Inherent Differences

31 Jan

Riding the train today I was struck by the advertisements for New York University’s (NYU) School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS). They’ve been up for a while (certainly, if NYU’s marketing department is smart, since long before January 5th), but never before had I noticed the highly gendered portrayals they depict. Not only do the ads visually present men and women has being different “types of students”, but the word clouds surrounding them suggests inherent differences in abilities and intelligences.

The images of the two “students” suggest stark differences between men and women. Women are smiling, pretty, sensible, unprofessional, and simple. They’re also confused, so it’s important to tell them when Informational Sessions start. In contrast, men are serious, studious, focused, dressed for success, and technologically and intellectually superior (hence the glasses and hands-free telephone headset). Unlike women, they already know that they want to conquer the world, and how to do so. No need for Information Sessions, just let them know about the astronomical number of courses you offer, and they’ll put their own “world in context.”

The word clouds above the images are perhaps more insulting. Here’s the breakdown (in no particular order):

  • Men: Web Tools, Intellectual Property, RSS Feeds, ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds), Translation and Interpreting, Nonprofit Portfolios, Public Speaking, Investor Relations, Global Opinion
  • Women: Jazz, Tannin, Modernism, Concept Art, ESL (English as a Second Language), Emotional Quotient, Cinematography, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), Obama

Men, of course, are encouraged to go into finance, technology, business, law, and nonprofit (but only to fill roles that involve public speaking (to the media?) and portfolio development (i.e., governance and leadership)). Women, on the other hard, are far more qualified to study the fine arts, education, psychology, culinary arts, OSHA (public policy?), and – not sure what to make of this one – Obama? (political science? doubtful).

Why is this obvious sexist representation of the genders damaging to both men as well as women, despite depicting men in a positive light? Here’s why: stereotypes may be “good” (e.g., women are peaceful) or “bad” (e.g., men are aggressive), but they are never entirely true. Thus, stereotyping is always harmful, because it reinforces and confirms our preexisting notions that do not always apply to everyone. Over time, these stereotypes morph into prejudices, which inform our behaviors, which may span the spectrum from microaggressions to overt discrimination (e.g., hiring practices) and violence.

Furthermore, by showing men as driven, powerful, analytical machines, fit to work in high-paying fields, we learn what boys and men are “supposed to be.” The reverse is equally true. By portraying women as sensitive, emotional, and caring individuals who should be in the kitchen, classroom, or studio, we learn what men are “not supposed to be”. Not being to live up to these gender normative expectations causes men to feel guilt, shame, and fear. And we wonder why, in the West, middle-aged men account for 40% of all suicides. [1]

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[1] Gambotto-Burke, Antonella; The Eclipse: A Memoir of Suicide; Broken Ankle Books, 2003; pp.16.

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