Science Without Bias: We Should Stop Calling People “Karen”

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The COVID-19 vaccine has become a controversial political issue rather than a public health issue.

Source: Daniel Schludi / Unsplash

The past two years have been rich in rhetoric regarding both racial injustice and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Driven by prominent cases of police brutality, the conversation about racial injustice and science focused on topics like systemic racism and ageism, and police training methods. The pandemic has become the subject of research in many ways, such as the largely hyperpoliticized debate on public health solutions such as vaccines and masks.

The debates about racial injustice and the pandemic share many commonalities. One is the frequent use of “Karen” to describe a stereotype of those guilty of harmful or anti-science acts. The archetype of “Karen” conveys an image, born of memes in recent years, of a middle-aged or elderly adult white woman engaging in some type of harmful or anti-science behavior. The use of “Karen” in such contexts is ironic at best, as it reflects an example of the stereotypes that many of these discussions seek to curb. At worst, using “Karen” as a visual symbol or nickname can actually harm individuals and society as a whole.

Recent science on the pandemic and the use of “Karen”

Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

Childrearing duties weighed more heavily on women during the pandemic.

Source: Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

The pandemic appears to have a complicated relationship with gender and gender beliefs. For example, new evidence suggests that women may be more likely to leave the workforce during the pandemic, in part because of increased childcare responsibilities.

In addition, a 2021 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology reports findings suggesting that adults in the United States may endorse more traditional beliefs about gender roles as the pandemic continues. Simply put, our stereotypes about gender roles may grow stronger during the pandemic. Such reinforcement of stereotypical beliefs can pave the way for the use of stereotypical names and images such as memes or “Karen” references.

We know that gender-based and other micro-aggressions can harm mental and physical health the victims. Yet in active discourse on topics like vaccines and stigma, we often invoke “Karen” and other gender memes. Another recent study highlights the potentially harmful societal implications of such acts beyond the individual. An article recently published in the International journal of sociology and social policy demonstrates that people on both sides of the vaccine debate are using stereotypical “Karen” content. The authors of the article warn that such uses of stereotypical content likely weaken the expected positive impact of promoting life-saving or health-enhancing behaviors such as wearing masks. The science seems clear that gender-based microaggressions, whatever their intention, cause harm to individual targets and the public at large.

What can we learn from the science about the pandemic and the use of “Karen”?

Conversations against racism and the pandemic are always vital in our public discourse. Yet the use of the “Karen” stereotype undermines the very equality and public health-focused messages we often aim to convey. The first and easiest lesson: stop using “Karen” and other gender stereotypes. It is possible and more effective to have science-based discussions in the absence of gendered content.

A second lesson concerns the next steps. A recent study the perspective taking involved as a possible target of an intervention aimed at reducing gender-specific and other microaggressions. One way forward for the social sciences can continue to work on perspective taking as a possible intervention to reduce microaggressions in all situations.


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