Our minds are powerful little bundles. Just as placebos can create actual changes in the body, so can stereotypes affect the ways we think and behave.
One 2001 study, for example, showed that women could outperform men on empathy tests “only when women were given a task assessing their feelings of sympathy toward the target prior to performing the empathic accuracy task.” Or, as New York Magazine puts it, “only when they were reminded of the stereotype that women are more empathetic.”
We know that stereotypes act to reinforce the status quo, and that we are often rewarded for maintaining the status quo in society, especially when it comes to conforming to gender stereotypes. This makes it extremely difficult—impossible even—to suss out the degree of accuracy, if any, in a given gender stereotype.
Additionally, though stereotypes can have grains of truth, they are often more harmful than they are helpful. Even the suggestion of genetic inferiority can make people perform worse on tasks; researchers have named this phenomenon “stereotype threat.”
“Other studies suggest racial stereotypes have a similarly damaging influence,” The Seattle Times reports. “In a study that combined sex and race, Asian women taking math tests did better when reminded they were Asian but worse if they were reminded they were women.”
So, why do we keep returning to stereotypes if they don’t serve us? Because, as University of Wisconsin psychologist Janet Hyde tells The Seattle Times, “Stereotypes are very comforting to humans. They think they have this information about someone just by looking at gender.”
Kind of nutty, huh?
At the same time, women and men are, on the whole, different in some ways—just how different, and why are what we can’t seem to get a handle on. Whatever the case, now that we’ve established how important it is to challenge these stereotypes, however intuitive they may seem, let’s look at what the evidence has to say about some of them.
Why are women always cold?
You know this, because you’ve seen it time after time in movies and TV: Girl and guy are on a date. Girl gets cold. Guy gives girl jacket to wear.
Perhaps you’re thinking of a more personal example, like an ongoing feud between you and your spouse about where the thermostat should be set. You wouldn’t be alone.
In 2014, the Daily Mail ran a piece claiming that one in four married couples fight over central heating, based on a YouGov poll of more than 2,000 British adults. “Physiologists say women’s skin sensors are twice as sensitive as men’s, meaning they pick up much smaller changes in temperature,” they report.
Or maybe what comes to mind is the idea that women are always freezing at the office. That’s the concept explored in one study in Nature Climate Change published in 2015. (Although the title of the study, “Energy consumption in buildings and female thermal demand,” wouldn’t make that terribly obvious.)
This study also found evidence to support the stereotype about women always being cold, but only because women live in a man’s world (and office): thermostats, they concluded, are generally kept at the temperature appropriate for the average man, who tends to create more body heat.
Are men stronger than women?
This one is true for the obvious reasons—men, on average, have more muscle mass, larger bodies, and more physical strength than women, especially in the upper body—although the statement does come with some major buts.
While men’s physical strength often surpasses that of women, their ability to endure does not. “Robust” is the word used by international aging expert and University of Alabama biology department chair Steven Austad to describe women. “Pretty much at every age, women seem to survive better than men,” he tells The Guardian.
This includes critical injuries, at least in people between the ages of 13 and 64, according to one study at Johns Hopkins that analyzed data from more than 48,000 patients who had been severely injured. Then there’s the whole thing about women regularly tolerating the physical and mental anguish of childbirth.
But men are still great at opening jars!
Do men lose weight more easily?
If you’re not Generation Z, you may remember the clever marketing campaign for SlimQuick, a diet supplement for women. Many of their ads zeroed in on this discrepancy between male and female weight loss, which made for some entertaining commercial breaks (mandatory back then, if you can imagine it, Post-Millennials).
One from a decade ago, titled on YouTube “My Husband Ted,” shows a cartoon wife explaining the differences between her and her husband (Ted). “This is my husband, Ted,” she says. “He stopped drinking soda and lost 12 pounds. I stopped drinking soda, and I lost one. He started eating subs and lost 19 pounds—and I haven’t had bread in two years.”
This rings true for a lot of women who have followed health habits religiously while still struggling to slim down, only to watch men making very small changes and see drastic results. But is it true? Do men, on average, really lose weight more easily?
Yup. This is likely due to a lot of reasons, both biological and psychological. Reader’s Digest points to men’s faster metabolisms, as well as evidence suggesting that women think about food more often and have more emotional investment in it.
However, the amped-up weight loss for men may just be something that happens in the beginning, meaning men’s response to changes in diet and exercise may simply be faster than women’s. “In one study out of England, men and women were each put on commercial weight-loss programs such as Atkins, Slim-Fast and Weight Watchers,” CNN reports. “Two months in, the men had lost twice as much weight as the women — and three times as much body fat. But by six months, the rate of weight loss had evened out between the genders.”
Does “women’s intuition” really exist?
You have undoubtedly heard the term “women’s intuition”—the concept that female humans are invested with some kind of special, almost spiritual capacity to discern the true nature of reality. Although the reason is probably more mundane than mystical (like social conditioning, rather than women all being secret witches), studies have suggested that women do tend to be better at reading social cues.
In 2013, LiveScience explored the findings of one study that looked at the brains of nearly 1,000 adolescents. “The results, which apply to the population as a whole and not individuals, suggest that male brains may be optimized for motor skills, and female brains may be optimized for combining analytical and intuitive thinking,” Tanya Lewis reports.
But, “scientists can’t quantify how much an individual has male- or female-like patterns of brain connectivity,” she points out, and there remains the “lingering question [of] whether the structural differences result in differences in brain function, or whether differences in function result in structural changes.”
Another study of 90,000 people who were shown different photographs of people’s eyes found that women were consistently better than men at reading emotions.
Many psychologists claim, however, that rather than revealing some difference in innate abilities, this is a result of cultural messaging that encourages men to cut themselves off from their own emotional experiences.