Why do social inequalities – the kind that divide people on the basis of race, gender, etc. – persist in our societies despite many efforts to eliminate them? Who do we blame?
Our research shows that there are subtle, complex ways that people are categorized by media, which may be partly to blame.
Categories are part of our lives. Films are categorized into genres and sub-genres. Vehicles can be SUVs, sedans, minivans, etc. Categories organize information, reduce complexity, and make decisions easier.
But we also know that categories have a dark side. Because categories reduce complexity and force things into one group or another, they oversimplify reality. Importantly, categorizing people in simple ways can become a major problem because it influences our perception of those people’s real abilities and other characteristics.
In our study, we focused on one demographic aspect – gender – to unpack the mechanisms through which this operates. We focused on categorization in mainstream media given the importance of media in shaping people’s opinions, perceptions, and values.
We specifically examined an interesting context which has major socio-economic implications: consumer debt. We used six years of data around the time of the recent financial crisis to analyze how credit card borrowers were categorized in media when it comes to their competence in managing debt. We examined the four US newspapers with the largest national circulation: The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.
Categorizing consumer debtors by gender
We found that the media outlets tend to categorize people into neat little stereotypes based on their gender. While a lot of earlier research has supported this, we show how this is done.
We found that media accounts strongly rely on traditional stereotypes of women and men when describing their competence in managing consumer debt. In particular, we observed two different ways in which categorization is used. First, media articles use differing accounts, that is, short explanatory stories, which create differences between female and male borrowers. Through the accounts, male borrowers were portrayed as both financially savvy and responsible in contrast to female borrowers, who were portrayed as unsavvy and irresponsible.
Specifically, male borrowers were most often portrayed as using their credit cards strategically and intelligently, while always managing to pay their bills on time. However, female borrowers were more likely to be portrayed as making mistakes with their credit cards and forgetting to pay their bills. Even when explaining the same negative financial outcome, such as bankruptcy, men were presented as savvy and responsible, as consumers who went bankrupt through no fault of their own. In contrast, women’s unsavvy and irresponsible behavior was to blame for their financial woes.
In addition to differing accounts of female and male borrowers, we also found differences in the vocabulary within the stories. The vocabulary used to describe male borrowers was more active (e.g. “he hunted for better rates”), included more complex and strategic decision making (e.g. “he compared between several options), and involved more aggressive emotions (e.g. “He was angry at his credit card company). By contrast, the vocabulary used to describe female borrowers was more passive (e.g. “she found the help she needed”), included only simple and tentative decisions (e.g. “she is trying to avoid the temptation), and involved helpless emotions related to being overwhelmed (e.g. “she started to cry”).
These differences in vocabulary had two effects. First, these differences amplified the impact of stereotypical stories about savvy, responsible men and unsavvy, irresponsible women. However, these vocabularies also undermined the few counter-stereotypical stories. When men were presented as unsavvy or irresponsible, the strong vocabulary minimized the impact. When women were presented as savvy or responsible, the weak vocabulary similarly undermined the story.
What does this mean for societies increasingly concerned about socio-economic inequality?
Gendered categorization reproduces inequality
Overall, differing accounts and vocabularies in media coverage lead to very different categorizations of female and male borrowers that have important implications for inequality. The portrayal of women as less financially competent than men relegates them to a lower status than men in the financial realm.
The higher status that men enjoy in comparison to women may allow them to wield disproportionate influence in the financial realm, even as other barriers to gender equality are overcome. In other words, these categorizations may help reinforce existing gender inequalities even as we chip away at the more obvious structural inequalities (e.g. equal pay) that exist in society.
Though changing well-entrenched and knee-jerk habits of categorizing is not easy, by becoming aware of exactly how the problem is being reproduced, we may be able to play a small but important role in reducing stereotyping that allows social inequalities to persist.
For one, we need to pay much more attention to over-simplified categorizing by media, and in fact by anyone who holds a position of importance in the public realm. Our findings support a long line of research on stereotyping in this regard. Ask yourself: Are these categories based on a full understanding of the issues, or are these actually reducing our understanding of the issues by painting people in simple shades, as more versus less competent, as more versus less in status, and so on without any basis in fact.
Then, think carefully about what is the end goal of such oversimplifying categorizing in the public realm. Does it help society overcome biases and divisions? Or does it pit us against each other, makes us believe some people are less worthy than others, less capable than others, and therefore does it contribute to inequalities in society?
By observing and calling out such mindless categorizing, we can play our part in countering the persistence of social inequalities of gender, race, origins, etc. that is perpetuated by organizations and people holding power in the public realm.
Sean Buchanan, Trish Ruebottom, and Suhaib Riaz, “Categorizing Competence: Consumer debt and the reproduction of gender-based status differences,” Organization Studies 2018.
Image: pxhere (CC0 1.0)