“Top 100 richest people in the world.” “Top 100 richest women in the world.” 


“Best leadership award.” “Best women in leadership award.” 

Why the need for a gender-specific list? Partly, it’s because the uncategorized lists have traditionally been composed of mostly men. Ironically, we tried fixing oppression with more categorisation and compartmentalisation, which creates more division.

In the pursuit of gender equality, gender-specific categorisations and practices like segregated parking and awards perpetuate division and stereotypes, masking underlying issues and hindering true progress towards inclusivity. In other words, we are using division to fix division and lying to ourselves that we are progressing. 

As part of Women’s Week I wish to explore how gendering behaviour creates further segregation, while in some case creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by propagating stereotypes.

Women in STEM night at NASA Goddard, Maryland, U.S. (Photo by Debbie Mccallum for NASA/Goddard—CC BY 2.0 DEED)

HEED vs STEM

One of the main issues when discussing gender stereotypes is the gender pay gap, which has seen little progress in the US. In 2022, American women typically earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. That was about the same as in 2002, when they earned 80 cents to the dollar. This an example of how categorising behaviour into a “male” or “female” box will inevitably hinder our ability to act freely and create a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the effect: differences in how much men and women get paid. 

Sometimes, the pay gap can appear even in the same field.  Part of the reason is that men and women stereotypically choose different types of jobs. While there are less women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), men tend to steer away from HEED (healthcare, early education, and domestic) jobs, as suggested in a publication by Frontiers in Psychology.  This is because of the perceived lower social value of a specific gender working in a field not stereotypically associated with their sex, where social value was based on participants’ perceptions and judgments regarding the worth of specific careers to society. 

Graph from: Worth Less?: Why Men (and Women) Devalue Care-Oriented Careers, ​​Perceived societal worth of HEED and STEM by participant gender. Error bars represent standard errors of the mean.

However, the divide starts earlier, and by looking at HEED vs STEM jobs, it’s easier to see how children are rewarded and punished for certain types of behaviours that are stereotypically believed appropriate. Could playing with a doll, rather than a car or a robot, be limiting girls’ future desired career path? Is the opposite also true, where boys feel as though feelings of vulnerability should be avoided, together with externalising them, because of their “feminine traits?”  

The opposite is true for girls, which oftentimes are expected to play (and take care of) dolls, while being punished for risk-taking behaviour. I think this could be a first step in nourishing and propagating notions of gendered behaviour, which will lead to the biased development of interests and passions later on in life, and therefore manipulate career choice and employ anti-bias strategies, such as increasing awareness of how gender biases affect career choices and challenging those stereotypes. 

From a young age, many boys are taught that crying is not an appropriate behaviour (photo by Jessica on Flickr)

The phenomenon described sets a certain foundation for perceiving types of behaviour early on and unless challenged, will only result in the furthering of gender stereotypes and will continue to limit every individual based on certain characteristics, such as gender. 

While projects such as The Women and Minorities in STEM Booster Act of 2021 offer funding and more opportunities for jobs in the field, that will never fix the underlying issue. In my opinion, this is because they offer increased opportunities to young women who already wish to pursue STEM. However, often times women are channelled or even expected to pursue certain careers, which takes away the freedom to chose or consider an area of expertise such as STEM, which is male dominated.

Gendering behaviour in children 

Looking at HEED vs STEM jobs, it’s easier to see how children are rewarded and punished for certain types of behaviours that are stereotypically believed appropriate. Could playing with a doll, rather or a car or a robot, be limiting girls’ future desired career path? Feelings of vulnerability or avoiding externalising them, because they are “feminine traits,” and the opposite is true for girls, which often are expected to play (and take care of) dolls, while being punished for risk-taking behaviour. All of this sets a certain foundation for perceiving types of behaviour early on and unless challenged will only result in the furthering of gender stereotypes and will continue to limit every individual based on certain characteristics, such as gender. 

Woman driving, California (Photo taken by m01229 on Flickr)

Germany’s women’s parking spaces have been around for a few decades now, however they have recently struck controversy. Women’s-only car parks exist in quite a lot of other nations, including Austria, Switzerland, and China, according to the Washington Post. The original intentions of the special parking stem from good intentions – a concern for safety and reduction of the risk of sexual assault. Some of the features include better lighting and being placed in busier places or closer to the entrance of malls. 

Frankfurt Airport 

When I went to Frankfurt Airport and we used the women’s parking spaces, I thought the name was just based on prejudice and stereotypes – a sexist joke about women being bad drivers. This is partly because Frankfurt Airport parking is pretty well lit and has security cameras and guards in all areas, and the Women’s Parking most obvious difference was simply the larger parking spaces. The implications of this were pretty obvious – Frankfurt Airport has faced much criticism in the past years.

Image: Frankfurt Airport

While the decorations and pink-themed parking spaces are quite obnoxious and come across with the wrong message, the creation of such parking spaces is addressed by German law: “at least 5 percent of the total number of parking spaces” should fit the criteria for women’s parking and should be marked as such, however this would not be necessary if all the parking spaces fit that criteria, with the only requirement in the law being video surveillance. 

On one side, this should make women feel more safe. On the other hand, is the solution to addressing the disproportionate sexual assault women are subject to just separating them, rather than increasing safety in all places and educating people? Not only that, but the special parking spaces are often times made bigger, with some practical applications if the car transports children, however it might be based on the assumption that women are worse at driving or parking than man. 

Are women worse at driving?

Even if it is not based on the stereotype of women being worse drivers, it definitely acts to propagate it further. But is this true? There are studies with small sample sizes that show that women are worse at parking too, but they conclude that “Results suggest that sex differences in spatial cognition persist in real-life situations, but that socio-psychological factors modulate the biological causes of sex differences.” What this is saying is: while there are differences in spatial thinking abilities between sexes, biology plays a much lesser role compared to social and psychological factors, such as self-assessment and expectation of future success with parking.

 Another study suggests that men are more confident when parking, but women get more accurate placements of their car within the parking lines. And when it comes to actual driving, women are statistically safer drivers, may pay less for car insurance and are less likely to cause accidents. 

As we can see, the data is sometimes conflicting, while some argue it can reinforce the stereotype, this would be missing the root cause of the phenomenon, as well as cherry-picking the studies, as someone who is good at driving or parking can have many different definitions. 

In contrast, a peer-reviewed study claimed that the stereotype of women being poor drivers can negatively impact their driving performance when the stereotype is made salient “Women drive better if not stereotyped.” When women were told the aim of the study was to determine the accuracy of the stereotype, they doubled the number of mistakes. Furthermore, if there are designated special easier parking spaces, they won’t have the same amount of opportunity to improve their parking skills. Whether or not the stereotype is true is hard to determine, but propagating it will only make it true. 

This is in line with the stereotype threat theory, which suggests that individuals may conform to negative stereotypes about their group, leading to underperformance in related tasks. This is a fascinating phenomenon, you can find more information about how it works in the book “Stereotype Threat: Theory, Process, and Application”  by Michael Inzlicht and Toni Schmader.

The issues highlighted above can be summed up with the following statement: People fix division with more division, and that is just stupid. In pursuing our scope for equality, we end up categorising people based on one specific, most times irrelevant, aspect of their identity. It generates stereotypes that are propagated and can become true if we follow the stereotype threat theory. 

Creating special categories for women is only done to cover up the underlying issues that generate gender inequality and ironically further divide men and women. The problem is only accelerated through the power of demographics and targeted audiences in journalism, generating the demand for a “women’s list” so that women can, too, find themselves in the media they are consuming. Satisfying this desire through strategies such as only selecting based on the criteria that caused the stereotype in the first place, such as creating gender targeted parking, will therefore curb the need for true equality and offers an easy alternative to inclusion. 

When equality will be achieved, inclusion will naturally follow, with the only differences between gender being biological ones, rather than socio-economic and psychological factors. We won’t try to cater media specifically for women, because it would be redundant, as they would be adequately represented. Is advocating for a group’s rights only possible through further division?