Lecturer Explains the Beginning of Gender Stereotypes
“I majored in psychology so I could get a job,” Dr. Rebecca Bigler OC ’86 explained to faculty and students yesterday in Severance Hall.
But as she began her lecture, titled “Understanding Social Stereotyping and Prejudice: An Historical Overview and Personal Perspective,” it was clear that Bigler, now a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, not only has a stable job but has also made significant contributions to the understanding of how and why humans are prejudicial.
In her lecture, Bigler traced her interest in the subject from her undergraduate work at Oberlin to her current research at UT.
While doing graduate work at Pennsylvania State University, Bigler researched gender role development and social cognition in children. Until the 1980s it was believed to bes reinforcement and punishment that determined a person’s attitude about gender. In response, many “feminist books” for children were written in hopes of reducing stereotypes.
Bigler provided the example of a firefighter being portrayed as a female, though the profession is usually perceived as male. However, Bigler’s research suggested that these “feminist interventions” didn’t work. Rather, children’s prejudices were often heightened.
“How can you read a ‘feminist’ book and become more prejudiced?” Bigler asked. “You can’t explain that with straight environmental theory.”
However, Bigler acknowledged that the environment does play some role.
Her most recent paper, titled “A Developmental Intergroup Theory of Social Stereotypes and Prejudice” is a culmination of many of her studies.
Bigle explained that the goal of the theory is to outline the factors that determine when a social group will become the subject of stereotyping and prejudice. The theory also addresses how cognitive development affects individuals’ social stereotyping and prejudices.
“People pay attention to gender because our world pays attention to it. When you use a social group to organize your world, you pay attention to things,” Bigler said. “Adults use gender to label children and organize the environment. Hence, children attend to gender and form hypotheses about gender differences.”
Bigler also stressed the importance of “perceptual salience,” the idea that children stereotype based on examples they can see. To prove this, Bigler conducted an experiment at a summer school for elementary-aged students in Northern Minnesota. Children were given either a red T-shirt or a blue T-shirt. In one classroom, the teachers were told not to acknowledge the differences in colors. Meanwhile, in another classroom, teachers were to actively use the colors in order to organize and separate the students.
She explained, “The children quickly began to believe that their own group was better. If the adults were separating them by color, there must be something important about each color group.”
When Bigler opened discussion for questions, a student asked if she and her colleagues had developed a plan in order to flush racism and sexism out of classrooms.
“I know much more about what schools shouldn’t do as opposed to what schools should do,” she said in response.
While she acknowledged that it will be very difficult to eliminate
stereotypes and prejudices from the educational setting, she suggested that
teachers and parents can start to help by not organizing children by gender.