Culture & Society

Why Taking Gender Out of the Equation Is So Difficult

Even as old stereotypes fade, gender remains “a very sticky category,” Ashley Martin explains.

March 02, 2022

| by Lisa Wong Macabasco
Illustration split into blue and pink, with a rock in the middle. The blue half is wearing a baseball hat, the pink half is wearing a bow. | Credit: Cory. Hall

Rock and roles: New research explores how just deeply “gender infiltrates the human mind.” | Cory Hall 

It turns out a rock can tell us a lot about gender.

In a recent study, Ashley Martin, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, recruited more than 200 participants and gave each a rock. One group was asked to decorate its rocks as creatively as possible; the other was asked to anthropomorphize them with “uniquely human qualities.” (The participants were told that the rocks that received the highest ratings from a pair of judges would win $100.)

People in both groups were more likely to ascribe gender to their rocks than other social categories such as race, age, or sexual orientation. Yet those who anthropomorphized their rocks were more likely to see their creation as “humanlike” — and the only characteristic that predicted how human a rock appeared was gender.

Photo showing eight rocks decorated with unique human features. | Credit: Ashley Martin and Malia Mason.

In an experiment in which people were asked to anthropomorphize rocks, gender was the only characteristic that predicted how “human” their creations appeared. | Ashley Martin and Malia Mason

Allowing participants to essentially make a person from scratch offered a window into which characteristics are considered essential to being seen as human. And the results helped demonstrate that gender is “more central to conceptions of humanity than other social categories,” as Martin and her coauthor Malia F. Mason of Columbia University argue in a new paper titled “What Does It Mean to Be (Seen As) Human? The Importance of Gender in Humanization.”

That finding may be a bit of a surprise at a time when we’re used to — or getting used to — indicating our pronouns, deftly deploying they/them, stepping into gender-neutral restrooms, and scrolling through expansive lists of gender options. (Facebook offers more than 50 for users to identify themselves.) Yet even as our understanding of gender is undergoing a thorough reappraisal and gender neutrality is gaining wider acceptance, Martin argues that gender remains the fundamental lens through which humans perceive the social world.

“Gender is a very sticky category,” she says. “A lot of us want gender to no longer be necessary because it confines people to two narrow identities that constrain them through gender stereotypes. That’s a lofty goal — a possible one. But I do think it’s harder than we might believe.” In her latest research, Martin explores deeply ingrained notions of gender and suggests that it may not be so easy to shake off norms built on the bifurcation of biological sex, even when they seem outdated or irrelevant.

What’s Behind the Big Two

In a recent paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science, cowritten with Michael L. Slepian of Columbia University, Martin presents a new example of how thoroughly “gender infiltrates the human mind.” Conventional gender roles look remarkably similar to what’s known in psychology as the Big Two: the two dimensions that capture how people process, perceive, and navigate their social worlds, pairings that are seen consistently across disciplines.

“In motivation and human-values research, we see this as agency and communality,” Martin explains. “Culture research sees this as individualism and collectivism. Personality research: alpha-beta, plasticity-stability. Going back even to William James, the father of American psychology, he called this tough-minded and tender-minded.”

One category revolves around the self and one’s ability to achieve goals; the other is focused on other people and how to build and maintain relationships. “Those are redundant with our notions of masculinity and femininity,” Martin says, “and what that suggests is that a lot of the ways in which we view, categorize, and understand our world is based on that gender differentiation between men and women.” As she and Slepian write, “Although past work has identified the Big Two as a model to understand social categories, we argue that gender itself is the social category that explains the nature of the Big Two.”

A lot of us want gender to no longer be necessary because it confines people to two narrow identities that constrain them through gender stereotypes. That’s a lofty goal — a possible one. But I do think it’s harder than we might believe.
Ashley Martin

While many modern humans understand gender largely as a social construct, it has its roots in our evolution, Martin and Slepian say. Today it may be considered impolite to assume someone’s gender from their appearance; historically, the ability to distinguish gender was vital for species survival. Two sexes were needed for reproduction, so humans needed to discern who was compatible for procreation. The detection mechanism developed to differentiate males from females became what we call gender, and gender roles followed from that.

Men, who were generally larger and stronger, specialized in hunting and protection, while women assumed roles involving raising children, gathering food, and managing community. Gender roles are also related to specific behaviors, skills, and cognitive processes, Martin notes. Hunting and defending are bolstered by traits linked to agency: assertiveness, competitiveness, dominance, and independence. Child rearing and community building are enhanced by attributes that involve communality: nurturance, warmth, and expressiveness.

“Although the biological components of sex have largely remained required for reproduction, the particular gender roles that follow are of course not required to survive today,” Martin and Slepian write. They note, approvingly, that men and women can now transcend the constraints of gendered categories. “Yet,” they add, “in the long history of the human species, this change is a relatively recent development, and these gender roles (and stereotypes) continue to exist.”

Engendering Change

Gender has been encoded into culture in myriad ways that go beyond the most obvious stereotypes, Martin points out. “Rougher sounding names where the vocal cords vibrate are associated with men and softer sounding names are associated with women — that’s why we see names like John, Drew, and Gary for men, unlike names like Shelley, Sarah, and Hannah for women,” Martin says. (That study, by Slepian, found that the pattern held for both American and Indian names.)

Studies have shown that people apply gender to toys, numbers, colors, and even shapes (squares are viewed as more masculine than circles). Gendered assumptions even seep into other social categories like race: Research suggests that people see African Americans as more masculine and Asians as more feminine.

But gender’s pervasiveness can be a way to expand our understanding of traditional categories for men and women, Martin argues, including in the workplace. Given that gender inequality is primarily driven by the association of men with high-status occupations and skills that require “masculine” qualities such as agency, efforts can be made to decouple these stereotypes and focus on other gendered aspects of the roles. For example, as Martin notes, STEM is seen as a masculine field because of its association with independence and problem-solving. Studies suggest that women are more likely to show interest in this field when relevant skills like relationality and creativity are highlighted.

Martin believes that challenging or reshaping the gender schema may be more effective than moving toward a “genderless” world. In their forthcoming paper, which includes the rock study, Martin and Mason argue that gender is a critical humanizing force, one more central to our conceptions of humanness than other social categories. “Individuals use gender to define what constitutes a ‘person’ in the first place,” they write.

Our reliance on gender is so ingrained that Martin believes the current movement toward genderlessness is bound to run into challenges. “When you think about the wealth of information we’re using gender to understand, to remove it completely is a very disorienting thing for people,” she says.

This could have important implications for marketers, who often rely on anthropomorphic mascots or avatars to create attachments to products or brands. “Our research suggests that without gender, people don’t see technology or personal assistants as human — that might have consequences for how we engage with these things,” Martin says.

Seeing technology as gendered has its pitfalls, too, she notes, including furthering problematic stereotypes about women being more helpful, deferent, or servile. (Hey, Siri! Hi, Alexa!) Martin posits: How might your relationship with your digital assistant change if it sounded like a man? “Would people start to associate certain qualities that we’ve previously imbued on women with men? I don’t know if that’s an answer to gender equality, but it would tell us something about how to disrupt these stereotypes.”

With the advent of new reproductive technologies and expanding categories of gender, Martin believes the categories represented by the Big Two may shift and even proliferate. “We might not necessarily see social cognition fall along two lines only,” she says.

And she is hopeful for other changes. “I see a lot of differences in the way Gen Z understands gender. It’s been really exciting to learn from them,” she says. As more people come to see gendered social roles as a throwback, Martin thinks the future is bright. “Recognizing the embeddedness of gender stereotypes in social cognition allows us to think more broadly about creative ways to change them.”

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