Understanding and Combating Stereotypes
Stereotypes are characterisations or generalisations about people based on their membership of a particular group. For example, there are stereotypes about women, men, people who come from or live in particular places, people who like certain music, or people who dress in particular ways. Some of these stereotypes may once have had a grain of truth in them. However, more often, they are either over-simplifications or simply inaccurate.
Some stereotypes may be amusing and seem harmless. However, they can also be damaging if they affect how individuals are perceived or treated. It is therefore important to be able to recognise and challenge stereotypes, to promote a more accurate and inclusive view of the world. This page explains how to do that.
stereotype, n., a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing: “the stereotype of the woman as the carer”
Source: Oxford Languages
stereotype, v., to characterise or categorise (esp. a person) too readily or simplistically.
Source: Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition.
Stereotypes are therefore fixed or conventional representations of something or someone. They are almost always over-simplified—and very often inaccurate.
The Effects of Stereotypes
Research shows that:
Stereotypes affect how we think about other people, and how we interpret their behaviour
For example, in an experiment back in 1976, people were shown a video of two men arguing. One was Black, and one was White. At the end of the video, one of them pushed the other. There were two versions of the video: in one, the Black man pushed the White one, and in the other, it was the other way round. The two pushes were choreographed to be as close to identical as possible.
Overall, 75% of the participants who watched the Black man do the pushing said he was aggressive, compared with just 17% of those who saw the White man do the pushing—EVEN THOUGH THE TWO WERE BEHAVING IDENTICALLY.
The men’s skin colour therefore affected how the viewers perceived and interpreted their behaviour.
In particular, we tend to remember behaviour that fits a stereotype, and overlook behaviour that does not.
We also tend to need a lot more persuasion or evidence to believe that someone does NOT fit a stereotype than that they do.
Stereotypes affect how we act towards other people
Visit any parenting forum, and you will find mothers complaining that when their partners take their children out for the day, they are lauded for doing so as if they had done something special. Yet when a mother does this, it is simply normal. In other words, mothers and fathers are not held to the same standards when it comes to providing care for their children.
The same may also be true of Black and White people and the law enforcement system (see box).
Black Americans and the US Justice System
In the USA, the rate of fatal police shootings among Black Americans is much higher than for any other ethnicity. Between 2015 and May 2023, it was 5.8 fatal shootings per million of the population per year.
Black Americans are also far more likely to be jailed than any other group. In 2021, 528 Black Americans per 100,000 population were jailed, compared to 316 American Indians/Alaskan natives, and just 157 White people.
Of course it may be possible to argue that Black people commit more crimes, or are more likely to threaten the police. However, this may also not be true. In the wake of events like the shootings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—both unarmed—we certainly cannot assume that this is the case.
Stereotypes perpetuate inequalities
The parenting stereotypes described above sound relatively harmless, even if the treatment of different races by law enforcement sounds less benign.
However, even ‘harmless’ stereotypes have long-lasting consequences.
The stereotype that men are less capable of looking after children, and less likely to do so, provides support to men who don’t want to take equal responsibility for their children. It perpetuates the inequality that women are more likely to provide childcare, carry out domestic chores, and provide informal care for older people. This, in turn, can keep women out of the workforce, reduce their earning potential, and perpetuate gender pay inequalities.
Similarly, race-based stereotypes affect people’s ability to gain and keep employment.
In one experiment, the same CV was sent to different companies—but with a different name at the top. Some names sounded ‘White’ and others were stereotypically ‘Black’ names.
Shockingly, CVs with White names received 50% more invitations to interview than those with Black names. When the researchers played around a bit with the contents of the CV too, having a White name provided the same boost as having an extra eight years of work experience.
In another experiment, researchers sent emails to professors at graduate schools in the US, asking about the potential to pursue graduate studies. Women of any background, and men of colour, were significantly less likely than White men to even get a response, never mind be successful in an application.
Challenging and Addressing Stereotypes
There are two steps to challenging and addressing stereotypes. The first is to recognise them in yourself, and the second is to challenge them when you see or hear them in other people. There are also things that you can do within organisations to reduce the impact of stereotypes.
1. Challenging Your Own Stereotypes
As with unconscious biases, the first step is to become aware of your own thinking, and where it may be affected by stereotypes.
Take time to ask yourself questions about what you feel about particular people—and then ask why. Look for evidence to back up your views. Be particularly wary about feelings that don’t seem to be backed by very much evidence, and especially if you feel strongly. These are likely to be feelings that draw on childhood experiences or beliefs that have never been challenged.
Your gut feeling is not always right. It is only a combination of your learned experience—and some of your learned experience may involve stereotypes and biased views absorbed from others.
TOP TIP! Catching stereotypes before they catch you
One very useful technique is that before you make a judgement or decision about an individual, ask yourself how you would feel if this was someone from a different ‘group’.
The Twitter account Man Who Has It All does this very neatly. The account publishes statements and questions like “My friend is a history teacher. She's compiling a list of great historical figures and she needs a male to add to the list. Suggestions?”, and “Today’s debate: to what extent should men be shamed for using the title ‘Doctor’?”.
They sound ridiculous—but they are the type of statements that are regularly made about women, albeit extremes.
If it would sound bad or wrong if you substituted a different type of person, then you may be being affected by a stereotype.
You may find it helpful to attend some sort of awareness course, such as training on racism or sexism awareness. This can be a useful way to highlight issues in your own behaviour that you may not have noticed. You can also ask those around you for feedback, especially if you are in a diverse environment.
It’s also a good idea to broaden your horizons. The ideal option is to meet and get to know people from other backgrounds, but it is also helpful to read a wider range of books by authors from different backgrounds. Even listening to different genres of music can expand your ideas.
You can also harness the power of social media to follow a broad range of people, including antiracist or antisexist commentators, on Twitter or other platforms. This will help to improve your awareness of the problem—both in you and in other people.
2. Challenging Stereotypes in Other People
Most of us have probably heard someone else make a statement that was undoubtedly affected by stereotypes. However, far fewer people are likely to have challenged that statement.
Interestingly, research shows that there are simple actions that we can take that may reduce the development and use of stereotypes.
The most important is simply to stop using generalisations about groups of people. The second is to ask for specifics, and not allow the conversation to remain in general terms.
These are both used to reduce the development of stereotypes among children (see box).
Combating stereotypes: talking to children
Research shows that young children absorb stereotypes from the adults around them, based on how groups are discussed. The key is whether they hear generalisations about those groups—even if those generalisations are positive or neutral.
Some useful tips for parents to prevent their children from developing stereotypes (or to manage the situation if your children start to develop stereotypes) are:
DON’T use generalisations when talking about people.
For example, instead of saying “Muslims don’t eat pork”, say “Some families choose not to eat certain meats”.
Don’t say “Girls can do maths”, say “Lots of girls are good at maths, just like lots of boys”.
If your child uses a generalisation, lead the conversation to specifics.
Say, for example, your child says, “Girls can’t do maths”, ask them which girls can’t do maths. If they give you a name, you can then say something like, “Well, it sounds like [Girl 1] is finding maths hard at the moment, but you know [Girl 2] is very good at maths, so you can’t generalise”. If they tell you that no girls can do maths, you can tell them about particular girls or women who are very good at maths.
Wherever possible, encourage children to be specific, and discuss the situation in specific terms. This will help children to understand that generalisations do not really fit groups.
The same techniques also work with adults. Aim to challenge the use of generalisations by focusing the conversation on specifics instead.
Most crucially, don’t allow the use of stereotypes to slip by unmentioned.
3. Challenging Stereotypes in Organisations
Within organisations, the best thing that you can do to reduce the impact of stereotypes is to encourage the use of alternative behaviours, processes and systems. For example:
In recruitment processes, anonymise CVs or applications before they are seen by recruiters.
Obviously, this should include information such as name and address. However, in some places, you may also need to consider removing details like which school or university the candidate attended, if that may be affected by their race or gender. This avoids any unconscious tendency on the part of the recruiters to favour particular types of candidate.
In recruitment processes, use a panel of recruiters—and make the panel as diverse as possible.
This has a dual effect. First, it should neutralise prejudices at least to some extent. However, having more recruiters and interviewers also means that you are likely to have a better chance of making the right selection, unaffected by personal views or ability to build rapport. It avoids problems like selecting ‘people like us’.
There is more about these practices in our page on Diversity Recruitment and Retention Strategies.
Involve more—and more diverse—people in decision-making.
Again, involving more people in making decisions tends to result in better decisions—and better outcomes for the organisation. However, the group needs to be diverse in as many ways as possible.
Encourage the use of and attendance at implicit bias training
It is likely that most people would benefit from training designed to help them to understand their own implicit biases. Senior people in organisations have a role to play in encouraging the use of and attendance at this type of training.
Monitor your organisational processes by age, gender, race and other protected characteristics
The only way to know whether your organisation is systematically biased or affected by stereotypes is to check. Have a look at your figures for recruitment, retention, pay rises, promotions, and dismissals—and make sure that they don’t show any inequalities.
A Final Thought
As with so many skills, perhaps the most important first step is to increase your own awareness of your own shortcomings. That will enable you to act to challenge your own prejudices—and therefore give you better grounds to challenge others.