How Children Develop Gender Stereotypes

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How do boys and girls decide on what they want to be when they grow up? Researchers have shown there are many factors, including prevailing stereotypes about gender.

This observation then begs the question of when children begin to adopt gender stereotypes. Lin Bian, from the University of Illinois, and her colleagues conducted a series of studies to examine this very issue.

Children in the studies completed three tasks. In the first, they were told a story about someone who was “really, really smart” – which is kid-speak for brilliance—and then asked to guess if the story was about a man or a woman. In the second, children saw pairs of adults and were asked to guess which one in the pair was really, really smart. In the third, the children complete a puzzle where they had to guess which objects, such as hammer, or attributes, such as being smart, best linked with women and men.

The findings differed by age. At age 5, children associated brilliance with their own gender. So, boys held that men were brilliant and girls thought women were. This changed, however, among 6 and 7 year olds. At this point, the male=brilliance association materialized.

In follow-up studies, the authors also found that gender was associated with the games children chose. Girls were less likely to play games they thought were for smart kids, but they were more likely to play games they believed were for hard working ones.

These findings show that as girls and boys age, they begin to endorse gender stereotypes and choose different activities. As the differences are not present at earlier ages, the findings suggest these stereotypical beliefs are learned—not innate.