Unconscious Influences on Gender Perceptions

Gender Balance for BoysEarlier this week Melissa at Pigtail Pals wrote a post called Drip…Drip…Drip in which she said:

“The in-your-face sexism is easy to see, and for the most part easy to speak out against. It is the subtle, barely noticeable, should-I-even-say-something sexism and gender stereotyping that is harmful, and far more likely to directly touch our children. The subtle sexism is everywhere in childhood, and once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”

Coincidentally, I was working on a blog post about subtle stereotyping when I read Melissa’s. Mine is based on, of all things, a report I read from Adobe about the influence of unconscious processes on consumer decisions. The report was a summary of a webcast by consumer behaviour consultant Philip Graves. (You can download the webcast guide here, but you have to hand over your contact info to get it.) Graves says in the report that consumer decisions are driven by these unconscious processes as much as 90% of the time.

The purpose of the webcast was to get marketers thinking about ways to improve their market research and better influence their customer’s buying decisions. It cites behavioural science research showing “ten things that have been demonstrated to influence consumers without them having the faintest idea that their thought process has been altered.” The top two on this list: other people and packaging.

Reading this research, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the subject I write about on this blog: the impact of gender stereotypes on boys. If “other people” and product packaging are so influential in the world of shopping, surely their impact can be felt in other areas like, perhaps, perceptions of gender?

The answer has to be yes, especially when you consider the nature of the children’s marketplace today: vendors and manufacturers draw such a clear line between boys’ and girls’ products—from clothing and toys to books and TV shows—that parents are not just buying a product when they buy something for their child. They’re also, unwittingly in many cases, purchasing a heavy dose of gender stereotyping.

For the record, here’s what the report said about “other people,” the number one influence on the top ten list:

“People copy other people all the time…We’re social creatures, constantly—and often unconsciously—referencing what other people are doing around us.”

Some of the “other people” who could influence a boy’s ideas about gender include their peers, the adults in their lives, characters in TV shows or films, and models in toy ads. All work together to help define gender and gender-appropriate behaviour without children (or even adults) even being aware of it.

About packaging, the study said:

“We’re highly influenced by how something looks on the outside, even when it shouldn’t matter.”

Like, say, the colour of a box—something that really shouldn’t matter but does?

Case in point, this simple sand art that includes themes like coral fish, rainforest, dolphins, and butterflies that might appeal to kids of both sexes, were it not for the packaging:

Or my older son’s bike. We had an incident on the weekend where other people and packaging (or appearance, rather) could have had a very detrimental impact on him.

We were chatting with the parents of my son’s friend when that boy’s mother noticed my son’s purple bike. She asked, with a considerable degree of surprise, whether that bike belonged to my son. I said that it did, having no idea why she was asking or why she looked so doubtful about it. After they left, I had a sneaking suspicion that it was the bike’s colour that inspired her question. I asked my husband what he thought and he agreed that she asked the question because his bike does not look like a “boy’s bike.” (The metallic finish of the paint renders it a light shade, closer to lavender than a dark purple.)

Thankfully my son did not overhear her query because I know he would have asked me why she was so surprised. He has no idea that his much-cherished bike is a “girl’s bike.” We bought it second-hand, so there was no in-store marketing or sales clerk to tell him he shouldn’t love it. Because of his bike, he also loves the colour purple.  I do not want the subtle, unconscious influence of an adult he respects to change his viewpoint or make him feel embarrassed or ashamed for liking something deemed by others to be “girly.”

As Melissa said, once children see (or hear) this subtle sexism, they cannot un-see or un-hear it. It is tucked away in the recesses of their unconscious minds, waiting to be recalled when they are faced with a decision about what to wear, play with, read, or watch on TV. Thanks, ironically, to market research experts, we have some proof as to the impact and staying power of these unconscious processes.




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