How Gender Stereotypes Encourage Violence Towards Women

Blog post by Olivia Leahy – Volunteer Writer for not only pink and blue

“She walked everywhere. She put her party shoes in her bag and donned her trainers. She walked. Zara believed that a woman should be able to walk home. … She is not the only woman who has lost her life like this, we extend our deepest sympathy and love to the families of Bibaa Henry; Nicole Smallman; Sarah Everard; Sabina Nessa; Ashling Murphy and many more women.” 

Zara Aleena was murdered while walking home on the 26th June – she was 35 years old [1]. According to Counting Dead Women, 52 women have been murdered by men in the UK since the beginning on 2022 [2]. The stories of these women, alongside these statistics, have left us here at not only pink and blue, heartbroken, sickened and angry. The violence towards women in the UK we keep seeing in the news is horrifying; what many of us don’t realise is how violence towards women is normalised in gender stereotyping from as early as primary school. We wanted to draw your attention to how negative gender stereotypes play into the violence towards women we see today.

Gender Stereotyping in Play

To understand how violence towards women is normalised through gender stereotyping, we need to look at how children are encouraged to play.  A study carried out by the University of Bristol found that more ‘masculine’ children were aggressive towards their peers than more ‘feminine’ children: “masculine children showed significantly more physical aggression than … feminine children, whereas feminine children showed significantly less physical aggression.” [3] These differences in aggression levels stemmed from the type of play these children engaged with at preschool level, which were gender specific and led by gender stereotypes. The study went on to explore how these childhood levels of aggression continued into a child’s later development, with “gender difference in physical aggression emerg[ing in] early childhood,” and “maintained throughout childhood into adulthood.” [4] 

The type of play that the study labelled as ‘gendered’ was a huge contributing factor to boys, or more masculine children, showing aggression towards girls, or more feminine children. For example, we already know that toy marketing is steered towards traditional gender roles, and these can be a stepping stone towards boys being violent to girls. The study explained that “starting from early childhood,” children are taught through conscious and unconscious stereotyping that, “boys prefer toy guns, swords, and vehicles, whereas girls prefer dolls, tea sets, and other domestic toys.” [5] Boys also engage in more rough-and-tumble play with their male peers, brothers and fathers than girls [6]; while this may seem harmless and a bit of fun in the moment, boys learning to communicate through aggressive actions, however playful and innocent to start with, can produce problems with aggression in later years. The University of Bristol study also suggested that, “via social-cognitive mechanisms such as associative priming, the presence of male-typical and aggressive toys, such as guns, swords, and action figures, may elicit aggressive behaviour during play, gradually produc[ing] desensitisation to violence.” [7] And who does this negatively impact the most? Girls, and thus women. What is interesting about this aggressive behaviour through play in primary school aged boys, is that empathy in children aged 8 – 16 months is the same across all children, with no gender differences [8]. This only further illustrates how the formative years of primary school aged children hugely affect how they respond and absorb gender stereotypes, and how these come into action through boys engaging in more aggressive play. Violence towards girls is not innate in boys: their empathy levels are the same as girls as toddlers and evolve to suit the destructive gender norms that shape the play and behaviour of boys.

Gender Violence in Schools

Despite gender-based violence being deeply entwined with our society, with male aggression towards women beginning at school, efforts to challenge this are hardly seen in primary schools. According to Nancy Lombard, lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy, at Glasgow Caledonian University, “there is a perception that children aged 11 or 12 are too young to ‘know’ about violence or to offer opinions on it. But this is something that has to change if we are ever going to combat the attitudes and behaviour that can lead to this type of violence.” [9] Lombard carried out her own research across five primary schools to see if, and how, young children understand gendered violence; her findings are both fascinating and disheartening. She found that young children could make sense of violence directed towards a certain gender, but “tended to naturalise violence as an integral part of male identity. They justified male violence using expectations of inequality in gender roles.” [10] It is truly horrifying how normalised gender-based violence is amongst young people, which stems from society constantly feeding them gender stereotypes, consciously and unconsciously. 

We know from our own experiences and from numerous studies that authority figures in schools are more likely to turn a blind eye to violence towards girls at the hands of their male peers [11]. This all stems back to the hugely damaging mantra ‘boys will be boys’. In the words of Lombard, “when the girls told teachers that a boy had hit or pushed them, teachers normalised the behaviour by saying that it was the boys way of trying to get attention, or ‘that’s just what boys do’.” [12] What is this saying to girls, when their figures of authority are normalising male aggression towards them? Why isn’t more being done, by teachers, parents and guardians, to stop the normalisation of male aggression? Is it because they were taught to expect male aggression at a young age too? How do we completely reprogram an entire generation to give the next generation a chance of changing the narrative? What needs to happen is a change in focus: society is repeatedly telling women to protect themselves. Women are always reminded to not walk alone after dark, to carry their keys in their hands in case of an attack, to let someone know when you’re home. We have to tackle the issue from the other side, educating boys and men and eradicating the harmful so-called masculine actions that men continually carry out. This is literally a life and death situation and for once we need to start targeting the perpetrators rather than the victims.

It is painstakingly clear how gender stereotypes are pertinent in young people’s grasp of men’s violence against women. How we undo this is a much more complex issue. Ultimately, from Lombard’s perspective, “violence against women is rooted in the structural inequalities between men and women. It is both a cause and consequence of gender inequality. When gender divisions and stereotypes are perpetuated, young people are less likely to challenge men’s violence against women.” [13] What we, as a society, need to do now is eradicate these harmful gender stereotypes, so that violence towards women isn’t a presumed part of a man’s identity. Not only is this unfair on men as a whole, but what does it tell young boys if society teaches them that their violence towards girls is crucial to their ‘masculinity’? We have to do more; we need to do more. Without radical change, the gender stereotypes that cloud the development of young children will lead to many more women having their lives cut short by violent men. We owe it to Zara Aleena, Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, Ashling Murphy and every other woman who has been murdered by a man, to stop the development of male violence towards women. A step towards that, is destroying the negative gender stereotypes that lead to male childhood aggression becoming a dangerous and life threatening weapon in adulthood.

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We do talks and workshops in workplaces to teach parents & parents-to-be how to shatter gender stereotypes in early years. Take a look here and get in touch to discuss booking us for a talk.

Photo 1 by  Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Photo 2 by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/jul/02/zara-aleena-hundreds-dressed-in-white-gather-in-east-london-for-silent-vigil

[2] https://kareningalasmith.com/counting-dead-women/

[3] [4] [5] [6] [7] https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/135161829/

[8] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0163638311000506

[9] [10] [11] [12] [13] https://theconversation.com/violence-against-women-starts-with-school-stereotypes-18440

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