Considering the gender gap from the social psychology perspective

The word “gender” implies expectations, assumptions, and roles created socially rather than differences derived from biological sex per se.

We have become familiar with terms such as “gender gap” and “gender stereotypes.” This shows that interest in this issue is increasing. In fact, the global gender gap ranking published by the World Economic Forum is talked about every year.

Meanwhile, not so much progress is being made in resolving the issue of gender stereotypes and the gender gap. Unfortunately, it is difficult to comprehensively discuss the reason for this owing to lack of space. Thus, on this occasion, I would like to introduce some relevant insights from social psychology.

The trap of benevolent sexism

Regarding gender-based stereotypes, we tend to think of harmful content, such as looking down upon women. Negative gender-based stereotyping is called hostile sexism.

However, stereotypes of women are not only negative ones. There are also seemingly positive stereotypes, such as women being superior in specific fields different from men, the relationship between women and men being complementary, and men needing to protect women. Such stereotypes are called benevolent sexism.

Some people might think benevolent sexism is a positive stereotype and is not a problem. However, this needs to be revised. Benevolent sexism could be even more of a nuisance because benevolent sexism can cause the rationalization of hostile sexism.

When people encounter a message such as one thing having a positive and negative side, they feel the world is balancing things. This applies to gender stereotypes.

For example, research has shown that when women read a message including benevolent sexism, they start to feel that the world is fair concerning gender and their intentions to participate in the movement to close the gender gap will be curbed.

By combining benevolent and hostile sexism, men can maintain superior positions to women while satisfying the desire for intimacy.

Creating the image of happy parents with a child

There is other interesting research regarding the fairness and balance perspective. It concerns the recognition of the costs and benefits of being a parent.

Parents are burdened with the high financial costs of raising a child. Therefore, it is often assumed that the parents are receiving benefits commensurate with it. For example, emotional ones, such as the happy feeling they get from spending time with their children, or financial ones, such as being taken care of when they get older. However, in reality, this is not the case.

Regarding the emotional aspect, results have repeatedly shown that the happiness or well-being of people with children is lower than those without children. Concerning the caretaking part after getting older, there is the consideration that people of a working generation, who are the children of someone, are supporting people without children.

Moreover, future society has to be supported by someone’s children. Therefore, we should not forget that the country benefits from child-rearing by parents. We have a situation in which the parents’ cost of child-rearing is not sufficiently rewarded, but third parties or the government benefit from it.

Then why not sufficiently compensate the child-rearing generation? If this is the case, no problem. But as you all know, this is not the case. Instead, when a child-rearing support policy is announced, scathing criticisms such that parents are benefitting unfairly or objections from the perspective of self-responsibility theory or benefit principle often erupt.

Something like this happens partly because the exaggeration of the emotional benefit of being a parent is generated.

Contrary to the reality that objective data indicate, we assume that parents are receiving lots of happiness from the existence of a child. By thinking as such, one can subjectively assume that the heavy financial burden on parents is fair.

For people who exaggerate the emotional benefit, support for parents is concluded as an unfair situation in which happy people further receive money from the country.

Meanwhile, from the parents’ perspective, it is tough to think that the cost used for child rearing is not rewarded. To alleviate this stress (technically called cognitive dissonance), parents themselves exaggerate the emotional benefit of spending time with children. This is shown in research.

People who criticize child-rearing support do not want to acknowledge the unfairness, and people who are raising children wish to alleviate the stress of not being rewarded. Therefore, they create the image of happy parents with a child.

When the Japanese translation of the book entitled Regretting Motherhood, written by Israeli researcher Orna Donath, was published, some negative opinions, such as “It is disgraceful that the mother has regrets,” were seen, while some were sympathetic.

Naturally, mothers experience negative emotions as they are closely involved in human beings (children) who have a different will from mother’s. The fact that such criticisms are seen, nevertheless, might indicate that the image of happy parents with a child is needed just as much.

The image of happy parents with a child has something in common with the so-called myth of a mother’s love. The myth of a mother’s love is also strongly believed. However, research shows that the followers of the myth of a mother’s love do not necessarily behave well during their child-rearing. So literally, it is nothing more than a myth.

Pluralistic ignorance

One obstacle to reducing gender discrimination is the sexual division of labor, such as men working outside and women protecting the household.

The sexual division of labor is often said to be traditional, but this is wrong. The conditions to justify the sexual division of labor are that the production method is outside the household and that the worker can obtain sufficient compensation to cover living costs by working.

For example, if their labor is sexually divided when the family is engaged in agriculture or the handicraft industry, production capacity will drop. Moreover, even if the capital for production is separated from the household owing to the advancement of industrialization, if they cannot get enough compensation, other family members also need to work.

It was after World War II that the sexual division of labor became common in the working class when all these conditions were met in advanced nations. However, owing to prolonged economic stagnation in Japan, it is becoming difficult again for a working person to cover household living costs.

Why does the sexual division of labor, which does not suit the times, remain rooted? Do many people actually support the sexual division of labor?

For instance, according to the 2021 Basic Survey of Gender Equality in Employment Management by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the male childcare leave rate was 13.97%. Although the figure was the highest ever, it is difficult to say that most men take childcare leave. Is it because many men think it is good to work hard while leaving household tasks and childcare to women?

Perhaps this is not correct. The data is a bit old, but according to the 2012 survey of 500 men and women in their 20s to 40s by LIFENET INSURANCE COMPANY, 60% or more men thought they wanted to take childcare leave. This means 60% of people have opinions which do not match the sexual division of labor.

Why did it not lead to more childcare leave? A study suggested that some misunderstanding had an impact, in addition to the lack of organization of systems on the company side.

Pluralistic ignorance refers to a phenomenon where someone thinks that a recognition different from reality is shared because they cannot correctly assume other people’s thoughts. To be specific, pluralistic ignorance concerning the acquisition of childcare leave is a thought such as “I think of taking childcare leave positively, but others would think of taking childcare leave negatively.”

In the research, Japanese men in their 20s to 40s were asked how positive it would be for them to take childcare leave and how positively other people of the same generation and same gender would be about taking childcare leave. Then they were divided into a group with people who thought it was positive for themselves and others (oneself and others positive group), they were positive, but others were negative (pluralistic ignorance group), and both they and others were negative (themselves and others negative group).

When the groups were compared regarding the wish to take childcare leave and the intention to take childcare leave, there was no difference between the self and others positive group and the pluralistic ignorance group regarding their wish. However, regarding the intention of taking it, the pluralistic ignorance group was lower than the self and others positive group.

As the survey by LIFENET INSURANCE COMPANY shows, many people were positive about taking childcare leave in reality, but assuming “unlike me, others are perhaps negative,” they end up not being able to take childcare leave. This suggests that there is an aspect that some misunderstanding maintains the sexual division of labor.

How should we face gender stereotypes and the gender gap?

Finally, how should we tackle the gap issue? First, it is essential to understand the mechanism related to the continuation of the gap.

If we know the benevolent stereotype function, fewer people will accept it just because it is positive content. We could also ask how we can prevent the image of happy parents with a child from being created when we want to gain more support for child rearing support policy.

If it is difficult for someone to take actions different from the traditional sexual roles owing to pluralistic ignorance, we might be able to improve it to some extent by publishing the correct statistical results or presenting a role model. I indeed think that scientific gender education is necessary.

What is important is not to fall into the individualistic and mentalistic measures such as “Become aware of gender stereotypes” or “Each individual should be careful not to discriminate.”

Such measures require self-control, in fact. Unfortunately, self-control requires lots of energy, and it fails when the energy runs out.

Stereotyping has always been one strategy for making decisions without too much energy. However, it seems infeasible to leave the measures to individuals whose energies are limited and who live in the modern environment, where they need to make various judgements with excessive amounts of information.

For example, if we want to prevent gender discrimination in the workplace, I think it is more effective to share the goal among departments and teams and create a checking system.

* The information contained herein is current as of December 2022.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.