Gender diversity

Beautiful Women, Powerful Men: How We Talk About Gender

New research shows what adjectives reveal about our attitudes to gender.

By Kate Leaver

Gender diversity

New research shows what adjectives reveal about our attitudes to gender.

By Kate Leaver

Women ought to be beautiful, kind carers. Men should be strong, powerful providers. A hopeful person might suspect that these exhausting gender stereotypes are outdated, even archaic. Apparently not. Just last year, Pew Research Centre sat down 4,573 Americans and asked them what traits they valued most in men and women. They were asked to list three adjectives to describe how men and women should and shouldn’t be. The results were predictable – to a pessimist. These thousands of ordinary people came up with 1500 unique words to describe characteristics they think society does and doesn’t value in men and women. As you may suspect, there were some astonishingly common answers; answers that directly correlate with centuries-old myths about evolution, biology and gender.

Positive attributes for a modern woman include beauty, kindness, honesty, compassion and strength. She must be attractive but not promiscuous; strong but not outspoken. Negative words that popped up to describe women include aggressive, lazy, masculine and dependent. The word ‘powerful’ was a particularly contentious one: 92 per cent said that a woman shouldn’t be powerful, while 67 per cent said a man should. Beauty is, of course, one of the most prized attributes for a woman; very rarely mentioned for a man. The jury’s still out on whether a woman is allowed to be independent these days, with 51 per cent saying independence is a desirable thing for a woman and 49 per cent saying it isn’t. (Exhausting, isn’t it? Just when we think we’ve made progress in accepting a woman’s ambition or value beyond aesthetic loveliness, Pew Research reminds us how incorrigible these social prejudices are).

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