I have been keenly aware of the subtle ways in which the masses are manipulated and stereotyped for years, yet until recently I completely missed how ingrained and pervasive the stereotypes are. It happened one crisp autumn day two years ago on the last day of a three day marketing summit. This summit was put together by a woman who considers herself a thought leader and, as it applies to marketing, she surely is. But like most of the rest of us, she is blind to the subtle manipulations that direct our thoughts, beliefs and actions, and affect the way we live our lives in ways few even imagine. Until that day even I, being acutely aware of stereotypes and subtle manipulations, had missed what was happening in that arena. And until I saw it, I had also missed the subtle and insidious dynamic that surrounds us all every day.
On that third day, the woman who put the event together brought all the presenters who had contributed up onstage to form a “panel of experts” for a question and answer session. As I sat there looking at the “experts” assembled on the stage, it hit me. On that stage sat ten presenters and of the ten, there were two women (one of which was the event organizer) and eight white men.
This mix in no way reflected the audience which was about 75% women and 15% non-white males. White males represented only about 10% of the audience. This disparity can be found just about everywhere. We see it in governmental positions of power and in large corporations the world over. We see it in the pulpits, on conference stages, and in almost every form of media.
I can understand it in the government and big corporations because they move very slowly and are often far behind the curve, but this was a cutting-edge event put together by a bright, relatively enlightened woman.
As I pondered how there could still be an obvious white male advantage even in an arena such as this, the words of Eleanor Roosevelt came to mind, “No one can make you inferior without your consent.” Right behind those words came the realization that that is exactly what we have done—not consciously mind you, this is totally under the radar even for most men, but we’ve done it nonetheless.
In spite of the laws on the books; in spite of the equal opportunity act, in spite of all the marches and demonstrations by those fighting for equality, we have continued to give our consent to white males to remain superior. Females and minorities continue to allow white males to reign and the females and minorities continue to take lesser roles. And almost no one sees this.
Most white males will tell you there is no advantage to their station in life. Some even insist that being a white male is a disadvantage. They point to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Affirmative Action act, which were established to help level the playing field for minority and underrepresented groups. These actions were taken in the first place to counter the effects of a history of discrimination and now exist as legal requirements, at least in the United States.
However, as the enactment and repeal of prohibition has demonstrated, morality and mindset cannot be legislated and, as it turns out, neither can equality. Though there are laws on the books designed to prevent discrimination in the United States, they don’t change our stereotypical concepts which are regularly fed to us in millions of subtle ways.
Let’s look at some of the many ways society continues to fuel the stereotypes:
- Go to a couple of sites that sell photos and do a search using the term “success” or “leaders” or “successful leaders” and notice the numbers of pictures available of white males versus those of females or people of other races.
- Go into any corporation and look at the pictures of top leaders hanging on the walls.
- Pick up the business section of a newspaper and look at the top level executive promotions.
- Look at the line up of top generals in the military.
- Take a look at the members of the House and the Senate in Washington D.C.
- Go to the top speaker’s bureaus and look at the list of top speakers and trainers.
- Go to online to Fortune Magazine’s list of the wealthiest people in America
What you will discover in each instance is that about 95% of them are white males.
It’s easy to assume that white males are just smarter, but research does not bear that out. In fact, as an astute observer of this phenomenon, I have seen many instances where the women and minorities who get passed over are actually much brighter and more polished than the white men that get chosen. That was certainly the case in that summit that day. I sat there looking at these wholly unremarkable men and realized that the only thing they had that many of the women and minorities in the audience didn’t have was permission to step out and proclaim their right to power.
Where did they get the idea they had that right? From years of gender bias that refuses to go away. If you doubt this, go into any toy store and wander through the toy aisles. What you will find in the section for boys are power toys with bold, bright colors. You will find super-heroes and dragons to conquer. You will find trucks and tractors and building blocks. You will find footballs and basketballs and other kinds of sports equipment—all screaming “claim your power!” Oh yes, and notice too that most of the super-heroes are white and the villains are dark.
Then take a stroll through the aisles of girl’s toys. There you will find two primary colors: pink and lilac—soft “girly” colors. You will find dolls and dishes and other domestically inclined items like Easy Bake Ovens and doll houses. You will find makeup and glitter and frilly “princess” dresses—and even high heel shoes. About the most ambitious things you will find are nurses kits and pink, flowery guitars and microphones. And what do all these toys scream? “You’re a girl. Your value is in being a good little wife taking care of the home and the babies—by the way—you need to look pretty while you are busy taking care of everyone else. If you must do something outside the home, you must still be a care-taker like a teacher or can be a nurse, or maybe you can entertain us—but don’t try to be powerful!”
Oh, yes, the messages are still alive and well and presented every single day. Most are so subtle that they slip right past us, and perhaps that’s what’s intended.
Don’t let them slip past you. Pay attention to the many ways women and minorities are still being brainwashed into thinking they are, and should be, inferior. Start noticing the not-so-subtle toy selections and the sometimes subtle and sometimes blatantly sexist advertising we are bombarded with. Take the Bounty paper towel commercial, for instance, where a male child spills something on the floor and his dad looks over and merely speculates that it will take 2 sheets to clean up the mess. As the two males ponder the mess, mom, who obviously has lots of experience cleaning up such messes, pulls off one sheet and cleans it up. Notice that mom does not ponder. Mom does not suggest that the boy, who made the mess, take a single sheet and clean it up. She does it herself as the males look on. Then there’s the beer commercial where a man is dabbing grease from a pizza and a big beer can drops on him because he isn’t being tough or manly enough.
Children start getting these messages almost from birth so, by the time we get to adulthood, we just take for granted that’s the way things are.
Worse yet these false perceptions are “validated” by gender studies, almost all of which are performed using college students. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, if you don’t mind highly skewed data. You see, the vast majority of college students are still very outer-focused. They still care most about fitting in and, how do you do that? You identify yourself with the norm. And what is the norm? It’s the long held stereotypes.
The vast majority of people don’t begin to look inward for their truth until their late twenties to mid-thirties and until they do that, they never question stereotypical assumptions .
Stereotypes are harmful even to people who actually fit them because they lead us to generalize behaviors and put everyone into predefined boxes. John Grey’s descriptions of “Mars” and “Venus” are classic male and female stereotypes and those who buy into them inadvertently create all kinds of problems for themselves, their spouses and their children.
I can’t tell you the numbers of clients I have had over the years whose entire lives were derailed by parents who rejected their feeling male because he wasn’t tough enough or who constrained their strong daughter telling her she needed to be meek to “please the Lord” or some other such nonsense. More lives, marriages, families and societies are destroyed by stereotypes (including religious stereotypes) than by any other thing I can think of.
Until we all become aware of stereotypes and how they adversely affect our lives, there will continue to be a white male advantage in the United States and a male advantage worldwide.
I’m not suggesting revolution here; just evolution. Evolution of our awareness and the way we convey our truth to our children. If all of us who genuinely seek equality, both male and female or every race, realize how damaging stereotypes are to everyone and speak out; if we refuse to play the stereotype games, perhaps someday women and minorities will stop consenting to inferiority and claim their right to be powerful too. When they do, there’s no question the whole world will be a better place.