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​Here's the evidence on gender stereotypes

April 19 2017 By Mary Barry, Our Watch CEO

Last week it was reported that a man allegedly stabbed his ex-girlfriend 37 times.

On 5 April, China Crawford (32) was found dead and an unnamed man was charged with her murder and interfering with her corpse. 

On 7 March, Harjit Kaur (56) was found dead. Her husband has been charged with her murder. 

On 5 March, Donna Green (55) was found dead. Her partner has been charged with her murder. 

The list goes on and on and that’s just a few examples from this year alone.

Sadly, these women are now statistics. But this awful pattern is not one we should have to accept. We do not have to accept that 1 in 4 women will experience violence from a current or former partner.

This is because violence against women – whether it is emotional abuse, physical assault, sexual assault or rape, or the most extreme form that culminates in homicide - is not inevitable. 

Although there is no single driver of violence against women, the latest international evidence shows certain factors consistently predict higher levels of this violence. Along with stereotypical gender roles, relations and identities, these factors include disrespect for and hostility towards women, unequal or controlling relationships and low support for gender equality. 

This evidence indicates that violence against women is a gendered phenomenon and the social norms that drive it are absorbed at a very early age. 

That’s why when I read articles, such as Domestic violence: Stop demonising our little boys, about how there is no evidence that challenging gender stereotypes will help prevent violence against women and their children, I have to speak out, because this simply isn’t true. 

A large body of evidence, from many different countries and contexts, overwhelmingly points to the link between adherence to rigid gender stereotypes and high rates of violence against women.

In addition, other research, together with multiple inquiries, advisory panels and the recent Victorian Royal Commission have all found that violence against women is preventable and that working with children and young people is critical for its prevention. This is also recognised in the bi-partisan and cross jurisdictional National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children.

We know that out-dated gender stereotypes are subtly reinforced to children from very early in their development. We might tell our sons that “boys don’t cry” when they express their emotions, or call our daughters “bossy” when they assert themselves. 

These might seem like small examples, but we know – and child development experts tell us – that how we talk to children matters, that the language we use is significant. These and other subtle expressions of gender stereotypes that children absorb can shape attitudes and expectations into adulthood. 

Such stereotypes can for instance, reinforce the idea that men ‘naturally’ make better leaders and should hold positions of power, because they are more rational and less emotional – a view that is supported by one in five Australians. 

In intimate relationships, these ideas can translate into an expectation among some men that they should ‘be in control’, an attitude that in its extreme form can underpin emotionally controlling, abusive and violent behaviour towards women.

Rigid ideas about masculinity also restrict the lives of boys and men. Being stoic, tough and not showing emotion are still traits associated with the stereotype of ‘the Aussie bloke’. The potentially harmful impacts of these unrealistic expectations on the mental health and wellbeing of Australia men and boys are increasingly being recognised. At worst, they may even contribute to the high rates of suicide among men, as suggested by a recent Melbourne University study. 

When we challenge gender stereotypes we help give our children the message that they can be whoever they want to be, that they need not be boxed-in by restrictive stereotypes and ‘rules’ about ‘what girls can do’ or ‘what boys are like’.

And yes, in the longer term, by working with children to challenge gender stereotypes we also contribute to the prevention of violence against women in the next generation. 

Preventing this violence needs a far more sophisticated strategy than simply telling people it is ‘unacceptable’. Evidence says the drivers of this violence are both more subtle than this and more deeply entrenched in society. So part of the work we must do to prevent it involves challenging the kinds of language and attitudes that reinforce gender stereotypes and inequality. And while working with children is only one component of the comprehensive life course approach that is needed, it is a strategy that is most certainly supported by the evidence.

Case studies quoted are from Counting Dead Women Australia, the researchers of Destroy The Joint.

This piece was originally published in Rendez View.

Media contact:

Hannah Grant, Media and Ambassador Program Manager, Our Watch: 0448 844 930 or hannah.grant@ourwatch.org.au

*If you cover this story, or any story regarding violence against women and children, please include the following tagline:

“If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.”

Read guides for reporting about violence against women and their children.

About Our Watch

Our Watch’s purpose is to raise awareness and engage policy-makers and the Australian community in action to prevent violence against women and their children.

To do this the organisation works to increase gender equality and respect in all aspects of everyday life, such as through schools; workplaces; media; sporting organisations; social marketing, and developing and influencing public policy.

Our Watch’s work derives from the government’s commitment to the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010 – 2022 and gives expression to many of the activities in the Second Action Plan 2013–2016 – Moving Ahead.