Sexual stereotypes are alive and well in America

Ever run out of gas while driving or been accused of being reluctant to stop the car to get directions when lost? You’re probably a guy.

Do you enjoy shopping at the mall or prefer wine to the taste of beer? Odds are you’re female.

American men and women tend to embrace many well-known sexual stereotypes, admitting to patterns of behavior commonly attributed to their gender, according to a Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll of 1,010 adult Americans interviewed last month.

Men contacted in the study admitted to sloppy eating habits, to taking unnecessary risks and to a reluctance to admit when they need help. Women, likewise, were quick to admit they enjoy shopping, going to the mall, asking for directions when traveling and to being more fastidious than men when it comes to cleanliness and the avoidance of unnecessary risk.

The study found that 60 percent of men admit they’ve “eaten food that fell on the floor without washing it again,” while more than half of the women deny they’ve ever violated the rules of culinary cleanliness.

Nearly two-thirds of men admit they’ve run out of gas while driving their automobiles, while 52 percent of women say they’ve never done this.

Half of men also said they’ve been criticized for being “reluctant to stop the car and ask for directions” compared to only 13 percent of women who said they’ve received this criticism.

Nearly two-thirds of women said they “enjoy shopping or going to the mall” while half of men said they dislike the process of consumerism.

The meaning of the survey’s findings is in dispute, however.

“We are all so taken with the notion of gender differences. But what do they really tell us?” asked Rosalind Barnett, a senior scientist of the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University and co-author of “Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs.”

“We weren’t born to like wine and we weren’t born to run out of gas. These stereotypes blind us to issues that might be more important. Women certainly now are taking more risks _ riding motorcycles and getting into accidents _ because the social barriers are down,” Barnett said.

But others said they’ve found gender stereotypes useful.

“I remember my first graduate course in nonverbal communication was all about how stereotypes are generally accurate,” said Tom Birk, director of cognitive and cultural studies for the Miami-based advertising agency Crispin Porter and Bogusky.

Birk helped design a popular series of Miller Lite Beer TV ads called “Man Laws” in which actor Burt Reynolds leads an all-star boardroom of men who drink while pondering weighty issues like how long should the ex-girlfriend of your best friend be off limits?

Answer: If she is drop-dead gorgeous, wait six months or until your next haircut.

“But you know, guys really do sit around over a cold beer and talk about life, proper behavior and women,” said Birk. “A good advertising campaign looks for some sort of tension and stereotypes can be a good source of that tension.”

The survey demonstrated that Birk’s male-oriented ad campaign for beer makes perfect sense. The survey found men prefer beer to wine by a 2-1 margin while women are three times more likely to prefer wine rather than beer.

Not surprisingly, the poll found men and women disagree over the question of how much responsibility men should have when it comes to protecting women.

Participants in the poll were told: “You may recall that male passengers on the Titanic agreed to give up their places on the lifeboats for women and children. If there were a similar situation today, do you think men should be expected to die and allow women to live, or is this an old fashioned idea?”

Sixty-three percent of men said they should be expected to die so that women might live, 23 percent said this is an old-fashioned idea, and 14 percent were undecided. But women were much more divided on the question, with 43 percent saying modern men needn’t die for women, 39 percent that men should continue in the tradition of the Titanic and 18 percent were undecided.

The survey was conducted by telephone July 6-24 at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University under a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation. The poll has a margin of error of 5 percentage points when comparing differences between men and women.

(Thomas Hargrove is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service. Guido H. Stempel III is director of the Scripps Survey Research Center.)