Test for Stereotypes About Mothers

Given the recent article on Amy Cuddy from Harvard and subconscious stereotypes, I thought I’d share this excerpt from my book on how researchers identify these stereotypes (The Implicit Association Test) and the conflicting stereotypes that apply to mothers.

“Researchers from Harvard developed a simple type of computer test revealing that below the level of our awareness, we have associations between certain people and certain traits—a specific type of mental map they call implicit association. We may have a subconscious association between two things, say men and science and another association between women and liberal arts. The computer test asks us to pair words or images in those categories, and we’re supposed to do it so fast that it’s automatic. We hum along pairing male words or images with science words or images. However, if we’re asked to pair the opposites quickly, say women with science and men with liberal arts, it takes us longer—by seconds or fractions of a second. We take just a bit longer to consciously overcome our subconscious associations to give the right answer. The longer it takes us, the stronger the underlying association is. The stronger the underlying association is, the more likely we are to behave in line with that association and not according to what we say we believe.  We’d like to think our beliefs and behavior are totally under our conscious control, but our subconscious beliefs can differ dramatically from what we say we believe when asked.

If our implicit associations just stayed there, buried in the back of our brains, we wouldn’t need to worry about them, but they don’t. Our subconscious beliefs can make us say and do things that are the polar opposite of what we say we believe. For example, while most people will tell you they believe white and black people should be treated equally, they often behave according to a very different subconscious belief. In just one of dozens of studies, researchers sent out five thousand identical resumes. Some were given a typical “white” name like Emily or Brendan, and others were given a typical “black” name like Lakisha or Jamal. White-sounding names got 50 percent more callbacks from employers. People acted on their subconscious associations without even realizing it.

While the Implicit Association Test (IAT) doesn’t specifically look for associations with mothers, it does check for subconscious associations of men with careers and women with home/family. I figured I could pass this one with flying colors. No way do I associate men with careers and women with family. To my complete surprise, I struggled to pair female names with career words and male names with family words. At the end, the computer screen said, “Your data suggest a strong association between Male and Career.” I was horrified, embarrassed—but I wasn’t alone. Most people have an implicit association of jobs and careers with men, and home and hearth with women.

Other researchers have found other subconscious beliefs people have about mothers in particular. One study asked people to rate the competence level and warmth level of different roles. People rated businesswomen as high in competence, close to businessmen and millionaires. In other words,

woman − children + job = rich genius

They rated the competence of housewives as comparable to the elderly, blind, “retarded,” and disabled, though they also gave them high ratings for being caring and nurturing. So that means,

woman + children − job = dependent dimwit who cares a lot about other people

People also subconsciously believe that employed mothers are less family-oriented, more selfish, and less sensitive to the needs of others than nonemployed mothers. In other words,

woman + children + job = rich genius who is selfish and neglects her family

Mothers who work part-time actually get all the negative associations and none of the positive ones. So that means,

woman + children + part-time job = dimwit, slacker employee who is selfish and neglects her family

No wonder we feel like we can’t win. In the subconscious of the people around us, we can’t!”

If you’ve never taken the IAT, do it now – it’s eye opening. Have you experienced these subconscious stereotypes? How did you respond?

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Filed under Assumptions about Mothers, Gender Issues, Motherhood, News & Commentary, Remodeling Motherhood, stereotypes

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