No, Men are Not from Mars and Women are Not from Venus

By Laura Kray

In 2014, is the gender glass half full or half empty? With Berkeley-Haas’s Janet Yellen recently sworn in as chair of the Federal Reserve, the most powerful job in global economics, the proverbial glass ceiling has suffered another serious crack. If Hillary Clinton decides to run for president in 2016, it may further undermine the barricades that keep women from domains traditionally dominated by men.

On the other hand, gender barriers haven’t disappeared.  Many highly accomplished women still  speak out passionately against the  stubborn obstacles, both personal and institutional, that hold women back en masse from the upper echelons of their professions. Anne-Marie Slaughter has railed against persistent and inflexible institutional obstacles that block women from meeting the dueling demands of work and family life. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook has encouraged women to keep their feet on the gas pedal. Celebrities including Geena Davis and Jennifer Seibel Newsom have sharply criticized the ways in which women are portrayed in the media and the impact of those portrayals on the aspirations and values of young adults.

But on top of the barriers identified above, there is a more subtle obstacle to women’s progress:  fixed gender mindsets, or subjective beliefs that gender boundaries are unchanging and permanent.

In a nutshell: does believing (at least metaphorically) that men are from Mars and women are from Venus hinder progress towards gender equality?

 In my research with two Stanford psychologists, Alexandra Russell and Lauren Szczurek, we are finding that gender mindsets affect how motivated people are to stretch traditional gender roles, as well as the likely consequences of doing so.

On one end of the belief continuum are individuals with very fixed mindsets, who see legitimate and stable barriers that prevent gender- atypical arrangements from succeeding. On the other end of the continuum are people with  a growth gender mindset, who see gender barriers as relatively permeable because the barriers lack legitimate and stable root causes.

 Our research finds that mindsets predict gender attitudes over and above the endorsement of traditional versus egalitarian gender beliefs, and also on top of conservative versus liberal political beliefs. On top of what social roles people think men and women should occupy, beliefs about the degree of malleability of gender roles also matter.

To assess your own gender mindset, ask yourself how much you believe men and women will always occupy different roles in society?  Or, to what degree do you fail to see any innate reasons for gender segregation into distinct social roles?

Building on Carol Dweck’s pioneering research on the power of mindsets to shape goals and risk-taking, we find that mindsets about the permanence versus malleability of gender roles have an important influence on how individuals make career choices and craft marriages.

Recent scientific research, including studies by Bobbi Carothers and Harry Reis, suggests gender itself is more fluid than fixed.  Obviously, physiological  differences such as strength and anatomy are large and robust enough to constitute two distinct gender categories.   But the vast majority of psychological characteristics, such as personality and values,  exist along a continuum. It just is not accurate to declare that women are from one planet and men are from another.  We’re  all on Earth, and we each embody a unique blend of human traits.

Fixed gender mindsets prevent progress by setting off a chain reaction of other behaviors.  Studies show that people with more fixed theories tend to have a more precarious sense of their own gender identities and a greater need to “prove” them.  They literally need to prove their manhood – or womanhood, as the case may be.  People with fixed gender mindsets are more likely to be defensive and resistant to people who don’t comport with their ideas about proper gender roles. That can create obstacles to women who want to push the envelope.

 By contrast, people with “growth gender” mindsets are freer to direct their energies towards crafting a world with fewer gender-based constraints. They focus more on getting things done, and less on who does them.

It isn’t necessarily simple to change a gender mindset, but the first step is examining it. Moving the dial further in the direction of gender equality may require that individuals examine—and question—deeply held assumptions about the fixedness versus fluidity of gender roles. For insight on how to examine your mindset, visit this website.  

 Is a fixed gender mindset holding you back?  


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