Group loyalty is woven into our DNA. After being allocated to a category on the flimsiest of grounds, such as their matching shirt colour, children will show impressive favouritism toward their new group members, and antipathy toward outsiders. No wonder that once children learn about genders, and become aware of their own – which begins to happen in earnest from around age three – they soon after usually begin to show profound signs of loyalty toward and preference for their own gender. As the authors of a new study in Child Development put it, “Around the world, girls tend to play with girls, whereas boys tend to play with boys. Such stark separation is stunning, yet as adults we tend to accept this segregation without a thought and sometimes even encourage it.”
The aim of the new research was to find out how gender-biased beliefs and behaviour develop from age four to five. The researchers hope their findings might help encourage children to be less biased against the opposite gender, and therefore “benefit relationships between girls and boys, and future relationships between women and men.”
May Ling Halim and her colleagues measured the gender-based beliefs and attitudes of 246 girls and boys in northeastern USA when they were aged four, and then caught up with them again when they were aged five, to test more attitudes and look for signs of gender bias in their behaviour. The children were from a range of ethnic backgrounds, including Mexican, Chinese, Dominican and African American.
When the kids were age four, the researchers asked them about: their happiness at being a boy or girl (most were happy, although 9 per cent were not); belief in gender stability (“when you grow up will you be a mommy or daddy?”); and awareness of gender stereotypes (“here’s a boy and a girl, which of them do you think likes trucks? The girl, the boy, or both?”). The children chose the stereotypical answers around 66 per cent of the time.
At age five, the researchers asked some of the same questions again, plus new ones, including about “gender consistency”, which tapped the children’s awareness of the fact that gender remains unchanged even following behaviours atypical for that gender, such as: “If a girl had her hair cut really short, would she become a boy?”.
The researchers also measured awareness of “gender flexibility”: instances where the children had shown knowledge of gender stereotypes when they were four, but now aged five showed a more liberal attitude, for instance saying that both the boy and girl would like trucks. And the researchers asked the five-year-olds how they felt about boys and girls in general (they answered using a scale made up of happy, neutral and frowning faces) and what they thought about how smart and mean girls and boys tend to be.
Overall, at age five, the children were very positive about their own gender, but twelve per cent felt negatively. Conversely, on average the children were somewhat negative about the opposite gender, with girls being more negative about boys than vice versa. The researchers surmised this might be because girls had internalised the stereotype that “girls are nice and good, whereas boys are bad”.
Then there were the two behavioural measures at age five: the children were asked to allocate coins to a drawing created by a group of boys or to another created by a group of girls (on average the children allocated more coins to their own gender); and the children indicated where they would choose to sit in a row of chairs if a boy was sat on the first chair, or a girl. A boy choosing to sit near the boy but far from the girl was taken as a sign of own-gender bias. Overall, to the researchers’ surprise, the children didn’t show an own-gender bias in where they chose to sit.
The researchers were most interested in how early gender attitudes and knowledge shape later attitudes and behaviour. One key finding was that four-year-olds who were happier about belonging to their own gender, and who were more aware of gender stereotypes, tended to express more favourable attitudes toward their own gender at age five. On the other hand, holding more favourable attitudes toward the opposite gender tended to go together with greater awareness of gender consistency (realising your gender doesn’t change just because you act in gender atypical ways), and a more flexible view of stereotypes, such as coming to realise that both boys and girls might like trucks.
What about signs of gender bias in the children’s behaviour? The only measure related to behaviour was how much the children believed the other gender was smart and not mean. That is, more positive views of the other gender correlated with less own-gender bias in the coin allocation and seating tests.
One other tidbit: there was some suggestion that own-gender favouritism was greater among children from ethnic cultures, such as Dominican and Chinese-American, where there is a greater emphasis on gender roles.
Halim and her colleagues cautioned that their findings need replication, but they believe they may offer clues to how to help foster more friendly interpersonal relationships between boys and girls. The researchers don’t make this explicit, but presumably their thinking is that if we encourage young children to challenge gender stereotypes, and to see gender as a more flexible concept, then they might be more inclined to display more friendly behaviour towards the opposite gender, which could eventually trickle down to reduce sexism when they grow into adults.