Studies examine bias from princesses to politics

Does playing princess give girls the idea that they have limits?
Does playing princess give girls the idea that they have limits?
Will a young girl's obsession with the Disney princesses make her susceptible to outdated notions of what it means to be a woman?

      The answer is yes, according to researchers, and recently released studies reveal a culture of discrimination that begins in childhood and reaches into adulthood. Here is an overview:

The princess culture: The Disney princesses influence preschoolers and make them susceptible to potentially damaging stereotypes, according to research led by Sarah M. Coyne, associate professor of Brigham Young University’s family life department.
    As part of the study, researchers evaluated 198 preschoolers based on how much they watched Disney princess movies, played with toys, etc. The children also ranked their favorite toys from a collection of "girl" toys (dolls, tea sets), "boy" toys (action figures, tool sets) and gender-neutral toys such as puzzles and paint.
    An overwhelming share of children -- 96 percent of girls and 87 percent of boys -- had viewed Disney princess media. More than 61 percent of girls played with princess toys at least once a week, but only 4 percent of boys did the same.          
    One year later, these girls more often displayed “gender stereotypical behavior.”  An example would be a girl who is not confident in math and science or feels limited, as if she cannot do some things by virtue of gender. That can be a problem if girls avoid learning experiences.
    For boys, involvement with Disney princess media wasn’t problematic, a Brigham Young news release said, because, “boys in the study who engaged with Disney princess media had better body esteem and were more helpful to others. These beneficial effects suggest that princesses provide a needed counterbalance to the hyper-masculine superhero media that’s traditionally presented to boys.”

Discriminatory dynamics for women engineers: Young women embarking on engineering careers say they are assigned routine tasks and managerial duties instead of more challenging problems.
    These discriminatory dynamics may contribute to the fact that women who go to college with plans to become engineers are not as likely as men to stay in the profession. A study led by Susan Silbey, a professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's anthropology department, finds that women feel marginalized during internships and work situations.   
    “Overall, about 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to women, but only 13 percent of the engineering workforce is female,” an MIT news release said. “Numerous explanations have been offered for this discrepancy, including a lack of mentorship for women in the field; a variety of factors that produce less confidence for female engineers; and the demands for women of maintaining a balance between work and family life.”
    To get information for the study, researchers asked more than 40 undergraduate engineering students from MIT, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to keep twice-monthly diaries. The scholars then examined more than 3,000 diary entries.
    One student described a design class in which “two girls in a group had been working on the robot we were building in that class for hours, and the guys in their group came in and within minutes had sentenced them to doing menial tasks while the guys went and had all the fun in the machine shop. We heard the girls complaining about it.” 
    The paper, “Persistence is Cultural: Professional Socialization and the Reproduction of Sex Segregation,” was published in Work and Occupations.

Coverage of Hillary Clinton: Was Hillary Clinton subject to gender bias in news reports of her Jan. 23, 2013, testimony before a congressional committee?
    Clinton testified regarding the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012. A group of Islamist militants armed with anti-aircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades targeted the American consulate, killing U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
    “Both of the committees before which Clinton testified were made up primarily of white men, and, as has often been the case in her career, the circumstances of the hearings highlight a unique problem women face in the political sphere: presumptions that men are still the primary decision makers guiding international relations,” according to the research, led by Dustin Harp, communications professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, and published in the journal Women’s Studies in Communication.
    Harp, along with fellow researchers, examined 93 articles and found “a dominant narrative of Clinton as a competent and respected politician emerged, particularly in news stories (in comparison to opinion columns). However, this seemingly positive portrayal was countered by the emergence of stereotypical female depictions as coverage emphasized Clinton’s emotional manner during the Benghazi hearings.”
    On the upside, the authors found signs of progress in news coverage. They wrote, “Language focusing on her gender, dominant sexist narratives, and stereotypical portrayals that usually plague female politicians rarely appeared other than in relation to her emotional state during the hearings …While the double bind opposes power and competence in women, in Clinton’s case the mediated discourse primarily emphasized her competence and confidence. Indeed, there was no overt mention of her being masculine, unfeminine, or nontraditional, which is especially interesting as these critiques have been persistent over the years in news coverage of the pantsuit-wearing, politically ambitious Clinton.”
    While Clinton was portrayed as competent, coverage also focused on her emotional state. News stories and columns, the authors wrote, often described Clinton using emotional labels that gave the impression of a loss of control. “A Los Angeles Times story explained that at one point ‘Clinton’s voice broke;’ USA Today highlighted both that she “was near tears as she talked” and that “she erupted in anger;” and a Washington Post commentary described her as “blowing her lid.”  


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