. “Stereotype threat”—the perceived threat of being reduced to the stereotype of the group with which one is identified—can lead capable individuals within a group to “conform” to their group’s negative stereotype. For example, when young women are reminded of their sex before taking a math test, by being asked to tick a “female“ or “male” box, they tend to score lower than when there is no F/M box to tick (Steele, 1997). Similarly, white men engineering students’ performance on a math test decreases if these men are told that Asian engineering students are taking the same test (Page, 2007).  

Works Cited

Faulkner, W. (2004). Strategies of Inclusion: Gender and the Information Society. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.

Page, S. (2007). The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rommes, E. (2006). Gender Sensitive Design Practices. In Trauth, E. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Gender and Information Technology, pp. 675-681. Hershey: Idea Group Publishing.

Steele, C. (1997). A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance. American Psychologist, 52 (6), 613-629.



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