Media and Stereotypes
By Christian on Thursday 25 April 2013, 08:04 - Permalink
Here is yet another speech I gave at my Toastmaster club on the 24th of April 2013. It is based on the great content I found on the following web sites:
- Wikipedia entry about the Stereotype Threat
- Where are the role models for British girls?
- Girls go geek again
In some of my previous speeches, I talked about the media. In other speeches, I could have talked about them too. What I often said or could have said about them is that the picture they show about many important things is very different from reality.
In this speech I will first explain why there is such a big difference between reality and what the media show. Then I will talk about an important example which is the relationship between media and the situation of women in our society. I will eventually talk about what we can do to improve things.
To explain the difference between reality and what the media show, I need first to talk about stereotypes. Even if we all say that we don't believe in stereotypes, we are all affected by some stereotypes. There are psychological tests that show this.
For example one stereotype that exists is that men are better than women at maths. And a test that shows how it affects us is the following: some female students with the same average math grades are given a math test. Before the test some students are given an article about what it means to be a woman and the other students are given an article that has nothing to do about genders. The result of such tests is that the women who have been given the article about what it means to be a woman will perform worse than the other students.
In psychology this way that stereotypes affect all of us is called the stereotype threat. It affects everyone, regular people and people in the media.
So people in the media are affected by stereotypes and also to please their audience they have an incentive to conform to the stereotypes of their audience. So they will show or tell things that are more likely to conform to them.
The result is that there are vicious circles that reinforce stereotypes.
In many cases there is a race to the bottom, as in the case of english tabloids, or the fact that science nearly completely disappeared from mainstream media.
In other cases, like for example about violence, there is a complete disconnection with reality, because the way it is shown in the media now has nothing to do with reality.
Another important case of reinforced stereotypes is the situation of women in our society. I am going to talk specially about it, because as a guy working with computers I am often asked these days by women why aren't there more women working with computers.
What is funny is that there are not many women asking why aren't there more female electricians? Or more female mechanics? Though only one percent of the electricians and 2 percent of the mechanics are female.
Of course it's not very difficult to become an electrician or a mechanic, it doesn't require an advanced degree in anything. So the reason there are not many women is of course that there are very few women attracted by these jobs.
In the same way 10% of the people studying electrical engineering are women versus 30% of those studying aeronautics or space engineering. So, for some reason, aeronautics and space engineering seems much more attractive than electrical engineering for women.
In some east european countries there are also a quite high percentage of software engineers who are women (30%), compared to western european countries. This is because the soviet propaganda used to show a lot of men and women doing the same technical work.
In the UK, one country with a very low percentage of women in software engineering, there are now organisations dedicated to campaign against heavily stereotyped and limiting role models for young girls.
One of them is called Pinkstinks. It focuses on promoting "real" female role models who achieve "real" things.
The woman who founded this organization says things like: "British culture has been totally pornified. Men think it's normal and expect young women to not have any body hair and, god, if she does, she must be a hairy lesbian. Society now thinks it's empowering for women to go to pole dancing classes on a Saturday morning, encouraging them to make the most of their femininity - what type of irresponsible message is this sending to our young girls? That you have to conform to what the sex industry wants, in order for you to be accepted as a real female?"
She says there is a disturbing situation in Britain, where people are celebrated just for being famous, making young girls believe these are the type of women they should be looking up to and aspiring to be.
"We call it pinkification. Girls are taught literally from when they're born that what you look like is the most important thing in life. You must look perfect and girly to be a WAG, model or reality TV star."
So what are the solutions to the problem that media reinforce stereotypes?
First we should try to address the root causes and not the simptoms.
Also this problem should not be mixed with sexism or racism. When people are doing worse in a test, because they think they are not a good fit for what they are doing, then blaming the people evaluating the results of the test is counterproductive.
And I don't think that any strict solutions like quotas could work.
My opinion is that they have a lot of problems. For example you cannot realistically force female students to become electrical engineers if they don't want to. No more that you can force women to become electrician or mechanic.
Or that you can force men to attend saturday morning pole dancing classes. Toastmasters meetings might get male speakers with more exciting body language, but it will not prevent the race to the bottom to continue.
My opinion is that there is no simple solution. One of the best way is to educate people, especially young people and people in the media about the stereotype threat, and about the way the media are reinforcing the stereotypes.
Some studies says that teaching people about the stereotype threat before a test is sufficient to eliminate its effects. One other way is to teach people that the amount of effort spent to learn something is much more important than any other stereotype related criteria. And there are other ways like self affirmation and making everyone feel welcomed.
This means that everyone should know that even if it looks a little bit more difficult to succeed in a field, when you go against a stereotype, it is certainly possible, and it can be made much easier.
And it is a good way to affirmate oneself to do something that goes against stereotypes and often it gives bigger and more meaningful successes.
To conclude I would say that it's everyone's responsability to recognize that stereotypes exists, that media are often reinforcing them, that they are a problem because they contribute to perpetuate some inequalities, some myths and some unhappyness.
The real solution is to make people aware of how stereotypes work, and the ways like self affirmation and emphathizing the role of effort that can reduce them.
And also everyone can and should do what Gandhi suggested that is: be the change that you want to see in the world. So go against the stereotypes you don't like. Don't let them constrain you in any way. It is the modern way to fight for liberty.
Because if we don't do that then it means that we condamn ourselves to have our lives more and more unconsciously constrained, to let a few others decide what we should do for a living and what we should eat, how we should look like, how we should behave, who we should love and how, and in the end what we should think.