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Study Highlights Prejudices Against Lesbian and Heterosexual Stepmothers in Italy

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A recent study has unveiled significant biases against lesbian and heterosexual stepmothers in Italy. Published in the Journal of Family Issues, the study highlights how societal gender role beliefs influence perceptions of stepmothers compared to biological mothers, revealing deep-seated stereotypes and prejudices.

The study involved 189 Italian participants who completed an online questionnaire. Participants were presented with one of three scenarios depicting a mother dealing with a misbehaving child: a heterosexual biological mother, a heterosexual stepmother, and a lesbian stepmother. Each scenario was designed to assess the participants’ attitudes towards the mother’s competence, traits, and responsibility for the child’s behaviour. Additionally, participants’ gender role beliefs were measured to understand how these influenced their perceptions.

The findings indicate that both heterosexual and lesbian stepmothers are viewed less favourably compared to heterosexual biological mothers. Participants with medium to high levels of gender role stereotypes perceived stepmothers, regardless of sexual orientation, as less competent, possessing fewer positive traits, and more responsible for the child’s misbehaviour. This bias was notably pronounced in the context of lesbian stepmothers, who were judged more harshly than their heterosexual counterparts.

The study underscores the persistent gendered expectations surrounding motherhood. Traditionally, mothers are expected to be selfless, devoted, and inherently skilled in child-rearing. These societal norms place biological mothers on a pedestal, reinforcing the belief that they are the most appropriate and capable carers. Stepmothers, on the other hand, face a dual burden of being expected to fulfil these same maternal roles while also contending with stereotypes that cast them as outsiders or lesser parents.

Gender role beliefs play a critical role in shaping these perceptions. The study’s moderation analyses reveal that participants with stronger traditional gender role beliefs are more likely to hold negative attitudes towards stepmothers. This finding aligns with previous research suggesting that societal values heavily favour the biological, heterosexual mother as the ideal parental figure.

Lesbian stepmothers, in particular, encounter unique challenges. The intersection of their sexual orientation with their role as stepmothers exacerbates the prejudices they face. The study suggests that lesbian stepmothers are subject to a compounded stigma, rooted in both homophobia and traditional gender role expectations. This dual bias not only affects societal perceptions but can also impact the self-esteem and mental health of lesbian stepmothers, as well as their relationships with their stepchildren.

The study supports the hypotheses of incomplete institutionalisation and social stigma in the context of stepfamilies. The incomplete institutionalisation hypothesis posits that stepfamilies lack clear societal norms and recognition, leading to ambiguous expectations and marginalisation of stepmothers. The social stigma hypothesis further emphasises that stepmothers are often viewed as deviants, facing devaluation in various social settings. These hypotheses are not mutually exclusive and together provide a comprehensive framework for understanding the challenges faced by stepmothers.

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