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Chapter 5. The origins of gender stereotypes: is gendered behaviour only trained behaviour?

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

What role does early-childhood discrimination play in shaping later behavior? Or: are there behavior patterns that are inherent to gender, or are they trained on us? Is there discrimination against women or against people with certain female-stereotyped behavior that might also apply to men?

The manifesto 

"We should strive for a better allocation of talent in society, whether that talent is male or female," concludes Bertrand (2020). This is a fantastic way to motivate research on gender bias. Why is it not the case? The author highlights the importance of two pain points. "Women continue to make educational choices that systematically translate into lower expected labor market earnings than men; this is most immediately apparent when it comes to women's sharp under-representation in the math-intensive STEM fields. Second, when they become mothers, women make consequential changes to their labor supply decision that translate into large and persistent losses in labor market earnings. (...) Why are women making such different choices?". The answer seems to come from the literature in psychology. While economists' point of view on gender stereotypes is mainly descriptive - i.e., use the group distribution of skills to acknowledge differences - social psychology focuses on their prescriptive nature. "The prescriptive nature of gender stereotypes motivates men and women to adjust their self-view to what seems appropriate for their gender group. This results in gender identity norms." 

Endogenous preferences make gender identity norms dangerously powerful.

Marianne Bertrand beautifully summarizes the fundamental issue at hand: The prescriptive nature of gender stereotypes implies that rational self-interest is itself a function of gender norms. This could be (...) because the gender identity norms have been fully internalized and are part of one’s self-conception, and hence they directly shape one’s preferences. But this could also be because of concerns about the reputational consequences of deviating from the prescribed behavior. Even if individuals do not fully internalize the gender stereotypes and are not intrinsically motivated to uphold their gender identity, the stereotypes may still affect behaviors and choices because of social image concerns and the reputational costs, material or affective, of deviating from the prescribed behavior for the group. The fact that women in, say, Egypt broadly share men’s views that women belong at home rather than in the labor market need not imply that they have fully internalized these norms into their preferences. Instead, it may simply reflect that these women know that this is what is expected of them by others. Social image considerations and external pressures to conform may also explain why women ultimately take on more of the unpaid care work; they may not engage in this unpaid work because they are internally motivated to do so but instead because they fear the reputational consequences of not doing so. (Bertrand, 2020, p.7)

Please read the previous paragraph one more time and let that sink in. The struggle is real. I have seen (am regularly seeing, actually) the power of subliminal expectations turn women into seemingly voluntary servants - for no apparent external reason but surely not for their own pleasure. We can call it the division of labor or powerful prescriptive gender stereotypes at play. How that impacts our private life is another story. But how that affects women's representation in positions of power and responsibility is a public policy issue. It is no surprise that women today are lagging in leadership positions, particularly in economics. We still think that when we observe a woman dropping out of the labor force because she had a child and despite her partner supporting her working, she made a free choice and thus should be left alone with it. We should not be so sure and think again. And this is not to say that staying home for a child is not a legitimate and respectable choice - just that it might not be a truly free one. 

Stereotypes, stereotypes, stereotypes...

They are our most insidious enemies: they are everywhere, none of us is immune to them, and they are challenging to deconstruct. Nosek et al (2009) find that nation-level implicit stereotypes predicted nation-level sex differences in 8th-grade science and mathematics achievements. They underline the critical difference between explicit stereotypes - e.g., a woman who agrees that men are better than women at math - and implicit ones - e.g., another woman might disagree with the previous sentence. However, she might still perform worse at any math test if she is reminded about the same cliché right before. 

"Changing implicit stereotypes is not just a matter of influencing intentions, it also requires consideration of the social realities that shape without intention". 

Can you think about any other implicit bias working in the same direction? You can make your list before reading Kahn and Ginther (2017), and you will surely find something you could not come up with. For instance, teachers' implicit beliefs about math aptitudes related to gender could prevent girls from taking an additional math class and eventually enroll in fewer STEM courses, leading to fewer women in STEM occupations and lower wages. In that sense, implicit biases can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy with a lot of strength and determination required for an individual to break out of it. 

Family composition

How does family composition affect gender stereotypes? Both parenting and siblings play a role in how women view their opportunities and role. Brenøe (2019) looks at first-born women and finds that having a second-born brother reinforces traditional gender role conformity. In the ensuing discussion, we were surprised to find out that most of us had a different impression, feeling supported, inspired, motivated and encouraged by our male siblings. The individual experience here might vary a lot, so the two can perfectly co-exist. Furthermore, it might be that even well-meaning and gender-neutral brothers affect their sister's traditional gender conformity through other channels (parents encouragement for stereotyped activities such as ballet versus football, allocation of household chores, etc.). Pinning this down exactly is tricky because most of these stereotypes are subconscious.

The Apéro

Finally, during our Apéro, we had an amazing Q&A session with Prof. Jaya Krishnakumar who generously shared her experiences with us and answered our many questions. The content shared remains private.


Bansak, C., and Starr, M. (2010). Gender Differences in Predispositions towards Economics. Eastern Economic Journal, 36, 33.

Bertrand, Marianne (2020). Gender in the Twenty-First Century. AEA Papers and Proceedings, Vol. 110.

Brenoe, Anne Ardila (2019). Brothers Increase Women's Gender Conformity. WP.øe%202019-04-17%2C%20Gender%20Conformity.pdf?dl=0

Kahn, Shulamit and Ginther, Donna K. (2018). Women and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM): Are Differences in Education and Careers due to Stereotypes, Interests or Family? In The Oxford Handbook on the Economics of Women, ed. Susan L. Averett, Laura M. Argys, and Saul D. Hoffman (New York: Oxford University Press. 2018).

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