Rule congruity theory helps to explain why these prescriptive stereotypes are often a source of backlash: men and women are evaluated negatively when the role that they occupy is incongruent with the stereotypes of their gender. Negative evaluations can come from both descriptive and prescriptive stereotypes – women can spark descriptive backlash in leadership roles if there are few other women in leadership, and prescriptive backlash if the traits she displays violates one’s notions of how women should behave.
Rule congruity theory has sparked a great deal of research, but researchers generally haven’t interrogated who or what we mean when we say “men” or “women.” Research on role congruity theory and gender generally presumes straight, white, middle-class individuals, which gives reason to believe that prescriptive stereotypes of women don’t fully encompass lesbian women or women of color.
Taking an intersectional perspective may reveal that societal expectations are unique based on other identities. Importantly, less than 20% of studies on race include women, and less than 10% of studies on gender include race: there is an enormous amount of work to be done in intersectional psychology.
The first WAPPP Seminar of the semester featured Sa-kiera Hudson, PhD Candidate in Psychology at Harvard University and WAPPP Fellow, presenting research on intersectional identities and gender stereotypes. In particular, Hudson questions whether rule congruity theory is adequate to explain intersectional identities and, if not, how the theory should be modified.
Hudson’s first study incorporated sexual orientation as an additional identity. Existing literature suggests that in the realm of stereotypes, gay men and straight women are presumed to be similar, as are lesbian women and straight men, because of their similar sexual preferences.
In this study, individuals were given a list of 70 traits, some of which were more stereotypically masculine, feminine, or neutral (e.g. “assertive,” “warm and kind,” “honest”), and asked to rate whether that trait was desirable for straight and gay men and women, for men and women without a sexual orientation identifier, and for straight or gay people, without specifying gender.
Hudson hypothesized three expected patterns: stability in gender stereotypes, evidence of heterocentrism, and evidence of gender inversion.
1. Stability in gender stereotypes: Hudson’s findings were substantially the same as a similar study from 2002, which indicates that prescriptive gender stereotypes are relatively stable and haven’t changed much in the last 15 years.
2. Evidence of heterocentrism: There was no trait for which respondents’ rankings of desirable traits for a “man” deviated from those for a “straight man,” nor “woman” from “straight woman” or “person” from “straight person.” This finding suggests that when individuals are rating a person without a sexual orientation identifier, they presume straightness. While this isn’t surprising, it is useful: very few studies directly demonstrate heteronormativity in judgments like these.
3. Gender inversion: Hudson expected to see evidence of gender inversion, similarities between gay men and straight women and between lesbian women and straight men, in addition to differences between gay and straight men that mirror the differences between straight men and straight women. Of the 70 traits, there was evidence of gender inversion for 9: for example, it was less desirable for straight women to be assertive compared to straight men, but more desirable for lesbian women to be assertive compared to gay men.
An additional 12 traits showed evidence of gender asymmetry, where desirability ratings for men or women were the same regardless of sexual orientation, but diverged for the opposite gender. For example, cleanliness was equally desirable for gay and straight men, but for women, there was more pressure for straight women to be clean than for lesbian women. Thirty-four traits displayed evidence of sexual orientation asymmetry – there was gender differentiation for straight and gay men and women, but no difference between gay men and lesbian women. This finding suggests that gender might not matter as much as sexual orientation in terms of how we perceive gay men and lesbian women.
In addition, Hudson presented three other interesting wrinkles from this study:
- It is more desirable for lesbians to be assertive, competitive, and forceful compared to straight women, but there was no difference in trait desirability for business sense, career-oriented, or leadership ability, which suggests that it is acceptable for lesbian women to display dominant personality traits, but not in ways that might disturb the status quo of gender hierarchy.
- The differences between straight and gay men are much larger than the differences between straight and lesbian women, which suggests that gay men may lose some of the status that comes with being male by virtue of their sexual orientation, while lesbian women don’t gain much status above that accorded to straight women.
- Finally, Hudson’s study revealed some evidence that homosexuality is associated with low status – study respondents found it less desirable for gay men and lesbian women to be loyal, dependable, honest, or enthusiastic, traits that are typically considered neutral and positive.
Hudson’s second study replicated the first study’s methods using race rather than sexual orientation. There are different stereotypes of men and women of different races; for example, white women are stereotyped as submissive and feminine, black women as confident and aggressive. What studies do exist demonstrate that black and white women are treated differently with respect to normative traits – black women are not sanctioned as heavily for “aggressive leadership behaviors” as black men and white women. Something about the interaction of race and gender stereotypes specific to black women may mediate backlash.
Just as in the first study, Hudson found stability of gender stereotypes over time and evidence of eurocentrism: when respondents rated traits for a person without a race marker, their answers most closely matched those given for white individuals, suggesting that they viewed white as the default.
Hudson initially hypothesized that this study would yield evidence of gendered race theory, which posits that black individuals are masculinized. However, the results produced limited evidence for gendered race theory! For black men, it was less desirable to be masculine and more desirable to be feminine compared to the control male target. For black women, it was less desirable to be feminine and more desirable to be masculine compared to the control female target, suggesting that both black men and women are distanced from their gender stereotypes. For 38 traits, there was little gender differentiation among black targets but a significant amount for white targets, again suggesting that gender is not as important as race for stereotypes regarding men and women of color.
Both of these studies revealed that the prescriptive norms for gays and lesbians and for black men and women are mostly feminized norms, which suggests that status might play a role in how gender prescriptive stereotypes are generated for intersectional targets – these stereotypes are less about gender per se and more about relative status. The results of these studies underscore just how much intersectionality matters for contemporary research and the importance of updating existing theories accordingly.