This was a collaborative project with Susan Gelman (U Michigan), author of “The Essential Child.”

What is essentialism?  Essentialism refers to the idea that a thing has an inherent or natural meaning/form/way of being.  Essentialism is the fundamental idea behind sayings like “boys will be boys”; the expression assumes that there is some natural way for boys to be. The opposite of ‘essentialism’ is sometimes called ‘constructionism’: the idea that a thing’s meaning is created within a specific the context or setting and varies (highly) from  one context to the next.  For example, you might construct or present yourself very differently on Facebook than you do at a business meeting or on a professionally oriented networking site like LinkedIn.

What was the focus?  Our goal was to examine if there are differences in how essential a variety of feminine and masculine terms are, and whether those differences were related to part of speech.

Who?  The participants were about 50 women and 50 men, all undergraduates, from 2 different universities.

What?  This was a paper and pencil survey.  Each participant was asked to rate how essential a word was.  We asked about several properties of essentialism (e.g., “there is a biological component to X”) and several properties of constructionism (e.g., “being X depends highly on who your friends are”). The word list included some “top level” terms like woman, man, feminine and masculine, as well as some gender-linked social identities like “jock,” “nerd,” “feminist,” and “airhead.”  All of the words appeared as both nouns and adjectives (“a nerd” & “nerdy”; “woman” & “feminine”), but no participant got the same term as both noun and adjective.

Results: On average, both women and men rated masculine terms as more essential than feminine terms. This was true for both the top level terms and the social identities, and for both nouns and adjectives (mostly).  The men, in fact, scored the terms as even more essential than the women.  Men who were more masculine ended to be more essential-izing; for women, this was true for those who demonstrated “trait masculinity” (or instrument-ality) but not masculine beliefs.

So what? The study suggests that people think of masculinity, and by extension men, as having more of an underlying essence than femininity and women.  Therefore, people are less likely to view men as having a ‘gender role’ (vs. women) and are less likely to see masculinity as something that can be changed (vs. femininity).  For an individual, that’s probably not a big deal.  But if that’s the way our culture/society thinks, then efforts to change men’s roles and opportunities are likely to meet a  lot of resistance.  And because men were more essential-izing than women, it means that men would be especially resistant to any changes.

Smiler, A. P. & Gelman, S. A. (2008).  Essential thought, gender stereotypes, and gender conformity.  Sex Roles, 58, 864-874. DOI: 10.1007/s11199-008-9402-x