How Entrenched Gender Roles Can Lead to Dangerous Outcomes


Ale Lewis '23, Editor-in-Chief

How entrenched gender roles can lead to dangerous outcomes 

During club time on Thursday, November 3, the Feminism Club facilitated a discussion, open to the whole SLS community, with the Rowan Center, an organization that supports victims of sexual assault and provides prevention awareness.  During this discussion, I learned about how rigid gender roles influence our relationships.

To create a relaxed and comfortable environment, Danielle, a community educator for the Rowan Center, led the group of students in a Rowan roundtable discussion, an open forum, and a safe space to talk about navigating healthy versus unhealthy relationships.

Danielle began by posing the question, “What do you think of when you hear the word sexual violence?”  Students in the room responded, saying rape.  Nodding her head, Danielle agreed that rape is categorized as sexual violence.  She then added that rape is the most extreme form: “Once we get to rape, we are way too late in the conversation.”  Instead, she said, we need to look and examine the roots of the problem in order to prevent anything that terrible from occurring.  

Danielle led the group in an activity that addressed the stereotypes in our society and how they impact our actions.  She told everyone to imagine what the stereotypical life of a girl looks like.  The results were stunningly consistent.  When the girl is younger, she has “dolls,” “dresses,” and “pink objects.” In middle school, she is eager for “make-up,” loves “shopping,” and enjoys “ballet.”  As an adult woman, she aspires to be a “nurse,” “educator,” or a “stay-at-home mom.”   

Girls who wear make-up, use perfume, and play with Barbies are also equated with feminine emotions: “overly sensitive,” “nurturing,” “tender,” and “submissive.”  

Driven by these stereotypes, girls are taught to be overly kind and affectionate from a young age. It is difficult for women to be self-assured, say no, or refuse to do something.  Thus, women are prone to apologize for minor infractions.  

Sometimes, I apologize before doing anything wrong.  Just last week, approaching a big group of students in the hallway, I heard myself saying, “I’m so sorry,” while making my way through the group.  Why was I apologizing for simply being there?

Danielle explained how unconscious stereotypes could inadvertently lead to sexual violence.  If society continues to raise daughters to be compliant and passive, girls will have anxiety around being assertive or honest in relationships.  

Then we turned our attention to the conventional behavior for adolescent boys.

The stereotypical boy receives “trucks” and “superhero toys.”  He wishes to play “sports” and own “video games.”  In later years, he works in “finance,” “business,” and enjoys playing “golf.”

Men are expected to be “serious,” “dominant,” and “closed off.”  If men do not participate in or enjoy the stereotypically masculine hobbies, they get made fun of and are compared to girls.    

If guys are taught to be tough, two bad outcomes can manifest.  First, guys might not understand boundaries or how to temper their aggression in intimate situations.  Secondly, if someone who identified as male said that they were sexually assaulted, people might be less inclined to believe them because they assume that men are either strong enough to fight back or like it. 

It was gratifying to participate in this roundtable discussion, surrounded by engaged and supportive classmates and teachers.  When everyone unanimously agreed on the stereotypes, we grasped the extent to which these norms have been institutionalized and embedded into all our lives.  

I have two major takeaways from this experience. First, women need to practice their refusal skills in everyday life.  One way of doing this is by saying no to hanging out with your friends if you’re too tired.  As Daniele said, “tapping into what you need is very important.”  Also, practice resisting the feminine urge to apologize!  Next time I’m in a crowded hallway, I will remind myself that I have as much of a right to fight through the crowd as anyone. Second, if anything, this conversation reminds me of how deep-seated stereotypes affect both sexes.  Even though sexual violence and entrenched gender roles impact everyone and can lead to devastating consequences, only one male student attended the roundtable. For understanding to take root, we need both boys and girls to be present during these discussions.  

Having open forums, where students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, is a great place to start debunking/addressing stereotypes in society.  I hope students continue having these conversations, stay open to new ideas, and step outside their comfort zone. The issue of domestic violence affects both men and women; the Feminism Club’s goal is to get everyone involved in heightening awareness.