Stereotypes are so often taken for granted and so engrained that we assume they are a real construct. When we see stereotypes in media, advertising and marketing it reinforces them further and perpetuates them in a never ending cycle. Stereotypes desensitise us to the point that we don’t even notice them. Sometimes we believe in them fiercely and even go to great lengths to defend them without knowing the potential for harm. We now know that the depiction of harmful stereotypes in media causes bullying, mental health problems and ultimately family violence.
Sometimes stereotypes are formed from a seed of truth and we use them to help process information and make fast decisions. We short cut our decision making using the more primal part of our brain without even thinking. Just because we adopt these stereotypes and have social proof from others before us, it doesn’t mean we are justified in continuing the practice. It is time to dig deeper into the impact on our families right now, question all the assumptions around the stereotypes we see and remove the harmful ones for our next generation to lead a more inclusive and less harmful future.
The issue with stereotypes is that we use a truth to become the whole story, and as a result we cause a divide and exclusion. In some cases we create a form of superiority for groups of people, and a self-fulfilling prophecy that oppresses and excludes others – often quite unintentionally too. Many of us feel that we need to fit in or conform, but we’re ultimately putting up with something that just doesn’t feel right for many of us.
Until a UK study* by the Advertising Standards Authority and the Committee of Advertising Practice revealed the harm they cause, we’ve often excused stereotyping and not even given them a second thought.
There are a lot of things families can do to help their children including:
- Discuss your own family situation and why you have chosen to distribute roles as you have. Explain that this is how it works for your family but it will be up to your child/children and their future partners to work out what suits them. Don’t just assume the female is in charge of the home and raising children, and the male the bread-winner.
- Ensure gender balance in distribution of both physical and household chores and teach all kids how to do housework basics, home repair and maintenance, fixing a tyre puncture and caring for vehicles.
- Encourage future careers that are suited to the individual child’s talent and interests and not just based on gender trends eg. All people can do maths and STEM topics and not just boys; and all people can have a passion for hospitality and cooking. These are just a couple of typical stereotypes but there is also an unreasonable view that only certain careers have merit, and taking a University pathway is the ‘best way’, and that’s not actually the case.
- Encourage play with all colours, all toys and all clothing types without assigning expectation to any.
- Discourage giving boys sports related privileges at the expense of sharing the load of domestic duties, and avoid forcing girls to do be excluded from backyard sports of any kind. Definitely never expect the girls to be the ‘helpers’ when the boys don’t have to.
- Encourage respect for difference and reprimand children who bully others for their choices or for who they are. Have a zero tolerance on this, as this is behaviour that leads to adult domestic violence and must be curbed at all costs.
- Question all your own behaviour and see if you are role modelling appropriate behaviour. Ask yourself if this is who you’d like your children to become as adults?
- Choose literature that doesn’t embed harmful ideas. Fairy tales that show men coming to the rescue of women, that each gender only do certain tasks, that men have to show dominance and strength and women subservience. Question everything they read and play with. There are enough good alternatives that you don’t have to be on auto-pilot.
- Consider that there are more than two genders and living in a binary world of pink and blue can be harmful for some people. The world is improving for accepting non-binary genders and transgender people but we have a way to still go. There are plenty of other colours out there!
- Commentate on the media they are watching and don’t just let it slide. Explain when bias is in place and that just because it is seen in the media it doesn’t make it right.
How do you know if a stereotype is present if you have unconscious bias?
If you are ever in doubt that a bias is in place then swap out the activity or belief with another gender, age, race or background and see how strange it seems. You will know then that a potentially harmful stereotype is hiding there.
Language is also a big clue as to hidden stereotypes and harmful beliefs. You are likely to hear words like ‘should’, ‘shouldn’t’, ‘must’, ‘must not’, ‘have to’ and other definitive and inflexible statements. Ask yourself ‘Do all people think or act this way?’ This will stress test a stereotype and help you to see how harmful and isolating it can be.
The ideal situation would be to stop the merry-go-round that society is currently on and work through what the future customers and society needs, but unfortunately that’s not so easy to do. The best way to make change now is for the next generation to be empowered with more appropriate understanding of inclusive and respectful beliefs, and behaviours, and in turn reduce domestic violence, bullying and mental health problems.
That old adage that marketing and media just reflects society in that ‘Chicken or the Egg’ conundrum is no longer relevant, because what we have in the world is here right now and we now know it is doing harm and needs to be proactively changed.
Anne Miles is on a mission to remove negative stereotypes from media, marketing and advertising and is a specialist in gendered communication. Anne trains businesses and families on how to break free of harmful stereotypes not just for cultural impact but also for business performance.