Understanding the evil power of implicit associations
Being concerned about stereotyped toys and clothes for our children is not as trifling as it seems. When Elodie and I decided to embark on this blog, I immediately wondered: “Breaking gender norms, pink and unicorns for girls, blue and dinosaurs for boys… OK, but why? Is it only to give more choices to our children?”
Having choices not limited by gender stereotypes would be a progress: our girls could wear t-shirts with dinosaurs if they felt like it; children would be free to play with trucks or dolls regardless of what society expects from them.
Another benefit: it would strengthen their self-confidence, help them follow their likes, and avoid self-censorship: Oops, I can’t play with this game, it was made for boys /girls, that’s a shame… it looked so cool…
“Our brain, from birth, is a very talented clichés vacuum cleaner, a perfect magnet for stereotypes”
But aside from greater choice and better self-esteem, would it change the real problems like gender inequalities, the pay gap or career roadblocks? Because, yes, we all know women who spent part of their childhood playing with Barbie dolls and who became smart women… like me for example 😉
As a parent concerned about offering the best options to my children, wouldn’t it be better to worry more about what they are learning at school? Or find out about the best schools/colleges/universities?
To make it short: does this issue deserve a blog?
Of course, the answer is YES. Yes because our brain, from birth, is a very talented clichés vacuum cleaner, a perfect magnet for stereotypes. So, even if you don’t personally subscribe to gender stereotypes, they are well rooted in your mind and pop out without you even noticing them.
Blame your “implicit associations”
Quick definition of this concept coming from social psychology: “The implicit associations of the mind can be thought of as a tangled but highly organized network of connections. They connect representations of objects, people, concepts, feelings, your own self, goals, motives, and behavior with one another. The strength of each of these connection depends on your past experience (…): how often those two objects, say, or that person and that feeling, or that object and a certain behavior have gone together in the past.” ¹
Learning those implicit associations requires no awareness, no intention, no control, we absorb them naturally, we breathe them. Our brain simply picks up associations from our environment. This associative memory is mostly an efficient way to understand the world around us. This is how babies learn very early, for example, how to differentiate boys and girls: boys= short hair; girl= long hair.
So it is no surprise that implicit associations reflect patterns conveyed by the media, advertising, everyday life, clothes, toys… And here is what happens in our minds: At school almost all teachers are female; so teacher is not a men’s job; When we take the plane the pilot is always a man, so pilot is not a women’s job.
Implicit associations influence our choices whether we want it or not, and this is how Barbie-be-beautiful-and-shut-up contributes to the glass ceiling in women’s careers.
How can we measure this? The Implicit Association Test – IAT² is one of the techniques currently available to identify feelings or thoughts that cannot be controlled consciously. In this computer-based test, participants are asked to pair categories of words or images. For example, pairing male or female names with words related to career or family.
Example of IAT:
“Implicit associations such as Men=career, science or leadership disadvantage women in their career”
Most participants more readily pair female names with family related words rather than with words referring to career. The IAT test measures how fast you succeed in pairing the words, and when you have to pair female names to career, the brain is just slower because it is less usual and thus less automatic. Even for me, a true feminist! I did the test and I have a “moderate preference” for women/family and men/career. Same result when I was asked to pair male or female names with liberal arts or science.
Why is this important? Unconscious associations such as Men=career, science or leadership disadvantage women in their career: She just had a baby, so no need to offer her this great senior position, she will prefer dedicating her time to her family. And those associations harm men too: What? You really have to leave now to pick up your kids? What about your wife?
This process starts very early in childhood when we give girls pretty dolls to be styled and dressed up, and boys super heroes who will save the world.
Even in adulthood, our implicit associations are far more reactionary than our conscious opinions because they reflect our society’s inequalities and stereotyped representations which have been registered by our brains for years. Feminist on the outside… Macho on the inside… Hopeless, right?
So what do we do now? We roll up our sleeves and we change the world? Yes, exactly! And we start with the things we can influence.
No, we won’t change our society with a wave of magic wand, but if we try to understand what is going on in children’s brain, if we advocate against gendered marketing that puts children into stereotyped boxes and prevent them for fulfilling their dreams, if we support those who are offering alternative choices, we will change, at least a little, those implicit associations that will follow them and influence them throughout their lives.
Barbie-girly and super-hero-super-macho not only inhabit toy stores, they are first in our brain. Knowledge of this is the first step to help our children to free themselves from them.
(1) FINE Cordelia (2010). Delusions of Gender, How our Minds, Society and Neurosexism create difference. W. Norton p.4
(2) Greenwald, McGhee et Schwartz, 1998
For those who want to test themselves and try a IAT, I can recommend the very serious Project Implicit. You will find there tests related to gender but also measuring associations related to age or religion. https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/
If you want to learn more about the consequences of implicit associations, you can read this article which report how they influence our ability to vote for women: http://gender.stanford.edu/news/2011/what-me-sexist