The Problem: Essentialism

Why is this problematic?

This statement reflects what researchers call "essentialism": statements that overgeneralize or exaggerate similarities among women, among men, among members of a particular racial/ethnic group, or among members of any one group. These statements also tend to act as though these similarities or specific characteristics are innate. They also tend to especially portray women and men as essentially and fundamentally different.

What does the research say?

While some research shows partial support for some (but not all) of these statements, they tend to get simplified and exaggerated in public discourse. As a result, these statements can do damage because they perpetuate stereotypes and inscribe difference as innate. They ignore:

  • the vast range of differences within groups
  • the huge role that socialization plays in who we are (i.e., how we are raised, societal norms)
  • the fact that women and men are more similar than different; in fact, research shows that differences among men or among women are generally greater than differences between men and women.
  • reasons why underrepresented groups may appear less confident or not negotiate. There is a failure to recognize that sometimes these actually may be smart strategies in a system that treats them differently. For example, being assertive and taking charge can backfire for women, especially women of color.