Androcentrism: Learning to see the invisible

Androcentrism: Featured Picture

As a child, I remember beginning to write a story and considering whether I should make my protagonist a girl or a boy. I chose a boy. I remember later justifying my decision to my parents by saying that I didn’t want to write a “girl story”, I just wanted the story to be about a person. Looking back on this moment, I’m struck by how, at such a young age, I had already internalized that the “neutral” representation of a person is male. 

A central concept in my PhD research is normativity – some categories are so “normal” that we don’t even see them. Stories with a man in the leading role aren’t usually about the fact that the protagonist is a man, while stories about women are often seen as being only for female readers, or even as being feminist and taking a stance on gender issues. This is a result of androcentrism: a societal system placing men at the center, as the standard and the norm, which results in marking a woman’s gender more than a man’s. In Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, she notes that “man is treated as human and woman as other”. It’s not (just) that men are viewed as superior to women, but that they’re actually seen as more neutral – and having an “invisible” gender makes you a better example of a human. 

While this may intuitively make sense to some people (perhaps especially women), one of the wonderful things about psychological research is that we have data to back this up. Below are three examples, from a wealth of data, demonstrating how men are perceived to be the “neutral” gender category. 

Androcentrism research: psychological studies show men are perceived as “neutral”

  • When people think about “British people”, they think about British men
    • Participants listed stereotypes about British people, and different participants listed stereotypes about British men and British women. The stereotypes about British people in general were significantly closer to the stereotypes about British men than British women. The same result was found with different nationalities. 
  • Ostensibly gender-neutral website icons appear masculine
    • Many websites provide generic avatar icons, supposedly gender-neutral, for users who do not upload a profile photo. In this study, participants indicated that these generic icons, taken from the nine most popular social media platforms, appear significantly more male-typed than gender-neutral (the mid-point rating between male and female appearance). This finding is in line with previous research showing that when people are asked to pick a person to represent a typical human, a man tends to be chosen.  
  • Stuffed animals are talked about, by both children and adults, as male.
    • This study confirms the animal = male hypothesis. Even animals that were pre-rated as not being stereotypically masculine or feminine were consistently referred to as male. In fact, an animal must be pre-rated as “super-feminine” before even half of the participants will refer to it as a female. For example, a butterfly was pre-rated as being very feminine (average femininity score of 1.3 on a scale of 1: very feminine, to 5: very masculine), yet still 87.5% of children referred to it as “he”, and only 12.5% referred to it as “she”. 

Effects of androcentrism

There’s no logical reason that men should represent humanity, especially since it’s common knowledge that there are roughly equal numbers of people who identify as men and women in the population. The findings from these studies, such as which social media icon is used, may seem trivial at first glance, but they demonstrate that women are gendered while men are simply normal people, and all the subtle examples of this in society only serve to perpetuate this bias. Androcentric thinking likely makes it seem more normal that the vast majority leaders, representing a group of people, are men.

Even within medical research, a scientific field that we think of as objective, “patients” are primarily thought of as men, which results in worse health outcomes for women. It’s only by learning to see this bias which renders women a sub-type of human that we can begin to understand why men continue to be seen as the default, what power dynamics may be at play, and how we can create a fairer society for all marginalized groups. 

Recommended Readings: 

Bailey, A. H., & LaFrance, M. (2016). Anonymously male: Social media representations are implicitly male and resistant to change. Cyberpsychology, 10(4), Article 8.
Eagly, A. H., & Kite, M. (1987). Are stereotypes of nationalities applied to both men and women? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology53(3), 451-462.
Lambdin, J. R., Greer, K. M., Jibotian, K. S., Wood, K. R., & Hamilton, M. C. (2003). The animal= male hypothesis: Children’s and adults’ beliefs about the sex of non–sex-specific stuffed animals. Sex Roles48(11), 471 482.

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