An imbalance in power — personal and political — is at the heart of many of the conversations we have around gender. #MeToo sparked a global conversation on the topic, and issues around the gender pay gap and women in leadership roles also deal with matters of unequal power.
But our assumptions about how gender and power interact may start far before we even reach the workplace, new research suggests. In a paper published in Sex Roles, Rawan Charafeddine from the CNRS in Paris and colleagues conclude that associations between power and masculinity start when we’re barely out of nappies, with children as young as four making the link.
We already know that children internalise gendered hierarchies from a young age: one 2010 study, for example, found that children rate traditionally masculine jobs as more valuable. But researchers hadn’t studied how children assess the relative power of men and women, or what they believe about the way power dynamics affect relationships between genders.
Charafeddine’s team asked 148 French preschoolers to look at an image featuring two non-gendered individuals, one adopting a dominant physical posture and one adopting a submissive or subordinate posture. The children were told that one character was saying “you have to do everything I say!” and one “Ok! I will do what you want!”. They were then asked which character had power and which did not. In the second part of the study, the children were told that one of the figures was actually a man and the other a woman, and asked to identify which was which.
Identifying who was the dominant party was not a struggle for the children: 87.4% of participants correctly matched the dominant statement with the upright posture and the subordinate posture with the subordinate statement. And 75% of those children who correctly identified the dominant party were also convinced that the figure was male.
And the findings held across different cultures, too: in a second study, children from Norway, a country with exceptionally high gender equality, were compared to children from Lebanon, where gender equality is lower. And as in the first part of the experiment, 4- to 6-year-old children were more likely to associate the dominant posture with men — though, notably, 3-year-olds were less likely to come to the same conclusion, which the team suggests may be down to a lower awareness of how postures can convey power among younger children.
In a second experiment, 160 schoolchildren were shown the same materials, but this time asked to imagine themselves as one of the two characters (they could choose which). In one condition, participants were told the other character was the same gender as them; in another, the character was of the opposite gender.
Again, a significant number of children were able to identify dominant and subordinate positions (146 of the 160 participants correctly identified which was which). Differences between conditions, however, were interesting. Boys and girls in the “same gender” condition tended to identify with the dominant character. But in the “opposite gender” condition, boys identified more with the dominant character, whilst girls did not tend to identify with one more than the other.
In a final experiment, 213 4- to 5-year-old French and Lebanese children heard a series of exchanges between two hidden puppets, one male and one female, and were asked to guess which puppet occupied the powerful position and which the subordinate. In one scenario, the powerful puppet imposes their will upon the other; in the other, one puppet has more resources than the other.
Again, most of the boys surveyed felt that the powerful puppet in both scenarios was male. But female participants didn’t tend to make this attribution, suggesting that the association between power and masculinity may be weaker in girls.
It is obviously hard to deny a strong societal association between masculinity and power — and an association, as these results suggest, that we learn about from a young age. But this isn’t to say that we’re not making progress, nor that children are not internalising some of the more equality-based messaging that now exists around gender. One recent study, for example, looked at how differently children draw figures now compared to 1977: 2015’s participants were far more likely to draw female figures than they were in the 1970s, which the study’s authors took to be related to increased gender equality.
The fact that children under the age of four seemed not to have the same prejudices also suggests that encouraging children to rethink traditional gender roles from an extremely young age may be a helpful way to combat inequalities.
Of course, this is about more than just perception: our beliefs about gender and power affect the way we have relationships with one another, and have a material impact in the workplace. Understanding how our beliefs about power develop may not be enough to combat them entirely, but it could be a useful first step.