#ChooseToChallenge: A Guide to Challenging Gender Stereotypes and Gender Bias

Sarah Downs

Today, March 8th, 2021, is International Women’s day. It’s a day in which we celebrate women around the world, and it’s a day where we can reflect on how far we’ve come in the mission of gender equality and how far there is still to go in the fight for gender equality. In celebration and commemoration of this day we wanted to create a playbook of sorts on how to challenge gender bias and gender stereotypes. 

Let’s start with some basic definitions. According to the World health Organization, gender is “the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed.  This includes norms, behaviors and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other.” Due to the fact that gender is socially constructed the characteristics of genders can vary between societies. In the context of this guide, we will be referring to the characteristics of Western society, which is generally Europe, Canada and the United States. Gender bias, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is “an unfair difference in the way woman and men are treated. And according to the United Nations, Gender stereotypes are, “generalized views or preconceptions about attributes or characteristics, or the roles that are or ought to be possessed by or performed by women and men.” 

Gender bias, and gender stereotypes are closely linked and interrelated. They both are pervasive around the world, and still cause gender discrimination and gender inequalities. We often face gender bias in our own lives, and sometimes don’t recognize it in ourselves or in others. Therefore, knowing the definitions to both terms will help us become more aware of our biases and more likely to address them. So, with all of this in mind, how do you challenge gender stereotypes and gender biases? This question I thought would best be answered by our won community. I interviewed students, faculty and staff about their experiences with gender stereotypes and biases and how they are challenging and overcoming them. 

These stories may be hard to hear, and may make you feel a tad bit uncomfortable, but I encourage you to continue reading, because we all must become aware of how to challenge these stereotypes and work towards a more equal and equitable future.

Sports and exercise science have been and continue to be male dominated. And as women have become more educated and devoted to sports, exercise, and careers related, they have continued to face adversity in the workforce, and in their daily lives. I interviewed two women to get their stories on what gender bias and stereotypes they have faced and how they have overcome them in sports and exercise since. 

Coach Ashley Smeltzer-Kraft

Ashley Smeltzer-Kraft, is the Senior Woman Administrator/Head Field Hockey Coach here at Shenandoah University. Coach Smeltzer-Kraft has often faced challenges in her coaching roles in which male coaches will not take her as seriously or consider her less knowledgeable on sports due to her gender. 

She challenges this daily through educating her students on historical women in sports who often do not receive the attention or credit they deserve. She also fights for women’s sports to have greater visibility in the media and on television. She hopes that more people would take actions to support women in sports by watching their games when available and buying their merchandise. 

Dr. Jessica Peacock

I also interviewed Dr. Jessica Peacock Assistant Dean and Director of Academic Innovation and Associate Professor of Exercise Science, who started her career off as a personal trainer. She has experienced sexual harassment, gender bias, and gender discrimination while in the workforce and discussed how she wishes she had had more support and more women in the sports and exercise field when she started her career. 

She has overcome these adversities by deconstructing the notion that men are the standard for exercise, and by being more inclusive in her teaching. She also continues to show the importance of empathy in leadership, which is often considered a negative quality in women who hold leadership roles. Dr. Peacock and Mrs. Smeltzer-Kraft both hope to see the sport and exercise industry become more inclusive and more equitable for all-genders. 

Nickelette Justice

Criminal Justice student Nickelette Justice shared the challenges she has faced at the intersection of emotion and gender stereotypes. She discussed how she often has faced situations or been in relationships in which she was not allowed to show her emotions or else she’d be seen as too emotional, or too sensitive. She also explained the careful balance between gender stereotypes and emotions because although it truly goes both ways, there are double standards for men and women that perpetuate harmful stereotypes. 

She expressed similar thoughts to that of Dr. Peacock in regard to removing the word “should” from sentences and replace it with inclusion, diversity and equity. There is the notion as Dr. Peacock touched on that women leaders should not be emotional because male leaders are not emotional. Or the concept that men should not cry. Both these women challenge the concepts and intersections of gender stereotyping and emotions by emphasizing the positive values of emotions.

Nickelette highlights the importance in encouraging both men and women to healthily express and process emotions as a tool in working towards preventing issues such as intimate partner violence. The issue of emotions and gender is one that can be challenged daily through allowing people to just be. And Nickelette hopes that in the future there won’t be a “cap” on emotions. 

Dr. Karen Bucher and Dr. Petra Schweitzer are two women at Shenandoah who have overcome gender stereotypes and gender bias through their different but similar journeys through gaining their education. 

Dr. Bucher is the director of financial aid and was the first in her family to receive a four-year degree. She discussed how being a first-generation student caused difficultly for her in navigating her education. She also discussed how as a young woman entering the workforce she was not as skilled in advocating for herself as she is now. 

Dr. Petra Schweitzer

Dr. Petra Schweitzer, Director of Gender and Women’s Studies described her journey through her education. She grew up in Germany and France in a time where women weren’t allowed to marry outside of their family’s religion let alone speak up for themselves. She discussed how her education and earning her PhD have allowed her to “find her voice”. Both Dr. Bucher and Dr. Schweitzer continue to challenge gender stereotypes and gender bias through teaching their students to advocate for themselves and use their voice to stand up and go for what they truly want in life. They both hope that in the future women will gain access to equal pay and continue to gain access to positions of leadership. 

Amber Wilt

Student Amber Wilt discussed how gender stereotypes negatively affect her relationship with her partner. Amber Wilt is a Political Science major who is one of the first people in her family to pursue a four-year degree. She discussed how her partner’s family is traditional, and about how most of the women do not attend school and are stay-at-home moms. She discusses how she wishes that women and men could just support one another in whatever it is they choose to do that’s best for them. She talks about how she consistently deals with judgement and negative comments on her choice to attend college, and not have children. She also discusses the negative comments her partner receives in regard to his choice to be with someone who does not fit in with his family dynamic and tradition. She expressed how she continues to challenge gender stereotypes by just being herself and not letting those comments change her path in becoming a lawyer. She also talks about how she is working to advocate for herself and be firm in her convictions. She, like Dr. Bucher and Dr. Schweitzer, is in the process of finding her voice, and she is empowering others to do so as well. 

Dr. Bryan Pearce-Gonzalez

Lastly, I interviewed two men about what gender stereotypes they continue to challenge. Dr. Bryan Pearce-Gonzalez, better known as BPG, is the Department Chair & Professor of Hispanic Studies, has continued to fight for equality and equity through ensuring that his children, family and students are aware of gender stereotypes and biases. He discussed with me how gender stereotypes negatively affect men, stating “the identity of masculinity and what it means to be a man must be dismantled.” He discussed how the world would be a better place if everyone were less concerned with the construct of gender and fitting in, and instead were concerned with just being themselves and empowering others to do the same.

Dr. Hakeen Leonard

I also spoke with Dr. Hakeem Leonard, Provost for Inclusion, Diversity & Equity and Associate Professor of Music Therapy. He discussed, similarly to BPG, the concept of masculinity and how harmful it is to our society, stating that we need to “redefine manhood” and evaluate “why manhood is defined as a way to be”.  

Both of them challenge gender stereotypes through their teaching, where they both highlight women in history who shaped the society we have today. They use the classroom as a place to educate white males about the privilege they hold because of their gender and teaches all students about biases and how important it is to recognize and dismantle them. They both work towards holding space for women and towards encouraging men to accept themselves, be themselves, and just be, in order to breakdown the toxic masculinity that often leads to the dehumanization of women. 

I hope that these conversations inspire you to take action and choose to challenge.  I hope that you are encouraged through this article to empower others, work against the tide, use your voice, and to never accept the norm. You can choose to challenge through being yourself, learning about gender inequality, and by addressing your own gender biases, and through working hard to educate others. The next time you hear a comment such as “fight like a man”, take a pause and consider how you can turn that conversation into one about the harms of gender stereotypes. 

Author Sarah Downs is a senior at Shenandoah University who is double majored in Public Health and Political Science. She is also a student representative to the Presidents Representatives on Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (P.R.I.D.E) Committee here at SU. 

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