A recent study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin sheds light on how single women and single men experience discrimination and stereotypes related to their single status.
For years, researchers have explored the experiences of single individuals, but the intersection of gender and singleness has remained relatively unexplored. The new study sought to fill this gap by examining whether single women and single men differ in their perceptions of discrimination and the stereotypes they face due to their single status.
“Research on gender singleness has been really inconsistent! On the one hand, dozens of qualitative stories from single women describe extremely negative experiences of single-based discrimination and stereotyping, especially regarding gender-related issues such as children or sexuality,” said study author Hannah Dupuis, a doctoral student at Simon Fraser University and member of the Singlehood Experiences and Complexities Underlying Relationships (SECURE) Lab.
“On the other hand, quantitative studies have found no convincing gender differences in singles-based discrimination between single women and single men. I was interested in trying to reconcile these inconsistencies by using a mixed methods approach to examine single women’s and single men’s reports of discrimination and perceptions of stereotypes.
The study, which was conducted in two parts, involved a total of 286 participants from the United States and Canada. Study 1 included 140 participants, including 71 single women and 69 single men, with a mean age of 50.31 years. Study 2 included 146 participants, consisting of 70 single women and 76 single men, with a mean age of 49.77 years.
Participants were asked to complete an online questionnaire, which included questions about their perceptions of discrimination related to being single. They were also asked to provide stereotypes associated with single women and single men, both positive and negative. This approach allowed researchers to collect quantitative and qualitative data simultaneously.
The researchers found that both single women and men were associated with positive traits such as independence and friendliness, while gender-neutral negative stereotypes included being seen as selfish or promiscuous. One surprising aspect was the emergence of particularly negative gender-specific stereotypes. For example, some participants associated single men with terms like “incels.”
“We expected that single women would have harsher stereotypes than single men, and that this would explain why single women tend to report negative single experiences,” Dupuis said. “We were surprised by how many positive stereotypes emerged about single women, highlighting their resilience, creativity and strength. In contrast, some stereotypes about single men were extremely negative, such as ‘pedophile’ and ‘misogynist’, highlighting that some single men can be perceived as dangerous and hostile.”
The researchers identified four different archetypes of stereotypical singles, each with its own set of associated traits and characteristics. These archetypes provide insight into how society perceives and stereotypes individuals, shedding light on the often complex and sometimes contradictory views that exist about them.
Distinctive features: Single individuals in this archetype are often seen as independent, ambitious, and hardworking. They are considered successful and capable in their career or personal pursuits.
Gender nuance: Single women in this category were uniquely stereotyped as “successful” and “capable,” which emphasized their achievements. In contrast, single men in this group were often seen as ‘reliable’ and ‘career-driven’, highlighting their dedication to work.
Distinctive features: This archetype portrays single people as grounded, free-spirited, friendly, and cheerful. They are seen as open-minded and enjoy life without the constraints of a committed relationship.
Gender nuance: Single women in this category were described as ‘creative’ and ‘open-minded’, highlighting their free-spirited nature. Single men in this group were seen as ‘flexible’ and had more free time, suggesting they could enjoy life to the fullest.
Distinctive features: Individuals in this archetype are often stereotyped as selfish, promiscuous, and non-committal. They can be seen as lacking empathy or emotional depth.
Gender nuance: Single women in this category were uniquely stereotyped as “bitchy” and “untrusting,” indicating a perception of surveillance. Single men in this group were often seen as ‘distant’ and ‘unreliable’.
Distinctive features: This archetype portrays single people as lonely, unattractive, and antisocial. They can be seen as isolated and distant from others.
Gender nuance: Single women in this category were described as ‘frigid’ and ‘bitter’, suggesting a sense of unhappiness in their loneliness. Single men in this group were often seen as ‘sloppy’ and ‘immature’, which may have reflected their belief in their lack of social skills.
“The main message of our research is that single people – regardless of their gender – face discrimination and stereotyping,” Dupuis told PsyPost. “We identified four archetypes of singles that were quite similar between single women and single men. This is important because it highlights that there may be socially acceptable reasons for being single, such as staying single to pursue a career goal or to engage in self-exploration. Singlism can be more extreme for those who are single, as they are seen as too picky or selfish (i.e. ‘heartless’) or antisocial and immature (i.e. ‘loner’).
Contrary to some expectations, there were no significant differences in the amount of personal discrimination reported by single women and single men. In both studies, participants from both groups reported similar levels of personal discrimination.
Although overall there were no significant differences personal discrimination figures between single women and single men, there were nuanced differences. Single female participants reported experiencing more discrimination against single people as a group compared to single male participants. This finding suggests that single women experience higher levels of discrimination against all single people, regardless of gender.
“Another key finding was that single women reported that while they personally do not experience high levels of singlism, they believe that single women as a group do,” Dupuis said. “This discrepancy between personal and group discrimination has often been documented among people with marginalized identities, such as people of color. This discrepancy is considered a protective mechanism because stigmatized people may downplay the negative experiences they have had while recognizing the problems their group faces.”
But the study, like all research, has some limitations. While it provided valuable insights, the findings are based on self-reported data, which can be influenced by individual perceptions and biases. Furthermore, the study focused on a specific age group and region, which may limit its generalizability.
“What remains to be tested is whether single women are still judged more harshly on similar characteristics than single men,” Dupuis explains. “For example, it may be considered less socially valuable to have an ‘independent’ single woman than an ‘independent’ single man. Likewise, a ‘sexually promiscuous’ single woman may be judged more harshly than a ‘sexually promiscuous’ single man. Future research should investigate whether gender influences singles’ evaluations of the specific characteristics.”
The study, “Cat Ladies” and “Mama’s Boys”: A Mixed-Methods Analysis of the Gendered Discrimination and Stereotypes of Single Women and Single Men,” was authored by Hannah E. Dupuis and Yuthika U. Girme.