Of Men and Purses

Gender roles define our society. The way one perceives how a specific gender is supposed to behave effects majority of what we as a society has defined as normal for a specific gender, creating differences in what is acceptable for men and women to do, and more to the point, what is not acceptable.

Myself, along with four other students, were tasked with breaking one of these “gender norms”, stepping from the acceptable behavior into the more unacceptable, typically that of the opposite gender. Our group, consisting of three guys and two girls, had a pretty decent balance, and ability to break any number of norms pertaining to either sex.  After several days of researching into the gender norms associated with college students, or rather young adults, we created constraints we needed to stay within.

  1. We had a time limit. The experiment was to be performed on Tuesday, November 8th, as that was the most convenient day for all of our members.
  2. We would only be able to test a single norm in the time we allotted for experimentation.
  3. The location(s) used had to be within or near the college campus, due to limited time and mobility.
  4. We would need to have more than one test subject.

These constraints made it easier to select a specific norm. Eventually we decided that the norm that would be broken is how while it is acceptable for a woman to carry a purse, men are not. To test this, we made observations of how bystanders reacted to seeing one of our testers walk past or complete a task while carrying a woman’s purse (not a murse mind you, a murse is a man-bag/man-purse, and is more acceptable than a standard, effeminate purse  for a man to carry).

The Experiment:

We met at the Michigan Tech Library at 9:30a.m. to begin the experiment, our two testers, Jacob Adams, and Kevin Reminder, were given a selection of three purses to carry for the experiment. The one they decided on was a medium-sized shoulder bag, which is pictured below. The purse contained : a woman’s wallet, a collapsible umbrella, a graphing calculator, and several pencils and pens.

Our testers each carried the bag to three locations on campus where students were present. These locations included three locations within The Van Pelt and Opie Library, the dining hall at the largest of the school’s dorms, Wadsworth hall, and a walk through of the Fisher and Rekhi, two of the campuses class  buildings. We also made observations during our walks in between the buildings.

Taking notes for this proved to be interesting, the tester had to walk through the location either completing a task, or acting as if they were there for a purpose. For this purpose everyone except the tester placed themselves at various locations in each test location, so we were able to get a good view of the reactions of the bystanders nearby. The tester was not to purposefully draw attention to themselves, rather trying to act as if the behavior was second nature to them.

The following table shows the data that I collected during the duration of the experiment.

Testing Data 11/8/16


“Task” of tester # of reactions


Notable reactions

Library 1st floor – elevated seating area.

Find a seat to work in. 3 1.       Guy sitting alone on laptop, glance.

2.       One of a group of four guys working on a project, looked to the tester, then to his friends, then back to work.

3.       Girl–Stairwell

Library 2nd floor computer section Look for seating/ looking for someone 1 1.       Guy seated on couch, stared intently at tester.
Library Café Order and prep a coffee of testers choice. 5 1.       Young woman taking money/orders at register. Look of confusion when tester reached into bag for wallet.

2.       Man in yellow hoodie, repeatedly glanced at tester.

3.       Man in red hoodie, talking with (4), pauses his speech when he saw the purse before returning to conversation.

4.       Man talking with (3), glanced at bag, but didn’t seem concerned.

5.       Girl in teal windbreaker who repeatedly glanced around a pillar to look at tester.

Outside Walking to other locations 3 Sideways glances of passerby.
Dining Hall


None specified 3 1.       Fruit guy, repeated glances to the tester.

2.       2 and 3 were worker reactions

Fischer Hall Walk through 3

1.       Guy glances at corner intersection.

2.       Guy at the rear doors

3.       Guy who was searching for a room, looked at tester, and went into nearest classroom, seemed in a rush post spotting of purse.

The data yielded some interesting statistics in the matter of how few people reacted to the norm being broken, given that we must have passed over 200 students during the duration of the experiment, I had made the prediction that there would have been far more reactions noted. Having only noted 18-19 reactions total, I was impressed how well people responded to the experiment.

Comparing the Data:

The data we collected noted the gender of the passerby who showed a reaction to the test subject. Comparing the male to female ratio allows us to see which of the genders were more receptive to the breach of the purse norm.

Table of Reactions

Number of female reactions 5
Number of male reactions 13-14
Total reactions 18-19

The ratio shows that men were much more receptive to the breach than females were, at least from what was noted during the experiment. But just how much more significant was the number of reactions. I find that the percentage comparison sums that up nicely.

% Of Reactions that were:

Male 72.2%-73.68%
Female 27.8%-26.3%

Almost a 3:1 ratio of men to women responded to the experiment. This may be tied to how we are more aware of the actions of those of the same gender, as we use the actions of others to determine what our own should be. The best reaction to show this is from the Library elevated section, where within a study group of four male students, one took notice of the test subject. He glanced to the other guys in his group, as if looking for validation that the behavior was abnormal, before returning to his work.

The breach of masculinity made the young man uncomfortable, and it concerned him enough that he needed confirmation that it was a breach of the norm. Women do a similar thing concerning their own norms, if a woman were to behave like a man, she is ostracized because of how her behavior compares to that of other women, just as how our tester was ostracized because of his breach of norm.

Other Notes:

Both of our testers said that they felt awkward and more aware of those around them during the experiment, because they knew they were breaking the norm. Neither of them seemed all that comfortable with the bag at their hip and would constantly adjust it and fiddle with it. They seemed to feel more exposed because of this, more paranoid due to being aware of what others may think. The fact they acted this way showed that even if it was not a huge issue, it wasn’t a huge break in “protocol” (what they would normally do) it still affected them, and how they perceived others.

They also mentioned how a purse was convenient and practical, but this didn’t seem to deter the concern surrounding the judgement they risked facing.

Conclusion: Why is this so important?

Social norms define our society in so many ways, and the breach of these norms is often met with ridicule or scorn. The fact that our test subjects were so hyper aware of their surroundings, knowing that they were the ones that were the outsiders in this situation, even if the situation in no way was illegal, long-term, or a “risky” breach of behavior, shows us how we, as humans, have a need to be accepted. By breaking a recognized norm we jeopardize our acceptance into a group, and risk being judged negatively by those we normally would be accepted by.

The breach of masculinity that came with carrying a purse was enough to set Jacob and Kevin into an “other” category, and others became more aware of them. Being a part of the “other” group frightens us, and so we follow the accepted norms so that this is avoided.



Data gathered by Megan Hughes, Martin Blicharski, Jacob Adams, Hailea Weiss, and Kevin Reminder. 

Extra round of thanks for Jacob and Kevin for being our guinea pigs for this experiment.



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