Today many stereotypes are considered politically incorrect and socially unacceptable. We generally understand that assuming a group of individuals all have a trait in common, or assuming that if a person has a certain trait, he or she must belong to a particular group, is often both wrong and insulting. But with various gender stereotypes many of us seem to forget this.
Feminists have generally been successful at making it politically incorrect for women to be stereotyped into a limited role. For example, it’s not PC to say: “women belong in the kitchen” or “women should be at home taking care of the children”. Women’s role in society is now limitless (at least in terms of what’s politically correct and socially acceptable to say). But gender stereotypes do still exist, and not only do they hurt women, but they often hurt men too.
For example, my wife has gotten many compliments on my cooking. No, I don’t mean that she was told: “your husband did a great job on this or that”. I mean it was assumed that she must have made something she didn’t, and she was therefore complimented on the great job she did. Of course when this happens, my wife is quick to give me the credit. But still, oh how wrong an attempt at a compliment can go.
Now I understand that for many couples, the wife may take care of all of the cooking responsibilities, and if they’re happy with that, there’s nothing wrong with it. But there are also many couples today that share cooking responsibilities, so we shouldn’t assume the credit (or blame for that matter) automatically goes to the woman. Here’s an idea. When we’d like to compliment something but aren’t sure who’s responsible for it, we could ask who deserves the credit. Or we could compliment it without specifically attributing the compliment to anyone in particular. For example: “this soup is delicious”.
Something else I’ve noticed is that some people assume women are the only ones who know how to pick out clothes. I try to dress up and look nice for Shabbat, holidays, and other special occasions. And my wife has gotten many compliments on the way I dress. Again, I don’t mean: “your husband looks nice”. I mean: “your husband looks nice, did you pick that out for him?” or “I assume you must have picked that out for him”. This one is particularly insulting. Of course my wife is always quick to share that I’m able to dress myself, but why would people assume that I’m not? Why do some people assume that men are less capable of picking out their own clothes than women? Maybe in some families, the mother lays out clothes for everyone, including her husband. But many men pick out their own clothes. So if we want to compliment the way a man is dressed, let’s try “you look nice” or “nice tie”, and leave it at that.
I’ll just share one last example of gender stereotypes of which I’ve been victim. Many people seem to assume that mothers take on all of the parenting responsibilities, and that assumption generates many negative consequences. For example, many synagogues (and other institutions) provide changing tables for babies and toddlers in the women’s restroom and not in the men’s. These synagogues want to be welcoming to families with young children and recognize that they should therefore provide a place to change diapers, but they make an incorrect assumption that women are the only ones doing the changing. What about when men bring their children to shul without their wives? What about single fathers? What about fathers who change diapers for any number of reasons?
I am one of many fathers today who changes lots of diapers. I see it as a parent’s responsibility, not just a mother’s. As someone who regularly brings my son to shul, I have on many occasions been in shuls that didn’t have a changing table I could use, and had to find some space on a hallway or coatroom floor to change his diaper. I manage, but it can be uncomfortable for not only my son and me, but also for others who are around. Some synagogues have reasons they can’t provide changing tables and others may not be interested in being welcoming and accommodating to young families. But most places that do want to welcome and attract families with young children and went to the trouble of having a changing table for women to use can provide one for men too if they wanted. Obviously, I think they should.
For the most part, I don’t think anything malicious is intended when people use outdated gender stereotypes that cause harm to me (or others). But lack of malicious intent doesn’t make comments, decisions, or actions, any less annoying, insulting, or difficult to deal with. Gender stereotypes are just like most other stereotypes. They’re often both wrong, and insulting. And obviously, relying on assumptions that are often wrong and insulting can have negative consequences.