Long live diversity! Gender roles and clichés

The destructive power of clichés

Many clichés are quite funny, but there are occasions when they are no joke. From “Girls can’t do maths” to “Real boys don’t cry” and “Women have no place on the board of directors” or “Men don’t have the faintest idea about bringing up children”, gender clichés can develop a truly destructive power that robs us of our creativity and inventiveness and prevents people from leaving their personality free rein.

On the other hand, the systematic ordering of the world into clichés and stereotypes is a completely normal process of the human brain that enables us to sort out situations and people in an increasingly complex world. They offer us a degree of security in unfamiliar situations. Problems arise when role models and clichés become very set, instead of remaining flexible and permitting real experiences to expand or replace them. This is what leads to intolerance and limitations. And yet we do need role models in order to find our way through life. If we’re absolutely honest with ourselves, there is a grain of truth at the source of many of these clichés.

Exaggerated – but not always false

Even though they can by no means find general application, one cannot deny that there is a kernel of truth in many gender clichés. Take for example the communication behaviour of men and women. Clichés have long maintained that women talk more while men tend to be more taciturn. In fact, modern neurological research has found that there are marked differences in the genders’ respective language centres, which would explain the profoundly disparate communication behaviour. This means the frequently diverging language abilities of men and women do not indicate a deficit, but rather a different neurological orientation, which has proved beneficial to human development.

Other role models are induced by society. Take for example the claim that women are responsible for the home and the family while men should earn the money. This cliché has developed as a result of long-held traditional roles, but is not exactly fulfilling for either sex in modern times. Contrary to clichés that are the result of real predispositions, it is precisely these no longer appropriate role models that get in the way of personal development. That by no means signifies that girls can’t be pink any longer, as some gender orientation does make sense.

Why gender codes make sense

Man and womanCharacteristics that make it possible to clearly assign a certain gender to people are called gender codes. We encounter them in advertising, product design, clothing and in many other areas of our everyday life. The simplest examples can be found in the Kindergarten. Girls are dressed in pink and play with dolls, while boys wear blue and play with cars. “This levelling is discriminatory,” you may want to say, but in reality gender codes actually do make sense.

Living a life free of all gender codes in order to guard against the creation of role models would really be a very one-dimensional view of the situation. Personal development does in fact follow identification with certain roles. Our identity, who we are, how we experience ourselves and what we like are dependent on our sex. Making differences in gender visible through the use of certain colours therefore actually aids the finding our own identity, rather than undermining it.

Gender codes in design

It is therefore not surprising that the difference between the sexes is also present in the world of design. Which products are intended for men and which for women is usually noticeable at a glance, even if the function of the product is identical. The choice of colour and shape play a large role in this regard. Even minimal differences such as a slight indentation of the shape can give a product a feminine appearance, while clear lines and hard edges convey more masculine characteristics. In this way, product design cleverly predefines the respective target group. Suitable marketing supports this process. Marketing and gender-oriented advertising campaigns present the products in a context that is considered to be “typically” feminine or masculine. Clichés and role models are tried out until a simple classification becomes possible, replacing the individual with the typical, and that promotes quick purchasing decisions. This makes gender codes a not to be underestimated tool for design and marketing.

If you would like to find out more about this fascinating topic, there is a book called “You Tarzan, Me Jane – Gender Codes in Design” by Bettina Weller and Katharina Krämer which you can order from the Red Dot Shop. It addresses the subject of gender in the world of design and provides interesting and entertaining insight into product design for men and women.

Vive la différence – and enjoy diversity

Even if clichés and role models do not apply to everyone, it is worth keeping sight of some things: men and women are different – thank goodness! It is these differences that make their special connection so perfect. With the right amount of tolerance and understanding, the sexes can complement and complete each other wonderfully thanks to their differences. After all, it is often the small quirks and differences that provide the spice in life. Yes, men can and should be allowed to be fans of tools and electronics. And yes, women should be allowed to love shoes. At least, as long as they don’t have to. For however apt clichés may frequently be, the best thing about life is its diversity. Enjoy life in all its diversity.


Posted on 16.01.2015

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