Exercise: Stereotypes


Use the same person to model different roles, as Cindy Sherman has done in some of her photo-series. You’ll decide what they will be but one of them must be genuine.

Produce a set of three images, two false, one true. Show them to as many people as you can and keep a track on the results. Can people spot the genuine image? Look for a pattern. Do people want the person to be something other than what they actually are?

Write around 250 words in your learning log or blog reflecting on what you’ve found out about stereotypes and our need to ascribe characteristics to particular roles.


Part 1: the pictures

  • Art shop assistant: totally fake (it’s actually a gym wall and the pictures are Photoshopped)
  • Farm hand: a real photo but it’s not her job; her boyfriend is a farmer and she can drive a tractor
  • Personal trainer: the genuine article

I chose the two fake occupations with one eye on gender expectations: whilst I consider Gemma’s actual job to be gender-neutral, the farm hand I presumed would come with a male bias attached and the shop assistant with a female bias.

Part 2: the reactions

In terms of exploring reactions to stereotypes I would say it was partly successful. Of the 13 people polled:

  • 4 incorrectly guessed shop assistant
  • 3 incorrectly guessed farm hand
  • 6 correctly guessed personal trainer

I asked for comments on what was behind people’s answers: most were down to whether the model ‘looked comfortable’, so maybe the success of the Sherman stereotypes is partly down to her acting ability!


With regard to stereotypes: only 23% of the respondents thought that the farm hand (the most obviously ‘masculine’ role) was true, whilst 77% went for the more neutral or female-biased roles.

Interestingly, no-one made any comments on gender expectations until prompted. All bar one claimed that gender hadn’t influenced their answer; the most honest response was from the person who said “not consciously…”, acknowledging that unconscious bias is a possibility.

The results may have been skewed as my respondents were all reasonably well educated and (to my knowledge) socially liberal-leaning, and so maybe more enlightened than the average citizen? Part of me thinks that the ones who plumped for farm hand may have done so suspecting a ‘trick’ and in a sense inverting the traditional bias? To answer the question in the brief “Do people want the person to be something other than what they actually are?”, it seems at least three people (one female, two male) wanted her to be a farm hand.

The response that made me smile the most was from a man who didn’t vote for personal trainer and remarked on how she was demonstrating the exercise wrong! My initial reaction was to label this as ‘mansplaining’ :-) but to give him the benefit of the doubt it’s likely someone with a keen interest in fitness may have made the same comment about a male personal trainer…

And finally – to show that I am prone to gender bias as much as anyone – I will confess that while compiling the results I was mentally dividing the respondents into male and female. One respondent called Lee (who I only know online and has a non-specific profile picture) correctly guessed personal trainer and commented on Gemma’s muscle tone on various parts of her body. I read this comment imagining a slightly lecherous, laddish tone to the words. Then Lee pointed out that she is a female Lee…! Which made me re-read her words in a different way. So in some respects I am as systemically gender-biased as anyone else…!


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