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Posts Tagged: stereotypes

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Stereotypes are the characters that provide our world with background noise, in that we take them for granted as true unless they’re brought to our conscious attention.  I’ve encountered my fair share of gender-based discriminatory language, and it’s always difficult to find a way to address it without being written off as overreacting or hypersensitive.

I’ve been involved with drumline in Minnesota for eight years, and nation-wide it’s a male-dominated activity. That scene is where I’ve heard most stereotypical language being used, but also where I’ve seen stereotypes being actively broken. I play with both girls and boys, with more or less experience than I do, but a boy still might get told they’re playing “like a girl” if they’re not playing confidently – when I’m right next to him playing with more confidence than he is.

To give my instructors credit, they’ll usually catch themselves on this, but often can’t seem to find a better way to say it.  Concrete instances like these, when stereotypes are used but are clearly nonsensical, are cropping up more and more in patriarchal societies around the world. We need to get the cycle moving faster, though – even if some young girls around the world don’t accept stereotypical language, that background noise is still bound to be limiting. 

Girl Scouts of America is launching campaigns called “Year of the Girl” and “To Get Her There,” which are geared toward providing more opportunities for girls to excel in fields that they might not have many role models in (i.e. politics, math, science, etc. – all areas that the United States is lagging in internationally). Girls need to be able find and see these women acting out non-traditional roles – change doesn’t need to wait a generation.

Women in leadership positions today are sometimes a chicken-and-egg conundrum – which needs to come first, the role model or the barrier-busting pioneer? And where are girls looking to now to learn about influential women? National Public Radio recently feature a book series for ages 9-13 called The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames, which highlights historical female rulers such as Cleopatra or Mary Tudor (known respectively as “The Serpent of the Nile” and “Bloody Mary”).

The series challenges young readers to think critically about female leaders and why they aren’t profiled more often, as well as why they get violent nicknames for doing the same things that many male rulers did in obscurity. Children’s nonfiction is a genre that needs to capture interest, since it doesn’t have the luxury of creating the story. Featuring women in history and encouraging conversation is another valuable step in showing both girls and boys today that there are women who deserve to talked about, admired, and critiqued on the same level as men.

So here we have a smattering of personal evidence of the stereotype problem, and several pieces of action that are happening to boost the position of women in the United States. As the Girl Scouts “Year of The Girl” campaign states, the US Congress is only 17% women, and women make up 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs (which means women are in charge of less money than men – which indeed translates into power). Many “developing” countries have more female representation, which I would say makes them more developed in that respect. The women for the jobs are out there in every country, and it’s far past the time to recognize the language we hear in everyday life that convinces us of gender stereotypes. 

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April DeJarlais is a Communications Intern with The White House Project  

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How many times have you heard some variation on “Let’s play hardball!” in political or business arenas? The assumption behind this is that “hard” is more “real” – faster-paced, and more risk of danger. Not incidentally, girls play softball and boys play hardball. The language of hard vs. soft, real vs. fake is instilled from Little League days on into adult lives, and we’re taught that “soft” is inherently less legitimate because of its innate…softness. In light of Women’s History Month, it’s important to acknowledge the power and strength of women then and now, and how much more momentum women could have as a leadership force if everyday language didn’t make female qualities into negative ones.

Joseph Nye, former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, recently used the hard versus soft language in a commentary on whether the world would be more peaceful if women were in charge. He describes today’s leaders as incorporating more feminine or “soft” characteristics, such as creating networks instead of hierarchies and sharing leadership rather than concentrating it in one person. His citing of collaboration and participation as being necessary in today’s world ties in with Susan Liddy’s Huffington Post article on women and their inclination toward emotional intelligence 

            Liddy takes Nye’s “soft” leadership qualities and labels them as emotional intelligence, which isn’t necessarily something a person either possesses or not – Liddy also talks about “emotional workouts,” which enhance emotional intelligence by using self-reflection to fully utilize emotions rather than regarding them as a nuisance.

            All this emotional talk – can we just get something done now? The thought behind Liddy and Nye is that things are getting accomplished through relationship building and reflection. The results-oriented culture of the United States gobbles up quick decisions and gambling on huge investments, but is that the way we really want to interact with the billions of other people on the planet? Sometimes slowing down and trusting each other for security makes for better international relations than quick, formal meetings and curt interactions.

            Thinking about “soft” as positive may prove a little difficult – teddy bears or marshmallows aren’t typical figures of motivation. But being a little malleable, or willing to give way and incorporate new ideas while still adhering to personal values doesn’t mean that a leader will break under pressure.  Rather, flexibility and the ability to build partnerships ensure far more strength in the face of adversity.  So maybe the time has come to revamp our associations with feminine and masculine language, and realize that a medley of qualities in both genders will govern our planet – and even more strengths will be brought to the global table.

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April is a Communications Intern with The White House Project 

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