How Gendered Norms Still Impact Women in the Public Sphere

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Boys are snips and snails and puppy dog tails, while girls are sugar and spice and everything nice. Besides being totally asinine (who’s out here snipping dog tails to make little boys?), the roots of stereotypical images of the differences between men and women run deep in societies across the globe.

In 2019, The Sound embarked on a global study to explore beauty and grooming. Part of this research entailed building off of the framework of Jobs to Be Done (JTBD); we talked with nearly 5,000 people across the U.S., U.K., India and China about the grooming and beauty behaviors they engage in, as well as why they do them. Among the many insights we uncovered (and you can find out many more here), one was puzzling.

We asked people what personality traits they found to be most attractive in both men and women. What we found was surprising, at least in the context of our 21st century progressive societies, was that traditional gender norms are continuing to be reinforced by women as well as men. Both men and women found intelligent, knowledgeable and wise men to be attractive, as well as men that are funny, entertaining, and happy. Sounds nice, right? When we look at what was most attractive in women, things got a bit stickier.

Being caring, compassionate and generous as a woman was seen as very attractive both to men and women. The most attractive traits in women echo the 1950s housewife stereotypes more than they reflect the vision of the ‘modern woman. Intelligent, knowledgeable, and wise women only cracked the top 3 most attractive sets of traits in two markets, India and China—even when it came to women rating the personality traits they found desirable in other women.

As we move into the third decade of the twenty first century, we tend to focus on what is changing about our culture and society, rather than some of the less than ideal things that have remained. Our expectations of what women should be, how they should act, and what voice (if any) they should have in society might not have changed as much as we hope they would have.

For women, their likability as individuals can still be tied to achieving and maintaining success and power. Think about how female candidates for political office have fared in the past few years globally. Still considered to be by some the most powerful office in the world, female candidates for U.S. President are way more likely to be derided as a “bitch” or “too aggressive” than any of their male counterparts. No male candidates are ever asked whether they’re too emotional to hold office, as if they’ll break down crying in negotiations with world leaders, let alone throw the nuclear code ‘football.’ One question at the heart of their electability is whether or not they are likable to voters.  How are women seeking or in power able to fight against the stereotype where women have to be introverted, caring nurturers that holds them back?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to that. How can women succeed in a world that was specifically rigged against them and any other marginalized group? Do we fight against the stereotypes or do we lean into them, using their power to subvert their meaning? What I do know is that women are not alone in fighting these stereotypes about them. Learning from the jobs of beauty, we can arm ourselves with the cultural context needed to move society forward.

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