Sustaining Cultural Beliefs
in the Face of Their Violation:
The Case of Gender Stereotypes
Deborah A. Prentice
One of the primary functions of culture is to solve the problem of what is male and what is female (Shweder, 1982). A culture's solution to this problem is enshrined in beliefs about the attributes that characterize men and women—so-called gender stereotypes. As a central feature of culture, gender stereotypes hold considerable intrinsic interest for students of cultural psychology. In addition, they provide a useful lens through which to examine broader questions about the psychological processes that underlie the perpetuation and revision of cultural beliefs.
In the case of gender stereotypes, their most striking feature in need of a psychological account is their stability. Despite substantial convergence in the activities, occupations, and social roles of men and women, even the most recent research suggests that traditional gender stereotypes persist (see, e.g., Eagly & Mladinic, 1993; Holt & Ellis, 1998; Spence & Buckner, 2000; although see Diekman & Eagly, 2000). For example, we conducted a study just last year that examined the current state of gender roles and stereotypes (Prentice & Carranza, 2002). Our results showed that current stereotypes, as reported by a group of college-age participants, are remarkably similar to traditional stereotypes. Their primary constituents—an emphasis on instrumentality and agency for men and on expressiveness, interpersonal sensitivity, and submissiveness for women—remain very strong today. What is most remarkable about this stability is that, with widespread changes in the roles and activities of men and women, people must witness behaviors that violate their gender stereotypes everyday. Why does this