Office Artifact: Ashley Martin’s Painted Rocks

What a rock named Roxanne can teach us about the “stickiness” of gender.

September 28, 2022

A photo of Ashley Martin holding her painted rocks. Credit: Photo by Gabriela Hasbun

“The Pet Rock phenomenon from the 1970s came up. That’s kind of where the rock study came from.”  | Gabriela Hasbun

I’m studying gendered cognition, which shows how deeply embedded gender is in our minds and our experiences. When I started, I was into the idea of gender blindness and thinking we need to minimize the importance of gender. And the more I studied it, the more I realized how important gender is. I think gender is a ­fundamental component of what it means to be seen as human.

In this series for Stanford Business magazine, we visit Stanford GSB professors’ offices and ask them to share the stories behind one of their favorite knickknacks.

Ashley Martin is an associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB.

I don’t think people can navigate their social realities without some understanding of gender. But it is a paradox. Gender shouldn’t be seen as this binary thing that forces us into two narrow categories that completely constrain who we’re able to be. But when you try to put that into practice and apply gender neutrality and genderlessness, people aren’t doing it.

We categorize so many pieces of information by gender — the names we have, the pronouns we use, the clothing we wear, the bathrooms we go to. It relates to metaphorical similarities as well. Things like shapes are gendered: The ­angularity of a square is associated with men and the roundness of a circle is ­associated with women. We do it with nature: Father Time and Mother Earth.

The rock study tested the hypothesis that when we make something human-like or see something as human, we inherently ascribe it a gender. We were like, “Let’s get people to visually create a human being where a human being doesn’t exist and see what happens.” The Pet Rock phenomenon from the 1970s came up. That’s kind of where the rock study came from.

Participants came down to the lab. We had little desks and on each was a basket of ­materials and an information sheet. Half of the participants were told, “We want you to make this rock come alive. This means giving this rock fundamentally human attributes like a personality, et cetera.” The other set of participants were just asked to decorate their rock. Then they answered questions about their experience.

They were first asked to describe the rock that they just painted. Then they were asked to what extent it had membership in a number of different social categories — age, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation. People who painted human-like rocks gave gender the highest rating. It also was the only category that uniquely related to humanization.

Gendered cues were pretty salient: People amplified eyelashes, they gave them cheekbones, they put on blush. I loved this one rock. It was a grandmother, and it was so well done. It had pompoms for white hair and lipstick. Her name was Roxanne, and the description just added to it: She was bold; even though she was older, she still loved to wear makeup and engage in fashion. Roxanne was my favorite.

I think this study was the first step in showing some of the problems of the “stickiness” of gender. Gender bias is not solely an ideological thing, which is sometimes assumed. Getting rid of gendered information doesn’t necessarily get rid of the ­cognitive use of gender. I think this is a pretty exciting area, but I don’t have the solution yet. — Told to Dave Gilson

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