Sexual stereotypes

Government action in health, education and
social care needs to be gender sensitive, understanding and
addressing the differences between male and female experience and
needs, says Anna Coote.

When one woman receives publicity for a deed
that is supposedly “exceptional”, you can bet your life there will
be bags of media coverage about this being (shock, horror)
something that women generally do. But only where failures and
misdemeanours are concerned – if the exceptional act is impressive,
few bother to extrapolate that women in general are capable of

Thus, if a woman gets to be a cabinet minister
or an orchestra conductor or an astrophysicist, they tend to be
seen as exceptions that prove the rule that women are generally
incapable of such achievements. Yet a single incident where young
women are involved in street crime can lead to all sorts of
ill-informed commentary about a “rising tide” of female thuggery.
It has taken decades for an accumulating weight of evidence to
overturn the legend that women as a group are incompetent drivers.
Even now a single headline about some poor woman erring at the
wheel is enough to resuscitate the old stereotype. And when one
woman teacher is convicted of illicit sex with schoolboys, we know
we are in for a spate of speculation about a new “threat” to
vulnerable young males from predatory females in caring roles.

I am not suggesting that policy makers and
practitioners in social care should not be alert to the dangers of
women abusing boys. It may happen – if only very rarely – and once
is too often. The same goes for women and street crime: although
men vastly outnumber them, there is an upward trend of female
perpetrators that cannot be ignored. The trouble is that policy is
too often based on false assumptions.

What can be done? First, we need to put an end
to stereotyping that assumes that individuals are bound to follow a
particular pattern of behaviour because of their gender. Second, we
need to learn from research that differentiates between men and
women, making better use of existing findings and filling the gaps
in our knowledge. This should help us reach a better understanding
of the differences and similarities between male and female
characteristics and behaviour, as well as how these relate to other
differences such as age, class and ethnicity, and how they change
over time. Third, we need a much stronger connection between
evidence and policy-making, so that, for example, any new measures
to deal with a perceived risk of sexual abuse by women are based on
a rigorous assessment of that risk, rather than a moral panic
sparked by the tabloids. Fourth – and most importantly – we need
all policy-making to be gender sensitive, addressing the
differences between male and female experience.

Take health, for example. The Department of
Health recently announced new targets to reduce infant mortality in
the lowest socio-economic groups and to narrow the gap in adult
life expectancy between the best and worst-off parts of the
country. This should help focus resources and prioritise

But sex and gender trump socio-economic
factors as determinants of health and, in the developed world at
least, rich men die younger than poor women do. So trying to reduce
inequalities between socio-economic groups without taking account
of gender may result in more acute inequalities between women and
men. However, the answer is not simply to favour men’s health over
women’s. Women have pressing needs themselves (such as rising rates
of smoking among younger women, and the fact that coronary heart
disease is widely, and wrongly, perceived as only being a man’s
problem). Women are also the main route to good health in children
and chief guardians of family well-being.

This is a delicate path to tread. Gender
relations are shaped by unequal distributions of power, as well as
by biology, culture and economics. Men’s behaviour often puts
women’s health in jeopardy and women are especially vulnerable to
poverty. Yet with changing roles and employment patterns, and the
advent of new reproductive technologies, men also have cause to
feel threatened.

Government action needs to be attuned to – and
shaped around – knowledge of this kind. Not just in health, but in
education, employment, transport, crime and, of course, social
care. There is an important space for subtlety and nuance between
the assumption that women and men always or naturally behave
differently, and the possibility that they are both as bad – or as
good – as each other. Policy and practice, if they are to be fair
and effective, should be securely grounded in that space.

Anna Coote is director of public
health, The King’s Fund.

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